The Politics of Seeds
In 1839, the U.S. Patent and Trade Office began distributing seed varieties throughout the states and territories. The government recognized that feeding an expanding continent would require a diversification of foods. Immigrants were encouraged to bring seed with them, and seed-exchange societies were formed. This was a highly successful program and by 1897, they had distributed over 1 billion seed packets. Eventually overseen by the USDA, 1/3 of their budget was dedicated to the program.[ii]
In 1866, the first commercial seed crop became available: cabbage seed produced on Long Island for the US wholesale market. As the idea of seeds as a commodity grew, the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) formed and immediately began lobbying for the cancellation of the government program. This led to the introduction of hybrid seeds in the early part of the 20th century. Hybrid seeds are produced by crossing two inbred genetic lines to create a superior variety. Hybrids create a reliable crop for farmers with uniform produce, standard harvest, and consistent yields but you cannot collect the seeds from the resulting plant. Having to repurchase the seeds every year provided a secure market for the ASTA and in 1923, after over 40 years of lobbying, they succeeded in getting Congress to cancel the seed distribution program.[iii]
For decades, the USDA kept Congress from granting patents over plant life. Its concern was that patents would prevent the development of new seed varieties and limit our crop diversity. The first patents over plants became legal in 1930 and the ownership over seeds broadened throughout the 20th century. This came to a head in 1980.
Genetic engineer Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, while working for General Electric, developed a bacterium that could break down crude oil to be used in treating oil spills. In Diamond v. Chakrabarty, Chief Justice Burger concluded that Congress had intended patents to “include anything under the sun that is made by man." Prior to this, a plant, animal, or breeding method could be owned, but the actual genetics could not.[iv]
Immediately, over 1,800 patents on life forms were issued. Suddenly, companies that historically had no interest in agriculture, including chemical and pharmaceutical firms, began purchasing seed companies. This court ruling directly correlated to the creation of Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs). Genetically Modified Seeds have had their DNA engineered in a laboratory and can include splicing in genetic material from other scientific kingdoms.
In 2001, the court ruling of J.E.M. vs. Pioneer put the final nail in the coffin for the public commons of seeds. Pioneer, a seed company, sued J.E.M. Ag Supply for attempting to resell Pioneer’s patented hybrid seeds. Now, all forms of bred plant life can be patented for 20 years under Utility Patents.[v] This created a system of farmers having to sign contracts and pay annual royalties to seed companies simply for the use their seed. Under Utility Patents, personal seed saving is not permitted, and a seed is treated the same way as a toaster. Companies have the rights to the color purple in carrots or the shape of the leaf in a head of lettuce. Independent breeders can face litigation for growing a carrot that too closely resembles a patented shade of crimson. In the 1970’s there were nearly 1,000 small and family-owned seed companies that were producing and distributing seeds nationwide. By 2009, there were fewer than 100. [vi] The world saw unprecedented consolidation and monopoly over the seed industry in nearly the blink of an eye.
Through the introduction of hybrid and GMO seeds, Industrial Farming became the norm in the United States. The crops that were easiest to grow with large machinery became the only crops grown. The market for seeds was winnowed down to such a degree that within 80 years, we lost 93% of the diversity in our food supply. Presently, 12 plants and 5 livestock species provide 75% of the world’s food supply.[vii]
In the U.S., roughly half of cropland is now used for monocultures (large areas planted with a single genetically uniform crop) of corn and soybeans.[viii] Relying on such a narrow range of agrobiodiversity is like putting all our eggs in one basket—if one variety succumbs to a pest outbreak, or becomes unsuitable for a region’s climate, food supplies suffer a major loss.[ix] In 1996, Roundup Ready soy was introduced to US farmers with cotton, canola, and corn following soon after. Roundup Ready is a broad spectrum herbicide which means that it should kill all plant life that comes in contact with it. Monsanto’s Roundup Ready Soybean was genetically engineered to resist the herbicide, allowing the crop to live while the weeds around it died.[x] More than 80% of all GMOs grown worldwide are engineered for herbicide tolerance.[xi] Genetically Modified seeds became intrinsically linked with the use of chemical fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides—both being developed and sold by the same company.
Industrial, and even traditional organic agriculture relies on regular tilling of the entire field to suppress weeds, smooth the surface for seeding, turn in amendments, and “refresh” the soil. The causes a breakdown of soil structure and unearthing of long dormant weed seeds, increasing the need for fertilizers and herbicides. Bringing rich organic soil to the surface exposes the carbon stored within to the chemically reactive oxygen of the atmosphere, “burning” it off and effectively turning a carbon sink into a carbon emitter. Agriculture contributes to increased warming—farming and deforestation account for 23% of global greenhouse emissions—but is affected by it, too, as more severe and more unpredictable weather poses a threat to food safety and production.[xii]
A 40 year study by the Rodale Institute compared the effects of conventional versus organic agriculture and found that organic systems use 45% less energy, release 40% fewer carbon emissions, improve the health and quantity of soil over time, and actually have the potential to produce yields up to 40% higher in times of drought than conventional systems. This does not include the fact that maintaining soil structure can actively sequester carbon.[xiii]
Market gardening specifically uses standardized beds raised above the surrounding surface, allowing most tasks to be accomplished efficiently with hand tools rather gas driven machinery. Only the top 2-3” of soil are ever tilled with far less disturbance to the wealth of animal, fungal, and microbial life that is key to healthy soil, and fewer dormant weed seeds are brought to the surface. Cover crops guard against soil erosion and are then allowed to decompose in place as a “green-manure”, building the soil rather than depleting it and eliminating the need for fertilizer. Small, ecologically-minded agriculture has been endorsed by The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations for its ability to build, rather than “mine” soil, not pollute surface water, drastically reduce overall energy consumption, produce higher yields, and for being far less susceptible to crop failure.
- [i] Nabhan, Gary Paul . What is Food Biodiversity and Why Does It Matter? Nov. 2013. slowfoodusa.org.
- [ii] Barker, Debbie. History of Seed in the U.S. Aug. 2012. centerforfoodsafety.org
- [iii] Dillon, Matthew. The Shift from Public to Private Seed Systems Feb. 2005. Newfarm.org. http://www.newfarm.org/features/2005/0205/seminisbuy/history.shtml
- [iv] Justia. Diamond v. Chakrabarty, 447 U.S. 303 (1980) https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/447/303/
- [v] Justia. J.E.M. Ag Supply, Inc. v. Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc., 534 U.S. 124 (2001). https://supreme.justia.com/cases/federal/us/534/124/
- [vi] Barber, Dan. Save Our Food. Save Our Seed. nytimes.com. June 2019. https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2019/06/07/opinion/sunday/dan-barber-seed-companies.html
- [vii] Panko, Ben. Just a Few Species Make Up Most of Earth’s Food Supply. And That’s a Problem. Oct. 2017.smithsonianmag.com.
- [viii] Nink, Emily. Monoculture shows financial, environmental costs to US. June 2015. csmonitor.com
- [ix] John Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. Crops and Ecology. foodsystemprimer.org.
- [x] Wilkerson, Jordan. Why Roundup Ready Crops Have Lost Their Allure.Aug. 2015. Harvard.edu
- [xi] Duke, S.O., & Powles, S.B. (2009). “Glyphosate-resistant crops and weeds: Now and in the future.” AgBioForum, 12(3&4), 346-357.
- [xii] Kormann, Carolyn. Deforestation, Agriculture, and Diet Are Fuelling the Climate Crisis. Aug. 2019.newyorker.com
- [xiii] Rodale Institute. Organic Vs. Conventional Farming. https://rodaleinstitute.org/why-organic/organic-basics/organic-vs-conventional/