Do You Know Where Your Seed Comes From?

Probably not, unless you save your own. The following is a two-part article on the structure of the worldwide seed trade, which originated from my talks at the Common Ground Fair. The first half appeared in our 1995 catalog, the second in our 1996 catalog.

  1. Groupe Limagrain, France ($550 million annual seed sales, 53 subsidiaries, 2,898 employees).
  2. Sandoz, Ltd., Switzerland ($955 million annual seed sales, 5,240 employees).
  3. George J. Ball, Inc., United States (number of employees and yearly sales confidential).
  4. Sakata Seed Corporation, Japan ($334 million annual sales, 577 employees ).

Although these aren’t exactly household names among gardeners and growers, they should be because they are large multinational corporations who control or own the major seed businesses in the following list to which they are matched by number. (Seed World, Nov. 1991, p. 24; Nov. 1992, pp. 26-33; Nov. 1993, pp. 18-27.)

  1. Vilmorin, Ferry Morse, Nickerson-Zwaan
  2. Northrup King Co., Rogers Bros., Vaughan’s Seed, Gallatin Valley Seed Co.
  3. W. Atlee Burpee Co., Denholm Seeds, Petoseed Co., Pan-American Seed Co.
  4. Sakata Seed America

You will recognize some of Fedco’s best-selling varieties in the following list, again coded by number to the suppliers listed above, representing only a sampling of what we purchase from them.

  1. Marbel Haricot Vert, Vert de Massy Cucumber, Très Fine Maraîchère Endive, Sierra Lettuce
  2. Indian Summer Spinach, Express Cucumber, Autumn Gold Pumpkin, Silver Queen Sweet Com, Maestro Peas, Sugar Ann Peas, Sugarsnap Peas
  3. Burpee Hybrid Muskmelon, Burpee Golden Beet, Green Ice Lettuce, Pulsar Muskmelon, Sundance Yellow Squash, Packman Broccoli, Red Sails Lettuce
  4. Arcadia Broccoli, Candid Charm Cauliflower

In common with all other catalog seed houses, Fedco is deeply affected by the increasing concentration of the seed industry. In the last 30 years, scores of small family-owned seed companies with regional specialties, as well as larger national seed companies have been bought out by giant, multinational corporations. (Seed World, Nov. 1989, p. 53.) Today, most new varietal developments are generated by two dozen giants in the trade. Many of these varieties are patented under the 1970 Plant Variety Protection Act, so that the developers have a monopoly. Even some open-pollinated cultivars such as Blizzard Snow Pea cannot be propagated for sale, despite the fact that the patent holder no longer offers them. Although Sugarsnap peas may be offered by most of the several hundred US seed retailers, all originated from crops grown for Gallatin Valley Seed Co, a subsidiary of Rogers Seed Co., owned by Sandoz. All Red Sails Lettuce is from Petoseed, one of the George Ball group of companies. [All true in 1995, but not in 2016, as the PVPs for Blizzard, Sugarsnap and Red Sails have all expired.]

Few seed retailers produce many of their own seed crops. The better companies trial varieties in plots located in their climatic region, but rarely do they grow their own seed. Instead, they repack seed grown by others. Each of the giant seed wholesalers tries to gain an edge in the highly competitive marketplace. Some sell to only one distributor in any geographic area, and some enter into exclusive arrangements making specific varieties available to only one or a few companies. Territoriality and exclusivity are not in the best interests of seed consumers, since these trade restraints artificially raise seed prices by limiting availability. Both of these practices make some varieties unavailable to us. Fortunately, competition among the giants is so intense, and their breeding programs are so parallel, that many new varieties are virtually indistinguishable from others of similar type. lf Canasta Lettuce cannot be had, Sierra can. These two placed side by side in an unmarked identification test are indistinguishable to all but an expert.

Seeds is one of many trades which have only relatively recently passed out of common parlance into the hands of experts. Until the last century or two, farmers and gardeners routinely saved their own seeds, and often did amateur selection work to improve their seed stocks. Seed companies did not appear until the eighteenth century, and did not become widespread until the nineteenth.

Nature being bountiful, true seeds are very cheap. A single plant of Harris Model parsnip, for example, will produce hundreds of seeds which will come true to type the following season. Fedco can obtain seed for this variety for as little as $3.00 per pound, or 270 seeds to the penny! The wholesale value of the seeds in our ⅛ ounce packet is about 2½¢; overhead accounts for 94% of the 45¢ packet price!

A pound of parsnip seed goes a long way. The family-run seed companies who sold such open-pollinated seeds did not get rich. The large wholesalers who now dominate the trade were not motivated to enter the business by the profit opportunities in open-pollinated parsnip seed! Survival for seed companies has depended on finding some way to add value to their naturally occurring products.

Hybridization, which began with sweet com in the 1930s, was the first significant value-added strategy. Hybridizing allowed breeders to select among different varieties for desirable traits. Moreover, because seed from hybrid plants will not come true to type, farmers could no longer easily bypass the seed company by saving seed from their own crops. Breeders now had new varieties more expensive to produce, with secret formulas. With hybridization, the price of seed increased markedly, but so did the quality.

Many of the new varieties, taking advantage of heterosis (hybrid vigor), showed marked superiority to the old open-pollinated varieties in earliness, sweetness, and disease resistance. Despite the opinion of some seed-saving ideologues, the superiority of certain hybrids is not just confined to sweet corns, but also extends to melons, brassicas, carrots, spinach and several other crops.

Commercial growers have found that having the earliest com, summer squash, or melons on their stand means extra bucks. Major food processors value uniform ripening and appearance and ease of machine harvesting. Both of these markets have switched en masse to hybrids in the last generation. Those home gardeners who value taste more than uniform ripening or unblemished appearance have shown more selectivity, sometimes switching to hybrids, other times remaining loyal to the better older varieties.

Because breeding hybrids is so much more lucrative than producing open-pollinated varieties, the large wholesalers have done virtually no work on open-pollinated cultivars in the past twenty years. (Seed Savers 1991 Harvest Edition, pp. 107, 109.) Instead they dropped many of the low-volume regional specialties that were once staples of the small seed companies they bought out, preferring varieties which could be marketed nationwide by the larger retail seed houses. (Seed Savers 1991 Harvest Edition, p. 82.) They allowed strains of other old varieties such as Waltham 29 Broccoli to deteriorate, obliging Fedco to drop the variety. In such an atmosphere, the superiority of hybrids has become a self-fulfilling prophecy, not only because of the rightful scientific claims of heterosis, but also because of the built-in biases of the marketplace.

The Seed Savers Exchange, as well as several alternative seed companies, arose to fill the void created by the threatened extinction of many of the open-pollinated varieties. These organizations have now recognized that unless seed for old varieties and regionally adapted specialties is produced in commercial quantities by alternative growers it will become less and less available in the marketplace. (Seed Savers 1989 Harvest Edition, p. 23.) Fedco is committed to offering the best of these heirlooms, but seed is often difficult to obtain, and unexpected out-of-stocks sometimes occur even after we think we have secured a supply.

Because we serve home gardeners and commercial growers who are interested in trying the new as well as preserving the best of the old, we offer a mix of both hybrid and open-pollinated varieties. Serious growers who demand high-powered hybrids, such as Sunburst Patty Pan and Emperor Broccoli, would shop elsewhere if we dropped these proven performers.

Gardening is inherently interventionist. Nature left to its own devices quickly turns gardens to grasses, then shrubs, eventually climax forest. Humans have been experimenting with plant breeding for thousands of years. Even open-pollinated corns such as Golden Bantam are products of generations of selections and improvements over the original plant material. Hybridization took human intervention a giant step further.

The value-added revolution has gone beyond hybridization to include treated seed, pelleted seed, primed seed, and now varieties developed through recombinant DNA research. Each of these products represents further human intervention in natural processes, each adds to the price of the seed as well as to its potential performance, each creates ethical choices for both you the consumer and us the seller, and each must be understood in reference to the context of the marketplace in which they are developing.

Seeds are treated with fungicide coatings so that they may be planted earlier in colder, wetter soil with less risk of rot. Commercial growers, desiring the first crops on the market, often cannot resist the lure of treated seed, although some of the treatments such as captan are known carcinogens. Fedco does not offer treated seeds because we are unwilling to risk the health of our workers and consumers.

We researched pelleted seed to see what the process entails. Pelleting has appeal to some home gardeners as well as to those commercial growers with precision planters because it makes planting such small seeds as carrots and lettuce at regular intervals much easier. Some pelleting processes incorporate fungicides or commercial fertilizers which we eschew. Clay pellets without additives are available, but the cost is excessive, and the process sometimes lowers the germination of the seed. [In 2016, we offer pelleted carrot seed.]

In 1991 Rogers-NK attempted to interest us in primed seed. Other companies have developed similar “superseed” programs or have them in the works. Primed seed is exposed to an amount of moisture and temperature just less than what would be required for germination to occur, enabling it to germinate faster and with more vigor than unprimed seed. As in the pelletizing process, fungicides can be applied during priming. Often wholesalers select out seed for priming from those lots with the highest germination, reserving the best seed for the priming process, while relegating home gardeners and the packet seed trade to the inferior lots. In the past the disposal of priming solutions has caused environmental problems, but a new process patented in England could eliminate the toxicity. (Seed World. Sept 1994. pp. 25-27.) Unless the new method substantially lowers costs, Fedco won’t be purchasing primed seed because the better varieties currently cost up to 20 cents for a single seed, or 5,000 times as much as those parsnip seeds! That’s value added!

— October 1994

Do You Know Where Your Seed Comes From?

Probably not, unless you save your own. The following is the second part of a two-part series on the structure of the worldwide seed trade which originated from my talks at Common Ground Fair. Part I addressed the planned obsolescence of raw untreated seed and open-pollinated seed by the diminishing handful of multinational corporations who control the worldwide seed industry.

The trade continues to consolidate into fewer and fewer behemoths. At the end of September, Empresas la Moderna (ELM) completed the combination of Asgrow/Petoseed/Royal Sluis companies. Asgrow had been owned by Upjohn, Petoseed part of the George J. Ball group which includes W. Atlee Burpee Co, Denholm Seeds, Vaughn Seeds and Pan-American Seed Co. Huge would be understating the size of the resulting juggernaut. In late June, Monsanto Co. announced its intention to purchase a 49.9% equity interest in debt-ridden Calgene, Inc., a move designed to shore up one of biotechnology’s giants with a badly needed capital infusion, and one with profound implications for the future of genetically altered products.

Mergermania is not restricted to the mighty. Some small companies are not what they seem to be. Did you know that specialty houses Seymour’s Selected Seeds (English cottage garden favorites), Totally Tomatoes (all tomatoes & peppers), and Vermont Bean Seed Co. are all part of the R.H. Shumway operation? That Cook’s Garden sold its business including its entire order fulfillment operation to Park Seeds in South Carolina, and has moved its trial facilities to Burlington, Vermont, to be integrated with the Gardener’s Supply research gardens? (Boston Globe, Sept. 28, 1995, pp. A1-3.)

Seed savers took another blow on Oct. 6, 1994, when President Clinton signed into law congressionally approved amendments to the 1970 Plant Variety Protection Act (plant patenting law) completely eliminating a farmer’s right to sell any extra seed of a protected variety to other farmers or gardeners or even to offer them through such organizations as the Seed Savers Exchange.

Welcome to the biotechnology age, ready or not! The next development in value-added seed products has burst upon us. Breakthroughs in recombinant DNA technology are enabling breeders to transfer single-gene traits like resistances to pests, diseases and herbicides.

Several years ago Mycogen’s bioinsecticides MVP and M-Track, which control caterpillars and the Colorado Potato Beetle, became the first genetically engineered products to hit the market. (Science News, Nov. 28, 1992, p. 377.) The first transgenic plant variety, the infamous Flavr Savr Tomato, went on sale under the brand name MacGregor’s in 730 grocery stores late in 1994. (New Scientist, Jan. 7, 1995, p. 22.) Flavr Savr was created to resist softening for a longer shelf life. Critics charged that it had no flavor to savor. Calgene, its developer, maintained complete control over all the phases of its production, packaging and marketing and is said to have spent more than $95 million on its development. (Amicus Journal, Spring 1993, p. 20.)

A transgenic yellow crookneck squash developed by Asgrow to be resistant to zucchini yellow mosaic virus and watermelon mosaic virus 2 won approval from the USDA in Dec, 1994, and is now on the market as Freedom II. (New Scientist, Jan. 7, 1995, p. 25.)

These represent only the beginning: The biotechnology pipeline is about to burst wide open. Corn borer resistant hybrids being developed independently by Ciba Seeds and Mycogen Plant Sciences will be available for the 1996 planting season. These field corns contain a gene from Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which causes the plant to produce a protein that controls the borers. (Seed World, June 1995, p. 24.) Pioneer Hy-Bred International, Northrup King, DeKalb and others won’t be far behind Ciba and Mycogen. The technology will soon extend from field corn varieties into sweet corns.

Monsanto has developed potatoes incorporating the gene for the Bt protein endotoxin rendering them resistant to the Colorado Beetle. These “New Leaf” potatoes have won conditional approval for use in Maine in 1996 (The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, Sept 1995, pp. 8-9.) and unconditional approval in at least 30 other states. Monsanto is also working on virus-resistant and high-starch potatoes.

Insect-resistant Bt cotton, “Roundup Ready” soybeans, canola and cotton (incorporating tolerance to the herbicide glyphosate, which goes under the trade name Roundup) are being introduced now or within the next two years. Herbicide-tolerant sugar beets and vegetables are also on the way.

In the years ahead biotechnology will be applied to develop crops to specific end uses such as the production of specialty vegetable oils and starches and vegetable products with modified nutritional characteristics.

In a recent study of agricultural biotechnology for Decision Resources, Inc., the Bowditch group predicted that “a substantial proportion of all seed products will be genetically engineered by the year 2005.” (The American Vegetable Grower, October 1995, p. 37.) North America is targeted to be the first major market for these transgenic crops because we have both the large market and lax regulatory environment to justify the research investment needed to develop transgenics. (ibid.)

Many upcoming developments from genetic engineering sound promising. Strawberry varieties with increased tolerance to freezing and thawing, (Science News, July 5, 1991, p. 33.) green peas with delayed conversion of sugar to starch after picking, bell peppers with improved sweetness (ibid.) as well as corn with biological resistance to the European corn borer which could reduce dependence on insecticides all are potentially appealing.

Unfortunately, the majority of biotechnology research has so far been concentrated on the development of resistance to chemicals, such as Monsanto’s work with their herbicide Roundup. The world’s eight largest pesticide companies have all initiated herbicide-tolerant plant research, as have most of the major seed conglomerates. (Amicus Journal, Spring 1993, p. 22.) Legitimate concerns have been expressed about who is setting the priority for this research. Some nutritionists worry that plant geneticists might engineer crops which improve processing or yield at the expense of taste and nutrition. (Science News, Aug. 19, 1989, pp. 120-124.) Some scientists fear that the genes which give transgenic plants their resistances to diseases, insects and herbicides could eventually be transferred into weeds through cross-pollination. Such weeds could have survival advantages that made them invasive. (New Scientist, Jan. 7, 1995, p. 25.)

Even appealing applications of biotechnology could have ominous implications as illustrated by the dilemma about the use of Bt. As early as 1991, before genetically engineered Bt was on the market, the National Audubon Society sponsored a Bt resistance workshop in Washington, D.C. in response to field reports that diamondback moths were beginning to develop resistance to Bt, especially where growers applied frequent high doses. (Science News, Nov. 1, 1991, p. 646.) Several attendees at the Maine Pesticides Board hearings warned that the transgenic “New Leaf” potato could hasten the development of Bt-resistant Colorado potato beetles. Both the Union of Concerned Scientists and the Northwest Coalition for Alternatives to Pesticides have expressed concern that widespread adoption of Bt crops will accelerate the development of resistance, because persistent and uniform exposure of the target pest to the toxin creates a strong selective pressure to develop resistance. (The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, Sept 1995, p. 8.) In Maine, farmers are being urged to grow non-engineered potatoes in refuge strips alongside the “New Leaf” potatoes to slow the evolution of resistance.

Moreover, biotechnology carries huge research and development costs which will have to be recouped in high seed prices for the new varieties. As Nicholas Lindholm points out, “Anywhere from a few to a dozen separate intellectual property rights must be legally accessed when working with bioengineering and transgenic seed technology, and each of those rights may be owned or controlled by different companies or individuals.” (The Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener, June 1995, p. 30.) The seed industry has used increasingly complex legal mechanisms to develop more and more restrictive intellectual property rights. The price of an increasingly competitive technology-driven industry is an astronomical increase in the cost of developing and marketing the new transgenic varieties. For example, Pioneer Hy-Bred International invested more than $115 million in research in 1994. (Seed World, July 1995, pp. 12-13.)

The high costs of the technology are the driving forces behind many of the mergers and acquisitions. In 1989, Bill Teweles of L. William Teweles & Co, a Wisconsin-based seed and plant science group which specializes in mergers and acquisitions, predicted continued consolidation of the international seed industry at an increasingly rapid rate. His beliefs that by the year 2000, 10-20 multinational seed and plant biotechnology companies would dominate the most profitable segments of the global seed trade (Seed World, Nov 1989, p. 53.) and that consolidations would also occur among small, regional multi-crop seed companies as well as among larger corporations have already been borne out.

The high costs of genetic plant technology have also caused more and more varietal research to be privatized among companies. Meanwhile, university plant breeding programs that contributed so vitally to new varietal developments for most of this century are getting less and less funding and falling into desuetude.

Several years ago John Sorensen, research director of vegetable seeds for Asgrow, predicted that the increased competitiveness and increased need for return on investment would reduce the amount of plant material and technology being exchanged and contribute to a generally more secretive environment which will probably raise the costs of seed.

Can small companies like ours survive or thrive in such a harsh environment? Large wholesalers have typically been uninterested in small-scale retailing; indeed the rise of alternative seed companies has been a contrapuntal trend to consolidation of the bigger companies. Moreover, cooperation between small seed companies and heirloom seed savers in the production of seed crops is inevitable and has already begun. Small companies like ours have been very responsive to the renewed interest in heirloom varieties and seed saving. In some ways we are better positioned to respond to new trends in the marketplace than larger retailers hindered by their own corporate bureaucracies and pro-hybrid biases. If we can rebuild a base of regional specialty varieties, we can over time become less dependent upon the multinational behemoths, and ensure ourselves an enduring, if limited, niche in the market. The trend toward heirlooms disturbs giants like Petoseed, which conducts an aggressive marketing campaign trumpeting the virtues of hybrids while denigrating open-pollinated varieties. Recently Petoseeds’ Jim Waltrip attempted a ludicrous comparison of heirloom tomato Brandywine with recent AAS winner Big Beef, finding Beef the clear winner in all categories except taste (a merely minor consideration, of course!). We sell both. These tomatoes are very dissimilar and one could never replace the other.

Will companies like Fedco ever sell transgenic varieties? That depends upon what kind of varieties are developed at what price, and whether you, our customers, will want them. Would you be able to resist a sweet corn variety which could fix nitrogen or one which has built-in molecular resistance to the corn earworm? For now, the burden of proof is on the biotechnologists to justify the benefits and costs of their products. [In 1996, Fedco adopted a policy of not offering transgenic varieties.]

Many of us are concerned that seed savers have fewer and fewer rights. In some European countries, a system of national listings regulates what varieties can or cannot be sold. If it isn’t on the list, it is illegal to sell. Fortunately, conditions are not yet that restrictive in America. If we are to retain our inalienable right to grow whatever seeds we wish, what is to be done?

  1. Although at first glance, an individual would appear to be powerless against the technological juggernaut, take heart from the inspiring story of Seed Savers Exchange founder Kent Whealy. Whealy and his friends within a few short years built a powerful organization aimed at nothing less than the restoration of a localized agriculture. A few dedicated individuals with a bright idea can still change the whole course of history.
  2. Familiarize yourself with the issues and develop your own points of view. The bibliography offers a good place to start.
  3. Join the Maine Seed Savers network or the Seed Savers Exchange or both and adopt a few heirloom varieties if you are so inclined. If you are serious about seed saving, the book Seed to Seed by Suzanne Ashworth is the best resource available.
  4. Patronize small alternative seed companies who offer the best of the old as well as the new. As breeder Tim Peters states in his catalog, “Keep in mind that the dollars you spend today are casting a vote on what seeds, what companies and what philosophies will exist tomorrow.” (Peters Seed and Research, 1995 catalog, p. 2.)
  5. If you decide that you have serious misgivings about eating genetically engineered foods, you might want to support Jeremy Rifkin’s Foundation on Economic Trends which has launched a campaign to press for labeling of all such foods that reach the marketplace [In 2016, try the Just Label It campaign.]
  6. Write your Congresspeople and other politicians if you have opinions on such issues as seed patenting, funding for university varietal research, regulation of biotechnology, etc.
  7. Continue to keep your hands in the dirt and your mind fertile.

— October 1995



Doyle, Jack. Altered Harvest: Agriculture, Genetics, and the Fate of the World’s Food Supply. (New York: Penguin Books, 1986).
Fowler, Cary and Pat Mooney. Shattering: Food, Politics, and the Loss of Genetic Diversity. (Tucson: University of Arizona Press, 1990).
Kloppenburg Jr., Jack Ralph. First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). (By far the best book on the subject!)
Nabhan, Gary Paul. Enduring Seeds. (San Francisco: North Point Press, 1989).
Rissler, Jane and Margaret Mellon. Perils Amidst the Promise: Ecological Risks of Transgenic Crops in a Global Market. (Washington, DC: Union of Concerned Scientists, 1993).
Whealy, Kent and Arllys Adelmann, eds. Seed Savers Exchange: The First Ten Years 1975-1985. (Decorah, IA: Seed Saver Publications, 1986).
Suzuki, David and Peter Knudtson. Genethics: The Clash between the New Genetics and Human Values. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1989).


Amicus Journal, (Natural Resources Defense Council: New York) Spring 1993, pp. 19-34 (several articles including King, Jonathon W., “Breeding uniformity: will global biotechnology threaten global biodiversity?”)
Maine Organic Farmer & Gardener (Augusta, ME) Three-part series by Nicholas Lindholm appearing in Nov 1994, March 1995 and June 1995 issues.
Schmidt, Karen “Whatever Happened to the Gene Revolution?” New Scientist, January 1995.
Seed Savers Exchange Harvest Editions and Summer Editions, 1985-1995 (Seed Saver Publications: Decorah, IA).
Science News (Science Service, Washington, DC) Issues from 1989 to date have periodic articles keeping up with genetic developments.
Seed World (Scranton Gilette Communications: Des Plaines, IL) Issues from 1989 to date have the seed industry’s perspective.