(What follows is a little lengthy. Skip to the last few lines for our choice of a source for seeds)
With the inauguration this week, bringing new energy into the country, it is also a time to bring new energy into the world through plants. It is an appropriate time to order seeds and start plants to be ready for putting outdoors in April.
Do you want tomatoes that are uniform in size, with a tough skin and firm tissue that handles and ships well, and has a mealy tasteless inside? (supermarket variety) Or do you want one that has a rich juicy flavor and high nutrient content? It all starts with the seed, and it is up to you as the consumer. However, agribusiness companies may be in the process of taking your seed choices away.
It is difficult to describe how important seeds are. They represent the sum total of centuries or millenia of selecting qualities that our foods will have. Wheat, for example, was first cultivated 10,000 years ago in India and Turkey. The wild grass that became the first wheat had only one or two grains on a stalk, and the grains did not stay on the stalk long enough to harvest. They had a low gluten (storage protein) content. By saving the "best" grains every year, modern wheat - with a sturdy husk, many grains held until harvest, high gluten content - has evolved.
Until World War II, essentially all farming in this country was organic. The chemical factories that had produced munitions for the war were turned into fertilizer factories. With this artificial fertilizer, plants grew as if on speed. With the increased growth, resistance to diseases was probably lowered, and pesticide use grew rapidly. This combination of fertilizers and pesticides was the basis of the "green revolution", that was supposed to provide for plenty of food for the world.
By this time, about 95 percent of the fruits and vegetables in this country were grown with chemicals, now called conventional agriculture. The organic or alternative agriculture movement survived, refining and inproving techniques, and recently has been increasing its market share. One of the complaints about organic agriculture was that it could not grow enough to feed the world. However, this argument was fostered by the chemical agribusinesses, not by science. Read the attached report from Dr Mercola's recent newsletter, in which organic agriculture is shown to be able to feed the world better than by chemical means. (Mercola puts out a weekly health newsletter, the largest on the web)
As chemical agriculture was progressing, some of the chemical companies began to buy up seed companies. One result has been a drop in the numbers of varieties of seeds that are available. For example, Seminis used to offer approximately 8,000 varieties in 60 species of fruits and vegetables. On 28 June 2000 Seminis announced that it would eliminate 2,000 varieties, as part of a 'global restructuring and optimization plan. Vegetable gardeners are looking for better-tasting, more nutritious varieties, but the corporate breeder is more likely to provide tomatoes with longer shelf-life, or vegetables that can withstand mechanical harvesting and long-distance shipping. And most importantly, the seed corporation wants monopoly control over its varieties and that means high-tech, patented varieties.
(Much of the following is taken from : http://www.seedalliance.org/index.php?page=SeminisMonsanto Read it if you want greater detail)
Some history on seed production in the United States
Immigrants were encouraged to bring seed from the old country, founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson engaged in seed-exchange societies, and by 1819 the U.S. Treasury Department issued a directive to its overseas consultants and Navy officers to systematically collect plant materials. Beginning in the 1850s, congress saw to the collection, propagation and distribution of varieties to their constituents throughout the states and territories. The distribution of seed under USDA management reached its highest volume in 1897 with more than 1.1 billion packets of seed distributed.
The government’s objectives in funding seed distribution came from recognizing that feeding an expanding continent would require a diversification of foods, and introducing varieties was critical to food security.
The first commercial seed crop was not produced until 1866, but early seed trade professionals felt their growth was stymied by the U.S. government programs. In 1883, the American Seed Trade Association formed and lobbied for the cessation of the government programs.
In the early part of the 20th century, the first wave of hybrids began to provide seed companies with a potential increase in product profitability. (Remember that if you save seed from a hybrid, the new planting will not breed true - you must buy new seed every year) However, most of the hybrid development was occurring at Land Grant Universities, and these universities refused to give the companies exclusive rights to the seed. Once again, the industry felt its growth hindered by federal programs and complained of unfair trade practices.In 1924, after more than 40 years of lobbying, Congress cut the USDA seed distribution programs.
In the 1960s, a few larger seed firms began to purchase smaller companies. But the consolidations of this period were minor compared to the frenzy that would come with a Supreme Court ruling on June 16, 1980. Prior to that 1980 decision, a plant (or animal) could be owned, but the genetics could not. This decision allowed the patenting of life forms on the bases of their genetic coding. Companies that had no historical seed interests—primarily chemical and pharmaceutical firms—began purchasing seed companies. In a few short years, there were billions of dollars in mergers and acquisitions—with little to no regulatory oversight—creating for the first time a majority ownership of plant genetics by a few multinational companies. No other natural resource (marine, timber, minerals) has ever shifted from public to private hands with such rapidity, such intensity of concentration, and so little oversight.
Over the years Monsanto has earned a reputation as the most aggressive developer of genetically engineered agronomic crops like corn and soybeans. It has spent millions buying up regional seed companies, mostly as a way to compete with other large seed companies for market share. But in 2005, Monsanto bought Seminis Inc., the world's largest vegetable seed supplier, giving it a major presence in the vegetable seed business for the first time. Estimates of Monsanto's market power vary, but it probably owns over 1/2 of all vegetable seed production.
"Right now just a small handful of vegetable varieties contain genetically engineered traits," says C.R. Lawn, the founder of Fedco Seeds, a co-op that sells seeds to N.C. farmers. "And my concern is that Monsanto will eventually insert these traits into their vegetable varieties. They haven't said yes they will, but they haven't said no they won't, so we don't know. And we don't know the long-term effect of these traits on humans."
There is also speculation that if Monsanto can slowly start building the GMO vegetable-fruit market, then the debate over GMOs will become a moot point, as they will have made their way onto the plate and thus gained acceptance (or at least acquiescence
The way Monsanto has worked is to insert a gene that enables a plant to survive when sprayed with the pesticide Roundup. They have also made some plants that will only survive when treated with their fertilizers. This gives them not only the seed sales, but all of the supporting chemical sales.
Further, these GMO seeds are patented. That means if you save seed from one of their plants, and plant them, you are liable to be sued by Monsanto. Monsanto has in fact sued farmers for this 'theft' of their patented property, even when the farmer did not use the Monsanto seed, but has had some of the Monsanto genes end up in their plants dispersed by natural means (wind, etc)
THE BOTTOM LINE
Seed Savers Exchange (SSE, Decorah, Iowa) is the world s largest grassroots network devoted to rescuing garden diversity. SSE concludes that seed industry consolidation and the profit-motivated shift to hybrid varieties is the leading factor behind the disappearance of garden seed varieties in North America.
'It s impossible to predict how much irreplaceable vegetable diversity is earmarked for extinction as a result of corporate cost-cutting and consolidation.
Seed Savers Exchange has been monitoring the loss of non-hybrid garden diversity in the US and Canada since 1981. SSE s Garden Seed Inventory provides an inventory of all non-hybrid vegetable seeds available in mail order catalogs, it also serves as an 'early warning system' to identify varieties that are about to be dropped from commercial sources, thus allowing seed conservationists to rescue endangered varieties.
The Fifth Edition of the Garden Seed Inventory reveals that of the nearly 5,000 non-hybrid vegetable varieties available in 1981 mail-order catalogs, 88% had been dropped by 1998. Many of the mail-order seed companies in the US and Canada have gone out of business or were acquired by larger companies. Transnational agrochemical companies went on a buying spree, purchasing small seed companies and replacing their regionally adapted collections with more profitable hybrids and patented varieties. According to SSE, irreplaceable genetic resources were thoughtlessly destroyed by marketing decisions to maximize the short-term profits of corporations.
'If our vegetable diversity is allowed to die out, gardeners will become ever more dependent on transnational seed companies and the generic and hybrid and patented varieties that those companies choose to offer. And that means giving up our right to determine the quality of the food our families grow and consume, and also the ability of gardeners and farmers to save their own seeds, which is the reason that much of this incredible diversity exists in the first place
So, what can you do?
Buy your seeds from a source that you know is not owned by a larger chemical or such corporation. We have not investigated all of the seed companies that are currently in business. We do recommend Seed Savers Exchange. The pictures you have seen in these newsletters were of plants grown from their seeds, or from Victory Seed Company (www.victoryseeds.com ).