Private ownership of seed, industry-funded university research, and concentration in the seed business are stifling seed development and holding back organic farming.
Editor’s Note: The Organic Seed Alliance recently issued a report titled State of Organic Seed. One of the sections of the report concerns concentration in the seed industry. We reprint that portion of the report (with permission) below.
Concentration in the business of agriculture and food marketing is one of the stories we cover closely here at the Yonder. Kristina Hubbard has worked with the Center for Food Safety, the Center for Rural Affairs and the Organization for Competitive Markets. She is now the Director of Advocacy for the Organic Seed Alliance. Matthew Dillon was the co-founder of the Organic Seed Alliance and runs Seed Matters.
Seed is not only an input for crop production, it is a natural resource that demands management in a manner that is ethical, sustainable, profitable, and effective in delivering agronomic adaptations for the diverse agricultural systems and markets within the U.S.
Plant genetic resources were once managed and maintained as a public commons with intellectual property rights in the form of Plant Variety Protection Act certificates that were adequate to compensate private innovators, while allowing both farmers and other researchers to save seed, sell seed and further adaptation and the development of new characteristics within the crop. Diversity and competition thrived through most of the twentieth century with public and private breeding programs delivering improved genetics to a broad array of farming systems.
This changed dramatically when the Supreme Court upheld the use of utility patents on living organisms. Large corporations that had little to no previous investments in seed and genetic traits rushed into the market to take advantage of this powerful intellectual property tool. This trend led to the highly concentrated seed industry that we face today.
Concentration in the seed industry has a negative impact on organic farming. It has resulted in decreased public and private research and development of varieties and breeding populations for minor markets, such as organic.
As the industry consolidates, farmers have seen varieties sold in smaller volumes, often those that serve organic farming systems. In 2000, the world’s largest vegetable seed company, Seminis (prior to being bought by Monsanto), acquired several smaller international seed companies. The mergers resulted in a decision by Seminis to drop over 2,000 varieties from production in a single season, a trend that continues. The result has been fewer options for organic farmers, and for the researchers and seed companies trying to serve them.
Seed Industry Concentration
The seed industry stands out as one of the most concentrated in agriculture. Once comprised of mostly small, family-owned companies, the industry is now dominated by a handful of transnational biotechnology/chemical firms. The top three firms, for example, account for more than 75% of U.S. corn seed sales. One firm’s patented genetic traits are in nearly all corn, soybean, and cotton acreage planted in the U.S.
Vegetable seed is following a similar consolidation trajectory and is dominated by a single player – Seminis (Monsanto) – that dwarfs any competitor.
Rapid and extensive consolidation is a consequence of the following factors:
•Weak antitrust law enforcement allowed large firms to acquire and merge with a significant number of competitors;
•Supreme Court decisions paved the way for firms to patent plant parts, including seeds, traits, and described plant characteristics (and Congress has not acted to clarify the intent of the Plant Variety Protection Act);
•Federal legislation (1980 Bayh-Dole Act) encouraged the privatization and patenting of public research; and
•Funding for public plant breeding and cultivar development has dramatically reduced.
These factors have led not only to fewer choices in the seed marketplace, but also concentrated control over important plant genetics needed for research and development for all agricultural systems. This level of concentration has severe consequences for the organic community.
Impacts on Organic Production
Organic farmers are underserved in genetics specifically adapted to their cropping systems, regions, and market niches, and experience a basic lack of availability of organic seed, with an even greater gap in varieties specifically bred under certified organic conditions. As private concentration and intellectual property control of plant genetics expand, the public sector weakens, innovation stagnates, and minor markets such as organic do not receive needed investments in seed system development.
Other consequences of seed industry concentration on organic agriculture are clear:
•Dominant firms do not serve organic interests: This is because the organic community embraces ecological alternatives to biotechnology and has deemed genetic engineering an excluded method in the National Organic Program (NOP). The organic and biotechnology sectors are generally in conflict with each other’s goals, objectives, practices, and values.
•Loss of regional independent seed companies: Companies that for decades served the regional needs of farmers by breeding varieties with agronomic traits adapted to very specific environments – including some that were serving or preparing to serve the organic market – have been lost with seed industry consolidation.
What regional companies exist often struggle to get access to optimum parent lines, or when they can access them they are expensive with cost-prohibitive and restrictive licensing agreements. Firms such as Monsanto have a clear strategy of purchasing independent seed companies, many of whom once served the organic market with untreated conventional seed and certified organic seed.
In general, these smaller regional independent companies have greater flexibility in serving local markets and minor markets such as organic. The loss of regional companies has limited the number of seed companies investing in conventional and organic, limiting not only availability but also the continued research and development that all markets need to evolve and thrive.
•Public breeding programs are increasingly privatized: Private funding of industry research surged after 1980 as public funding declined. This coincided with passage of the Bayh-Dole Act, which allows the patenting of publicly funded research.
Land grant universities and other public breeding programs now find themselves financially dependent on a concentrated industry sector to fund infrastructure, graduate students, and breeding programs. As a result, research goals narrow to meet the needs of larger industries, such as agricultural biotechnology, rather than the diverse needs of farmers. The influence these companies have on Land Grant Universities (LGU) impacts not only innovation, but distorts objective research and education, and weakens the mission of public institutions.
While the private and public sector should and can be mutually supportive, agricultural research is currently imbalanced and tipped toward benefiting a few corporations and their shareholders. Ideally the public research sector would add competition to the market by continuing to release significant volumes of finished public cultivars, with an increase in innovative germplasm for emerging agricultural markets such as organic.
• Patents lock up important genetics: Patents hinder innovation by removing valuable plant genetic material from the pool of public resources breeders rely on. Breeders are restricted or prohibited from using patented varieties, traits, or tools unless onerous licensing agreements are signed and expensive royalties paid.
The result is a public sector that lacks an ability to provide for – and an understanding of the underlying values and needs of – the organic market. For example, in field corn a utility patent was filed and granted to Hoegemeyer Hybrids (now owned by DuPont-Pioneer) for a trait they call PuraMaize. This trait has been bred and recorded in public research for decades, yet the flawed patent system has provided a single company the proprietary rights. This is a trait that the organic seed market is very interested in using, as it creates a characteristic in corn crops to accept only pollen from genetically similar plants. Such a trait can significantly reduce cross-pollination of organic corn crops from GE corn crops. Yet seed companies report that restrictive licensing fees make it cost-prohibitive for them to lease the trait from Hoegemeyer.
The trends described above put the integrity of organic agriculture at risk and hinder the success of this growing sector. Organic farmers already find it difficult to access quality certified organic seed. Varieties they once relied on have been abandoned as the industry consolidates. Seed companies looking to serve organic markets do not have access to genetic traits tied up by patents, or parent lines that are proprietary and held by larger firms. Public breeders looking to serve smaller markets such as organic are not encouraged to work on these projects, as they do not return high royalties on intellectual property to their universities.
Concentration and the misuse of patents also have global impacts, as they encourage biopiracy — where indigenous knowledge of nature is exploited for commercial gain with no compensation to the indigenous people — of public resources and threaten food security.
The system is broken.
Confronting industry concentration must be coupled with efforts to create an environment in which new innovators, private and public breeders, and entrepreneurs interested in organic seed systems have an opportunity to thrive. Investments need to be made both at the public and private (e.g., food industry) level.