Saturday, September 1, 2007

Saving the World's Seeds

One of the more pernicious aspects of modern agriculture is the manner in which most of the seeds needed to feed the world's population have fallen into the hands of a few chemical companies.

Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta, Dow--these are the leaders. Fully 55 percent of the seeds used to grow the world's food are sold by just ten global firms.

And notice that these are not traditional seed companies but chemical giants. Their business is to modify the seeds in the laboratory and then patent the results, so that growers are prevented from saving the seeds and must purchase them over and over again, year after year, in order to plant them legally. Famously, the biggest and most aggressive of these companies is Monsanto, which has a team of lawyers at the ready to swoop down on any luckless farmer who might be found to have one of Monsanto's patented varieties growing in his field and sue the shit out of him.

(You can find examples of this on the lower right-hand side of this page under "Bad Things in Food.")

It wasn't always so. In the 10,000 years of the agricultural era, mankind has focused quite a bit of attention on breeding and cultivating plant species and setting aside seeds from the most successful varieties to plant the following year. Stores of seeds were guarded as the life source they were. But with the advent of industrial agriculture--certainly within the last century--plant breeders focused more and more on creating super varieties, those that produced the most under a range of conditions.

The corporatization of seeds has led to a kind of bio-diversity warfare among nations. The majority of food crops originate in Latin American and the Near East. Only about five percent originate in North America and Europe. Yet it was the northern countries that pounced on the idea of patenting seeds culled from the world's crop diversity, then selling the seeds back to farmers on a world-wide basis. The scenario is good for food production--and certainly good for shareholders--but establishes a kind of seed colonialism perpetrated on the world's developing nations.

Also lost in the age of industrial agriculture is much of the genetic diversity that previously existed. A survey in 1983 found the of the 544 traditional varieties of cabbage, only 28 remained. Carrots had dropped from 287 to 21; cauliflower from 158 to nine; pears from 2,683 to 326.

Fearful of permanently losing their heritage of plant genetics, countries around the globe have established seed banks. In the United States, a national seed repository known as the National Plant Germplasm System is housed in a Fort Knox-like bunker in Ft. Collins, CO. But many of the worlds seed banks are threatened.

During World War II, scientists in the Soviet Union actually starved to death amidst a bounty of seeds, determined to the point of giving their lives to pass the seeds to the next generation. More recently, the seeds in Afghanistan were not so lucky. That country's store--containing rare varities of almonds and walnuts, along with fruits such as grapes, melons, cherries, peaches and more--had been hidden away for safe-keeping. But after the Taliban was ejected, the seeds were found strewn on the floors of their stashes. Looters apparently wanted the jars in which the seeds had been stored.

Now an effort to store all of the worlds plant diversity in one place is paying off in the form of a doomsday type facility bored into a mountain on an Arctic island off Norway. Of course the world's nation's are not exactly pooling their seeds. Corporate seed companies reject any effort that might dilute their hegemony over the seed industruty. Rather, collections from each country are merely be house there.

You can read all about it in an excellent article in the Aug. 27 issue of The New Yorker. It really is a must read for anyone engaged in the subversive act of saving seeds, or even mildly concerned about the impact of corporate greed on the world's food crops.


Kevin said...

Great topic.

Ed Bruske said...

Kevin, the original article is even better. A very good read

Tana Butler said...

Here's the good news.

Lots of hope there. A farmer I know is saving seeds from an amazing greenbean from a company which was bought out by Monsanto, but she's growing the seeds to donate to Seedsavers, ensuring its continued life.

Magic Cochin said...

Thank you Ed for highlighting this topic. I'm a member of the Heritage Seed Library (UK) which was set up to conserve and make available vegetable varieties which are no longer in the seed catalogues or grown commercially because they have not been registered with the EU, and therefore can no longer be sold legally! May I add it costs money to register!
See this link for more info:

Many of my favourite vegetable garden crops are grown from the HSL seed, I save seed from my favourites for the next season and to share with friends, and apply for a new selection of 6 vegetable varieties each spring. I'm keeping a record of how the HSL vegetables perform on my blog.


Ed Bruske said...

tana, I try to buy seeds from seed exchanges whenever possible. a very worthy cause.

Celia, I haven't gotten so far as to actually save seeds on an organized basis. Maybe a couple of okra pods. But the subversive aspect aspect of this work makes it all the more vital.

maggie said...

In January I tried to order my favorite variety of cowpea - an heirloom and they weren't available. It can be one of the vagaries of small seed companies and marks the need for more seed savers. The failure of one crop can limit the availability of seed. Luckily I had a handful of seed from last year and enough room to plant a small plot just for seed saving. Next year I'll have a larger crop and be able to save again. I'm planning on saving tomato seed for the first time this year as well.

Anonymous said...

It is a disturbing world where both diseases, DNA and seeds become subject to patent that literally makes a valid legal claim over the humans we are, and the food we eat, that somehow defies the existence of a natural world, or behaves as if the world can hoard the natural phenomena of human, plant, and animal existence as if it were held in possession by self appointed Gods.

If that is ethical, or logical, all humans should go back to the drawing board of Genesis, if not to the Big Bang through which the world was created.

Anonymous said...

Hello all.

Found a parody of the Monsanto logo being used for protest tee shirts:

I got one (before they take em off)