The Ethics of Selling Crop Seed: Part 1

Durum Wheat Seed


There is a lot of confusion and disinformation circulating today about seeds and the ethics of their commercial sale.  Actually a healthy, commercial seed industry is critical for agricultural sustainability.  Because seeds are such a fundamental component of the sustainability of our food supply, this area deserves careful thought and accurate information even if you are never going to farm or even garden. I’ll try to address some of the modern “myths” about this.  I’ll talk about “farmer-saved seed,” and “hybrid seed.” In a later post I’ll talk about “GMO seed,” and the mythical “Terminator Technology.”  But first a little history.

Seed-bearing plants start showing up in the fossil record ~350 million years ago, first as gymnosperms like cycads, conifers… and eventually, flowering plants (angiosperms) like most of the living plants today.  Other than pine nuts and sea weed, I can’t think of any crops that are not angiosperms (Contest! – 5 virtual sustainability points to someone who can come up with another non-angiosperm crop plant)

Jarrod Diamond’s wonderful book, “Guns, Germs and Steel” talks about how the initially accidental and later intentional collection and planting of seeds is what made human civilization possible – the move beyond the hunter/gatherer state that happened about 10,000 years ago in the “fertile crescent.”

Farmer-Saved Seed

For millennia, pesant farmers (most of the population) simply saved some of the grain they harvested in the fall to plant the next spring.  This “open pollinated,” “farm-saved seed” system is still used today for the small-holder, subsistence-agriculture around the world and also by developed-world farmers that grow crops in low yielding areas (like wheat in Western North Dakota or Eastern Montana).  It is a perfectly workable system – it is just a very low yielding type of agriculture that is appropriate when no other alternatives are practical. Commercial seed companies, hybrid seeds and even GMO seeds are no threat to this system where it exists. No one could actually take away the option for a farmer to save seed in the crops and locations where that is still the practice (and it is also protected by law).  I often see folks implying some sinister threat to this system.  That threat does not really exist.

Why Small Grain Growers Buy Seed

Even in the lowest yield areas of the developed world, growers periodically buy seed.  They need to do this because, over time, the genetics of their crops “drift,” become contaminated with diseases or get too many weed seeds.  Renewing your seed stock is actually a very good practice.  In areas where yield potential is higher (better soils, more rainfall), growers more frequently buy seed so that they have improved varieties and seed grown carefully for germination potential (as opposed just for food use).  The grower gets a better yield with higher quality.  A lot of this seed in crops like wheat is grown by a highly fragmented and local seed industry that sells based on certification by “crop improvement associations,” something that has been around for about a century.  I get a calendar each year from one of them and it says, “certified seed doesn’t cost, it pays.”   This is basically a system where certain farmers specialize in growing the seed for their neighbors.  For many years it has been possible to patent the improved lines.  A grower is allowed to save the patented seed for planting the next year, but not to sell it to a neighbor unless a modest royalty is paid to the patent holder. This system has helped to foster private investment in the breeding of crops like wheat, something that greatly benefits the industry.  This is the dominant model in a crops like barley, durum and wheat in the US.  Again, there is nothing sinister about this commercial system.  Where growers in the developing world make it work it is also a very good system for them.

Hybrid Seed

I often see people writing about how modern seed technology “requires” growers to buy new seed every year.  That was a radical concept and source of much controversy – in the 1930s!  Around that time the potential for “hybrid crops” was discovered and commercialized.  For reasons that are still not entirely clear, if you “cross” plants from certain diverse gene pools, the offspring has “hybrid vigor” which means high yield and more stress tolerance.  Over the last 80 years, all crops that can be efficiently hybridized have made this transition because it makes so much economic sense for the farmer.  Corn is the prime example, but this is also the dominant form for crops like Canola, Sorghum, Tomatoes, Peppers and a host of other crops.  It isn’t that the farmer could not plant the seed from the previous crop – it is just that the next generation of seeds would be highly variable for the exact reason that your children are not all the same. Again, there is nothing sinister about this kind of genetics. In fact the annual seed sales fund companies (and universities) who then do intensive research to develop better seeds.  The industries that have strong hybrid seed companies have seen far faster yield increases than the ones that are more dependent on public breeding support.  This system does not fit in parts of the world with no functional farm credit system or crop insurance system because the farmer cannot afford the investment in bought seed for a many-month-delayed and uncertain return, but it makes perfect sense elsewhere.  There is nothing intrinsically unethical about the sale of hybrid seed.

A Caveat about Biodiversity

Before I go on, I want to address an extremely important issue – genetic diversity.  All of our modern crop plants have “centers of origin” where that plant was once a wild species that was once “domesticated” for human use.  The genetic diversity that exists in those regions is hugely important to the sustainability of our food supply.  It is extremely important that we preserve that diversity.  For instance today we are facing a huge threat from a new strain of an important wheat disease.  We need the full range of genetic diversity to combat such threats.

The preservation of this diversity in seed banks is not really an appropriate job for commercial entities.  It is something that should be funded by thoughtful governmental agencies, or in the all-too-common absence of that – charitable entities.  The ethical answer to the question of whether improved germplasm should be introduced into centers of origin is to proactively preserve the genetic diversity.  It is not to relegate those farmers to low yields.

You are welcome to comment on this site or to email me at [email protected]

Seed image from forestryimages.org

  1. James

    Great post! I used to use the idea of hybrid seed as an argument for why GMOs aren’t suddenly introducing the new concept of buying seed each year to most farmers. More recently I’ve started running into people who rail against hybrid seed and demand agriculture revert to open pollinated varieties. It’s frankly frightening. Especially when can show them a graph of what corn yields per acre were like before and after hybrid breeding became popular and it still makes no impression.

  2. Steve Savage


    I know, hybridization is a huge positive, but it is so easy to scare people about it even after 70 years. I have read somewhere that the crop we call wheat today is actually a naturally occurring hybrid between spelt and emmer or some such middle eastern, primitive grains. The biofuel crop Miscanthus giganteus is a naturally occurring hybrid between a diploid and a tetraploid. The same is true for the Cavendish banana. It is all about harnessing this natural phenomenon for our benefit.

  3. Janet

    I feel your explanation of seed saving and hybrid seeds is the truth, but not the whole truth. The farmer saved-seed system is indeed still used today for small-holder, subsistence agriculture around the world. However your statement that no one can actually take away the option for a farmer to save seed in the crops and locations where that is still the practice is not true. Monsanto is doing it through intimidation in the United States right now. World Bank loans for agricultural development in third world countries are frequently tied to the introduction of industrial farming and the purchase of specific crop seeds and the herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers to grow them. The decision is taken out of the hands of small farmers. GMO crops can and have contaminated conventional crops and landraces. Gene giants like Monsanto have aggressively enforced their seed patents against farmers whose non-GMO crops have been contaminated, and most troubling of all is the fact that four agro-chemical companies currently own 75% of seeds commercially available. While as you state – in a perfect world – there is nothing intrinsically unethical about this situation, in the real world there is something very wrong with it.

  4. Jordan Ho

    Hi Steve,

    I was redirected to you from Amelia Glynn, an athor that once commented on one of your posts and told me that you had good stuff.

    I am a student currently enrolling in UCSC and I am doing a Field Investigative Project regarding the issue of turning animal feces into alternative energy with biodigestors.

    This comment is completely random because it has nothing to do with this post but it is the only way I can get ahold of you.

    Would you mind answering some questions regarding this issue via email?

    Here is my email: [email protected]

    Also, I will be checking my email a lot since I have a deadline (midnight 11/18/09)

    Any help would be much appreciated, thank you!

  5. Steve Savage

    If you are getting your information only from anti-GMO sites you have to be careful with the interpretation. For instance your statement that Monsanto is threatening saved seed rights in the US through intimidation is often repeated on those sites, but the only basis for it is the historical soybean deal I described. That is having no effect whatsoever on the remaining saved seed crops in the US. I’ve had the chance to talk with lots of wheat growers about this and they wouldn’t mind some new arrangement on seed for the chance to get biotech traits. Even if that happened, saving the unimproved seed would still always be an option. I think you are imagining Monsanto as having much more leverage than they actually do. As for your concerns about international aid deals I would need to see sources on what you describe.

  6. Steve Savage

    I’ve never heard about eating fiddleheads but it sounds like an interesting option if they are well cooked. That sort of thing does not rule them out as a crop – potatoes need to be cooked to be safe as well.
    Your idea made me remember mushrooms! They are often grown as a “crop” and are not even close to angiosperms. They turn out to be a good source of vitamin D – something that is being increasingly identified as a nutrient we should be eating more.

  7. Janet

    Dear Steve –

    Thank you for your response. I would indeed be foolish if I were getting my information only from anti-GMO sites.

    Since all of Monsanto’s patent infringement cases against farmers conclude with confidential settlement agreements it is impossible to know what pressure is put to bear on the farmers other than the cost of litigation and million dollar lawsuits. The fact that Monsanto pursues litigation against any farmer whose crops have been contaminated by their patented seeds is in itself despicable.

    When Monsanto and Archer Daniels Midland represent America’s interests on the Indo-US Knowledge Initiative in Agriculture, and when Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont control 47% of the global proprietary seed market, I think it is you who may be underestimating the amount of leverage these companies have.

    Monsanto’s involvement in the governments of South Africa, Argentina, Thailand (to name a few) in WTO/World Bank agricultural assistance to those countries is really pretty well documented, I surprised you are are not aware of international aid deals backed by World Bank loans involving Monsanto, Syngenta, etc.

    I’m not sure why you refer to “mythical” terminator seeds. Since they acquired Delta and Pine Land Company, Monsanto controls the patent (Patent No 5,723,765) and while their statement that “Monsanto has never developed or commercialized a sterile seed product” may be true, they also mention that “If Monsanto should decide to move forward . . . ” (this on their own website.)

    I’m a bit shocked that you are unaware of the impact and control multi-national agro and chemical giants like Monsanto, Syngenta, Dupont, Dow, Group Limagrain, Bayer etc. have on seeds and farming all over the globe.

  8. Steve Savage


    You are making the assumption that everything these companies does here or internationally is negative. The alternate view is that they are helping to get people fed and clothed all around the world. The fact that they can make money doing that is nothing disturbing. I’m sure you make money for your job. As I’ve pointed out many times – the sales of products from these companies to farmers is a business-to-business sale. If the products don’t provide the farmers with multiples of what they have spent, the product does not sell. If countries around the world are making deals with these companies it is because they are interested in their own food security and these are the tools that will help them.
    The mythic part on Terminator is the widely held belief that this is something in widespread use today. It turns out that the technology didn’t really work and it was only considered for use in preventing gene flow for something like a biopharma crop (which is an area that Monsanto abandoned years ago).

  9. Janet

    The fact that companies can make money is not disturbing unless they make money while hurting people. For you to believe that the sale of products from these companies to farmers in third world countries is simply a business-to-business sale, or to believe that third world governments make deals with these companies purely because they are interested in their own food security and because these are tools that will help them, indicates a naivete on your part concerning global commerce and agriculture that is breathtaking.

  10. Steve Savage


    You have not described any specific examples of what you are concerned about. Could you please do that?

    By the way, this industry may be quite consolidated but these companies compete fiercely with one another.

  11. MaryM

    In Maine there were fiddleheads in the grocery store every spring. Briefly. But as far as I know they were all wild foraged.

    Don’t let Janet tell you about the Lugar bill that was rumored around the foodies last spring. She might try to use that as an example. They claimed it conditioned food aid on using GMOs, but that was false.


  12. Steve Savage

    You didn’t say whether you tried the fiddleheads. It sounds like you need to cook them very well to make them safe.
    Thanks for the Lugar bill link. Janet, What do you think about this?


  13. mishelle

    I heard one thing, or thought I did, that I haven’t been able to confirm or disprove yet, maybe you will know. I believe it was Andrew Kimbrell who said Monsanto was buying up seed patents of seeds it has not produced, simply existing seed developed over generations by farmers. Any idea if this is true or I misheard? Thanks for any help!

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