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Good Seed, Bad Seed

As huge corporations patent and genetically alter seeds across the globe, independent seed companies are sowing a different future for our food system.

As huge corporations patent and genetically alter seeds across the globe, independent seed companies are sowing a different future for our food system. (JoHo/Shutterstock)

This page was published 7 years ago. Find the latest on Earthjustice’s work.

Editor’s Note: On September 14, Bayer purchased Monsanto for $56.5 billion, the largest corporate takeover of 2016. Bayer is a multinational chemical and pharmaceutical company hoping to expand its reach into agribusiness. If the deal survives regulatory hurdles, Bayer’s purchase of the leading agrochemical and biotechnology company, known for genetically engineered seeds and Roundup, will further consolidate the handful of companies controlling much of the world’s seed supply. To learn more, click here.

For the modern farmer, seeds are easy to come by. Seed companies supply catalogs and mail the seeds direct. What’s not so easy, depending on the crop, is finding seeds that aren’t genetically engineered.

In the past few decades, the world has seen a radical consolidation of seed ownership. The top 10 multinational seed companies now control 73 percent of the world’s seed market—up from 37 percent in 1995. Possible mergers among the largest companies, such as Bayer and Monsanto, could further consolidate the control of the world’s seeds into just a few corporations’ hands. These mega-corporations sell both genetically engineered (GE) seeds and the harmful pesticides that the GE crops are modified to withstand.

At the same time that large corporations are gobbling up the seed market, the number of small, independent seed companies in the U.S. is rapidly declining. In 1996, there were 300 independent seed companies; by 2009, there were only around 100. However, some small businesses remain, including Wild Garden Seed in Oregon, High Mowing Organic Seeds in Vermont and the Living Seed Company in California. Rather than rely on genetic engineering, these companies are carrying on the millennia-old tradition of plant breeding by conducting trait selection experiments in the field. For local farmers, the companies provide a constantly evolving collection of plant varieties adapted to their respective regions.

Independent seed companies typically don’t patent their seeds, which allows farmers the autonomy to save seeds and breed new plant varieties on their own. Large seed corporations, on the other hand, force farmers to buy new GE seeds every year. While companies like Monsanto argue that GE seeds are more productive and profitable (claims that are certainly debatable), the high overhead expense of buying a new GE seed and pesticide package each season leaves some farmers economically vulnerable.

“[Monsanto] controls the world’s seed supply through genetic engineering and through patents.”

“[Monsanto] controls the world’s seed supply through genetic engineering and through patents,” says Dr. Vandana Shiva, a scholar and activist who has fought against the farmer debt crisis in India that Monsanto’s seed industry domination has caused. “Monsanto is killing the freedom of farmers of the world.”

Large corporations take family farmers, activists like Shiva and small seed producers seriously. Lawsuits over genetic property litter the commercial farming industry, effectively sinking many small farms. A Center for Food Safety report concluded that as early as 2003, Monsanto had a budget of $10 million for the sole purpose of pursuing farmers for patent infringement. As of December 2012, Monsanto had filed 142 lawsuits alleging seed patent infringement, which recently led one judge to brand the company “incredibly litigious.” Sums awarded to Monsanto in 72 of the recorded judgments total more than $23 million, and this doesn’t include the sums extracted through settlements.

Some lawsuits involved cases in which farmers were saving GE seeds they originally purchased from Monsanto. Others concerned issues of unintended contamination, in which GE seeds had simply blown into neighboring fields. The introduction of GE sugar beets in Oregon’s Willamette Valley, a small but fertile region home to many organic farms and small-scale seed production operations, has generated particular concern around the issue of cross contamination. In 2008, Earthjustice and the Center for Food Safety sued the U.S. Department of Agriculture on behalf of conservationists and small seed growers, including High Mowing Organic Seeds and Frank Morton, owner of Wild Garden Seed, on the basis that the agency violated the law by failing to fully consider the environmental impacts of GE sugar beets, including the cross contamination of non-GE crops.

Of course, the pesticides used alongside these GE crops can also have devastating environmental and health effects, especially in Hawai‛i, which is now ground zero for experimental crop testing thanks to its long growing season. For years, the most popular herbicide on the market has been Monsanto’s Roundup, which is used on crops genetically engineered to resist its primary ingredient, glyphosate. In 2012, U.S. growers sprayed 280 million pounds of glyphosate, which increased the prevalence of glyphosate-resistant weeds, dubbed “superweeds.” Rather than reduce herbicide use, the chemical company Dow decided to combat glyphosate resistance by introducing Enlist Duo, a toxic combination of glyphosate and 2,4-D, to be used on corn and soy genetically engineered to resist both.  

Earthjustice is representing a coalition of conservation groups in challenging the EPA’s approval of Enlist Duo, urging the agency to take the chemical cocktail off the market immediately.  Meanwhile, Monsanto is seeking EPA approval for its competitor to Enlist Duo, a mixture of glyphosate and the herbicide dicamba, to be marketed as the “Xtend” crop system.  Earthjustice is closely monitoring this development as well.

The toxic combination of GE seeds and harmful chemicals is becoming increasingly hard to avoid—whether it’s in the food we eat, the fields we work in or the seeds we sow. The traditional way of growing food relies on plant breeding, saving seeds and sharing successful varieties of plants with the larger community. While large corporations would like us to forget this tradition, it lives on in small seed companies and individual seed savers. So the next time you want to buy seeds for your backyard herb garden or your 15-acre farm, find the small seed company in your region, which might just represent the best hope for the beginning of a new food system. 

A graduate of Wesleyan University with an honors degree in English and environmental studies, Anna was an intern at Earthjustice in San Francisco. She previously interned at Women’s Earth Alliance, and managed a half-acre garden and orchard growing produce for a Community Supported Agriculture program.