Buys Seminis (2005)
on Fedco joining lawsuit against Monsanto here.
Maybe you’ve never heard of Seminis, but if you’ve
ever perused these pages, you’ve almost undoubtedly tasted
Seminis. Celebrity, Big Beef and Sweet Baby Girl tomatoes, North
Star, Red Knight and Fat ’n Sassy peppers, Mars and Candy
onions, Yellow Doll and Jade Star watermelons, the Seneca squashes—all
are Seminis varieties. Seminis was our largest supplier, selling
us 70 items in the 2005 catalog, accounting for more than 11 per
cent of our seed business. In addition to offering a superb line,
they shipped on time, supplied high quality seed with good germination,
and backed their products with excellent variety descriptions and
In January 2005 Monsanto announced that they were buying Seminis
for $1.4 billion in cash and assumed debt. Noted for its aggressive
advocacy of genetically modified crops and its dominance in biotechnology,
Monsanto will now have a major presence in the vegetable seed business
for the first time. No one knows if or when they will incorporate
transgenes into their vegetable varieties.
The Monsanto buyout presented us with a serious ethical dilemma.
In striving to carry the best possible varieties at reasonable prices,
we have based our selections largely on the merits of the varieties,
rarely on our supplier preferences. Could we be purveyors of Monsanto
products and still sleep well at night? Many of our customers have
depended upon Seminis’ good genetics. However much we may
think we require these varieties in the short run, they come at
a devastating social cost, ultimately the complete alienation of
sower from seed.
Fedco Drops Monsanto/Seminis
We responded to the news by polling our customers. Should we drop
the Seminis/Monsanto line, phase it out, keep it but give it its
own customer code, or maintain it without change? We received an
unprecedented 1,157 responses. 54.8% voted for us to drop the Seminis/Monsanto
line immediately, and an additional 17% to phase it out over time.
Many included thought-provoking comments such as these:
• Drop the Seminis varieties unless this puts the entire coop
• Every dollar that goes to Monsanto does not go to a producer
who is protective of agriculture, our world, our health.
• You don’t need to sell your soul for a Sunsugar.
• Let the customers decide!
• Phase out as you find quality replacements.
• Call upon my sense of adventure to try the new varieties
• Unbury the supplier codes and make them more prominent.
• Give your customers a choice on their purchases for a transitional
period…tax the b…ds for the public good…and spread
the money like manure for our new crop of seed providers—breeders,
growers and distributors.
• It’s a hard thing to fight a Monsanto when we’re
so deeply embedded in a system that produces Monsantos. Sort of
like Jefferson hating slavery while owning slaves.
• Buyers’ choice is real democracy. We, the buyers either
keep them in business or put them out of business.
• Double the retail price for Monsanto seed and send the additional
receipts to those who suffer from Monsanto like Percy Schmeiser.
• Monsanto should be Rounded Up and composted.
• We’ll survive on the sweet tastiness of the moral
After our staff expressed a clear preference for taking decisive
action, our purchasing team decided not to do business with Monsanto.
We chose instead to purchase a one-year supply of the available
Seminis items in March before the merger was consummated, and not
to replace those varieties when they ran out.
You will notice some gaps in the catalog. Not all the Seminis varieties
were available in the spring, so we have had to drop some of them
and limit sizes of others. Our trials work last summer and for the
next two years is focused on finding replacements. In a few cases
we will be able to find other suppliers or to start our own seed
production. We preferred, where possible, to give our customers
and ourselves a short transition time to find alternatives instead
of going cold turkey.
Why Drop Monsanto?
The current industrial seed system rests upon the unholy trinity
of biotechnology, corporate concentration and intellectual property
rights. Each is mutually reinforcing and none of the three stands
without the support of the other two.
1) Harvard geneticist Richard Lewontin has warned that “the
process of genetic engineering has a unique ability to produce deleterious
effects” and argues that varieties produced by recombinant
DNA technology “need to be specially scrutinized and tested.”
As yet, almost all documented tests have been conducted by the very
biotech industries which stand to profit from the products being
tested. The fox guarding the chicken coop indeed!
An even more compelling argument against genetic engineering than
the safety concerns (which might be alleviated were the biotech
industry to embrace mandatory labeling permitting an audit trail
of their products) is its structural effects upon the seed industry.
The biotech revolution promised much but delivered little. Unanticipated
obstacles pushed research and development costs far higher than
expected, driving a series of consolidations in which small companies
were either swallowed up or forced to make complex licensing agreements
with the big guys in order to survive.
Monsanto is the leading proponent and practictioner of genetic
engineering. Monsanto seeds and biotech traits accounted for 88%
of the total acreage of genetically modified seeds planted worldwide
in 2004, an area that has multiplied more than forty-fold since
1996 to encompass 167 million acres.
2) We would do well to heed eminent University of Wisconsin plant
breeder Dr. William F. Tracy: “placing the responsibility
for the world’s crop germplasm and plant improvement in the
hands of a few companies is bad public policy.…The primary
goal of private corporations is to make profit, and…this goal
will be at odds with certain public needs.…The future of our
food supply requires genetic diversity but also demands a diversity
of decision makers.”
A hyper-concentrated seed system neglects so-called minor crops,
regionally-adapted and specialty niche varieties, and those not
suited for long distance shipping or global markets, deeming them
to be of little economic importance. We can blame the documented
declines in the nutritional content of vegetables grown in the United
States since 1950 on the corporatization of our food system. Decades
of selecting cultivars for rapid growth, yield and pest resistance
(traits valued by corporate breeders wishing to maximize returns)
at the expense of taste and nutritional content have taken their
toll. By basing our food system primarily on the goal of increased
production, we have, according to Wendell Berry, “achieved
stupendous increases… at exorbitant biological and social
The seed industry is concentrating into fewer and fewer corporate
hands. Seminis controlled 40% of the United States vegetable seed
market and supplied the genetics for 75% of the tomatoes and 85%
of the peppers on supermarket shelves. With the absorption of Seminis,
Monsanto vaulted ahead of DuPont as the world’s largest seed
company. After the merger, for the first time the world’s
top ten seed companies control half the market. In fact, the four
biggest ones have 36%.
3) In 1930, Luther Burbank, testifying before Congress, complained
that plant breeders derived no economic benefits from their work
and should be rewarded if we wanted to stimulate the development
of superior varieties. Of course, he had a point. The debate should
be about what are the best mechanisms to reward breeders and encourage
research in the public interest. The seed industry has advanced
one point of view, lobbying persistently for stronger and stronger
patent protection for their “proprietary intellectual property,”
while at the same time gutting and privatizing a once-thriving public
research apparatus at our land-grant universities.
The catch is that plants, unlike widgets which cannot reproduce
themselves (at least not yet!), are living beings which can and
do, through their seed. The “intellectual property”
that is protected in a manufacturing patent—the original idea
that makes the product novel and useful—translates poorly
into the improvement of life forms, which has typically been the
work of generations of farmers, observing mutations, selecting for
desired traits, sharing and exchanging seeds, and building gradually
upon one another’s efforts. Who can own a mutation, occurring
freely in nature? By tradition, our biological heritage was held
in common. Sharing, not secrecy, was the dominant paradigm. The
industry’s attempt to impose a proprietary model upon a product
bountifully given by nature is a radical departure from our agricultural
The original Plant Variety Protection Act in 1970, the culmination
of 40 years’ lobbying by the seed industry, protected varieties
from others’ use for 17 years, but with important exceptions.
Farmers were allowed to save seed, replant it, and even sell it
to neighbors, and breeders were permitted to use it for research
Court decisions in 1980, 1985 and 2001, however, have brought all
products of plant breeding under the standard utility patent. Unlike
PVP, utility patents protect not just finished varieties, but also
individual components of those varieties and processes used to create
those varieties. There are no exemptions for farmers to save seed
and none for research and breeding.
These court decisions now allow proteins to be patented, DNA sequences
to be patented, individual mutations to be patented, single nucleotide
polymorphisms to be patented, genes, cells, tissue cultures and
specific plant parts to be patented. The proliferation of patents
and overlapping intellectual property rights has privatized what
was once a vast commons, stifled free exchange of germplasm, diminished
scientists’ freedom to operate, choked off creativity and
escalated development costs exponentially, thereby setting off further
rounds of consolidation and concentration. The justification for
“intellectual property” rights—to stimulate research—has
been turned on its head.
No company has been more aggressive than Monsanto in defending
its “intellectual property.” Monsanto currently holds
647 plant biotech patents, more than any other company. When farmers
purchase seed containing Monsanto’s patented technology, they
are required to give up their age-old right to save their own seed,
to grant Monsanto broad rights to access their personal records
and to come on to their property to inspect their crops. According
to Monsanto vs. U.S. Farmers (#9756), a report published by the
Center for Food Safety, Monsanto maintains a staff of 75 employees
with an annual budget of $10 million for the sole purpose of investigating
and prosecuting farmers for patent infringement. It has a toll-free
number that allows farmers and businesses to place confidential
calls to snitch on alleged patent infringers and it hires private
investigation firms such as Pinkerton to spy on suspected farmers.
It has investigated hundreds of farmers, sent scores of threatening
letters and made out-of-court settlements for alleged patent violations.
The 90 lawsuits it has filed represent just the tip of the iceberg.
Getting off the Seed Grid*
We have chosen to use Monsanto’s buyout of Seminis as a
wake-up call. We do so because Monsanto epitomizes the road down
which we no longer choose to go…the road that leads to our
complete surrender of control of our seed and therefore of control
of our food system.
When one-fourth of our seed business is with multinational corporations
engaged in genetic engineering research, too many of us have allowed
seed to become just another industrial input rather than a life
force. In the 1980s many organic farmers in Maine were so dependent
on chicken manure from DeCoster, a huge operation with disgraceful
labor relations, that Bowdoin College economist David Vail called
them “chickenshit farmers.” Thanks in part to Vail and
MOFGA, they broke their addiction and evolved. We have become chicken-seed
farmers, similarly addicted to multinational corporations.
Today we stand in relation to the seed about where the pioneering
organic farmers of forty years ago stood in relation to the land
and their communities. We have revitalized our soils with compost
and green manures. We have revitalized our markets with local connections
through restaurants, CSA’s and farmers markets. We have revitalized
our soils and our markets, but what have we done for the seed?
Eleven years ago in our 1995 catalog when we first asked, “Do
you know where your seed comes from?” we carried around 30
small-farm grown varieties. In this 2006 catalog we have 190 such
varieties. Seed work is slow work, we build our seed firmament stone
by stone, we find and replace varieties one by one, but seed work
is the foundation on which all agriculture depends. As keynoter
Dennis Kucinich said at the Common Ground Fair, “If we are
what we eat, we should take care how our food is made so that we
know what we are to become.” So that we may become truly what
we wish to be, we invite you to begin the next step with us on the
road to seed diversity.
*I am indebted to Laura DeLind of Michigan State University for
coining the phrase.