Farms Finest: The twisted path of seed ownership in American agriculture
June 8, 2014
A featherweight packet, with only the slightest rustle of life inside, now sells for $1.89? How could life itself become an owned commodity? For most, the event had slipped by, its significance unnoticed. We had let our guard down, in a big way, this time.
Momentarily, I reflect back to grim Vermont winters and the post-holiday arrival of brilliantly colored seed catalogs. They decorated the farmhouse with pages folded open to next season's potential candidates. It cost 50 cents or a mere quarter to be included in the plans for next spring's planting.
This year, I am choosing my own seeds and launching into the unknown with a new garden. I have hauled in suitable soil, filling an oversized two-tiered planter box, a chain-sawed hulk of architecture. Another weekend project, held in the safety of my backyard, uses the wooden beams from a farm's fallen windmill.
Like the older gardens, this too will have its own growing quirks, microclimates and nocturnal visitors to contend with. For this first season, I want to play it safe and remain loyal to familiar seeds and their brands. This is proving not to be easy because there are so many seed companies offering their "new and improved" versions.
What has happened to this once-tried-and-true staple of horticulture? Finding the answer leads to another story about American history and its twisting path in agriculture. Again, I find traces of unbridled power that are leading our food system toward a questionable and unsustainable destination.
One hundred fifty years ago, seeds were saved from the season's best crops for the next year's planting. There were no colored seed catalogs to peruse and place orders from. The United States did not have a commercial seed industry, and what few choices were available dangerously lacked in diversity.
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In the mid-1800s, gardeners and farmers simply exchanged their saved seeds, with the exception of a few small horticulture catalogs. Around this time the U.S. Patent and Trade Office, along with congressional representatives, began collecting and distributing seed varieties to their constituents and territories.
In less than 20 years, this seed-distribution program grew to nearly 21/2 million packages. The U.S. Department of Agriculture managed this program, and the volume reached more than 1 billion units being distributed by 1897. Immigrants were strongly encouraged to bring seeds with them from the old country.
The first commercially produced seed was in 1866 for a cabbage crop on Long Island, New York. The industry slowly grew, but government programs continued to stunt potential room for profits. As a result, the American Seed Trade Association was formed in 1883 and started to lobby for an end to these restrictive programs. Their efforts continued for several decades without success.
Finally, in the first part of the 20th century, seed companies realized that if they created hybrid seed, they would gain profits and product control. These improved hybrid varieties would require farmers to return to the distributor seasonally for more product and not want to continue to save inferior seed from their crops.
However, most of the hybrid development was occurring at land-grant universities (see the story "100 years of community service" in April 27's Aspen Times). These state colleges refused to give the companies any of their exclusive seed rights.
Feeling hindered by government programs, again, the industry complained of unfair trade practices. Armed with data that proved government seed was producing fewer yields than the new hybrids, they made a stronger case. Finally, after years of lobbying, in 1924, the American Seed Trade Association succeeded and the USDA seed-distribution programs were cut.
Regional seed companies had become well-established by the time World War II ended, and seeds were now diverse in variety and widely available. Americans continued to plant their victory gardens, and the seed industry flourished. Meanwhile, a few larger seed companies quietly started buying up smaller firms to acquire more hybrid lines, but this was nothing compared with what was coming.
On June 16, 1960, the Supreme Court made a ruling to allow patenting of plant life based on genetic code. As a result, the Patent and Trade Office granted more than 1,800 pending seed patents. In a few years, companies with no prior interest in seed, such as chemical and pharmaceutical, began buying up seed companies with little or no regulation. Billions of dollars in acquisitions were made, resulting in a majority of seed ownership held by a few multinational companies.
In an upcoming Farms Finest story, we will continue to dig into the dirt on the big business of seed. I wonder what multinational company I may have unknowingly planted in my organic garden. Send over your thoughts on food gardens and seed banks.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.