Unnatural Selection: Seed Biodiversity and the Food Chain
It is estimated that ten companies own more than 75 percent of all crop seeds grown today globally. These companies continuously drop unpatented and old heirloom seed varieties in favor of the more profitable, patented ones, claiming that these “privately owned” seeds are necessary for company profits, which will, in turn, inspire and create innovation in crop research. But of course the incentive is money—not health, genetic diversity or choice. Patents, biotechnology and money. The 21st century’s “unnatural selection” of food crops want to dictate what we eat.
The squash you buy at the supermarket is most likely grown from a variety of vegetable seed engineered by one of the Big 10 seed companies, and, like the tasteless tomatoes offered by these industrial food chains, it wasn’t grown with flavor or nutrition in mind, but rather qualities like its ability to ship well, easy harvest, attractiveness, long shelf life or just as likely for its genetically modified pest and disease resistance. The loss of genetic diversity resulting from this control over the commercial grower is causing concern globally. One shocking statistic from ETC Group, whose mission is to address the socioeconomic and ecological issues surrounding new technologies that could have an impact on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people, states, “Small local producers, worldwide, grow around 7000 crops, while the industrial food chain grows about 150 crops.” Now that’s scary for the future of seed diversity.
One of the so-called “innovative biotechnologies” brushing aside any concern for biodiversity is Terminator technology, or “suicide seeds”. These are seeds that are genetically modified to be sterile, preventing the farmer from saving his own seed and passing on a plant variety adapted to his region.
Even unpatented seed is facing a crisis. I have been saving seeds of my favorite heirloom lettuce and tomato varieties for many years, along with a few other vegetables, and lucky I did, as many of them are no longer available. But for the past few years I have had to order a few common seed varieties that I normally have on hand from my own seed saving. Winterbor Kale, a biennial, is one. A biennial needs to overwinter in order to collect seed the following spring. Our past two winters didn’t allow my plants to survive, so I went to my favorite seed catalog only to find Winterbor unavailable because of a “crop failure”. I checked another seed company and then another and another—in all over 15 seed companies—and everyone claimed crop failure and had no seeds available. I thought this was odd. Were all the seeds grown on the same farm?
This was just the beginning. I made a few phone calls to seed companies to ask where Winterbor was grown and why there was such a shortage. What I discovered was rather disquieting. It turns out that Winterbor is grown in the Northeast, and they had seed-saving failure for the same reason I did. I was also told that yes, this variety of kale was all grown on the same farm, although most seed companies and seed brokers buy seed grown around the world. Many buy from places as far away as China or India where seed costs are less expensive. Definitely not seed adapted to the Northeast. Logically, you want to use seeds grown in your area of the world. Seeds acclimated to your local climate, soil and growing-season length are going to grow into plants that are more resistant to pests and disease and healthier overall. Plants naturally adjust to climate fluctuations through natural selection.
Most seed crops are contracted out and a farmer grows them on his own land. I did that once myself a few years back, growing an heirloom squash for seed for Baker Creek, a small heirloom seed company. There are domestic farmers growing organic and heirloom seed, but many other seeds are contracted to wholesale distributors. This seed is then transported all over the world, and may be stored in warehouses for long periods of time and endure many temperature fluctuations in travel, resulting in low seed germination rates. And don’t forget, they may not be adapted to the region where they are planted. Furthermore, when you buy seeds from different seed catalogs, nine out of ten times you are actually buying from the same company, which is owned by an umbrella company. Even if it isn’t, the seed itself has most likely been purchased wholesale from the same seed broker. Check your seed catalogs! You’ll be surprised to see who actually owns the company. You can see the problem.
There are ways to avoid this or to at least find out where your seed was originally purchased or grown by buying from seed companies that offer heirlooms and contract small growers, like Fedco, a seed company from Maine that actually provides “keys” to seed origin in their catalogs; Johnny’s Selected Seeds, a grower-owned company that supplies both local and foreign seed; or Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), a nonprofit organization that offers a huge collection of heirlooms with linkage back through generations of family seed saving.
SSE has also made large storage deposits of these unique seeds into seed banks. An extensive study by the ETC Group has monitored technologies and corporate mergers related to seeds, and has uncovered some very interesting statistics about the future of our ability to feed the world.
Contrary to what the Industrial Food Chain (Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta, etc.) would have you believe through their claims about their capacity to feed the world, the ETC Group’s studies have revealed these startling statistics, “Small farms, rural and urban, fisheries and pastoralists not only feed a majority of the world’s people, but also create and conserve most of the world’s biodiversity. The Industrial Food Chain, on the other hand, uses about 70% of the world’s agricultural resources to produce just 30% of our global food supply.”
But threats to seed diversity do not end with corporate manipulation and genetic engineering; there are other factors involved, both natural and unnatural.
Midway between continental Norway and the North Pole, in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, buried within a frozen sandstone mountain and deep within a manmade tunnel, is Svalbard Global Seed Vault. Inside the vault, the world’s largest and most diverse collection of food crop seed diversity awaits the unknown future of agriculture. Important food production crop seed take precedence within the vault. There are more than 1700 gene banks worldwide that are safekeeping these vulnerable crops that are exposed not only to natural catastrophes and climate change, but war. For this reason the Svalbard seed bank was created. Svalbard is an insurance policy for other seed banks. Its remote location assures the seeds’ safety from natural disasters as well as political unrest; seeds ready to “restart the world as we know” in case of some, global, cataclysmic event.
For the first time since the establishment of seed banks there has been a request for a seed withdrawal from Svalbard by the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) seed bank in Aleppo, Syria, where war has threatened one of the most important drought- and heat-resistant seed crop collections in the world. The collection includes more than 135,000 varieties of wheat, fava bean, lentil and chickpea crops, as well as the world’s most valuable barley collection.
According to ICARDA Director General Mahmoud El-Solh, “These are land races that were inherited from our grand-grandparents, most of them are unfortunately extinct now. And this is where the cradle of agriculture was 10,000 years ago. In this part of the world, many of the important crops were domesticated from the wild to cultivation. This is a source of desirable traits, including drought tolerance, heat tolerance, resistance to disease and so forth. So this collection has lived through natural selection for hundreds of years.” A loss of these types of crops would wipe out centuries of nature’s and man’s irreplaceable crop trait selection—like the wild grasses that have become the wheat we eat today—an irreplaceable collection of genetic evolution.
The area where the collection was housed was damaged by shelling and then occupied by rebels and is no longer structurally sound or accessible. Many of these types of collections need to be regrown every so many years to keep their vitality stable. The situation in Syria is so dire that they’ve asked to withdraw 130 of the 325 boxes that they delivered to the vault before the war to bring to their new “grow out” locations in Lebanon and Morocco.
The claims from Monsanto and the other “Big 10” that their biotechnology is going to save the world is dwarfed by the importance of these heirloom seed collections. Plant genetic preservation is a movement everyone can get involved in by saving their own seeds and demanding to know where the seed that grows their food comes from.