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 foods.

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 programs.

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 transgenics.

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 grown there.

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, 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 find out.

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.