Seeds of Resistance Against the Non-Green Giants
By Cindy Ellen Hill
The miracle of seeds is demonstrated every year in countless elementary school classrooms: little tykes push seeds into a pocket of dirt, sprinkle on water, wait for sunshine, then watch the shoots go up. Unless the student is particularly inquisitive, however, the lesson rarely includes a conversation about where those seeds came from.
“Seeds are a behind-the-scenes, hidden aspect of the world,” says Tom Stearns, founder and owner of Vermont’s High Mowing Seeds. But they determine much about our lives – which is why, as Stearns puts it with typical rural understatement, “Who controls seed is very important.”
Only a generation ago, that control rested in the hands of farmers, gardeners, and small seed firms growing their own stock. Now it belongs to a short list of multinational chemical corporations who have methodically gobbled up every major seed supplier on the planet – and whose genetically modified commodity crops are spilling over into every corner of agricultural life.
Today, 82 percent of the world’s seed supply is controlled through a proprietary commercial seed market. But from 40 acres atop a ridgeline in Wolcott, High Mowing Seeds fights back.
Consolidation: Monsanto in Your Tomatoes
No matter what name is on the catalog you use to buy your seed supply, you are almost always ordering from a small handful of multinational corporate suppliers. This was not the case even a decade and a half ago. As recently as 1996, the top ten seed companies in the world accounted for only 37 percent of the world market, and Monsanto was not on the list. Today, the top ten seed companies account for about 70 percent of the world market, and Monsanto tops the list, controlling about one-quarter of the world’s seed supply. The next two largest seed corporations, Dupont and Sygenta, control the next quarter.
Monsanto’s 1990s purchases primarily involved large-scale commodity seed producers who sold to livestock-feed growers or commercial oil and flour manufacturers. Their 2005 purchase of Seminis and 2008 purchase of DeRuiters put Monsanto squarely in the backyard of the average American gardener and market farmer, as these two seed companies are the source of countless old standby varieties: Beefmaster, Better Boy, Celebrity. It was widely reported in agricultural industry publications that Seminis jettisoned thousands of species in their inventory before Monsanto took them over, primarily open-pollination and heirloom varieties. Some of these varieties still exist thanks to home gardeners who save them and share them through sources like the Seed Savers Exchange; others have disappeared from the planet.
This pattern is typical, according to Stearns. “A big company buys up a small company and they dump half the products,” he says. Dumped seeds usually include the open-pollination and first-generation hybrid gardening varieties with small sales markets, either because they are not grown for commercial crop production or because farmers and gardeners save their seeds instead of buying fresh ones every year.
Seed-industry consolidation is even more complete than it appears because the industry is rife with cooperative technology development agreements. Industry news releases show that Monsanto and Aventis are jointly developing herbicide-resistant rice; Monsanto is working with Dow Chemical and BASF on other joint herbicide-resistance projects; Monsanto and Sygenta recently announced cross-licensing agreements on pesticide-resistant technology; and Sygenta and Dupont announced a joint marketing agreement in 2008. These alliances avoid infringing on anti-trust laws while ensuring a near-complete consolidation, not only of the crashing wave of bio-engineering in plant seed technology, but of your basic garden produce seeds as well.
But a few seed suppliers buck the tide, standing firm against the onslaught of corporate seed control like the heroes of Star Wars against the unstoppable storm-trooping Empire. Among them are Seed Savers Exchange, in which subscribers swap seeds they’ve grown and saved themselves; Seeds of Change, which monitors the growing of its organic seed stock by dozens of organic farmers and gardeners and tests the stock in extensive research gardens; Baker’s Creek Heirlooms, which gathers heirloom seeds from far-flung corners of the earth, including the war-torn regions of Iraq and Afghanistan where family farming is being methodically eradicated; and Vermont’s own High Mowing Organic Seeds, an all-organic seed supplier which grows many of the seed varieties it sells on its own farm – a fact which sets it apart from most similar suppliers.
Into the Niche: Organic Seeds Fill Holes in the Corporate Catalog
“Large seed companies have gotten larger, and they have to earn a profit for their shareholders. On the one hand that makes it harder and harder for small independent seed companies to exist,” Stearns says. “But bigger companies can’t serve some of these smaller markets. They stop paying attention to a region, like Vermont, or a type of customer, like home gardeners or small mixed-produce market farmers. Or organics, which, east of the Mississippi, is something very few people are paying attention to. That creates opportunities for small companies like High Mowing Seeds. We focus on that niche.”
High Mowing was founded in 1996 in Stearns’ garage, and has since expanded to a multi-million dollar business employing more than 30 people. It remains a farm-based seed company, one of very few in existence today. High Mowing serves some gardeners and homesteaders but primarily commercial market produce growers around the northeast.
“We grow about one-third of our seed ourselves, though it varies from year to year and sometimes we have carry-over seed from the prior year,” Stearns says. “Another one-third is from our network of growers, and I oversee every one of those farms myself. I visit those farms, inspect the fields. Then the final third is from some other small seed production companies who have their own network of growers, and I may not inspect every one of those fields personally if I know the person who runs that production company and am assured that he or she inspects those fields.”
Different seed companies take different approaches to big-corporate-owned seed sources. When Monsanto bought out Seminis, Johnny’s Seeds of Maine decided to keep carrying the Seminis varieties which had been tried and true garden favorites, reasoning that nothing about the seed and the plants it produced had changed. Fedco, a seed co-operative also out of Maine, dropped all their Seminis varieties once Monsanto took over. Customers who wanted their usual varieties moved to Johnny’s, while some of Johnny’s customers fled to other suppliers, unwilling to buy from Monsanto. But customers of both catalogs tend to buy from High Mowing as well.
“Seed dealers who do not grow their own seeds – Johnny’s, Fedco, most the big catalogs – are entirely dependent on the global seed supply. We are entirely independent of it. There is something authentic about us. We are a hundred percent dedicated to organics. A lot stands behind a packet of seeds. It had to be developed, produced, weeded, harvested, tested, sorted, packaged. So that’s what customers get when they buy from us.”
Customers also get a company which is deeply engaged with the local community, donating the flesh from their pumpkins and squashes grown for seed to food shelves in the form of pies, holding Growers’ Walks through their trial fields to get local farmers’ feedback on varieties under development, and providing leadership at the Center for an Agricultural Economy, a hands-on think tank in Hardwick working to resurrect Vermont’s economically disadvantaged Northeast Kingdom.
Fields of Battle
The marketplace is not the only field where organic seed suppliers are doing battle with the corporate giants. High Mowing Seeds has joined the Organic Seed Alliance and others suing the U.S. Department of Agriculture over its premature deregulation of genetically modified RoundupReady sugar beets. RoundupReady seeds – corn, alfalfa, soybeans, and now sugar beets – and other herbicide-resistant, genetically modified seeds have had genes from other species implanted into them which resist the developing company’s own herbicides, so farmers can intensively spray their fields with the herbicides and kill just the weeds, not the crops – at least for a few years, until herbicide-resistant weeds develop.
Genetically modified crops and seeds cannot be sold in Europe and many other places in the world, and cannot be used by organic farmers or organic-certified food producers. Organic farmers fear that pollen blown from GMO crops will render their own crops unsellable – as happened a few years ago in a famous debacle over StarLink GMO corn, which was approved for feed corn only but wound up on supermarket shelves in taco shells and corn chips. Since sugar beets account for half the U.S. sugar production, it is likely that genetically modified beet sugar will soon wind up in candy bars and baked goods across the country.
“We’re organic, so we have to buy all non-GMO feed,” says Tirzah Hescock, a farmer in Shoreham and active member of Rural Vermont and the Vermont Grass Farmers Association. Rural Vermont fought to persuade the Vermont Legislature to ban GMO seed within the state to protect organic farmers, but was unsuccessful. However, the Legislature did define GMOs to constitute a pest plant if it infringes on other non-GMO crops, which means that in cases of contamination, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture can embark on suppression or eradication, or quarantine the offending fields. This puts the burden on the GMO grower to ensure that the pollen from his or her crops doesn’t drift into surrounding non-GMO farms. “We haven’t seen GMO contamination around here yet,” Hescock says, “but we have had other problems, like neighbors’ spraying companies spraying our fields, so that leaves us watchful.”
The Vermont Farm Bureau has not been made aware of any complaints of GMO contamination under the statute, although probably at least half of the state’s livestock feed growers use genetically modified corn seed, according to director Tim Buskey. Vermont’s dairy farmers have a different battle to fight right now: a financial picture, which Buskey characterizes as “dire.” Low milk prices and ever-rising costs have many of Vermont’s farms running on a rolling deficit. “Most of our farmers buying seed are going to look at price first, then things like whether it’s a GMO as a distant second, if at all,” Buskey says.
The Farm Bureau did not advocate for a GMO ban in the state, reasoning that “farmers should have the ability to use any tool available to them. We were ‘pro-choice’ for farmers,” Buskey says. For Vermont’s organic and market farmers, however, the only choice now is to continue to resist the corporate seed industry.
In June 2009, the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals upheld an injunction against growing Monsanto’s RoundupReady alfalfa until the USDA completes an intensive environmental impact statement. The sugar beet case is in a federal district court in the same circuit, raising hopes that a similar judgment will be forthcoming in the beet case.
“What we are fighting for is healthy food systems,” Stearns says. “This is an independent company. I own it. We don’t have shareholders that force me to do anything I don’t want to do. My motivation is to rebuild the local food systems by building relationships across the seed industry. We are building a parallel seed industry, with not just production but with skills, tools, equipment, knowledge.”
Cindy Hill is an obsessive gardener who buys, and saves, lots of seeds.