The statistics are depressing: Agrochemical giant Monsanto owns 26 percent of all the seeds sold in the United States. Recently, a $130 billion merger between DuPont and Dow means that company now owns 18.2 percent of the seed market share. Roughly three companies, in other words, sell half of all the seeds in the country.
Nonetheless, there is a real uprising in the United States of growers who want more choices. Ken Greene, founder of Hudson Valley Seed Library (www.seedlibrary.org), based in upstate New York, came to Santa Fe in March to talk about seed sovereignty, seed saving and the general state of the seed universe with the public and Santa Fe Farmers’ Market vendors. The event was sponsored by the Santa Fe Farmers’ Market Institute, the nonprofit fundraising arm of our local farmers’ market.
Greene was working in a library in Gardiner, N.Y., more than a decade ago when he first became interested in seeds. Soon he started seeking out old seed catalogues, poring over pages of tomato and pepper and other listings from the 1800s, filing away information on old varieties and organizing a “seed library” to accompany his book library. Library customers were invited to “check out” seeds in the spring, grow-out the vegetables, and return seeds after harvest in the fall—forming the first model for a seed library in the nation in 2005. (Many more exist today.)
In time, the seed library simply took over his life, Greene said. Thus was born Hudson Valley Seed Library, designed to cultivate, improve, nurture and sustain some of the world’s disappearing vegetable varieties. While Monsanto’s genetically modified (GMO) corn has names like “MON 802,” a lively discussion was held at Greene’s workshop about a new organic corn variety—a non-hybrid—called “Who Gets Kissed?”
The variety, developed under organic conditions by High Mowing Seed Company, was named based on a game played at corn-husking bees across early America. “All corn was OP (open-pollinated) back then and very diverse,” the High Mowing site states. “When a person found an ear with red, instead of yellow kernels (a very rare occurrence), they could choose whom to kiss! While you won’t find any red ears, OP variability is a signature of ‘Who Gets Kissed?’ and provided the inspiration for its name.”
Greene, too, can tell tales about his OP vegetables—the librarian who brought her father’s baking bean back into production; the “Bridge to Paris” pepper developed by some New York small farmers after their favorite hybrid pepper was dropped by seed companies; the Lacy Phacelia flowers bred by New York orchardists for growing under their trees.
Nationally and globally, consolidation in the seed market increased dramatically from the 1990s to 2013, as Greene showed in a visual chart that chemical companies, including Monsanto, Syngenta (which Monsanto is attempting to buy), Dow and DuPont actually own a large percentage of the world’s seed companies. In other words, in 2013, chemical companies— those that peddle pesticides and herbicides—owned the seed companies selling most of the world’s seeds.
Most of those seeds are hybrids, Greene says, and not GMO. Many people don’t realize that hybrids can be patented, and even some basic varieties common in all seed catalogues are patents owned by Monsanto and other major agrochemical corporations. For example, Sierra Blanca onion, while not GMO, is an F-1 hybrid, the patent of which is owned by a company owned by Monsanto.
For home gardeners and small farmers, it is becoming increasingly important to save your own seed, as we lose the biodiversity of vegetable seeds that our grandparents grew. And hybrid seed does not reproduce true, so many seed companies are increasingly encouraging growers to plant non-hybrid, heirloom and OP seed. Greene talks about his explorations of old seed catalogues from the 1800s and early 1900s, when nearly every region had a local seed company that carried seeds that would work in that region. Before that, he said, it seems there was no such thing as a place to buy seeds—people simply planted their own.
Companies such as Hudson Valley, Adaptive Seeds, Uprising Seeds, Victory Heirloom Seeds, Turtle Tree, Wild Garden Seed, Baker Creek and others are springing up across the country as more farmers begin to value the old varieties that are often more suited to some climates, Greene notes. In New Mexico, look to more local companies such as Farm Direct Organic Seed, based in Colorado, which breeds varieties that might work best for our Rocky Mountain and Southwestern climates.
Big companies are breeding tomatoes for, say, market shelf life, while old varieties were bred for taste or production under certain circumstances. When deciding where to buy seed, Greene suggested looking for companies that have taken the Safe Seed Pledge, which states that the companies will not knowingly sell GMO varieties. But to take it a step farther, look for companies that sell only OP or heirloom varieties—with few or no hybrids included. Greene also clarified the differences between hybrid, GMO, OP and heirloom seeds. And he encouraged local farmers to begin thinking about growing seed as a way to expand their sales, and to create more food and farm security in our region.
For those who are interested in seed saving or learning how to save seed, Seed Savers Exchange is a good resource online and includes a forum you can join to ask questions. Several good books are available on the market, as well, such as Suzanne Ashworth’s Seed to Seed.