Going to Seed
The Community Farm Newsletter

Community Supported Agriculture

From the Spring 2003 issue

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Part One, The Seed Industry and Industrious Farmers
Seeds are the basis of agriculture. The selections we make determine more than the flavor, nutritional value, appearance and other characteristics we are used to reading about in our seed catalogues. “The decisions we make about the seeds we plant on our farms and in our gardens will shape the future.” Furthermore, the seeds we have access to are a product of our past: they represent “the choices made by individual farmers and gardeners for thousands of years.”1 These individuals were choosing and saving genetic material because it tasted good, or yielded more, or was more beautiful.

Seeds Under Siege?
We take it for granted that we will find those characteristics in seed catalogues every year. There is reason to wonder, however, whether this will always be so. In fact, many of us have been frustrated to find a favorite variety dropped from the catalogues, with little hope that it will return.

One problem is that the seed industry is becoming concentrated. Thirty years ago, most seed companies were small businesses that specialized in varieties adapted to regional climates, with resistance to local pests and diseases. Now a few multinational corporations, with little or no interest in sustainable agriculture, are responsible for a large proportion of seed sales worldwide. The Wall Street Journal has pointed out that “most seed companies have either aligned themselves with or been acquired by crop-biotechnology juggernauts like Monsanto, Dupont and Dow Chemical.” 2

The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) reports that the top 10 seed companies control approximately 30% of the commercial seed market worldwide, and just 5 vegetable seed companies control 75% of the global vegetable seed market.3

Here is an example of what can happen: Seminis, a subsidiary of the Mexican conglomerate Savia, controls nearly 20% of the worldwide fruit and vegetable seed market and is the source of approximately 40% of all vegetable seeds sold in the United States. The company built its seed empire by acquiring a dozen or so seed companies–most notably, the garden seed divisions of Asgrow, Petoseed and Royal Sluis. Seminis' offerings grew to approximately 8,000 varieties in 60 species of fruits and vegetables. In June 2000, Seminis announced that it would eliminate 2,000—or 25%—of its varieties as part of a “global restructuring and optimization plan.”4 Since the most profitable seed lines are the hybrids, with a greater likelihood of being protected by patents or plant variety protection laws, the first varieties to be dropped are likely the open pollinated seeds—not incidentally the only ones that gardeners and farmers can reliably save for themselves.

The Effect on the Farmer
According to C.R. Lawn, founder of Fedco Seeds, “We should be concerned about this lack of diversity because it already affects us as farmers and will even more in the future.”5 Many varieties in the seed catalogues are from single-source suppliers, and often they are hybrids that are proprietary secrets or patented. These varieties are not available to anyone else and, once discontinued, are not likely to return. Maybe one of your favorites is in this short list of recently dropped varieties: Bravo and Emperor broccoli, Southport Red- and New York Early onion, Platinum Lady sweet corn, Julius Savoy cabbage, Blizzard snow pea, Sugar Lode snap pea, Elisa sweet- and Paprika Fire hot pepper.

What You Can Do
As discouraging as the “corporatization” of our seed supply is, there are encouraging signs of change, and actions that you can take. One important response is to vote with your seed dollars.

Alternative seed companies are sprouting up. Many of these small companies specialize in organic seed, others promote unique or unusual varieties, still others offer biodynamic seed. You will pay more for these seeds, but you will be supporting an important and growing group of seed providers.
Withholding support from the giants of the seed industry is another way to retake some control. Fedco Seeds has made it easy. Each variety in their catalogue has a code that tells you the seed’s source. Five categories cover a range from “small seed farmers” to “multinationals who are engaged in genetic engineering.”

The Safe Seed Pledge
The Council for Responsible Genetics and the High Mowing Organic Seed Farm recently launched a project called the “Safe Seed Initiative.” The initiative is simple: seed companies sign a pledge (see sidebar) stating that they will not buy or sell genetically engineered seeds. “As gardeners and farmers, we can take action by buying from seed companies that have signed the pledge.”6 If you deal with a company that has not signed on, call them and encourage them to get involved.7

Save Your Own
“Better yet,” says C.R. Lawn, “become a seed saver.” Kent and Diane Whealy started the Seed Savers Exchange 25 years ago with just three varieties from his grandfather. The organization is now credited with preserving more than 11,000 varieties. Lawn suggests, “Seeds, like money, are energy. Like money, when they accumulate and concentrate in a few hands it is a sign of social disease. When they circulate freely and are regrown widely it is a sign of social health.” Saving seeds can be a whole study unto itself, but a rewarding one in many different ways. Some seed saving basics will appear in the next article in this series.

The Farmer Cooperative Germplasm Project (FCGP) (see “Seed Saved, Seed Lost,” The Community Farm #11, Autumn 2000) is picking up speed. Some objectives of the FCGP are to:
--Return farmers and gardeners to the practices of seed growing and saving
--Improve farmer understanding of the National Plant Germplasm System
--Identify new varieties of plants with unique and important traits
--Foster the development of farmer owned, low cost, value added enterprise
--Encourage people to trial and evaluate plant varieties and publish discoveries
--Serve as an international model for farmer owned seed preservation efforts
--Introduce new and traditional varieties to gardeners, farmers, and consumers
--Reduce farmer and gardener reliance on seed and agricultural inputs

Break the Hybrid Habit
Breaking the hybrid habit will be an important step in taking back our seed supply. The small, specialty seed companies will generally be offering all or mostly open pollinated seeds. Any seed that you save must be from non-hybrids because the hybrids do not reproduce true to type—which keeps you coming back to the seed company that produced it. Breaking the hybrid habit is not easy, in part because breeding, improving, or even maintaining open pollinated varieties has languished for many years. “Those of you dependent for your living on having the earliest melons or raising unblemished tomatoes will not be able to go cold turkey or you will suffer from delirium tremens at your markets,” says Lawn. But, he continues, “The superiority of hybrids became the self-fulfilling prophecy of the seed wholesalers.” There are some great open pollinated varieties out there, either genetic stars or the result of deliberate farmer breeding. “Think of hybrids as incomplete varieties that have never been stabilized,” adds Lawn. “The big seed wholesalers have an economic disincentive to complete them because they want you to be dependent.” He suggests that you experiment with some promising open pollinated varieties, do some modest trials, replace a few hybrids each year. “At the same time, educate your customers about what constitutes quality…[it is] more than just a pretty face.”

Seeds and Organic Standards
Under the new USDA rules, a certified organic grower must use organic seeds if they are “commercially available.” How this will actually be interpreted remains somewhat uncertain, though Jim Moses, an Independent Organic Inspectors Association trained organic farm inspector, suggests that farmers “document your attempts to find organic seed.”8 Companies like Fedco Seeds, Moose Tubers and Johnny’s Selected Seeds already offer many organic varieties, and there will no doubt be more every year. “When there is a choice, I buy organic seed,” says Moses. Read catalogue descriptions carefully: while some of the larger seed companies are increasing their supply of organic seed, only a few suppliers offer only organic seed. The National Organic Standards Board has recommended that “A pattern of inadequate documentation and lack of good faith effort to obtain organically grown seeds and planting stock would be considered noncompliance” resulting in the possibility that the certifier would review purchases in future planting cycles.9 The National Organic Program rules remain unclear in this regard, however. While new organic rules do not go into effect for producers until October, 2002, some certifiers may begin operating under them in the next season. It is important to ask your certifier what you need to do with regard to seeds for the next season.

In subsequent articles we will have more on seed saving, breeding your own varieties, heirlooms, organic seed and other seedy issues. 

References and Notes
1 Tomas, T. & Carusi, C., “Seeds Shape our Future,” Nebraska Sustainable Agriculture Society Newsletter, Summer, 1999
2 Wall Street Journal, September 29, 1998
3 “Globalization, Inc.: Concentration in Corporate Power: The Unmentioned Agenda,” RAFI Communique, July/August,
2001, Issue # 71, www.rafi.org
4 RAFI Geno-Types, 17July 2000 www.rafi.org
5 C.R. Lawn, Fedco Seeds. Quotes are taken from keynote addresses the Connecticut NOFA Conference, March 2001 and to the Maine Organic Farmer and Gardener Association, September 2000.
6 Beland , Amber, “The Safe Seed Pledge: A Move Towards Food Protection,” Genewatch, V. 14, No. 1 January 2001
7 For a frequently updated list of seed companies who have signed the safe seed pledge, currently around 60, click on
www.purefood.org/ge/gefreeseed.cfm or www.gene-watch.org/programs/safeseeds/safeseeds.html
8 Moses, Jim, personal interview September 11, 2001
9 http://www.ams.usda.gov/nop/

For a list of some of the organic and other small seed companies we have heard of send an SASE to The Community Farm or email csafarm@jackpine.com. The companies listed here are those mentioned in the article above.
Fedco Seeds, Moose Tubers
PO Box 520
Waterville, ME 04903
(207) 873-7333
High Mowing Organic Seed Farm
813 Brook Rd
Wolcott, VT 05680
(802) 888-2480
Johnny's Selected Seeds
2580 Foss Hill Road, Box 2580
Albion, ME 04910
(207) 437-9294
Seed Saver’s Exchange
3076 North Winn Road
Decorah, IA  52101 
(319) 382-5990
The Farmer Cooperative Germplasm Project
30848 Maple Dr.
Junction City, OR 97448
(541) 998-3069

The Safe Seed Pledge
The Council for Responsible Genetics and the High Mowing Organic Seed Farm recently launched a project called the “Safe Seed Initiative.” The initiative is simple: seed companies sign a pledge (see sidebar) stating that they will not buy or sell genetically engineered seeds. “As gardeners and farmers, we can take action by buying from seed companies that have signed the pledge.”6 If you deal with a company that has not signed on, call them and encourage them to get involved.7

Going to Seed, Part Two

The Community Farm<, Winter 2002 Issue

With the implementation of the new organic rules from the USDA next October certified organic growers must use organic seed if it is “commercially available.” If not using organic seed, growers will have to document their attempt to find it. While farmers wait for final interpretation of what this actually means, and while seed companies gear up (hopefully) to meet this new demand, it makes sense to start looking at the whole issue of seed production.

Less than 1/10 of 1% of commercially grown seed on the market is organically grown, according to Co-op America’s Real Money (Spring 2000). Furthermore, “the commercial seed trade is one of the heaviest users of pesticides and fertilizers in the agriculture industry.” 1 Organic seed is available, but usually in small or modest quantities, relatively few varieties, and often at a cost that can only be sustained at the small garden level. On the other hand, it seems disingenuous to ask consumers to pay a premium for organically grown food at the same time that growers resist the added cost of organic seeds.
The 2002 seed catalogues are in. Several—including Fedco, Johnny’s, Bountiful Gardens and others—have added to their line of organic seed, and are pointing it out prominently. Fedco and Bountiful Gardens as well as many small seed companies also offer seeds from small producers who may be using organic principles but are not certified. But organic seed remains only a small part of most seed catalogues. Fedco offers the largest-ever selection of organic seed at 65 varieties. “Small-farm” grown seed constitutes 14.4% of the varieties in Fedco’s catalogue (up from 9.3% in 1998) with a commitment to increase that to 20% over the next five years. At Johnny’s, organic seed is “up by 50% compared to last year,” according to Eva Littlefield, and demand is on the rise. Will there be more organic seed next year? “Most definitely,” predicts Littlefield.

Still, Fedco founder C.R. Lawn is concerned about the new seed rules. The requirement for organic growers to use organic seed was unanticipated, as few certifying agencies had such a rule. “While the intent is laudable…its impact may not be,” according to Lawn. “The seed industry is far from ready. Organic seed is in short supply…and almost completely unavailable for those hybrid varieties which are commercial mainstays.”

Since the seed industry is demand-driven, an increase in farmers’ demand for organic seed might result in an increase in production. Lawn is concerned, though, about a “different…outcome: a slowing of the surge in demand for organic seed” if growers decide to abandon certification or if “farmers and certifiers use the loophole lurking in the vague concept of ‘availability.’”

Several growers we have contacted will be using more organic seed this year. But with most organic seed available by the packet rather than by the pound, widespread adoption of organic seed is likely to be slow. One solution? Grow your own. We will discuss this side of the seed equation next time.

For a list of seed suppliers that include organic seed in their catalogues, write The Community Farm, visit our website at http://tcf.itgo.com or email csafarm@jackpine.com. ATTRA lists many seed sources at: http://www.attra.org/attra-pub/altseed.html or call 800/346-9140. The listing indicates whether seed is organic and other information. The Organic Materials Review Institute (OMRI) Certified Organic Seed and Planting Stock List is under construction at http://omri.org/OMRI_SEED_list.html Ω


1 Real Money, Vol.2, No.1, Summer 2000. Co-op America, 202/872-5307