The shift from public to private seed systems
A brief history of the development of the seed industry in the United States

By Matthew Dillon
Posted February 22, 2005

One hundred fifty years ago the United States did not have a commercial seed industry; today we have the world’s largest.* Some view this as real progress, a form of genetic Manifest Destiny. A nation once a ‘debtor’ in plant genetics now supplies the world. In 1854, seeds were sourced in the U.S. by way of a small number of horticultural seed catalogs, farmer (or gardener) exchange, on-farm seed saving, and through the beneficence of the United States government. Specifically, beginning in the 1850s, the U.S. Patent and Trade Office (PTO) and congressional representatives saw to the collection, propagation and distribution of varieties to their constituents throughout the states and territories. The program grew quickly so that, by 1861, the PTO had annual distribution of more than 2.4 million packages of seed (containing five packets of different varieties). The flow of seed reached its highest volume in 1897 (under USDA management) – with more than 1.1 billion packets of seed distributed.

The government’s objectives in funding such a massive movement of seed stemmed from the recognition that feeding an expanding continent would require a diversification of foods. To the early colonies, the introduction of wheat, rye, oats, peas, cabbage and many other vegetable crops was as critical to food security as was the adoption of the corn, beans and squash. Immigrants were encourage to bring seed from the old country, founding fathers such as Thomas Jefferson engaged in seed-exchange societies, and by 1819 the U.S. Treasury Department issued a directive to its overseas consultants and Navy officers to systematically collect plant materials.

To the early colonies, the introduction of wheat, rye, oats, peas, cabbage and many other vegetable crops was as critical to food security as was the adoption of the corn, beans and squash. Immigrants were encourage to bring seed from the old country

The first commercial seed crop was not produced until 1866—cabbage seed produced on Long Island for the U.S. wholesale market. The industry flourished to some degree, but early seed trade professionals felt their growth was stymied by the U.S. government programs as well as the self-replicating nature of their product (that is, the factory contained within that product). In 1883, the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) formed and immediately lobbied for the cessation of the government programs. The organization developed powerful allies, such as Grover Cleveland’s Secretary of Agriculture, J. Sterling Morton, who wrote that the government giveaway was “antagonistic to seed as a commodity-form and in direct competition with the private seed trade.” But the program was very popular with constituents, and the USDA’s seed budget was kept intact – at one point counting for a full 10 percent of the agency’s overall annual expenditures.

In the early part of the 20th century, the first wave of hybrids began to provide seed companies with a potential increase in product profitability (as farmers would now need to return to the seed distributor for materials each year). However, most of the hybrid development was occurring at Land Grant Universities, and these universities refused to give the companies exclusive rights to the seed. Once again, the industry felt its growth hindered by federal programs and complained of unfair trade practices. Mounting data also indicated a slowing in yield increases from seed developed in government programs. The industry used this last point to strengthen its argument for the privatization of seed development in order to foster greater food security.

In 1924, after more than 40 years of lobbying, ASTA succeeded in convincing Congress to cut the USDA seed distribution programs. The USDA still supported breeding at the state agricultural schools, and for a time these programs continued to compete with seed companies by developing ‘finished’ commercial varieties. Associations such as the American Society of Agronomy and American Society of Horticulture Science eventually convinced the public programs that their appropriate role was in training plant breeders, performing fundamental research, and creating raw materials and technologies for private industry to capitalize on. The LGUs began to increasingly serve in this capacity, developing inbred parental lines and breeding stock that the seed trade would use to create proprietary varieties.

These changes in the public role, along with improvements in hybrid techniques, led to the growth of the seed trade following World War II. The trade was well represented during this period by regional companies. The conversion to monocropping and large-scale corporate agriculture had not yet moved into full swing. The Santa Clara Valley grew vegetables and fruit and not internet startups, and Americans still planted their Victory Gardens. The seed trade reflected this diversity in food production.

In a few short years, there were billions of dollars in mergers and acquisitions—with little to no regulatory oversight . . . . No other natural resource (marine, timber, minerals) has ever shifted from public to private hands with such rapidity, such intensity of concentration, and so little oversight.

In the 1960s, a few larger seed firms began to purchase smaller companies (mostly to acquire strong hybrid holdings). But the consolidations of this period were minor compared to the frenzy that would come with a Supreme Court ruling on June 16, 1980, in the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty. Prior to the Chakrabarty decision, a plant (or animal) could be owned, but the genetics could not. This case cleared the patenting of life forms on the bases of their genetic coding. The PTO granted more than 1,800 such patents following the ruling. Companies that had no historical seed interests—primarily chemical and pharmaceutical firms—began purchasing seed companies. In a few short years, there were billions of dollars in mergers and acquisitions—with little to no regulatory oversight—creating for the first time a majority ownership of plant genetics by a few multinational companies. No other natural resource (marine, timber, minerals) has ever shifted from public to private hands with such rapidity, such intensity of concentration, and so little oversight.

The Immediate and the Future

“There is a direct threat to our food system when we have a preponderance of genetic resources controlled by institutions whose only goal is profit,” plant breeder Frank Morton expressed emphatically when asked for his perspective on the Monsanto acquisition. He went on to compare the present with the past, “When these services [breeding and production] were diffused amongst many individuals and groups with diverse motives, we had a much more diverse and healthy food system.”

Diversity and competition have historically made for healthier economies as well as ecologies. Ecological and economic systems have another thing in common; as one group abandons a niche, it leaves room for others to move in and utilize it. Many of the seed company representatives and breeders I spoke with felt that the organic community can and should develop a less centralized seed system. Steve Peters, seed procurement manager for Seeds of Change, shared his firm’s vision: “Part of our strategy is to go into neglected markets and respond to these needs. We want to offer true organic alternatives; this means we not only pay attention to the regional needs but also have a different approach to breeding – building new alliances in crop development. We’re not chasing single-gene resistance but looking at horizontal resistance in traits like Downy mildew in spinach.”

Adaptability has historically been an integral part of the organic movement– responding to customer inquiry and opinion, personal service (a face on the food), localized and decentralized – all traits that help make the organic sector healthy and promote its vigorous growth. “The organic seed world is where the organic produce market was twenty years ago,” said veteran organic grower and seed producer Nash Huber. “Produce quality wasn’t always so great then, but we worked it out and now are better than the conventional systems. The potential in seed is that the customers – we farmers – will see that, in the long run, an organic seed trade will serve us.” Farmers like Huber are investing in the organic seed trade. He works as an educator in the Organic Seed Alliance’s WSARE organic seed production trainings, is leading a participatory plant breeding project with the Alliance, and produces seed for the organic seed trade as well as his own on-farm use. Carrots are the main cash crop on Huber’s 400-acre farm, and he produces 80 percent of his own seed to insure quality and availability. “I can’t afford to have a company drop my source,” he explained.

“The organic seed world is where the organic produce market was twenty years ago . . . The potential in seed is that the customers – we farmers – will see that, in the long run, an organic seed trade will serve us.”

Seed companies and farmers are not alone in their rising to meet the need for changes in the seed world. In 2003, more than 70 university breeders, representatives from farmer-based NGOs, and policy specialists met at the “Summit for Seeds and Breeds for the 21st Century” in Washington, D.C. The breeders who represented a diverse set of crops, from schools that have traditionally served clients of large-scale Green Revolution style agriculture, called on each other to “reinvigorate public breeding” to meet the needs of organic and sustainable agriculture. The group will host a full-blown conference in Ames, Iowa, in September 2005.

While the seed consolidation trend seems to have reached a particularly dark moment in the Monsanto-Seminis acquisition, it may also serve to fuel a momentum in the developing organic seed community. The issues are immediate and fraught with complexity; the answers are long-term and require commitment. Said C.R. Lawn of Fedco, “We need to keep working on creating a farmer breeding community. But this is long, slow work. You find and replace varieties one by one. You work slowly in the direction you want to go. Seed work is slow work.”

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