Here’s the deal. They don’t come from an idyllic countryside where wholesome, above average, nicely tanned young people work the earth , carefully cultivating, selecting, processing, and packaging the very seeds you and I lovingly plant, one by one, in our backyard rows, raised beds, and patio pots. This may be the stuff we see on seed retailers’ picturesque catalogues and websites, but remember – this is where we buy our seeds. This is probably not where our seeds originate.
Fact is, in 2007 ten large companies in the US, France, Japan, Denmark, Germany, and Switzerland produced 67% of all proprietary seed sold in the world. Who’s at top of the list? You guessed it – Monsanto. In 2007, Monsanto controlled 23% of the global market. According to this report 50% of seeds planted in the world today are controlled by three companies. You can read plenty about how companies controlling this global plant gene monopoly (not to mention targeted fertilizers and herbicides they own) have a strangle hold on the global food supply and ultimately food prices. So what? What does majority control of the Earth’s plant gene pool by less than a dozen humongous conglomerates mean for the humble backyard gardener who is just trying to coax his or her spinach seeds to sprout? Consider the case of Ichiban Eggplant.
The Ichiban was a very popular oriental type eggplant that (IMHO) had a unique, slightly sweet, real live eggplant taste. A few years ago, Ichiban seeds suddenly vanished from seed retailers catalogues throwing gardeners (especially those of us who loved Eggplant in Garlic Sauce) into a tizzy. Little did we know, there was a problem. Real Ichiban eggplants are thin skinned and bruise easily – no big deal for most backyard gardeners. But thin skin meant Ichiban did not pack and travel well, and since everything in a supermarket’s produce department must be pristine (tastebe damned), the Ichiban’s commercial value was deemed to low to mess with (commercially speaking). When Monsanto bought Seminis in 2005 (for $1.4B cash), the Ichiban was deep sixed. This leads to my Numero Uno effect the global seed monopoly will have on us backyard gardeners. (NOTE: Reimer Seeds now offers ‘Ichiban Improved’. Sadly we cannot know ‘Ichiban Improved’ has anything in common with our original beloved Ichiban. Read about seed origin transparency below.)
Number 1: Fewer Varieties for us All
The Top Ten will continue to reduce varieties focusing on those seeds likely to deliver the greatest $$$ return. This means plants bred for large-scale commercial agriculture (productivity, portability, shelf life) will trump anything that tastes good but isn’t pretty. You can see the effect of variety reduction in this graphic from National Geographic illustration showing that between 1903 and 1983, 93% of food variety seeds have “gone extinct”.
This consolidation of seed suppliers and the patent of genetic material is credited with this ever increasing rate of “extinction”.
*Number 2: You Don’t Know What You are Really Getting*
Lack of transparency in well known retail seed outlets means we really don’t know what we are getting. Note the ‘Ichiban’ vs ‘Ichiban Improved’ dilemma mentioned above. To absolutely know where our seeds come from we would need to know; country of seed origin; company producing the seed; true variety; and lot #. I will give a small shout-out to Park Seeds and Stokes. Some of their seed packets show country of seed origin, but not producer and original variety. Small progress, but still mighty opaque.
Number 3: Swap Seeds. You’re Under Arrest
In 1970, the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) was enacted in the United States. This law gives breeders (The Big Ten) rights to control “stable sexually reproduced or tuber propagated plant varieties.” Here is the tricky bit for gardeners. Under the PVPA, breeders control Open Pollinated varieties. PVP control makes seed swapping for a PVP designated variety illegal (Remember. Seeds from a hybrid variety does to apply here because the seed of a hybrid variety may not reproduce a true child plant). In fact, simply saving seeds for your own crop next year may be technically breaking the law. Although plant breeders have been slow to enforce the PVPA, there have been actions against farmers and even some public seed libraries. Are the law doggies coming after hobbyists gardeners who swap a few seeds? Probably not. But in an obvious act of CYA, seed retailers aren't taking any chances. Sellers are beginning to label small seed packages sold to home gardeners with the PVP designation. Johnny’s Selected Seeds uses a PVP badge on their website and printed catalogue.
If you want to see if you are planting PVP seeds, check out the USDA’s Plant Protection Office web site.
Feeling a tad oppressed? With a couple ofquick Googles you can find all manner of activist organizations worth your time and money. One of the best is Seed Savers Exchange (SSE) in Deborah, Iowa. SSE is a long time supporter of open pollinated seeds and seed swapping. Each year SSE publishes their Seed Savers Exchange Yearbook - over 600 pages of members willing to swap or sell non PVP seeds. Using this Yearbook, you can easily plant a very large garden - everything from lettuce to cow peas - entirelyof open pollinated, swappable seeds. No mystery. No monopoly. No going to jail.