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.