Farms Finest: Seeds of power, control and greed
July 7, 2014
The parade is over, and the picnic tables are quiet. It has been another (almost perfect) Independence Day celebration, a moment filled with American pride while in the heart of the Rocky Mountains, one of nature's most pristine environments.
Yet I could not stop reflecting on another event that took place just the week before. Maybe it was that combination of nature and celebrating freedom that makes me ask myself the same question over and over: How could Monsanto, in this town of all towns, be a sponsor at the Aspen Ideas Festival?
Consider talking with farmers and ranchers, those folks who have had years of actually working with the soil and earn their living from it. The price for this ticket might cost only a friendly smile and a handshake.
Since the 1940s, food production has rapidly moved from independent fields to huge, privately owned factories and biotech laboratories. These fields raise bumper crops of control held tightly by a few business titans. This is our real "world food crisis."
The previous two Farms Finest stories presented a historical timeline about the early years of seed collection, government distribution programs, the U.S. Supreme Court's decision (in the 1960s) approving genetically modified organism seed patents and how we raised today's brood of the six "Jolly Green Giants."
Although health and environmental concerns are important, today's subject is "food security" — a formal term for having food to eat and not allowing supplies or price to be controlled by a company or, worse yet, another country.
The "Big Six" currently in a worldwide reign of agriculture products (seed, pesticide and biotechnology) are BASF, Bayer, DuPont (Pioneer), Dow Chemical Co., Monsanto and Syngenta. Monsanto has become a household word and is considered, by many, as the "rat in the grain room."
This 1901-established company, with its legacy of environmentally destructive chemicals, has morphed into a modern entity that considers itself a partner in agriculture. Coincidentally, this split personality fully blossomed after the GMO seed-patenting approval. This 1960s ruling ignited hundreds of seed-company buyouts as chemical companies added seed ownership to their portfolios. Hybrid seed companies of all sizes were bought, but one exceptional transaction stood above all.
In 2005, Monsanto quietly bought Seminis, a worldwide seed firm that already had multiple lines, for $1.4 billion. This transaction launched it far ahead of competition. Seminis seed lines of brands are advertised in gardening catalogs the world over and are more commonly known as Park Seed, Burpee and Scheeper, and more. Monsanto's seed empire continues to expand in both home-garden and commercial seed.
Most of the varieties owned are trademarked hybrids, and not every seed owned by Monsanto is genetically modified. Its leading edge of GMO technology is used for commercial seed that is sold in huge volumes for industrially produced food.
If you do not want to plant one of its brands or lines in your own garden, you will have to dig deep, since its name is not on packages, only the names of companies it owns. One site with numerous brand names in one place is the Seminis catalog, at http://www.seminis.com. Visit the products page, then go to "Home garden," and scroll alphabetically for seed varieties. The brand name is above the photo in the left column. For a non-Monsanto seed list, go to the Farms Finest Facebook page.
For big chemical companies, seed ownership is a ticket to a winning trifecta. Far beyond sales, there are a couple of other ways to wring big bucks from seed.
The second way is to make new seed patents that have certain genetic modifications that will only work with a chemical owned by the same company. Monsanto's roundup ready-seed is one example. A patented GMO seed, laced with chemical properties, cracks open another Pandora's box of business strategies to increase product sales for both divisions. Corn, soybean, cotton and canola seed are "roundup ready." GMO seeds with chemical traits will continue to evolve in order to stay just ahead of the latest "super weeds."
A third method that rakes in revenue is licensing rights to other companies for specific seed characteristics. Biotech companies have shared legal agreements to buy and sell specific traits of seed to create a new seed recipe to patent. What was once "May I borrow a cup of sugar?" has become "Can I have genes XYZ?"
For three wonderful infographics showing how the seed industries compare, visit http://www.msu.edu/~howardp/ seeindustry.html.
Joni Keefe moved to the Roaring Fork Valley after a career in landscape design. She is passionate about local food and agriculture. For more information, her website is FarmsFinest.com, or follow her on Twitter. Connect at joni@farms finest.com.