Surge, Siege and Seed
CR Lawn, February 2013
I want to thank Amy LeBlanc, Rosalie and Wayne
Deri and the Farmington Seed Savers for inviting me to share a few
thoughts with you today on the state of seed, the state of the industry,
the state of organic seed and where my vision for Fedco fits in.
These are not modest topics, so I will begin by apologizing for
my presumption in addressing them. Though these comments may not
seem humble, know that I address these subjects with utter humility
for they are far larger than I. Seed is the alpha and the omega,
the beginning and the end, and a sustainable food system is possible
only if we have a sustainable seed system. And we have a long way
to go to achieve either.
To quote my favorite plant breeder, designer extraordinaire
Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed in Oregon: “If you think
you know everything, try farming. If you think life is just about
having a plan, make a plan that accounts for the weather and you
will be a magnate. Success in farming is as much about being present
as being prescient.” To which I would only add, if you think
farming is difficult, try farming seed crops.
Consider lettuce. When you market a head of lettuce
or cut it for your table you behead an immature plant. It is relatively
short, takes up maybe a foot of horizontal and vertical space, and
is ready to eat in 45-60 days. When you allow that same plant to
go to seed, it shoots up a tall seedhead, occupies much more space
and takes at least a month or two longer to mature seed. Many things
can go wrong in that extra thirty or sixty days.
Seed is not only the source of slow food, in more
ways than one it is the ultimate slow food. It takes 10-15 years
to breed a new variety. And so, as I am fond of saying, the seed
business is not for the impatient. Whatever I dream about now might
come to fruition in five or ten years, or maybe not at all. But
in order to dream at all realistically we must know where we are
now to understand where we might want to go and to determine how
we might get there.
And when I look at where we are now, I see a seed
industry that is highly concentrated in a few hands. According to
my latest information (which is from 2011, but little has changed
since in this regard), the top ten companies control an estimated
73% of the total $30 million global seed market (up from 67% in
2007). Just three companies control 53% of the global commercial
market for seed, headed, of course, by the infamous Monsanto with
27% of the market. Since Seminis (once Fedco's largest supplier
with 70 varieties in our catalog commanding 11% of our revenues)
was bought out by Monsanto, we at Fedco have boycotted Monsanto,
enjoying what one customer described rather hyperbolically “the
sweet tastiness of the high moral ground.” Or do we?
Kandy Korn, Silver Queen, Honey Select, Serendipity
corns, Roma, Jade and Masai beans, Bordeaux spinach, Gustus brussels
sprouts, Gentry, Raven, Spineless Beauty and Sunburst Patty Pan
squashes, Bobcat and super sweet 100 tomatoes, Quetzali, Sangria
and Sunsugar watermelons, Athena muskmelon, Graffiti cauliflower....How
many of you grow one or more of these varieties? (a number
of hands went up) How many grow several or many of them?
(fewer hands) How would you feel if these varieties
disappeared or where phased out of the Fedco catalog? (murmurs
of “disappointed”) What do these varieties
have in common? (one identified that they are all hybrids.
Most are.) All are from Syngenta, a Swiss pharmaceutical
company that is #3 on the list of the world's top ten seed companies.
Syngenta recently contributed $2 million to help defeat California's
Proposition 37 which would have made California the first state
in the nation to institute mandatory labeling of genetically engineered
And yet, Proposition 37, despite being outspent
by better than 5-1, (Monsanto alone spent $8.13 million, almost
as much as all the supporters together could muster) came within
a hair of a stunning victory, garnering more than 6 million votes,
48.6%, and in so doing, transformed the political landscape, moving
labeling out of the fringes and straight into the mainstream, where
campaigns are sprouting like mushrooms. Groups are active in at
least 20 states, including our own. And I will return to this.
Just as economist David Vail asked in the 1980s
if we were chickenshit farmers because we had become so dependent
on manure from DeCoster's dubious cage layer operations, I ask now
if we are yet anything more than just a field of Spineless Beautys!
If in seven years Fedco has successfully replaced most of the Seminis/Monsanto
varieties, is it time for us to extend the boycott to Syngenta?
(murmurs of assent). This is not just a rhetorical
question, it is a real question, a difficult one, and I really want
your opinions. Many of our largest farm customers are dependent
on these varieties for their sales and it will not be easy for them
to let these varieties go. If we drop them, some will just order
their Raven elsewhere. I collate all our paper orders and Raven
turns up over and over on them. Are we craven to give up Raven or,
like Edgar Allen Poe, are we ready to “quoth the Raven, Nevermore!”
For make no mistake. There can be no sustainable
food system or sustainable seed system as long as our farms are
dependent on multinationals like Monsanto and Syngenta. And while
it is fashionable these days to talk of food sovereignty, a difficult
concept, how about a simpler one that comes from none other than
Karl Marx? Yes, I know that Marx is the ultimate in uncool these
days, but when he talked about taking control of the means of production
(and I would add, of distribution) he was right on the money. Nothing
could be more compelling than taking control of the means of production
and distribution of our seed. Not only can we preserve unique heirloom
varieties that might otherwise go extinct, but we can also select,
adapt and breed varieties uniquely suited to our locales, microclimates
and soils. And in so doing, we can slowly bid adieu to the potentially
strangling control that the multinationals have over our food. I
can't find a higher calling than that.
When we started down this road at Fedco, many
said it couldn't be done. But we have gone further than I could
have dreamed. I thought 20 or 25% small farm seed production would
be our affordable limit, for building such a production is more
expensive and much harder than buying from the multinationals. Since
1991 when we began this mission impossible we have grown our small
farm seed network to 64 growers, more than half of all our seed
suppliers. They, and kindred spirits among small seed companies
like Turtle Tree and Southern Exposure Seed Exchange with whom we
collaborate and who also maintain their own small farm grower networks,
now get 31.6% of our seed dollars, up from 23.3% five years ago,
up from 14.4% eleven years ago. 37.7% now comes from US seed wholesalers
and large retailers and 30.7% from foreign sources. In 5 years the
number of small farm seed growers who grow more than $1,000 worth
of seed for us per year is up from 21 to 33, and the $ we have spent
with all our small farm seed growers has more than doubled, from
74K to 185K. About 80% of this production is certified organic,
the rest eco or sustainably grown by farmers with good soil-building
I decided to use the word surge when I noticed
that our December sales had multiplied sevenfold in the last decade
and our over-all sales had nearly tripled. Thus, the surge, the
growing interest in organic seed, in niche and heirloom varieties,
in adapted hybrids. The supply increasing, yet unable to keep pace
with the demand. Good quality, good varieties of organic seed fly
off the shelf. Not just Fedco– High Mowing, Johnny's, Southern
Exposure, Turtle Tree each have experienced their own surges.
And yet, this is the most fragile of networks.
It is being built up skill by skill, variety by variety, grower
by grower, like a good foundation, one brick at a time. Nikos Kavanya,
our purchaser, goes out west to Organic Seed Alliance and Organicology
Conferences to look for growers who have become skilled enough to
grow for us, to talk to them and to recruit them. Many are growing
for the whole network of emerging seed companies. It happens that
the dry climate of Idaho is ideal for growing seed crops, particularly
peas and beans that would be more vulnerable to seed-borne diseases
if grown in the humid east. We at Fedco have our own private Idaho,
though quite unlike the movie of that name. So in the summer of
2011 Nikos journeyed to Idaho to visit our 3 organic growers in
the state and four of our commercial suppliers and returned to present
a memorable slide show to our staff at our annual meeting. I came
away from that show with the lasting impression of how fragile the
infrastructure of our growers is, surrounded as they are by conventional
farms, so close you can see the airborne sprayers flying over their
neighbors' fields, so close that the same irrigation water is shared
by the chemical and organic farmers, and is, of course, not pure.
Finally, and most significantly, there is the
vulnerability of our network to genetic contamination. As you may
know, Fedco is one of the 83 plaintiffs in the PUBPAT lawsuit (all
but a handful of whom are currently appealing its dismissal) being
brought against Monsanto to try to invalidate a number of its patents
and to protect plaintiffs from the ever-present risk of being sued
by Monsanto should we become inadvertently contaminated by Monsanto's
To quote from the opening statement of Dan Ravicher,
our attorney: “Society stands on the precipice of being forever
bound to transgenic agriculture and transgenic food. Coexistence
between transgenic seed and organic seed is impossible because transgenic
seed contaminates and eventually overcomes organic seed. History
has already shown this: soon after transgenic seed for canola was
introduced, organic canola became virtually extinct as a result
of GE contamination. Organic corn, soybean, cotton, sugar beet and
alfalfa now face the same fate...” And so does the brassica
seed industry in the Williamette Valley, one of the prime seed-growing
locations in the world, if Roundup Ready canola is allowed to be
Lest you think this an exaggeration, I invite
you to visit our warehouse in Clinton. There you will find a 1,400
lb. seed crop of Floriani Red Flint Corn, the largest seed corn
crop we ever commissioned. This variety received huge publicity
from Mother Earth News that created a buzz unprecedented in our
history. Yet it is sitting on our back-order list while we seek
other sources. Why? Because it tested positive for transgenic contamination.
District Court Judge Buchwald threw out our suit
because she did not understand the nature of biological contamination.
We appealed and recently had oral arguments in Washington DC (to
read the fascinating transcript, Google OSGATA, www.osgata.org/2013/full-transcript-of-oral-arguments/)
and now await a decision by the 3 judges.
Biological pollution differs from any other kind
because it involves living organisms that reproduce. Imagine you
are Percy Schmeiser. A little windblown pollen comes into your fields
where you have spent 40 years refining your genetics. Maybe only
a trace amount of contamination in the beginning. But the pollen
gets in there, crosses with your pure plants and in the next generation
there is more genetic pollution. Then more contaminated plants cross
with remaining healthy plants and breed more contaminated plants.
In a few generations your whole field is contaminated and your life
work with canola ruined. This is the nature of biological pollution.
No barrier can stop it. No fence can be built high enough to keep
it out. Who will restrict the bees from flight? Who will stop the
wind? Yes, Bob Dylan knew it all along: the answer is indeed blowing
in the wind!
And yet courts have ruled that if you are contaminated,
even if you did not purchase or plant Monsanto's genetics, even
if you did not sign their licensing agreement, the transgenics on
your property belong to Monsanto. They have literally stood the
ancient and honorable law of trespass, one of the very cornerstones
of jurisprudence, on its head. There can be no more true conservative
cause than to re-affirm the foundational right against trespass
upon our property. And that is the battle we are fighting here.
Some of you know that in an earlier incarnation
I graduated from Yale Law School. And I will never forget the first
day of first year Civil Procedure class when the venerable Fleming
James, who made his bones representing the New Haven Railroad in
its heyday, thundered that the law is about “Who Pays”.
Young idealists that we were, seeking social justice in the sixties,
most of us were very turned off. And yet, Fleming James was right,
whether we are talking about underwater mortgages peddled by greedy
conscienceless big banks to naïve victims or genetic contamination
perpetrated by greedy conscienceless chemical and pharmaceutical
companies, when things inevitably go wrong, who pays, the perps
or the victims? It turns out that “who pays”
is the fundamental question upon which social justice rests.
The US Department of Agriculture proposes that
we the victims pay. They convened an Advisory Committee on Biotechnology
and 21st Century Agriculture (DC21), consisting of 21 interested
parties. According to longtime midwest organic inspector, activist
and writer Harriet Behar, unsurprisingly it was stacked with 15
persons who were pro-GE and only six unsupportive of biotech seeds
or crops. In its final report the committee recommended that the
USDA establish a crop insurance program that non-GE farmers can
buy into to insure against losses from contamination. They did not
recommend that the patent-holders of the technology be held economically
accountable for the unwanted genetic pollution caused by their crops.
They did not even address who pays the costs of planning and land-use
limitations presently being borne entirely by non-GE and organic
farmers seeking to avoid contamination. Instead, they recommended
more communication between non-GE and GE farmers to “facilitate
co-existence among different agriculture systems in the United States.”
Let me promise two things. First, as long as I
have anything to do with Fedco, we will never pay blood money to
insurance companies for protection against contamination perpetrated
by the biotech industry, and second, as long as the victims are
to be held financially liable for this contamination, there will
be no possible coexistence among different agricultural systems,
no matter what the USDA or the Maine Department of Agriculture are
peddling. There will only be lawsuits, more lawsuits, endless lawsuits
until justice at last prevails.
Those of us who grew up in the Cold War between
the Soviet Union and America know about this kind of so-called “peaceful
co-existence” In the end we know there is always a winner
and always a loser and we will not willingly play the part of the
Soviet Union that has been designated for us in this charade of
co-existence. And so we recognize, that surge of interest on our
behalf or not, we are being besieged by bio-tech and so we must
besiege the besiegers.
Let us ask biotech the hard questions, expose
the half-truths and the lies and seek an accounting. First, the
big half-truth. You've all heard the claim that no one has ever
been harmed by eating transgenic food. But this claim is meaningless.
It is meaningless because no one can tell whether it is true or
not. We can't tell because there is no audit trail for any of these
foods. There is no audit trail because these foods are not labeled.
If something goes wrong, there is no way to trace its cause. Those
who are certified organic know about audit trails. Every food leaving
your farm has one. Its called accountability. Whether these foods
prove out to be truly safe or not, it is time to hold biotech to
account and to build a mechanism where we can at least begin to
Second we must address the legal absurdity that
a food can at once be the product of a novel socially useful process
that is patentable and yet at the same time be considered substantially
equivalent to a similar food that is not the product of this novel
technology. They can't have it both ways. Either these patents must
be invalid because there is nothing substantially different about
the food derived from them, or this food is substantially different,
novel, and therefore these patents should be valid.
For the sake of argument, let us grant the latter.
After all, big biotech has made a huge effort to defend and enforce
these patents. Monsanto has brought 144 lawsuits protecting its
patents, and imposed many more confidential out-of-court settlements
against beleagured farmers.
And big biotech has made some formidable claims
for their technology. It will reduce pesticide and herbicide use,
it will increase yields, it will FEED THE WORLD! So let's put ourselves
in Monsanto's shoes, in Syngenta's shoes, and each of us suppose
we have invented a dramatic new technology that will do all these
wonderful things. Wouldn't we want to climb up on the rooftops and
shout to the whole world know how wonderful our technology is? Why,
it will feed the world! Wouldn't we rush to put labels
on all our products derived from it, to let the world know how proud
we are of our new technology and products and to give people a chance
to support it knowingly by purchasing its products?
So why are these manufacturers, rather than proclaiming
how great their technology is by labeling it everywhere, instead
skulking away to hide it? Why did they just spend $46 million in
California to keep their technology off their labels? It is time
to ask them, what are you afraid of, what do you have to hide?
Because if they are afraid, we should really
be afraid. It is time to insist on our right to know what is
in our food. Because without knowing what is in our food, we cannot
knowingly make intelligent choices about what food to eat. And because
with that knowledge we are empowered, empowered with the strongest
weapon of all free citizens–the power to spend and the power
not to spend, the power to choose, the power of our purse.
California's near-miss is Maine's opportunity
to re-kindle the spirit of our state motto Dirigo (I lead) and to
become among the first states in the nation to institute mandatory
labeling of some GE foods. The world has changed in the decade since
we last tried to get labeling in Maine. Then we garnered more than
one-third support in the legislature, but no support (as in no sponsors,
zero votes) from any Republicans. Now Farmington's own Lance Harvell
is introducing An Act to Protect Maine Food Consumers' Right to
Know. It will have bi-partisan support from a real coalition, ranging
from Maine Organic Farmers to Maine Conservation Voters, from Tea
Party Republicans to liberal Democrats. Tell your legislators that
you support our right to know. Tell them that you believe in Dirigo
and that once again, it is time for Maine to lead the way. Remind
them that in another generation (1976) Maine also was a leader,
with a third-in-the nation Bottle Bill, a bill also shepherded through
the legislature by a Republican, Governor Jock McKernan. If Maine
leads others will follow—Vermont, Connecticut, Minnesota,
New York will be considering similar legislation, and Washington
will have a citizen's initiative on the ballot this year—having
already garnered more than 340,000 signatures.
Thank you and may all your seeds find friable
fertile soil and favorable weather and may the fruits of our growing
food movement taste as sweet as the effort and care and thoughtfulness
that we have imbued them with. –CR Lawn
For the latest info on Maine's GE-labeling campaign, click here.