At The American Conservative, Gracy Olmstead explains the fight small farmers face against big agribusiness companies attempting to gain more control over the seed market. She writes (abridged):
Kristina Hubbard, director of advocacy and communications for Organic Seed Alliance, noted in a report titled “Out of Hand,” that Congress, up until this point, had “consistently argued that sexually reproducing plants should not be awarded patents for fear of curtailing innovation, threatening the free exchange of genetic resources, and increasing market concentration.” But when the PVPA was passed, attitudes shifted.
“Two years after genetically engineered (GE) varieties were introduced in 1996…the large agribusiness companies had accelerated their consolidation by buying up smaller firms to accumulate more intellectual property (IP) rights,” Hubbard wrote in a January article for Civil Eats.
Private companies are increasingly acquiring more and more of the world’s germplasm. While there are still substantial seed banks throughout the U.S. government, land grant universities, and small seed companies, the world’s largest germplasm library belongs to Monsanto (and thus, considering its 2018 acquisition of Monsanto, to Bayer). In order to have access to that store of germplasm, companies have to license it.
“Many smaller companies could not compete with large firms that owned much of the genetic resource base in seed, and licensing genetics from these firms was costly,” Hubbard writes in “Out of Hand.” At the time her report was published in 2009, “at least 200 independent seed companies [had] been lost in the last thirteen years alone.”
Most independent seed companies still operating struggle to compete with large corporations—in part because they own so much of the germplasm, and it costs so much to license it, but also because farmers and buyers often like having big brand names behind their seed, as they associate quality and reliability with these seed giants.
Four seed companies now dominate the brand-name seed market, accounting for over 60 percent of global proprietary seed sales. Economists say an industry has lost its competitive character when the concentration ratio of the top four firms is 40 percent or higher.
Philip Howard of Michigan State University published seed industry consolidation charts in 2008 and 2013 which depicted the stark acceleration of acquisitions and mergers throughout the seed industry since 1996. His 2018 chart is even more striking, as it shows that the Big Six—Monsanto, DuPont, Syngenta, Dow, Bayer, and BASF—have become the Big Four: Bayer, BASF, ChemChina, and Corteva.
“For farmers, the options continue to be reduced,” Howard told Civil Eats. “Although Bayer sold a number of seed divisions to BASF to pave the way for its acquisition of Monsanto, the share of the market controlled by the largest firms has only increased.”
A lot of this growth has been fueled by the company’s ownership of germplasm (and ensuing ability to patent and license it via intellectual property rights). But in Goodbar’s opinion, “none of this consolidation would have happened if it weren’t for biotechnology.” Producing genetically engineered seed is research- and breeding-intensive—and thus, extremely costly. Many large companies have relied on licensing and patenting agreements in order to make enough money to keep producing their traited seeds.
In 2007, the ETC Group estimated that Monsanto’s biotech seeds and traits (including those licensed to other companies) accounted for 87 percent of world land devoted to genetically engineered seed. That same year, 48 percent of DuPont’s seed revenue came from traited products.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds is doing its part to combat this trend. Founder Jere Gettle has been described by The New York Times as the “Indiana Jones of seeds,” as he has traveled the world in search of rare heirlooms. These days, many people send their rare seeds to Baker Creek’s seed bank.
Although Baker Creek sells seeds on their website and in a print catalogue, they also distribute them for free to school and community garden programs.
Bayer and other large agribusiness companies … seem to be cognizant of rising interest in small farmers, and are tailoring their businesses to address this competition at the grassroots level. Christi Dixon, a spokesperson for Bayer, noted in an interview that the company is teaming up with irrigation company Netafim and insurance company Swiss Re Corporate Solutions to launch “Better Life Farming”—an effort specifically designed to assist “smallholder farmers” on less than two hectares of land. The alliance plans to help them with “planting seeds, precision irrigation, crop protection, finance, and insurance,” Dixon said.
In recent years, advocates for “slow food” or “slow living” have sprung up, arguing that more traditional rhythms are often better for the planet and for us. “Slow” seed production would emphasize the treasures of the past alongside the innovations of the present, and build a certain friction into our endeavors—accountability, long-term testing, respect for tradition, and willingness to question technological progressivism, for instance—in order to ensure mindfulness and care.
Farmer and author Joel Salatin told TAC in an email that he is observing “an aggressive and healthy backlash in the seed community against all this patenting and trying to keep as much plasm as possible in the public square.” He argues that patenting a seed due to genetic engineering is akin to someone “patenting a Ford car because he invented a new kind of headlight. Nobody would grant such a broad patent. The point is that 99 percent of all the material in a seed has nothing to do with invention; it’s just out there in the universe of life.”
Read more here.