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Buys Seminis (2005)
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 sales materials.
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:
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 costs.”
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 tradition.
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 purposes.
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.
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.
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