Food Supply Update: July 2000
Going...Going...Gone...Two Thousand Vegetable Seeds Eliminated!
Part ICopyright (c) 2000, Geri Guidetti
The Ark Institute http://www.arkinstitute.com
***This Update may be forwarded or posted, unedited, without permission. Edited versions must receive permission before re-publication.
The heated global dialogue surrounding genetically modified seeds and food security is about to get hotter--much hotter. Within two weeks of each other, two reports--one by the scientists and scholars representing seven top international science academies, and the other by RAFI, the Rural Advancement Foundation International--cover different, but related, aspects of the growing international debate over food security. Both point to components of a sweeping revolution that is dramatically changing the way the human race is wittingly or unwittingly positioning itself to feed its current six billion souls, a number projected to explode to nine billion in a mere 30 years. I will cover issues from both of these reports in Parts I and II of this Food Supply Update.
First, the RAFI report. Over the past several years, I have written to you of the gradual disappearance of non-hybrid or open-pollinated seeds from the marketplace. These were the seeds that humans have grown, improved, multiplied and saved from one year to the next to feed themselves and their communities since the dawn of human agriculture. While earlier food crop improvements were (and in some places still are) carried out by individual farmers using traditional breeding methods in the field, or by public agencies such as the U.S. Department of Agriculture working to improve the yields and quality of crops for the farmers it served, the potential profitability of an endless parade of new hybrids and now, genetically controlled plants whose seed cannot be saved for future crops, increasingly drew the attention of private seed companies that historically offered a wide array of locally and regionally adapted non-hybrids. Hybrids are revenue insurance. If seed cannot be saved by individuals and farmers for next year's crops, growers would have to return to the company for new seed each and every year. No matter if you cannot afford the seed because of weather related crop failures the year before. No money, no seed, no crop, no money--a viscious cycle that guarantees eventual bankruptcy.
Over the years, mergers and acquisitions of seed companies led to the current, relative handful of transnational corporate seed giants, many of whom also just happen to be in the pesticide and herbicide business. Food is good business. Agricultural chemicals to grow food are good business. People need to eat. As we move from the present six to the projected nine billion people in the next 30 years, we must find ways to feed and distribute food to that many more people and do so in a mere "speck" of time. It is this knowledge, this pressure of time, and the obvious recognition of the almost limitless size of the international food market that has biotechnology, seed and chemical companies as well as whole countries competing for their piece of the future food and food marketing pie.
Below is a detailed excerpt of RAFI's report on a recent announcement by vegetable seed giant, Seminis. The full report can be found at RAFI's web site. The address is printed, below. I'll meet you again at the end of the excerpt......
17 July 2000
Earmarked for Extinction?
Seminis Eliminates 2,000 Varieties
Summary: Seminis, the world's largest vegetable seed corporation, announced on 28 June that it would eliminate 2,000 varieties – or 25% of its total product line – as a cost-cutting measure. Seed industry consolidation is dramatically narrowing the availability of non-hybrid vegetable varieties and a wealth of seed diversity is being lost forever.
Back in 1980, seed activists and conservationists protested when the European Community amalgamated its member states' National Lists (plant varieties approved by governments for commercial sale) into a "Common Catalogue." When Brussels' bureaucrats proposed a common seed roster, the seed companies obliged by providing a "hit list" of over 1,500 variety "names" they claimed were only national synonyms of other named varieties. The 1,500 "synonyms" became "illegal" by decree. The deletions were not, of course, "synonyms." When the Catalogue was finalized, nearly 1,000 distinct vegetable varieties were wiped out of commercial existence simply because they represented low-profit competition in the form of non-hybrid or non-proprietary varieties.
Today, after decades of consolidation in the seed industry, it is corporate financial officers, not government bureaucrats, who are wiping out genetic diversity at the stroke of a pen.
Seminis – At a Glance
* Subsidiary of Mexico-based conglomerate Savia.
* 1999 seed revenues: US $531 million
* World's largest vegetable seed company
* World's fifth ranking seed company.
* Controls 40% of US vegetable seed market.
* Presence in 120 countries; 70 research stations in 19 countries and production sites in 32 countries.
Seminis, a subsidiary of the Mexican conglomerate Savia, controls nearly one-fifth 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 division of Asgrow, Petoseed and Royal Sluis. As a result of its buying binge, Seminis' offerings grew to approximately 8,000 varieties in 60 species of fruits and vegetables. On 28 June 2000 Seminis announced that it would eliminate 2,000 varieties – or 25% of its varieties, as part of a "global restructuring and optimization plan."
No one knows for sure which varieties will be dropped from Seminis' commercial line, but the older, less-profitable open-pollinated varieties will be the first to go. Seed corporations favor hybrids because profit margins are greater, because gardeners and farmers can't save hybrid seed (thus encouraging repeat customers), and because the newer varieties are more likely to be patented or protected by plant variety protection laws. Thirty years ago, most North American and European seed companies were small, family-owned businesses that specialized in varieties adapted to regional climates, with resistance to local pests and diseases. Today, just 10 companies control 30% of the commercial seed market worldwide. And just 5 vegetable seed companies control 75% of the global vegetable seed market.
Operating on a global scale, it's more economical for transnational seed companies to breed genetically-uniform varieties suited to the needs of commercial agribusiness, rather than the regional needs of small farmers or backyard gardeners. Corporate breeders are more likely to develop varieties that perform adequately over vast geographic areas, rather than breed for local climates, or for resistance to local pests or diseases. 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. Seminis is a leader in the development of genetically engineered vegetables. The company has 79 issued or allowed patents, and is seeking patents related to beans, bean sprouts,broccoli, cauliflower, celery, corn, cucumber, eggplant, endive, leek, lettuce, melon, muskmelon, onion, peas, pumpkin, radish, red cabbage, spinach, squash, sweet pepper, tomato, watermelon, and white cabbage.
Monitoring Erosion: US-based 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," says Kent Whealy, Executive Director of Seed Savers Exchange. "The seed varieties deemed obsolete and unprofitable by Seminis are now part of the company's private gene bank, and that rich diversity is lost to the public," adds Whealy.
According to Jodi Smith of Seminis, "Products that are removed from commercial sale will remain available to our plant breeders through our large bank of germplasm, maintaining biodiversity as a key part of our research and development strategy." From Decorah, Iowa, Kent Whealy is doubtful. "That's not our experience," Whealy regrets. "Conserving diversity in ex situ gene banks is expensive, especially re-growing older seed samples that are losing germination. If they're into cost-cutting, it won't be long before they jettison these 2,000 varieties"..... (End Excerpt)
Please note Jodi Smith's quoted comment that the removed products (seeds in this case) "will remain available to our plant breeders...." No longer to you, to American or other global farmers, to gardeners, etc., but to Seminis breeders to use as Seminis sees fit. Remember, Seminis is a leader in genetic engineering of vegetables. Please note its 79 patents on vegetables. If you don't see the significance of the virtually instantaneous removal of 2000 varieties from its commercial offerings, consider this: Seed Savers Exchange has been monitoring the loss of commercially available non-hybrid seeds since 1981. In that year there were about 5000 vegetable seed varieties available from mail order catalogs. By 1998, 88% had been dropped! The world's largest vegetable seed company which controls 40% of the U.S. vegetable market just announced the dropping of 2000 varieties of seeds in one day, in one bold stroke. Are there more patents down the road that will genetically engineer varieties among these 2000 dropped seeds rendering them patented, protected or genetically sterile? I'd bet my dog on it, and I love my dog.
Food seed biodiversity is critical--absolutely critical--to human survival. For one reason, whenever one of the inevitable plant plagues sweeps across huge swaths of land, even across whole countries, biodiversity is the way we find those varieties that are resistant. We're not going to find them if they lie aging in the jars and freezers of corporate labs. Ask the Irish about the Irish potato famine and the millions who died from that plant fungal plague. A rich, biodiverse genetic heritage almost ensures that protected pockets of resistant plants will stand like oases in virtual deserts of destruction. From these we have historically bred new seed stock.
Our rich food seed heritage with its God-given biodiversity, the genetic foundation for human survival, is rapidly being tampered with, patented, and transferred from gardens, fields and the free marketplace to reside in the "germplasm banks" of a handful of transnational corporations. If the seeds you can grow and save to feed yourself and your neighbor aren't in the stores or in the catalogs, then you can't buy them. If you don't already own them, will you ever be able to get them again?
Not likely unless you know a seed saver.
Once again (see Terminator, Verminator and related GURT technologies at http://www.arkinstitute.com) we see a huge company making what may be judged as a smart business decision. It will no doubt improve the bottom line and investors' portfolios. But when is a smart business decision not smart? It is not smart when it has the potential to hurt people in the long run. At the very least, this decision will hurt those least able to afford to buy new seed each year. It is never smart to encourage dependency, to discourage self-reliance. Removal of non-hybrid food seeds from the marketplace has the potential to do just that. This is especially true in poor, developing countries.
Finally, it is definitely not smart to remove millions, perhaps billions, of genes from the global gene pool in one broad brush stroke. This amounts to instantaneous genetic erosion. Who knows the identity and purpose of all of the genes contained in those 2000 varieties? Answer: No human, and there are natural balances and adaptive, evolutionary forces at work among these genes, the genes of plant disease organisms, and the rest of the Earth's organisms that none of us can even hope to fully understand, yet our lives may depend on them. It is what we do not know that can hurt us most. We might inadvertently throw a baby out with the bath water.
RAFI suggests that Seminis make the list of discontinued seeds available and insure that duplicates of the retired seed varieties be made available to international seed banks to be held "in trust" for the global community. By international agreement, seed held in trust is in the public domain, is freely available to all breeders, and cannot be subject to intellectual property claims. This is an excellent recommendation, though I would also like to see Seminis reverse or modify its decision. Perhaps they would also be willing to rotate their offerings of these 2000 varieties over, say, a three year cycle. This would reduce their current production costs, yet keep these varieties out in the field. You can find out more about Seminis and several links to company resources and contacts via the Lycos search engine. Type "Seminis seed" in the search box.
Going, going, gone...2000 vegetable varieties, a broad swath of our food heritage and right to personal food security, is about to be swept from commercial availability to corporate control. Those non-hybrid seeds you bought, grew and saved have just become so much more valuable, that much more important. There is a good likelihood that your collection contains at least several, if not many, of the varieties in the as yet undisclosed 2000 about to be retired. Treasure them, reproduce them, share them, give them away. Educate and encourage others to do the same.
If you don't have them yet, the Ark Institute will help you. We will continue offering free non-hybrid into the fall. Yes, they can be stored for next year. Don't call our 800# for free seeds. You must go to http://www.arkinstitute.com for complete details. Please take advantage of it--now. It will not be available next year. We simply cannot afford it. If you know of churches, prisons, food banks, etc, that will use this seed for good, please let them know. We will donate bulk seed in large quantities, too. Email me. If you need books on food gardening and seed saving to get started, we'll send them to you at our cost--50% off their cover price--for those we have in stock. Email us for availability of the titles at our web site. We will "put your name on it" to ensure a copy if we have it in stock. There has never been, nor is there likely to be again, a more affordable opportunity to get involved in this critical effort, this mission to preserve the natural genetic heritage of our food supply, to ensure our personal food security. This is our mission. Please make it yours, too...
Geri Guidetti, The Ark Institute
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