Seeds Shape Our Future

by Tom Tomas and Cris Carusi

Seeds are the basis of agriculture. We take for granted that we will always be able to buy varieties that suit our needs. There are forces at work in the seed industry, however, that will severely limit our choices of what seeds we can buy and who we can buy them from.

Today, the seed industry is being concentrated in the hands of a few multinational corporations, and these corporations have little or no interest in sustainable agriculture. Indeed, their interests lie in the opposite direction.

In its September 29, 1998 issue, the Wall Street Journal pointed out that "most seed companies have either aligned themselves with or been acquired by crop-biotechnology juggernauts like Monsanto Co., DuPont Co., and Dow Chemical Co." These corporations are in the chemical business and see the seed industry as a way to insure a growing market for their herbicides.

By using biotechnology to incorporate herbicide resistant genes into plants that have already been bred to respond to high inputs of fertilizers, these multinational corporations are creating plant varieties that depend on an expensive chemical regimen to survive. This dependence will insure huge profits for the corporations and greater input costs for farmers.

This is not the only adverse effect of bioengineering of seeds. By patenting the genes they insert into the seeds, the corporations maintain legal control of the right to propagate those seeds in future generations. In other words, you will not be able to save seeds from these crops for your own use or to sell to neighbors without paying royalties. In fact, in the future a few corporations may control what we plant, what we eat, and what we wear. Profit rather than food security will be the main consideration of these corporations.

Farmers across the country refuse to passively let the corporate giants gain this control over our food system. The Farmer Cooperative Genome Project was organized to unite farmers and gardeners in an effort to ensure that people will have access to seeds that meet their needs.

The Farmer Cooperative Genome Project met in Salem, Oregon in March to explore ways in which as many people as possible can join together to assure an open access to seeds and basic genetic material for the common good. The meeting was organized by JJ Haapala, Farmer Cooperative Genome Project Administrator and Director of Research and Education at Oregon Tilth. He brought together plant breeders, farmers, people from small independent seed companies and others interested in seed production and distribution.

The conclusion of the two day meeting was that we can insure open access to seeds if we work together. Farmers will have to learn to grow more of their own seeds and make them available to others through cooperative seed exchanges or independent seed companies. Plant breeders will have to work directly with farmers to produce varieties that meet local needs. Government agencies, such as the National Germplasm Repository, are willing to work directly with anyone seriously interested in evaluating germplasm from around the world. Anyone who has an interest in the quality of the food we will eat in the future can and must support this effort.

Dr. Richard Hannan, who directs the Regional Plant Introduction Station of the National Plant Germplasm System in Washington, spoke at the meeting. He pointed out the need for farmers and gardeners to grow out seeds that are stored in the National Plant Germplasm Repository, but have not been grown out and characterized. These seeds have been collected from around the world and are part of the national collection but, due to lack of funds and people, they have never been grown out under local conditions to see how they will perform.

If serious gardeners and farmers are willing to grow out samples of these seeds, they can describe how they grow under local environmental conditions. Their reports can become a part of the database of information that plant breeders, including gardeners and farmers, can access when they are seeking new genetic resources for their breeding efforts.

Our generation will decide the nature of the food mankind will eat in the future. If enough of us choose to accept our responsibility to breed our own seed, our food will come from a great diversity of visions of what food should be. If we choose to abdicate that responsibility, our food will reflect Monsanto’s vision of food for profit instead of food for people.

The decisions we make about the seeds we plant on our farms and in our gardens will shape the future. Which genetic legacy do you want to leave to your children?

The plants we enjoy today represent the choices made by individual gardeners and farmers for thousands of years. They chose certain genetic material because they thought it was beautiful, because they thought it tasted good, and because they thought it yielded more and better food, fiber, and flowers.

This genetic heritage is valuable and should be conserved, but it is more important to conserve the idea that it represents - the idea that each of us can influence the future by shaping the plants that will sustain us and our children. We need to save people who save seeds more than we need to save germplasm.

A plant germinates from a seed, grows to flower and produces seeds for the next generation. We are born, grow up, and produce children for the next generation. Unlike plants, we have the ability to influence the environment in which our children will live.

We can pass on not only our own genetic heritage, but the genetic material in plants that represents our vision of what is beautiful, bountiful and beneficial. If we choose to save seed, future generations may live in a better world.

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