Speak Your Piece: The President and Seed

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“The crops that we grow are the basis of our civilization,” Todd Leake said. “If anything belongs in the public domain it is the crops we grow for food.”


Out of Hand

Monsanto has a lock on the soy and corn seed market.
Confronting the business concentration in the seed business is paramount for the success of farmers, especially new farmers and businesses seeking to cultivate a niche in agriculture. But just as seeds as an organism are complex, so is untangling the roots of seed concentration. 

And this gets us back to President Obama’s missed opportunity at Seed Savers Exchange.

President Obama’s administration initially signaled a willingness to tackle the problem of monopoly in the seed business. His Justice and Agriculture departments held workshops last year on all aspects of agricultural competition.

These hearings were unprecedented. Farmers, ranchers, farm advocacy organizations, small businesses, and consumers were encouraged that the agencies were investigating consolidation in the seed, livestock, dairy, poultry, and food retail industries. 

“We’ve waited a long time for justice in the heartland,” said Missouri state senator and farmer Wes Shoemyer at the first Justice/Agriculture workshop in Ankeney, Iowa, which focused in part on problems in the seed industry. 

But the hope was short-lived. There is no indication that either agency is furthering these investigations or taking meaningful action on outcomes of the investigations. The agencies don’t even seem inclined to publish a report in response to the thousands of public comments personally delivered at the 2010 workshops.

And then the President appears at Seed Savers Exchange to talk about the rural economy and doesn’t mention seeds or any of the other issues brought up in his own administration’s workshops.

It would behoove the President to look at the comments received at these workshops before he talks about the rural economy. Tucked within the thousands of comments the agencies received are both evidence of the problems with too much concentration in the seed business and reasonable solutions. 

Take Eric Nelson, a fourth generation grain and cattle producer from Iowa who spoke on a panel in Ankeney. He explained, “I’ve seen pricing schemes using free seed that generally benefit the very large farmer at the expense of the small farmer.” 

And then there’s Fred Bower, a farmer and seed dealer in Minnesota. When he started farming 34 years ago, there were fifty seed companies. And now he chooses from four. “We are not being treated properly as far as price,” he said.

“Customers will think that they’re making choices from different companies,” Nelson added, “when, in fact, they’ve purchased the same product in a different bag from different companies, but it’s identical product.”

Todd Leake of North Dakota agreed. A soybean farmer for 30 years, Leake said he chose from a hundred different conventional (non-GMO) soybean varieties less than a decade ago. Today, he can choose from only a handful of non-GMO soybean varieties, as research and breeding are focused on patented GMO varieties that farmers cannot legally save. 

“I am therefore forced as a farmer to have to go to the seed companies – these few seed companies that are left – to purchase my seed,” Leake said. “So it’s a combination of the utility patents and the consolidation of the seed industry, which has entrapped me as a farmer into having to utilize the GMO seed varieties.”

Organic Seed Alliance. OSA supports the ethical development and stewardship of the genetic resources of agricultural seed.