By Bill Kohlhaase for Planet Natural
It’s all about seed control for Monsanto and the other corporate manufacturers of genetically engineered, GMO crops. So it’s no surprise that Monsanto has made moves to control garden seed as well. In the last several years, a number of international agri-conglomerates have consolidated their hold over the very seed and nursery starts we plant in our gardens. This brings some of the same problems — loss of seed diversity, spiraling seed costs, and general deficiencies in seed quality — that crop growers around the world face from the owners of genetically-modified seeds. And it’s happening under our noses right in our own backyards.
The last thing most organic gardeners want to do is support the corporations that have forced GMO food crops on the world through consolidation and bullying tactics. Nor do we want to support conglomerates seeking to monopolize the garden seed market. But often, that’s what we do when we buy non-GMO seed and nursery stock for our home gardens (and when we buy produce from the major supermarkets). How is it possible?
The same companies — Monsanto being the largest — that have inflicted GMO crops on American food supplies (remember, GMO-based food products are banned in over 60 other countries) also control the non-GMO seed market. This is a fairly recent development — done over the last 20 years — and one that’s mostly been hidden from the public (you’ll find innocent-sounding or familiar company names on seed packages, but not “Monsanto,” the actual supplier of the seed).
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Planet Natural offers heirloom garden seeds that are non-treated, non-GMO and NOT purchased from Monsanto-owned Seminis. Planting instructions are included with each packet and shipping is FREE!
The implications are frightening. Do we really want corporations that most organic gardeners already despise to control what goes into our home gardens as well as our farmers’ fields? It’s not as if you need another reason to buy organic or heirloom seed. But if you, like me, fear what giant conglomerate control means for the future of seed stock diversity and prices, let alone the influence they inflict on environmental controls, then read on for a little historical background.
Monsanto Takes Over
2005 was a watershed year in the corporate consolidation of seed business. That’s when Monsanto — the company that gave us Agent Orange, the glyphosate herbicide sold under the trade name Roundup, and the patent owner of “Roundup-Ready” corn, soy, cotton, and canola seed — purchased Seminis, an internationally known seed giant that supplied stock to many of the gardening companies and catalog sellers that America knew and cherished. Seminis wasn’t well-known among gardeners or consumers of produce. But an excellent article from the year of its sale written by Matthew Dillon of the Organic Seed Alliance explained the reach of Seminis. At that time, before the purchase, Seminis controlled 40 percent of the U.S. vegetable seed market and 20 percent of the world market. Some 55 percent of the lettuce on U.S. supermarket shelves as well as 75 percent of the tomatoes, and 85 percent of the peppers were grown from Seminis seed. And home gardens, no matter which of the many seed catalogs gardeners purchased their seed from, were full of Seminis product. Now Monsanto controls — and profits from — all of them.
Seminis has a history of pursuing agricultural consolidation. It began in the 1990s under the direction of a Mexican cigarette mogul who went around the world buying up producers of seed that the major seed companies ignored; not the producers of corn, soy or other giant commercial crops but those companies who supplied vegetable seed for produce farmers and gardeners. Seminis encouraged diversification of its seed lines, including a wide array of F1 hybrids that produce farmers found particularly suited to their growing conditions. The more specialized seed Seminis produced — crops including Chantenay carrots, Melody Hybrid spinach, and baby star lettuce — the larger its customer base.
But this business model became over-extended. Seminis was forced to cut some 2,500 seed varieties from its catalog, leaving farmers and gardeners who grow these vegetables struggling to find something to replace them. Financial problems followed and its stock dropped some 350%. In a story familiar to anyone following the state of global business over the last decade, Seminis was purchased in 2003 by a buyout firm that was not interested in seed production as much as it was financial gain. In 2005, the company was sold to Monsanto making it the largest seed company in the world. The price? Reportedly some $1.4 billion.
Suddenly, trusted seed supply catalogs found themselves in bed with a company many of their customers and they themselves found repulsive. Some, including Johnny’s and Fedco, have made efforts to decrease their stocks of Seminis-supplied seed, or do away with it all together. Some have looked the other way… ahem, Burpee.
The dangers of seed consolidation are well-known to organic gardeners. Brenda Wagner, in this article for the Organic Consumers Association, lays them out well. As she states, the health of any ecosystem is measured by its plant diversity. Shrinking this diversity invites disease and insect infestations that can wipe out entire monocultures. Seed diversity — having a variety of various types of seeds available to farmers and gardeners — is more than just providing a number of different tasting tomatoes. It’s the very key to sustainable food production and environmental stability. There are also economic factors involved. In 2009, as the price of many commodities fell or remained the same, farmers saw the price of seed rise 25% to as much as 33% depending on the crop. Much of that increase was attributed by outsiders to arbitrary price hikes for GMO seed produced by Monsanto and others. The same could happen with garden seed stock as fewer and fewer companies control more and more of the seed.
Garden seed, of course, whether sold by Monsanto or other corporate interests, is overwhelmingly not genetically-engineered. Yet that could change. Both tomatoes and potatoes have been genetically engineered for commercial production. Both were halted after consumers turned them down. But GMO zucchini and summer squash are currently raised by farmers, as is a GMO sugar beet. It’s not hard to imagine a day when Roundup-resistant vegetable seed or starts are offered to American gardeners, if the parent companies see it as profitable.
Of course, Monsanto isn’t the only international conglomerate involved in seed production. Dow, Dupont, Bayer, Syngenta and even BASF, the German corporation that’s the largest chemical company in the world, all have a stake in crop production (Monsanto is the largest seed producer and owner of seed-production companies in the world). Here’s a chart (PDF) that shows the array of seed companies owned by pharmaceutical and chemical corporations. In our buy-out and consolidation-crazy world the number of companies controlling the production of our seed (and therefore our food) is constantly shrinking. And isn’t that the point? In its commercial crop and herbicide business, Monsanto has captured farm purchases in something of a vicious, monopolistic circle. Farmers buy and plant Roundup Ready seed from Monsanto and buy Monsanto’s Roundup herbicide to spray on the crops, supposedly killing weeds but not the crop. Of course, it doesn’t work as well as it’s claimed.
How can you avoid planting seed in your own garden that’s produced by some corporate giant like Monsanto that is also profiting from GMOs? Conveniently, Seminis lists its home garden seed products as well as its commercial seed stock (in true corporate style, Seminis is known to search out and block links contained in unflattering articles; if these links don’t work just head to the Seminis site and go from there… it’s worth a visit). Otherwise, buy from a trusted seed source. Buying organic seed usually guarantees that your seed isn’t sold by a company that also sells GMO crops and seeds (we have yet to verify a major corporate seed producer who sells organic seed but that doesn’t prove that none do). You can find suggestions and a list of seed companies not to buy from if you’re trying to avoid Monsanto here (scroll down). Buying heirloom seeds from reputable companies is a good idea, with one caution. Monsanto owns trade names for a number of heirloom seeds it supplies to various dealers (it can copyright the names but can’t “own” heirloom seeds).
And your actions shouldn’t stop with just buying the right seed. Urge other seed suppliers to consider what they’re selling and from whom. Let them know why you won’t purchase their products. When Monsanto purchase Seminis in 2005, many seed distributors reconsidered what they were carrying. Some did not.
Using only non-Seminis and other corporate-raised seed isn’t easy. Consider again the market share — over 40% — that Monsanto controls. Much of what’s sold in our hardware stores, nurseries and grocery stores, the traditional suppliers of seed to American gardeners, comes from Monsanto. Avoiding corporate-controlled seed sources may take a little more work on our part. But what gardener fears a little work and getting her/his hands dirty?
As organic gardeners, it matters to us who profits from the seeds we buy. It matters to us whether or not those companies produce GMOs. It matters whether the company is more interested in seed diversity or whether they’re more interested in profit and protecting — and increasing– their market share. As concerned gardeners — organic gardeners — we support, small local businesses and producers. We support those businesses who support us, who provide only safe, healthy products. Those are the businesses we want to realize profit from our purchases, the ones who look after our well-being and the well-being of the environment, rather than just claiming they do. There’s a lot at stake — some say our entire food chain — if we don’t resist the consolidation of our seed sources. Organic gardeners are doing their part.
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