If the thought of a multinational corporation actually owning a whole species makes you feel extremely uneasy, you’re not alone. And your uneasiness isn’t misplaced.
We’re talking about the commercial seed industry. It turns out this industry is doing a lot more than just collecting and distributing seeds: it’s working on owning them, too.
How is that possible, you might ask? Seeds are a naturally occurring, reproducing, living part of our planet. They’ve been around for thousands and thousands (and thousands) of years. They don’t belong to anyone. If anything, they belong to everyone.
YOUR TOMATOES BELONG TO THE SEED COMPANY
While the commercial seed industry certainly can’t own, say, “the tomato,” it certainly can own its own particular breed of tomato, which it engineers and then patents. Once it does so, this tomato functions in the marketplace not as one more species on a planet full of special diversity, but as a product whose rights are strictly owned by its inventor.
(1) You can’t save the seeds of such a tomato. For one thing, it’s likely a hybrid, which means that when you plant the seeds it produces, you don’t know what kind of tomato is going to sprout from them. (The answer is, probably not a very good one.)
For another, it’s illegal. It’s copyright infringement. It’s like buying a book, then printing copies. As one article puts it:
“Farmers who buy Monsanto’s patented Roundup Ready seeds are required to sign an agreement promising not to save the seed produced after each harvest for re-planting, or to sell the seed to other farmers. This means that farmers must buy new seed every year.
They’re allowed to do that because, under the WTO’s General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), modern seeds are considered intellectual property.
(2) Another thing. If you’re a farmer, and your neighbor’s growing one of these crops, if any of your neighbor’s crops go to seed, and if any of those seeds float over to your land (as seeds will do) and start to grow, you’re liable. Key words: infringement lawsuits.
THE SEED COMPANY IS PLAYING MONOPOLY
It wouldn’t be such a problem if these commercial hybrids weren’t taking over the food industry. Meanwhile, heirlooms and open-pollinated varieties get lost under the onslaught. Michael Pollan writes:
“In the last few decades F-1 hybrids... have become the stock in trade of the commercial seed industry, and they are gradually crowding traditional 'open pollinated' varieties... out of the marketplace... [with the result that] almost half of all the nonhybrid vegetable varieties on the market just 10 years ago have been dropped from mail-order catalogues. This often results in extinction.
As modern species displace the ancient ones, we become more and more dependent upon modern corporations for our food. In the process, these corporations acquire a monopoly – not just on some bunch of goods or services, but on… food.
MONOPOLY IS DEVASTATING THE WORLD
Actually, it wasn’t so long ago there were laws against that. Laws like, you can’t patent a living thing. Which is still true, to some extent. But with the Plant Patent Act of 1930, followed by the institution of Plant Variety Protection in 1970, it became possible to own a cultivar you created.
“In rural areas all over the developing world, women like Yaowapa Promwong in Thailand have traditionally been seed savers and plant breeders. Until a decade ago, knowledge of seed selection and conservation enabled villagers in Yaowapa’s community to grow produce appropriate to their land. Heritage seeds have been passed down over generations, along with the family land. “Around 10 years ago, many farmers were invited to government workshops on how to industrialize their farms and raise productivity for export. Several large agri-business companies attended these workshops and gave out gifts of seeds, fertilizers and pesticides, which farmers adopted with enthusiasm. “Many farming families have now discontinued seed saving, turning instead to seeds from agri-businesses that supposedly know the market demand. Yaowapa describes the resulting changes in her village as socially and environmentally devastating. Her story is not unique. “Behind the scenes, intellectual property rights (IPRs) on seeds are playing their part in her story. IPRs are accused of interfering with traditional farming and cultural practices, disempowering women and making farmers more vulnerable to market fluctuations. IPRs on seeds are said to contribute to loss of genetic and cultural diversity and to increased corporate concentration, which could result in environmental degradation and undermine long-term sustainability of food supplies.
SAVE A TOMATO… SAVE THE WORLD
If the idea of a few corporations controlling the bulk of the world’s food makes you not only uneasy, but kind of repulsed… if you believe that no human being (or organization of human beings) should be able to own a common resource so basic as food… then you should consider saving seeds.
To opt out of the monopoly game, start by planting your garden with traditional, non-hybrid species. The kind that reproduce the natural way. The kind that, most importantly, aren’t owned by multinational corporations. Michael Pollan again:
“...the decision to plant one variety and not another is freighted with moral and environmental significance. A political fight is not exactly what I came to vegetable gardening to pick, but I seem to have stumbled into one (ibid.).
When you’re in the farm and garden store browsing for seeds, look for Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit seed distributor dedicated to helping people do just what we’re talking about. You can’t go wrong with anything you get from them.
Otherwise, keep your eyes peeled for the words “open-pollinated,” “heritage” and “heirloom.” These are the varieties you want to support. When you help them propagate, you help protect them from extinction.
Don’t underestimate the power you have to preserve and protect our food supply. When backyard gardeners do what people have been doing since agriculture began – collecting, saving and planting our own seeds – we’re participating in a very old, very valuable tradition. One which has always been done at the grass-roots.
Oh – and if you’re not sure how to save seeds, you might want to read our post on that: Seed-saving in 6 Simple Steps.
Happy reading, and happy planting!