Everything starts when the seed hits the soil.
Light and dirt, water and air do their work, and a dormant shell erupts into existence, sending a tendril of life up from the earth.
This miracle happens everywhere and at all times. We take it for granted, this beautiful alchemy by which infinitesimal stores of genetic code and dormant energy explode into life. But without seeds and their magical efficiency, our world would cease to exist. Seeds are the home of life, the promise of the future. They are the foundation of civilization and culture, the guarantor of full stomachs and secure governments. They are the quotidian miracle which prompt wonder in the writings of philosophers and theologians, essayists and poets.
Christ used seeds to illustrate one of his most important parables regarding the life of faith, because his listeners understood the dire importance of the right soil to cultivate healthy seed growth.
But in our time, the seed itself is also important to consider. Because seeds are not simple: they are world changers, a tiny wealth of genetic code and biological diversity. And unlike those who lived during Christ’s time, many seeds are no longer free to use, trade, or save. Many of them are even going extinct. Much of the world’s seed belongs to a handful of powerful companies who oversee an increasingly homogenized and genetically altered set of seeds. We are losing diversity, losing seeds and the life that lives inside them.
From Communal to Closed
Seed cultivation has been an important agricultural practice for the past several millennia. Ancient farmers worked to breed hardy and reliable plants which would guarantee reliable crop yields, a plenitude which they could store or sell. This cultivation has, over time, fostered many seed varieties which did not exist when our hunter-gatherer ancestors explored the earth. Corn, for instance, was developed from teosinte, a grass with multiple stalks and kernels hard enough to crack teeth. Over thousands of years, it became the plant we recognize today, with its tall green stalks and plump golden ears.
When Europeans traveled to the Americas in the 17th century, many of their seeds were unsuited to the continent’s soil and climate. They began trading seeds with local Native American tribes, fostering a new system of cultivation that persisted over the next few hundred years.
Throughout the 18th and 19th centuries, seed cultivation was a widespread and farmer-led practice. Farmers rarely bought seed from an outside source—they generally used seed saved from their own harvest or from a neighbor’s harvest. But as the United States grew in size, a “broad political commitment to national expansion” influenced the nation’s posture toward agriculture and seed cultivation, Wesleyan University professor Courtney Fullilove notes in her book The Profit of the Earth. Federally run seed distribution programs, she writes, “developed in tandem with military actions to annex western lands,” such as the Indian Removal Act and the Mexican War. In 1839, the U.S. Patent Office created an agricultural division that collected seeds, and by the turn of the century, the USDA was distributing millions of packets of seeds per year.
“Congressmen and postmasters controlled the bulk of distribution of seeds and reports, with the former liable to favor their constituents and the latter reputed to be political appointments, more oriented toward newspaper editors than working farmers,” Fullilove writes. These programs eventually collapsed due to competition with (and opposition from) the private sector, including representatives from the American Seed Trade Association.
There are three traditional sorts of seeds: open-pollinated, heirloom, and hybrid seeds. Open-pollinated cultivars are pollinated by birds, bees, wind, or other natural means. The resulting seeds will be roughly identical to their parent seeds. These are the seeds home gardeners and farmers often save and re-plant in following seasons. Old, historic open-pollinated seeds are known as heirlooms: they’ve often been passed down through multiple generations by family members or home gardeners.
Hybridization can happen naturally. But most hybrid seeds are pollinated in a controlled atmosphere via human intervention in order to curate specific traits—such as increased yield, drought tolerance, disease resistance, or nutritional quality. A first-generation hybrid (F1) will often grow better and produce a higher yield than its parent cultivars, a phenomenon known as “hybrid vigor.” But second-generation hybrids (F2) usually lose this consistency and cannot be saved. Skilled growers can stabilize hybrids over time, slowly turning them into open-pollinated cultivars. But most of today’s hybrids are purchased every season, in order to produce F1 plants with the same characteristics.
In the 1930s, hybrids drastically changed seed preservation and cultivation—and thus, farmers’ relationship with their creation. Hybrid corn with high-yielding capacity entered the market, and new seed companies sprung up to sell this corn every year to eager farmers. Over the next 20 to 30 years, the Green Revolution encouraged farmers to abandon traditional methodologies in favor of new innovations, such as high-yielding seed varieties, chemical fertilizers, and agro-chemicals. Two industrial giants of the time—the Ford Foundation and Rockefeller Foundation—were heavily involved in pushing farmers toward these industrialized farming methodologies and in developing new seed hybrids, such as IR8 hybrid rice in the Philippines.
Then a new sort of seed emerged: the genetically engineered, or GMO, seed. The first genetically engineered plant—an antibiotic-resistant tobacco plant—was produced in 1982. In the ensuing years, virus- and herbicide-resistant plant varieties appeared on the world market. Calgene’s FlavrSavr tomato was the first GMO food crop to be approved for commercial production by the USDA in 1992. The seeds’ genetically engineered properties are referred to as “traits,” which companies can patent for as many as 20 years.
As seed biotechnology began to develop, changes in seed patent law dramatically reshaped germplasm cultivation and ownership in the U.S. Up until this point, seeds were generally seen as a public good: something owned by past, present, and posterity rather than by any single private entity. But in 1930, the government passed the Plant Patent Act, “aimed at protecting agricultural intellectual property.” When the PPA was passed, its scope was limited to asexually reproducing plants—those reproduced by cutting or grafting. But in the 1970s, the Plant Variety Protection Act expanded the powers of seed patent law, granting patent protection to sexually reproducing plants as well.
Kristina Hubbard, director of advocacy and communications for Organic Seed Alliance, noted in a report titled “Out of Hand,” that Congress, up until this point, had “consistently argued that sexually reproducing plants should not be awarded patents for fear of curtailing innovation, threatening the free exchange of genetic resources, and increasing market concentration.” But when the PVPA was passed, attitudes shifted.
“Two years after genetically engineered (GE) varieties were introduced in 1996…the large agribusiness companies had accelerated their consolidation by buying up smaller firms to accumulate more intellectual property (IP) rights,” Hubbard wrote in a January article for Civil Eats.
Private companies are increasingly acquiring more and more of the world’s germplasm. While there are still substantial seed banks throughout the U.S. government, land grant universities, and small seed companies, the world’s largest germplasm library belongs to Monsanto (and thus, considering its 2018 acquisition of Monsanto, to Bayer). In order to have access to that store of germplasm, companies have to license it.
“Many smaller companies could not compete with large firms that owned much of the genetic resource base in seed, and licensing genetics from these firms was costly,” Hubbard writes in “Out of Hand.” At the time her report was published in 2009, “at least 200 independent seed companies [had] been lost in the last thirteen years alone.”
Decline of the Small Seed Company
Maury Johnson began working in the seed industry in 1982. The first small independent seed company he worked for was quickly bought out, and so he joined NC+ Hybrids, a farmer-owned company which primarily sold seed in the Midwest.
In 1998, a couple of NC+ Hybrids’s seed growers saw a niche organic market on the rise, and expressed a desire to start cultivating organic seed. Johnson was NC+ Hybrids’s quality control manager at the time, but after researching organic products he saw the market’s potential. He assisted the seed growers with the transition process, and helped create the company’s organic division, NC+ Organics, to market the product. Johnson ran NC+ Organics from 1999 until 2005—and every year, he saw their customer base grow. But all the while, the company’s future was in flux.
“For five to 10 years, NC+ Hybrids was getting a lot of inquiries from large companies about selling out,” Johnson said in a phone interview with The American Conservative. “But it was farmer-owned, and there was a lot of pride there.” That said, he adds, companies were getting bought up everywhere. “That money was hard to walk away from.”
In 2005, American Seeds, Inc., a holding company formed by Monsanto in 2004, acquired NC+ Hybrids. William Goodbar helped with Monsanto’s acquisition of NC+ Hybrids at the time, along with the acquisition of several other seed companies. He remembers that the Monsanto employees he talked to back then were eager to procure the best germplasm possible for their genetically engineered seed experiments. Acquiring these companies had little to do with market share or competition in their minds, he says—it was all about the seeds. They wanted to “put in the thoroughbred,” so to speak, when they genetically engineered traits. And they were “greenies,” he says: they believed that their genetically modified seeds would be “doing a good thing by getting chemicals out of the atmosphere and killing pests from inside the plant.”
Monsanto did not want Johnson’s organic seed division, and allowed him to transition NC+ Organics into another brand. So Johnson started his own independent organic seed company, Blue River Organic Seed. The company has grown steadily since then, and is now the largest supplier of organic field crop seed in the U.S., selling corn, soybean, alfalfa, forage sorghum, grain sorghum, red clover, and sunflower seed. Johnson’s son Derek now works for Blue River in market development, and has observed and assisted his father’s work. He noted in an interview that while some regional seed companies still exist, “oftentimes they are only able to subsist by having cross-breeding programs with other larger companies.”
As an independent and organic company, Blue River has been able to avoid some of these pressures. They reinvestment the money from their sales back into the research and development of new hybrids, and make do with the seed parents they have. “One of the benefits of organic breeding programs is that, it’s not just trying to cram in whatever traits are needed to tolerate Roundup or other pesticides,” Derek said. “Usually, this leads to plants that tolerate drought and diseases better than Roundup plants. We have growers on the west coast right by the Pacific who chose our corn because it holds in coastal winds better than any Roundup corn.”
But most independent seed companies still operating struggle to compete with large corporations—in part because they own so much of the germplasm, and it costs so much to license it, but also because farmers and buyers often like having big brand names behind their seed, as they associate quality and reliability with these seed giants. Maury and Derek have seen agribusinesses gravitate toward companies like Monsanto and Pioneer because of their brand names and the clout that comes with them.
But doing business with big seed companies isn’t always easy. The licensing contracts for their patented seeds are often burdensome. While the exact verbiage of contracts is confidential, it has been reported that they contain strict stipulations regarding insect management, chemical use, and sales (if the farmer is growing seed to be used as seed). Monsanto forbids farmers from saving or sharing their seed, and asserts their right to inspect farmers’ property upon request. One seed company owner told Organic Seed Alliance’s Hubbard that Monsanto has audited its licensees every year and “knows what you got in the bank and what’s in your fields—everything we know, they know.” The Guardian reported in 2013 that Monsanto has sued hundreds of small farmers over the past several years in an effort to protect its intellectual property rights.
“[Seed companies] figure out, how much will a farmer actually pay for seed corn before he’ll go switch to some other company,” Nebraska farmer Vern Jantzen told Claire Kelloway in the Washington Monthly. “If I don’t like what Mycogen is charging for seed corn I can go to Pioneer and I can go to Dekalb, but there’s only three guys. If they all kind of talk to each other a little bit, there isn’t a whole lot of difference in prices.”
Four seed companies now dominate the brand-name seed market, accounting for over 60 percent of global proprietary seed sales. Economists say an industry has lost its competitive character when the concentration ratio of the top four firms is 40 percent or higher.
Philip Howard of Michigan State University published seed industry consolidation charts in 2008 and 2013 which depicted the stark acceleration of acquisitions and mergers throughout the seed industry since 1996. His 2018 chart is even more striking, as it shows that the Big Six—Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, and BASF—have become the Big Four: Bayer, BASF, ChemChina, and Corteva.
“For farmers, the options continue to be reduced,” Howard told Civil Eats. “Although Bayer sold a number of seed divisions to BASF to pave the way for its acquisition of Monsanto, the share of the market controlled by the largest firms has only increased.”
A lot of this growth has been fueled by the company’s ownership of germplasm (and ensuing ability to patent and license it via intellectual property rights). But in Goodbar’s opinion, “none of this consolidation would have happened if it weren’t for biotechnology.” Producing genetically engineered seed is research- and breeding-intensive—and thus, extremely costly. Many large companies have relied on licensing and patenting agreements in order to make enough money to keep producing their traited seeds.
In 2007, the ETC Group estimated that Monsanto’s biotech seeds and traits (including those licensed to other companies) accounted for 87 percent of world land devoted to genetically engineered seed. That same year, 48 percent of DuPont’s seed revenue came from traited products.
But “Agbiotech has always been a package deal,” the ETC Group’s report notes. “Delivery of a seed’s proprietary biotech traits depends on sales of the company’s companion chemical. Biotech’s most lucrative technical achievement is the engineering of crops to withstand a shower of chemical weed killers.” As Kelloway put it in an article she wrote for Washington Monthly in January, “even as farmers are paying monopoly prices for a diminishing selection of seed strains produced by [a] handful of giant corporations, they also are paying monopoly prices for fertilizers and pesticides, often to the same corporations.”
As time goes on, companies are trying to add additional traits to their seeds—in 2007, Monsanto and Dow AgroSciences joined forces to develop maize with eight traits: two for herbicide tolerance, and six for insect resistance. But because the research and development of such seeds is so expensive, the price for traited seed has also skyrocketed in recent years. Kelloway notes that today’s farmer spends three times as much on inputs per acre than they paid in the 1990s.
Many fear that, as these companies focus on the addition of more and more complex traits to their seeds—many are focusing on heat and drought resistance, as climate change impacts farmers’ crop and planting decisions—farmers will bear the burden of the ensuing price hikes. And since these seed giants control over 60 percent of the market, farmers will have few options to buy seed elsewhere.
Our Declining Diversity
But beyond declining competition and rising prices, many worry that seed consolidation is having a deleterious impact on our planet’s biodiversity. Even though the government, land grant universities, and many private companies are storing germplasm in seed banks, we are still steadily losing plant life. And while some of these losses can be attributed to climate change, the problem is also an agricultural one: according to the UK’s Food and Agricultural Organization, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost since 1900, much of that due to farmers’ decisions during the Green Revolution to move from local plant varieties to “genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties.” More than 90 percent of crop varieties have disappeared from farm fields throughout the world. For example, historic records show that the U.S. has lost 86 percent of its traditional apple varieties, and old staples such as chestnuts and chinquapins are now too rare to be marketed.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is doing its part to combat this trend. Founder Jere Gettle has been described by The New York Times as the “Indiana Jones of seeds,” as he has traveled the world in search of rare heirlooms. These days, many people send their rare seeds to Baker Creek’s seed bank. Kathy McFarland, the company’s media and public relations representative, said in an interview with TAC that they have even received seeds found in an old dresser drawer after an elderly relative passed away.
Although Baker Creek sells seeds on their website and in a print catalogue, they also distribute them for free to school and community garden programs. McFarland said they donate around 100,000 seed packets per year. She believes that a burgeoning gardening movement and concerns over GMOs hold promise for the future of seed preservation—and present Baker Creek with an opportunity to put seeds back into the hands of farmers and home gardeners who once prized and preserved them. “Seeds belong to the people, and we’re worried about them being closed to the public,” she said.
The anti-GMO movement is controversial, and, many believe, ill-founded. But it has placed a good deal of attention on the world’s largest seed companies—and to the intellectual property laws which give them so much power. Both the organic and anti-GMO movements have pushed Americans toward food decentralization, agricultural diversity, and localism—not necessarily because they believe in less consolidated political economy, but because gene modification, chemical reliance, and homogeneity are often difficult to unearth when shopping at the grocery store. The local farmer’s market proffers greater empowerment and scrutiny than the supermarket.
Every major seed giant has a statement on biodiversity and their commitment to it. But agricultural industrialism and its corresponding exploitation, erosion, pollution, and degradation got us to this point. It makes sense that many concerned activists would be more suspicious than trusting of corporations.
That said, the big seed companies are here to stay—at least for the foreseeable future. And while their continued growth is undoubtedly detrimental to competition, most have initiatives aimed at giving back in some way—whether by seeking to replenish honeybee health, support women farmers, or promote conservation practices.
Bayer and other large agribusiness companies also seem to be cognizant of rising interest in small farmers, and are tailoring their businesses to address this competition at the grassroots level. Christi Dixon, a spokesperson for Bayer, noted in an interview that the company is teaming up with irrigation company Netafim and insurance company Swiss Re Corporate Solutions to launch “Better Life Farming”—an effort specifically designed to assist “smallholder farmers” on less than two hectares of land. The alliance plans to help them with “planting seeds, precision irrigation, crop protection, finance, and insurance,” Dixon said.
Dixon argued that Bayer’s acquisition of Monsanto is ultimately about serving farmers and promoting farm choice, because it enables the company to deliver innovative solutions to farmers at a faster rate.
“The earth’s population is rapidly growing,” Dixon said. “Its natural resources are limited. And this calls for breakthrough innovation—not just to help farmers improve a seasonal harvest, but to help ensure the health of their fields, the environment, farm operations, and the global food system for generations to come.”
Farmers want Bayer’s merchandise, and often have had to wait long periods of time for new products to hit the market, Dixon said. By acquiring Monsanto, Bayer aims to serve their clients more efficiently: “we believe we can accelerate our innovation pipeline bringing farmers the innovation they are hungry for.”
Of course, there are a few questions which ought to be asked in response. First, are speed and efficiency always the boon we believe them to be? In today’s society, we often view them as virtues. In an email she sent me, Dixon used the words “innovation” or “innovative” six times. But if there is one thing we have learned from past farming innovations—from “dry farming” practices in the early 20th century, to unmitigated use of Roundup throughout the past several decades—it is that many of our attempts at cultivating ease, efficiency, or greater profit have unintended consequences. This is not to say that we should reject all entrepreneurialism or innovation, but that we ought to be aware and wary of the potential for harm which arises whenever we venture too far into the unknown.
In recent years, advocates for “slow food” or “slow living” have sprung up, arguing that more traditional rhythms are often better for the planet and for us. “Slow” seed production would emphasize the treasures of the past alongside the innovations of the present, and build a certain friction into our endeavors—accountability, long-term testing, respect for tradition, and willingness to question technological progressivism, for instance—in order to ensure mindfulness and care.
Another problem with Bayer’s assurances of friendly giantism is that, while many agree that today’s farmers face a bevy of problems, including climate change, soil depletion, water runoff, falling commodity prices, and a decline of future farmers, there is no consensus on what the solutions should be.
While some, such as farmer and author Wendell Berry, have called for more diverse and sustainable local farm operations, empowering local and indigenous farmers to grow food for their own communities, many large agribusinesses continue to argue that farmers should grow more with less—emphasizing monocropping and agribusiness solutions (such as GMOs) over local food sovereignty and biodiversity. Bayer is no exception.
In a 2018 report on small-scale seed producers in Africa, GRAIN—an international non-profit organization that works with small farmers—noted that “seeds have been turned into a global commodity in the service of industrial farming and huge corporations, with short shrift given to local adaptedness to the specific methods, ecosystems, and needs of family farms.” But according to their research, farmer-managed seed programs provide the majority of seed and food crops to Africa, even while national and regional seed policies seek to undermine them. Farmers’ seeds are more likely to be reliable, diverse, and resilient—yet they are constantly being pushed to abandon their seed systems for monocultures and chemicals.
“If the corporations become as pervasive in Africa as they are on other continents, and their industrial seeds continue to spread in monocultures across the land, they could eclipse the farmer-managed seed systems that underpin the food sovereignty of Africa’s peoples,” the organization warns.
Giant agribusinesses do not have a monopoly on the solutions to the agricultural problems we face. Indeed, the more people devising ways to make agriculture more sustainable and diverse, to fight climate change, and to promote conservation, the better.
Bringing Back Diversity
Craig Stahl, a seed sales specialist for Wilbur-Ellis, has spent decades working with seeds. He started out with experimental trials in vegetable seed for a university extension, then began working in plant research and breeding—a job at which he observed agricultural operations in over 100 countries. He told TAC that smaller seed companies are still out there, operating and even growing out of the public eye. He believes that the big and homogeneous nature of the Big Four could, in fact, present an opportunity for these smaller companies, who often sell secondary crops such as fruit and vegetables. He referenced Yuksel Seeds, a Turkish plant breeding company based in Antalya, as one such success story.
Stahl may be describing a trend that has manifested itself in at least a few other industries of late: while the “middle” companies die out, there’s still vibrancy amid smaller, more local companies. According to Business Wire, global vegetable production has doubled over the past 25 years, while the vegetable seed market is expected to reach $7.8 billion by 2022—which means many of these secondary companies could realize their chance to grow in coming years.
But Stahl also noted that a lot of this growth and entrepreneurship is happening outside of the United States. “The Farm Bill is one of the worst drivers of environmental damage and pollution in the world,” he said. “Subsidies control all the planting, inhibiting development. I’d like to see a lower emphasis on commodity crops and things that take a lot of inputs. I would love to see commodity market change to what’s good to feed people, more health-based.” He noted that U.S. patent law has also played a big role in inhibiting industry growth or change. “There needs to be some protection,” he said, “but it shouldn’t stop development by other companies of varieties for the future.”
Farmer and author Joel Salatin told TAC in an email that he is observing “an aggressive and healthy backlash in the seed community against all this patenting and trying to keep as much plasm as possible in the public square.” He argues that patenting a seed due to genetic engineering is akin to someone “patenting a Ford car because he invented a new kind of headlight. Nobody would grant such a broad patent. The point is that 99 percent of all the material in a seed has nothing to do with invention; it’s just out there in the universe of life.”
But some believe that patent and Farm Bill reform is not enough, and have called on the U.S. government to enforce antitrust and anti-monopoly laws in the agriculture sector. Democratic Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey introduced a bill last summer which would halt big agriculture mergers and acquisitions for 18 months while establishing a commission to scrutinize antitrust oversight of agribusiness.
“The U.S. is losing farmers at an alarming rate, agricultural jobs and wages are drying up, and rural communities are disappearing,” Booker said when introducing the bill. “This bill would put a much-needed pause on the largest, most consequential acquisitions and mergers in the food and agricultural sector.”
Despite all the innovation and so-called progress of the past hundred years, life is still a mystery—and the question of who owns it is still as contentious as ever. But many have moved from the horizonless hope of the Green Revolution to a much more cautious, particular sort of optimism: one which calls for empowerment of small farmers, the importance of local food sovereignty, and the public nature of the seed.
Some might say that this is a move backwards. But when one considers the ecological crisis facing our planet, a move “backwards”—away from current emissions and waste levels, towards greater environmental health—may not be such a bad idea. Sometimes, solutions will come from an agribusiness lab. But often, they come from a farmer out in his field, running his hands through the soil, planting seeds in the earth and watching them grow.
Gracy Olmstead is a writer whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Weekly Standard, and elsewhere. She was a 2015 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow and is currently writing a book about the Idaho farming community where she grew up. This article was supported by the Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation. The contents of this publication are solely the responsibility of the authors.