What Is a Seed?
Seeds are potential: These tiny, living organisms contain an entire root, stem, and leaf curled dormant in a shell. Seeds are richly various, and sometimes delicious: Pine nuts, almonds, nutmeg, mustard, coffee, cocoa beans, peanuts, beans, and peas — all of these are seeds.
Seeds are our past: Our relationship with them began more than 10,000 years ago, when our ancestors traded in their nomadic, hunter-gatherer ways for a life rooted in place, centered around the cultivation of plants. Early farmers selected seeds from plants based on taste and adaptability, and in exchange, these seeds grew the plants that nurtured and shaped our civilizations. If seeds have been the foundation of human civilization, then farmers have been its engineers.
Seeds are our collective legacy: For most of human history, seeds have been collectively shared and celebrated, a deep knowledge base whose enrichment and accessibility benefits all of humankind. Over time, human efforts to develop plants have resulted in great diversity of varieties adapted to region, soil type, climate, plant disease, and more. Seeds are hard-earned, a gift bestowed onto each successive generation in a cooperative, collaborative celebration of life. Generations of Indigenous people co-created corn through the selective breeding of wild grasses, and kidnapped Africans braided seeds into their hair before crossing the Middle Passage.
Seeds are a promise to the future: a promise of food security, of economic stability. Yet, as descendents of those first farmers, our birthright is being stolen out from under our noses.
Seeds in the U.S.: The Steady March of Privatization
In its early years, the United States government viewed agriculture as essential for its prosperity, and seed cultivation as a collaborative enterprise. In 1839, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office (USPTO) opened and promptly launched a program distributing seeds to farmers. In 1862, one of the first actions of the newly-formed Department of Agriculture (USDA) was to expand this seed program, ultimately distributing more than one billion seed packages to farmers by 1900. Public research on seeds thrived, and in fact yielded most major new crop varieties.
Since most farmers could get seed from the government or save seed from their own crops during this time, private firms were relegated to breeding and selling hybrid seeds, which needed to be purchased annually. To eliminate what they saw as a profit barrier, these companies began lobbying for an end to federal seed programs and for the ability to patent seeds and plants.
Here’s how it went down:
The PVPA allowed Certificates of Protection for plants grown from seed. Importantly, this ruling still allowed farmers to save seeds on protected plants for replanting, and required that patented varieties remain available to researchers.
The Supreme Court ruled that living organisms could have utility patents.
Based on the Diamond v. Chakrabarty ruling, the USPTO ruled that sexually reproducing plants could have utility patents. This meant that farmers could no longer save the seed of patented plants, and patented varieties could no longer be available for public research.
The six dominant firms began aggressively acquiring independent, family-owned seed firms, along with all the intellectual property from their seeds. Private seed companies also negotiated exclusive contracts with agriculture universities to access their germplasm (the seeds or plant parts used to breed crops and conduct research), and obtained germplasm from international seed collections.
Monsanto began to shift its focus from just chemicals (like DDT) to seeds and biotechnology — the better to create a market for those chemicals. During this time, the corporation purchased nearly 40 seed companies and successfully patented genetically modified corn and Roundup Ready soybeans.
The court rulings opened the door to a new way for seed companies to gain ownership and control: Genetically Engineered (GE) seeds. Seed companies knew that controlling the seed is the key to controlling the entire production system, but seeds had to first be standardized, controlled, and homogenous. Resting on a misleading interpretation of the word “invention,” GE patent law allows companies to slightly modify a gene and then patent it as though it were novel.
The thing is, without the real innovations in seed breeding and selection painstakingly achieved out in the field by generations of farmers, these corporate “inventions” would never have been possible. But once patent law furnished this mechanism for control, companies took advantage of it in a big way: Following the Diamond v. Chakrabarty ruling, corporations flooded the USPTO with more than 1,800 patent submissions for genetic material of seeds and plants.
The ability to patent GE seeds also incentivized corporations to acquire as much intellectual property as possible, both by buying up smaller companies and by striking deals with universities and seed banks to get sole access to their germplasm. As seed firms consolidated from hundreds, to six, to three, their control over the seed supply increased, leading to a restrictive and non-competitive market with grave consequences for farmers, eaters, and the entire global food system.
Consequences of Corporate Control
Consolidation has granted just a few firms market dominance, and they have used their power to drive up the use of and dependence on agrochemicals. In the 30 years since these rulings, the Big Three have cut back dramatically on all non-biotech seeds, seriously reducing the availability of conventional seeds and region-specific seed varieties. These days, farmers can most easily access the seeds the Big Three want them to have: GE seeds, altered to resist herbicides and pesticides or to maximize crop yield, that have been patented and controlled.
Even farmers who wouldn’t otherwise choose GE seeds are forced to buy them due to things like herbicide drift, wherein the wind carries herbicides, sometimes miles from where it’s sprayed, ruining unprotected fields and killing the crops. In cases like these, farmers often opt to go along with what their neighbors are doing in order to protect their harvests.
During these past waves of consolidation, the Big Three used patent law to tie up a huge percentage of genomes. And when the entire agriculture production system relies on the limited seed and chemical catalog offered by just a few companies, there are grievous consequences — not just for farmers, but for everyone who eats. Where once farmers bred seeds specific to their regions and climate, there are now only a few varieties developed for their “stacked” traits (two or more genes intentionally combined into a single plant) and sold around the globe. By seizing control and limiting access, these corporations have turned stagnant a sector that was once innovative and rich with biodiversity.
What’s the Big Deal about Biodiversity?
We are facing a catastrophic drop in plant varieties: Since the 1900s, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. notes that we have lost nearly 75% of our plant genetic diversity. According to research from Slow Food, “[o]f the 80,000 edible species available for food production, only 150 are actively cultivated, eight of which are sold on a global scale.” Fully 75% of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants.
Why is this happening? Ever since the Green Revolution and the rise of industrial agriculture, there has been a focus on standardization and so-called “efficiency.” Locally adapted and culturally important crop varieties have been discarded in favor of genetically homogenous, high-yield varieties. Small, independent seed breeders have been swallowed up by monoculture-obsessed corporations, who restrict the availability of any seeds that threaten their control.
The problem? Simply put, we’re putting all our eggs in one basket. By relying so heavily on a dozen or fewer plants, we’re stripping agriculture of its resilience to pests, disease, and natural disaster, and thus making ourselves vulnerable. If anything were to happen to one of those eight or 12 varieties, the food production systems of today would struggle to adapt and recover — leading to widespread hunger.
So far, we’ve learned that the most effective innovation occurs in the field, where farmers breed crops that thrive in real-world circumstances. Unfortunately, due to the predominance of corporate-controlled GE seeds, this is an endangered practice: Corporations spend millions of dollars prosecuting farmers over what they consider to be their intellectual property. The most famous examples of these aggressive legal campaigns was conducted by Monsanto, which used U.S. patent law to control the use of staple crop seeds by farmers, and has accordingly reaped tens of millions from farmers in court settlements.
The corporations themselves have not taken up the mantle of innovation, either. Consolidated control over markets has actually disincentivized private research, according to this analysis of data from the USDA’s Economic Research Service. Instead, agrochemical corporations are still relying on the same technologies of the past several decades. Rather than developing new ways to combat growing disease and pest resistance driven by a production model that relies on these decades-old chemicals, they simply stack on additional traits to these seeds. This is tantamount to an endless game of Whac-a-Mole: Inevitably, new disease- and pest-resistant traits will emerge.
Farmers Caught in Corporate Traps
All of these policy and market changes have turned farmers from autonomous innovators, contributing to humankind’s rich crop diversity, into serfs and criminals. The top seed and agrochemical corporations continue to build and set traps for farmers, cornering them into planting designated seeds, spraying designated chemicals, using designated techniques — and paying a designated amount. In the below section, we’ll deconstruct three of those traps: integrated crop systems, Big Data, and biopiracy.
As industrial GE seeds’ effectiveness lags, resistance to their products builds, and their ability to return profit for investment wanes, the Big Three have looked for other levers to pull. Dominant seed companies have taken to promoting a narrow portfolio of “crop systems:” proprietary integrations of stacked genetic traits, GE seeds containing several such traits, and crop protection chemicals. More often than not, the same company sells the GE seed and its companion chemicals, thereby forcing the farmer to purchase both the patented seed and chemicals.
Digital farming systems are another response to this need to combat flagging yields and growing resistance with more complex and expensive products. Dominant firms’ control of the market allows them to appropriate data from farmers through the terms and conditions of licensing and technology agreements.
Recently, they have begun using this data to gauge a farmer’s ability to pay and adjust their prices to extract the maximum possible profits — similar to how the fertilizer companies have tied their prices to the commodity markets. In 2019, Bayer rolled out the first “outcome-based” seed pricing program: Instead of charging a flat rate for seeds and chemicals, they are sold based on performance guarantees, such as specific yields levels or weed resistance. If products underperform, the company has to refund part of the cost to the farmer. But if the products overperform, the farmer has to pay the company a share of their additional profits – up to 50%.
Since then, the other two seed giants have also introduced their own “outcome-based” programs. By introducing tournament system-style price discrimination and micro-management into commodity farming for the first time, these programs create a highly pernicious imbalance of power between participating farmers and the seed companies.
Participating farmers are required to join their seed company’s digital agricultural platform and comply with its demands (“management recommendations”) for seeds, chemicals, and techniques. By joining, farmers give the seed companies unprecedented visibility into their operations. In return, farmers are given zero visibility into the “black box” of algorithms and internal systems that the seed companies use to establish the guaranteed performance level, develop farming prescriptions, or determine whether farmers have complied with them. By forcing farmers to comply with corporate directives, these programs effectively rob them of autonomy over their own operations, turning them into employees — without the corresponding benefits or financial security.
Seed corporations’ traps are set all over the globe. Seed banks managed by the International Treaty on Plant Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, or “the Treaty,” make millions of seeds collected from farmers — sometimes without their knowledge — available to researchers and industrial corporations for the purpose of breeding new varieties. Article 9 of the Treaty is supposed to protect the rights of farmers whose innovations made this possible, but none of these promises have been kept.
Organizations like the Bill Gates-funded DivSeek use their access to this database to sequence the genes of farmers’ seeds, identify the most marketable genetic traits, patent them, and wall them off for profit. This robs farmers of their rights to save, use, exchange, and sell seeds that they themselves have selected, and allows corporations to decide who does and does not get to grow those crops.
These three corporate systems may hide declining crop effectiveness, but in the long run, they will just spur the evolution of even more resistant traits in weeds and insects. A top-down, high-tech approach solves nothing, but merely patches up a sinking ship — and worse, this endless cycle traps farmers into waiting helplessly for agrochemical monopolies to deliver their next “solution.”
The Resistance: Stepping to the Big Three
Our consolidated global food system is vulnerable and precarious, and millions of people are routinely hounded by starvation due to catastrophes like war and extreme weather. History teaches us what happens when we exchange biodiversity and resilience for profit: The Irish potato famine was caused by the reliance on just one variety (in addition to abuses inflicted by the English colonial system). When that variety developed blight, millions died of starvation and more were forced to emigrate.
Farmers should be at the forefront of a solution to our precarious situation. By encouraging farmers to innovate as they always have, and breed, save, and share seeds adapted to specific and changing conditions, we can build resilience into our food production systems and secure our future food sources.
Groups like La Via Campesina are part of a larger food sovereignty movement; along with groups like the International Planning Committee for Food Sovereignty, they fight for people’s rights to save and share seed, particularly that which was confiscated and stored in global seed banks, and is now shielded by patents.
In the United States, there has also been an explosion of seed libraries as part of this growing movement. Integrated into public libraries, these local seed banks boast varieties that have been micro-climatized to their respective regions.
The devastating impacts of agrochemical consolidation on plant biodiversity, food security, soil health, and farmers’ livelihoods demand a policy response. We must thoroughly investigate the Big Three: how they accrued and exercised power across the agricultural biotechnology sector, and the effects of that power on producers, suppliers, distributors, and competition overall.
So how do we do this? For starters, we can enforce the Clayton and Sherman Acts, and prosecute the Big Three for their violations. We also need new safeguards to define and prohibit “unfair methods of competition” in the seed and agrochemical industry. This will prevent corporations from colluding, discriminating against farmers in prices or services, integrating or bundling products, offering biotech products that are incompatible with rival products, or placing unfair restrictions on licensing intellectual property to competitors.
We shouldn’t shy away from challenging the Big Three’s monopoly power directly — either by breaking them up or undoing the most significant seed-and-agrochemical mergers of the last decade.
These mergers were approved with the understanding that they would benefit consumers, but they have not provided the promised returns. Farmers are trapped and exploited by corporate designs, consumers have less choice, and the death of innovation will spell starvation for future generations — unless we fight back.
Written and designed by Dee Laninga; edited by Cathy Cowan Becker; research by Sarah Carden, Dee Laninga, and Joe Maxwell; concept by Angela Huffman.