Over the past 30 years, the seed industry has experienced considerable consolidation. Now, according to The Farmer to Farmer Campaign on a Genetic Engineering, only 10 U.S. companies account for over two-thirds of the world’s seed for major crops, including corn, soybeans, canola, and cotton. The same study notes that economists have determined an industry loses its “competitive character when the concentration ratio of the top four firms…is 40 percent or higher.” The top four biotechnology or biotech companies in the industry alone account for approximately 43 percent of the global seed market, which notably includes both genetically modified (GM or GMOs) and conventional seeds. With this decrease in competition, seed prices are rising and conventional seeds are quickly being replaced by reduced varieties of GM versions.
Over the past two decades, biotech companies have acquired hundreds of patents for seeds throughout the world, the majority of which have been genetically engineered to be resistant to certain herbicides and pesticides also sold by those same companies. The genetic modification of seeds is not a change that can ever occur in nature because, unlike naturally evolving organisms, non-organic matter is spliced into the seed gene. The risks to human health and the environment from this approach are unknown and unpredictable. It is known, however, that these GM seeds reproduce with non-GM plants. The resulting crossbred plants have quickly begun erasing the world’s natural resource in seed. Plant variety, too, is reduced. By crossbreeding with non-GM plants in the wild, genetically engineered traits are changing nature at an increasing rate. Once GM seeds are released into the environment, it is impossible to retrieve them.
Conventional seeds provide a source of sustenance on which all people depend. As the world’s seed supply slowly becomes infected with GM seeds, the ancient practice of natural seed saving has a level of heightened importance. The free exchange of seeds and seed saving has been the traditional way farmers share knowledge and collectively craft seeds specifically developed for their local agriculture. These practices are accomplished through observing seeds grown each year and manually selecting the seeds of the strongest, most desirable plants to save for the future crops. Each year farmers prune away the weak, thereby preserving the plants with increased yield and the ability to resist disease.
Through utility patents, court decisions, and various technology agreements, however, biotech companies are currently “legally” preventing the individual farmer from saving seed. Utility patents provide a great protection and security for patent-holders (like biotech companies) by permitting patent infringement claims when, according to The Farmer to Farmer Campaign on a Genetic Engineering, “any person without authority makes, uses, offers for sale, or sells any patented invention, within the United States or imports into the United States any patented invention during the term of the patent.” When our court system began allowing the patents for gene sequencing in the early 1990s, biotech companies raced to patent their GMO seed and to purchase independent seed companies to promote the commercialization of GM seed. This combined approach has resulted in these companies becoming virtually the only source of seed. Farmers have been transformed from producers to mere consumers of GM seed at prices and quantities dictated by profits rather than nature.
Previously, regional breeding programs promoted niche varietal crosses for production in specific geographic areas. However, with the seed market now under the control of only a couple of distributors, region-specific seeds are quickly becoming a thing of the past.
According to data from the International Seed Saving Institute, out of the 80,000 existing seed varieties available today, approximately 150 edible plants are being cultivated for food, but only eight are traded globally.