Seed Greed: A Battle for Control

By Larry Rettig (LarryR) on March 20, 2011

A battle for control of the seeds you sow in your garden is raging in the worlds of home gardening and large-scale agriculture. Corporations are spending billions of dollars to win that war. At stake are thousands of plant varieties that we as gardeners have come to know and love. [INSPIRED BY INTERESTING AND SOMETIMES PASSIONATE READER RESPONSE, I HAVE DONE SOME ADDITIONAL RESEARCH AND OFFER MY FINDINGS AT THE END OF THIS ARTICLE.]

2011-03-20/LarryR/55a85f

 

en seed companies now control about one third of all seeds sold in the world.  The top three are DuPont, Monsanto, and Novartis.  Together they control over 20% of all seed varieties.  They are gobbling up smaller seed companies faster than Pac-Man--that ubiquitous video game of the 1980s--gobbles up pac-dots.  We even have an example of this phenomenon right here in rural Iowa, about 15 miles from where I live.  Holden Foundation Seeds was a company that specialized in providing foundation seed corn for agriculture. Foundation corn is the parent seed from which hybrids are made.  Holden is now owned by Monsanto.

Because the primary goal for any corporation is maximizing profit, only the top-selling varieties are retained when big companies buy smaller ones.  Among the first to get the corporate axe are heirloom and any other non-hybridized varieties.  These varieties come true to seed and nobody owns them.  That is two strikes against them.  The sale of hybrid varieties can be controlled, because they do not come true to seed, forcing the gardener to buy new seed every year instead of saving seed from one year to the next.

Corporations also want 100% ownership of what they sell.  An unfortunate decision by the U.S. Supreme Court in 1980 has had a far-reaching impact on the worlds of horticulture and agriculture when it comes to ownership.  Life forms—and that includes seeds and plants—can now be legally patented, based on their genetics.  Many new plant varieties and all genetically modified organisms (GMOs) on the market fall under the Supreme Court’s ruling and are patented by corporations.

Here is an example of one of the patently ridiculous outcomes this ruling has generated.  An organic farmer finds himself next door to another farmer who has started planting genetically engineered seeds.  The pollen from these seeds finds its way to the organic farmer’s crops and pollutes them.  As if that were not enough of an insult, the organic farmer is now considered to be growing a GMO illegally.  He is viewed by the corporation involved as violating the patent the corporation holds on the genetics in that hybrid seed and plant, even though he is growing it in his garden unintentionally.  There are hundreds of cases where a corporation has actually sued an organic farmer who found himself in the scenario I just described.  Legal considerations aside, that is just plain mean-spirited.

Let’s take a look at a specific case, chronicled by the Society for a GE Free BC:

“This happened to Percy Shmeiser, a farmer in Canada, who was sued by Monsanto for having had his canola field contaminated by Monsanto’s Round-Up Ready Canola. Monsanto alleges that it is immaterial whether or not Shmeiser purposefully seeded, or even wanted to seed, their product, but only that his crop is now laced with their proprietary goods and Percy was to pay up.  Fortunately, while Percy didn’t necessarily win the case, he did not have to pay Monsanto.  He did, however, lose his retirement [savings] in fighting the battle.”

Another consequence of corporate control is an increase in the cost of seeds.  Granted, there is added cost in producing hybrid and genetically modified seeds.  But with ever more control of the markets, corporations can pretty much set higher prices that result in higher profits.  In just a few years, some farm seed has gone from $100/bag to as much as $500/bag.  As a gardener who sows a lot of seeds, I have experienced “sticker shock” many times myself when comparing the price of a particular seed packet from one year to the next, purchased from the same company.  I’ve also noticed that some of my favorite varieties have begun to disappear from seed catalogs.

2011 Catalog

So what’s a gardener to do?  Not much, really, as far as higher prices and the disappearance of favorite hybrid varieties are concerned.  On the other hand, we do still have control over non-hybrid varieties, and we can save their seeds from year to year without any additional expense.  You might be surprised at the large number of unengineered varieties available today.  Although some of them are disappearing from catalogs and seed racks, the Seed Savers Exchange here in Iowa offers a cornucopia of open-pollinated and inexpensive hybrid varieties for the home garden.

From humble beginnings more than 35 years ago, the Exchange, located in Decorah, Iowa, is now the national leader in preserving and distributing heirloom vegetables, herbs, flowers, and plants.  Its catalog (available on the home page of the Exchange’s website) contains nearly 600 varieties that are for sale to the general public. Revenue from seed packets sold helps to support its not-for-profit mission.

 2011-03-20/LarryR/5561a1

 'Grandpa Ott's' Morning Glory:  The flower that launched the Decorah Seed Savers Exchange

If you are a gardener, please consider purchasing a seed packet or two from the Exchange this year.  It is the green thing to do, and you will contribute to the support of a resource that offers an alternative to GMOs and expensive hybrids.

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Credits

Thumbnail image is the author's creation.

Seed Saver's Exchange catalog image is courtesy of the Exchange.

'Grandpa Ott's' Morning Glory photo is also courtesy of the Excange.

 

RESULTS OF ADDITIONAL RESEARCH

Here is an excerpt from HealthierTalk.com:

Since the 1980s, Monsanto has become the world leader in genetic modification of seeds and has won at least 674 biotechnology patents, more than any other company.

This is not surprising, considering they invest over $2 million a day on research and development!

But Monsanto is not only patenting their own GMO seeds. They have also succeeded in slapping patents on a huge number of crop seeds, patenting life forms for the first time -- again without a vote of the people or Congress. By doing this, Monsanto becomes sole owner of the very seeds necessary to support the world’s food supply … an incredibly powerful position that no for-profit company should ever hold.

How do they defend this blatant attempt to control the food supply? They write on MonsantoToday.com:

  • “Patent protection allows companies to see a return on their investment which enables further investment in R-and-D and product development. This profit-investment cycle drives product innovation that is responsive to farmer needs.”

Farmers’ needs?

Farmers who buy Monsanto’s GM seeds are required to sign an agreement promising not to save the seeds or sell them to other farmers. The result? Farmers must buy new seeds every year, and they must buy them from Monsanto.

Meanwhile, these same farmers who Monsanto is claiming to help are being aggressively targeted and pursued for outrageous patent infringements on these same seeds.

The “Seed Police”'

Monsanto employs an arsenal of private investigators and agents who secretly videotape farmers, snatch crop samples from their land and even fly helicopters overhead to spy -- all to catch farmers saving or sharing seeds.

As of 2005 Monsanto had 75 employees and a $10-million budget solely to investigate and prosecute farmers for patent infringement.

And until recently, Monsanto has even been known to sue farmers for GM crops growing on their land that got there via cross-contamination. In other words, a neighboring farm’s GM seeds blew over onto their land, and Monsanto slaps them with a lawsuit.

I realize this seems incredible, but it is true.

Have You Heard of Terminator Seeds?

Creating and promoting GM crops is, in my opinion, a major threat to public health. Patenting those same seeds takes it to an even higher level of evil. But there is another reason why I don’t believe for one second that Monsanto has the virtuous intentions they claim: terminator seeds.

Monsanto is considering using what’s known as terminator technology on a wide-scale basis. These are seeds that have been genetically modified to “self-destruct.” In other words, the seeds (and the forthcoming crops) are sterile, which means farmers must buy them again each year.

This solves their problem of needing “seed police,” but they are obviously looking the other way when it comes to the implications that terminator seeds could have on the world’s food supply: the traits from genetically engineered crops can get passed on to other crops, and often do.

Once the terminator seeds are released into a region, the trait of seed sterility could be passed to other non-genetically-engineered crops, making most or all of the seeds in the region sterile.

Not only would this mean that every farm in the world could come to rely on Monsanto for their seed supply, but if the GM traits spread it could destroy agriculture as we now know it.

_______________________________

Tell the Department of Justice it's time to do its job: Break Up Monsanto!

Dear Dan,

Last year the Department of Justice and U.S. Department of Agriculture held a series of 5 hearings investigating anti-competitive practices in the food and agricultural sectors. The hearings were historic and gave a vital opportunity for hundreds of thousands of America’s farmers, agricultural workers and citizens to call for an end to agribusiness’ excessive monopoly power. 1

Last December, Food Democracy Now! delivered more than 200,000 citizen comments to Assistant Attorney General Christine Varney with your demands to break up the worst abusers. 2

Nowhere are these abuses more prevalent than in the extreme market share enjoyed by the seed and chemical company Monsanto, which has a virtual stranglehold on seed supplies in crucial sectors that has severely limited farmers' choice in what seeds they can buy. Monsanto’s control of the seed market is so high that 93% of soybeans, 82% of corn, 93% of cotton and 95% of sugarbeets grown in the U.S. contain Monsanto’s patented genes. 3

Not only is this level of market share allowing Monsanto to jack prices up on farmers because there’s no competition, but it also threatens our democracy as Monsanto uses their corporate power to influence our regulatory agencies, like the USDA, EPA and FDA, as well as Congress and the White House.

It’s time to fight back and the only way to do that is to make sure that the Department of Justice continues their investigation into Monsanto’s anti-competitive business practices.

Click on the link below to automatically add your name to the letter asking for the Department of Justice to break up Monsanto. It’s time to stand up for farmers and our democracy. Tell the Department of Justice that it’s time to do what’s right!

http://action.fooddemocracynow.org/go/357?akid=303.5126.ocFCU5&t=7

Over the past two months the biotech industry has gotten their way in Washington with the approval of three new genetically modified (GMO) crops. First GMO alfalfa, then GMO sugar beets and most recently an industrial GMO corn for ethanol.4

The common link between these crops, except for the fact that they’re bad for farmers and the environment, is that they face virtually no oversight once they're planted and their genes are allowed to contaminate neighboring fields and our food. These multinational corporations are not required to submit rigorous, independent peer reviewed studies prior to approval, but are allowed to submit their own corporate science to the federal government for approval.

To date, no petitions for approval of GMO crops have been denied. The only way to reign in the abuse that determines the quality and safety of the food that you and your family consume is to put pressure on the Department of Justice is to make sure that they follow through on their investigations into Monsanto’s abusive practices.

Last year seven state attorneys general launched an investigation into whether or not Monsanto “has abused its market power to lock out competitors and raise prices” while the DOJ is investigating anti-competitive practices with Monsanto’s marketing abuses in limiting access to seeds for farmers and competitors through manipulative contracts.5

It’s time to end Monsanto’s abuses, tell the DOJ to do their job and complete this investigation. It’s clear that abuses of farmer’s rights are taking place and the U.S. government needs to stand up to them now!

Click on the link below to automatically add your name to the letter calling for the DOJ to protect our democracy and break up Monsanto!

http://action.fooddemocracynow.org/go/357?akid=303.5126.ocFCU5&t=9

Thanks for taking action — your support is greatly appreciated! We need your help to keep the pressure on! If you can, please consider chipping in as little as $10 to help us continue this fight.

http://fdn.actionkit.com/go/donate/133?akid=303.5126.ocFCU5&t=12

We rely on folks like you to keep us going. Thanks again for your support.

Thank you for participating in food democracy —

Dave, Lisa and the Food Democracy Now! Team

Sources:

1. "DOJ'S Holder Calls for Historic Era of Antitrust Enforcement in Agriculture", March 16, 2010.

http://action.fooddemocracynow.org/go/352?akid=303.5126.ocFCU5&t=14

2. “Your Voices Were Heard Loud and Clear in DC this Week, Thanks for Standing Up for Family Farmers”, Food Democracy Now!, December 10, 2010.

http://action.fooddemocracynow.org/go/353?akid=303.5126.ocFCU5&t=16

3. "Monsanto's Dominance Draws Antitrust Inquiry" Washington Post, November 29, 2009.

http://action.fooddemocracynow.org/go/354?akid=303.5126.ocFCU5&t=18

4. “Update: Obama Goes Rogue on GMOs, Tell Him to Say NO to Monsanto”, Food Democracy Now!, February 15, 2011.

http://action.fooddemocracynow.org/go/355?akid=303.5126.ocFCU5&t=20

5. "Monsanto 7-State Probe Threatens Profit From Gene in 93% of Soy", Bloomberg, March 10, 2010.

http://action.fooddemocracynow.org/go/356?akid=303.5126.ocFCU5&t=22

 

Related articles:
corporate, DuPont, genetically modified, GMOs, heritage seeds, hybrids, Mondanto, Novartis, open-pollinated, Seed Savers Exchange

About Larry Rettig
"An enthusiastic gardener for over 50 years, my first plant was a potted Ponderosa Lemon tree ordered from a comic book ad at age 15. I still have it, and it’s still bearing lemons! My wife and I garden on 3/4 of an acre, both flowers and vegetables. Our garden, named Cottage-in-the-Meadow Gardens, is private and is listed with the Smithsonian Institution in its Archives of American Gardens. It is also on the National Register of Historic Places. We garden organically and no-till. Our vegetable garden contains a seed bank of vegetables brought to this country from Germany in the mid-1800s by my ancestors. My latest book, Gardening the Amana Way, is available at Amazon.com.

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Basmati rice. KAMasud Jul 19, 2013 7:45 PM 2
This is an important issue for all Zanymuse Apr 30, 2013 11:55 PM 22

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