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.”
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.
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.
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Seed image from forestryimages.org