Skip to main content

The War Over Seeds

There is a billion-dollar war going on in the seed industry, and most gardeners are blissfully unaware of it. At stake are thousands of varieties that gardeners treasure, and a basic question: Who owns Nature?

There is a billion-dollar war going on in the seed industry, and most gardeners are blissfully unaware of it. At stake are thousands of varieties that gardeners treasure, and a basic question: Who owns Nature?

There are at least two major battles going on in this war. The top 10 seed companies now control about a third of the $23 billion worldwide seed trade. The top three—Monsanto, DuPont and Novartis—control about 20 percent, or more. The first battle is for control of the market, and consolidation is the weapon of choice. Its effects are widespread. As these giant companies buy smaller companies, only top-selling plant varieties are retained, leaving farmers and gardeners mourning the loss of their favorites. Often the first to get dumped from the catalogs are the open-pollinated and heirloom varieties, the old-fashioned and frequently best-tasting vegetables that nobody owns. Companies such as Monsanto want 100 percent ownership of what they sell. If they don’t own and control it, it is likely to get dropped.

Patented Genes

The other battle is for ownership of life forms. Laws passed in 1930 and 1970 allowed certain plants to be patented, but in a very limited way. The corporate feeding frenzy began with a 1980 United States Supreme Court decision (Diamond v. Chakrabarty) that made it possible, for the first time, to patent a life form on the basis of its genetic coding. Now anyone who grows a patented and genetically modified (GM) variety without holding a license from the patent holder can be sued. The impact on farmers, and the trickle-down effect on gardeners, is enormous.

Farmers and gardeners traditionally saved seed to grow next year’s crop. This is still true in many parts of the U.S., and in developing countries it is the norm: every farmer saves seeds. However, if the plant variety is patented, seed saving becomes illegal. Fresh GM seed must be purchased every year. Even if pollen from a GM crop blows in the wind and accidentally pollinates a nearby organic crop, an organic farmer can be—and has been—successfully sued for illegally growing a patented variety.

Effects on Farmers and Gardeners

The farming industry is having severe problems with the sharply increased cost of seeds and the loss of many varieties that did well in certain areas or conditions. Within just a few years, farmers have seen some seed go from $100 a bag to $350 a bag, with $500 expected soon. “What can we do?” asked one farmer. “The cannery I sell to demands this variety, so I have to buy this seed and eat the loss.” When the cannery and the seed company have corporate links, the farmer has nowhere to go.

Gardeners, too, have noticed that some favorite varieties have disappeared from the seed catalogs, often as the result of a corporate merger or takeover that put a plant breeder or seed producer out of business. What can we do?

If a hybrid variety disappears there’s not much we can do. Regardless of the legal considerations, seed collected from hybrids does not “come true.” What you get is a random throwback to one of its ancestors. However, seed from open pollinated varieties, and so-called heirloom varieties, will produce the same variety and can be saved.

Fighting Back

The Organic Seed Alliance was formed by several small seed companies and others in order to “promote the value of seed and seed-saving skills, prevent the erosion of this resource and expand the benefits and abundance inherent in every single seed.” The related Organic Seed Growers and Trade Alliance (OSGTA) “develops, protects and promotes the organic seed trade and its growers, and assures that the organic community has access to excellent quality organic seed, free of contaminants and adapted to the diverse needs of local organic agriculture.” Its members have signed the Safe Seed Pledge, which contains the phrase: “We pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants.”

Small seed companies in the U.S., Europe and Asia retain as many of the old favorites as they can. To meet their customers’ demands, some are forced to buy seed of popular hybrid varieties from the multi-nationals, which puts them in an uncomfortable position. “It’s like dealing with the devil,” said one seed company owner. “You hate the way they do business and just about everything they represent, especially the whole GM thing, but if your customers want a certain variety that they own, you have to buy it from them. It makes my toes curl just thinking about it.”

The take-home message, then, is this: If you grow hybrid varieties, expect to pay more and don’t be surprised if some get dropped in favor of “new improved”—and probably patented—GM varieties. If you grow open-pollinated and heirloom varieties, become an expert seed saver and consider joining Seed Savers Exchange. There aren’t too many other choices out there.