The commercial seed industry has undergone vast consolidation in the last few decades, with several agro giants buying up many seed companies around the world. The majority of these companies target the commercial agriculture industry, but companies such as Monsanto and Swiss-based Syngenta produce a range of seeds for the home vegetable gardener as well.
Aside from the anti-trust issues raised from having a few large corporations control the world's seed supply, there are other concerns as well. The recent consolidation frenzy has resulted in a drastic decrease in the variety of seeds. Insects and disease tend to attack monocultures, so the strength of any ecosystem is the level of its plant diversity. Monocultures, where the same type of crops grow on large plots of land year in and year out, also lead to an increase in pesticide usage. This is convenient for the giant seed companies, since they're in the pesticide and herbicide business as well.
Farmers are also affected since seed saving used to be practiced by family farmp for generations. Many farmers are now forced to buy their seeds from Monsanto every year once they sign up to grow Roundup Ready GMO crops, which puts Monsanto in a very powerful position. According to a recent New York Times article, the prices farmers paid last year for corn seed rose 32% and 24% for soy. These price increases have caught the attention of the US Justice Department which has launched an investigation into the seed industry, with an apparent focus on Monsanto.
In 2005, Monsanto - the world's largest seed company - purchased a large vegetable seed company called Seminis. According to an article written that year by Mathew Dillon of the Organic Seed Alliance, it was estimated that "Seminis controls 40 percent of the U.S. vegetable seed market and 20 percent of the world market-supplying the genetics for 55 percent of the lettuce on U.S. supermarket shelves, 75 percent of the tomatoes, and 85 percent of the peppers, with strong holdings in beans, cucumbers, squash, melons, broccoli, cabbage, spinach and peas." It is unknown what percentage of these seeds may at some point become genetically modified.
The following chart is an excellent overview regarding the seed industry ownership structure which includes Monsanto, DuPont, Bayer, Syngenta, and Dow. Click here for more detail (PDF) ;
This chart and a related article was authored by Phil Howard, Assistant Professor at Michigan State University. Many of the companies listed focus on the professional grower markets and GMO crops, but some provide seeds for the home gardener as well.
As most gardening enthusiasts have probably discovered by now, figuring out where the seeds you buy actually come from can be pretty confusing. Let's say you go to a popular online seed retailer and get some Burpee Hybrid II cucumber seeds. Those seeds are actually produced by Seminis/Monsanto. To see if any of your favorite vegetable seeds are produced by Seminis, go to the following link: us.seminis.com/products/hg_products.asp You may also be buying seeds from Rogers (originally bought by Sandoz), a company now owned by the Swiss multinational Syngenta, a pesticide and herbicide manufacturer also involved with GMOs. To see which retailers sell Rogers seeds, go to www.rogersadvantage.com/dealers/default_homegarden.htm
Tips for the Backyard Gardener
So what else can an organic gardener do? Here is a range of resources to help get you started:
Fedco - www.fedcoseeds.com
A cooperative based in Maine, Fedco decided to stop selling Seminis seeds due to customer input after Monsanto's acquisition. Approximately 35% of their sales volume is in certified organic seeds. Fedco stated that it is possible that a few varieties of their organic seeds may originate from Syngenta, but by ordering organic seeds from small farmers (coded with a "1" in their catalogue), you can avoid purchasing any agro-giant seeds.
Johnny's - www.johnnyseeds.com
Johnny's still sells a few Seminis varieties that are customer favorites, but they've been phasing out their Seminis seeds since the Monsanto acquisition. It's a privately held, employee-owned company which sells a wide variety of conventional and organic seeds.
Seeds of Change - www.seedsofchange.com
Headquartered in New Mexico and founded in 1989, 100% of their seeds are certified organic. They produce much of their own seed stock, most of which is then grown by a network of small farms around the country. The company was acquired by Mars, Inc. in 1997. Although Mars has stated they don't use GMO ingredients in Europe, they are using GMOs in some of their products produced in the US.
If you'd rather buy from a source that doesn't sell any seeds from companies involved with GMOs, here are a few worth looking into:
High Mowing Organic Seeds - www.highmowingseeds.com
Based in Vermont, this company grows much of their own seed, and they also have a network of producers around the country who they know personally. All of their seeds are certified organic. High Mowing was part of a group including the Sierra Club and Organic Seed Alliance that successfully sued the USDA regarding the premature deregulation of Monsanto's GMO sugar beets in 2009. High Mowing Seeds is part of the Hardwick VT local sustainable food community, a town that's recently received a lot of press. Check out this video for more information: www.highmowingseeds.com/HMS-on-Dan-Rather-Reports.html
Native Seeds - www.nativeseeds.org
A non-profit based in Arizona, Native Seeds is a leader in the heirloom seed movement and has a focus on arid-land adapted crops. They have a conservation farm in Patagonia, AZ. They work with Native American communities to maintain seed diversity and the saving of rare seeds. All of their seeds are collected directly from small farmers, mostly from Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico. The seeds are not certified organic, but most are grown using organic methods.
Turtle Tree Seed Biodynamic Seed Initiative - www.turtletreeseed.org
This non-profit based in New York, offers non-hybrid, open-pollinated seed grown in accordance with the biodynamic principles outlined by Rudolf Steiner. All of the seeds grown on their New York farm are certified organic. Seeds from their network of individual growers around the country are not all certified organic, but all are grown in accordance with organic and biodynamic standards.
Wild Garden Seed - www.wildgardenseed.com
They grow all of their own seed on their farm in Oregon, which is certified organic. All seeds are open pollinated.
This list represents just a few options. There are other small organic and biodynamic seed growers around North America, so it's best to do some research and ask your retailer specific questions. Other ways you can help fight industry consolidation and control of seeds:
- Contact your congressperson and tell them why you don't want a handful of companies to control the world's seed supply
- If you belong to a CSA, ask them what companies they buy their seeds from
- If you shop at a farmer's market, ask your favorite growers about their seed supply
- Refuse to buy processed foods with GMO ingredients - only buy certified organic brands
Brenda Wagner is an online volunteer for the Organic Consumers Association.