Save the Seed

Spirit of Change 20th anniversary issue reprint from Mar/Apr 1995

“The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” — Thomas Jefferson

Throughout his life, Jefferson exchanged seeds with gardeners in both the Old World and the New. His “kitchen garden” was a wonder of diversity with over 250 varieties of vegetables and herbs. He considered gardening one of life’s greatest delights. “Though an old man, I am but a younger gardener.”

There are tens of thousands of edible plants, however today only about 20 plant varieties account for 90 percent of our food. Early this century, Americans had over 30 times the variety of food plants now available to us. Today we are seeing a thousand-fold increase in the rate of plant extinctions. In addition to habitat destruction, the emphasis on hybrid seeds by the corporate seed industry is “the biggest single trigger of extinctions,” writes Kenny Ausubel in Seeds of Change: the Living Treasure.

Variety is more than the spice of life; it is the fountainhead and the stabilizer of life. Genetic diversity maintains the world, allowing crops to survive pests and disease. The high-tech hybrid monocultures of today’s agribusiness are so vulnerable that a single pestilence could wipe out an entire region or continent of that food plant.

Over thousands of years, Third World farmers have selected and bred a wide array of plant germplasm. Northern developed countries now take these native strains and biotechnically alter a few plants’ many thousands of genes. These trans-national corporations then claim they own that plant variety and patent it (having lobbied legislators to pass laws saying they can). They sell these hybrid seeds back to the Southern world at monopoly prices, including the costly chemical fertilizers and pesticides which these seeds must now have in order to produce.

In the last 20 years, over a thousand independent seed suppliers have been acquired by major chemical and pharmaceutical conglomerates. By 1985, Shell Oil was the largest seed company in the world. Ausubel reports that a core group of a dozen of these corporations now control over 70 percent of the world seed trade and expects to receive over $100 billion a year in royalities from the Third World (where they obtained the native seed for free in the first place), further stressing these poor countries.

Agribusiness is eliminating native, open-pollinated seeds in favor of their own patented, factory-pollinated hybrids, which are born with a drug habit and bred to ripen simultaneously for machine harvesting…further promoting energy intensive farming. In his book, Entropy, Jeremy Rifkin notes that the simple peasant farmer produces ten calories of energy for each calorie expanded. In contrast, the petro-farmer consumes ten calories of energy for every calorie produced! “It would not be inaccurate to say that the food we eat today is grown from oil rather than soil.”

The problem that most affects us is the decreased nutritional content of the food grown. Cosmetic and transport qualities are bred into plants at the expense of nutritional values. This, combined with the epidemic application of poisons, has resulted in the degenerative physical and mental diseases now rampant in the developed countries.

In the last ten years, half the non-hybrid vegetable varieties have been dropped from mail-order catalogs. The genetic base of food crops has become dangerously depleted. Last summer, the seed monopoly tightened its grip: getting Congress to make it illegal for farmers to sell limited quantities of seed to neighboring farmers. This is seed harvested from their own crops and a farmer’s right since agriculture began. The next move toward seed control will be to prohibit farmers from even planting their own seed. A provision in GATT will force Third World countries to play by these rules if they want to receive seeds or loans.

Why are these rights being usurped? Why is the folly of monoculture sinking the genetic Ark? Why, in Jefferson’s view, is this greatest disservice being rendered to our country and the world? It’s this century’s biggest bonanza: bioengineering and the “Gene Rush.” Owning life forms is becoming a modern slave trade controlled by the Northern Plutocracy (government by the wealthy). Over a thousand genetically altered plants now await field testing by the USDA.

Genetic engineering often increases the use of pesticides, since the corporations that manufacture the poison also produce the seeds, and it’s cheaper to adapt the plant to the poison that won’t harm the plant.

The only way to save the quality and diversity of our food supply is the way it was created in the first place: by the world’s farmers and gardeners. Fortunately, a few seed companies provide large varieties of real seeds that grow into foods that actually have nourishment and flavor. And these seeds don’t require poisons. Growing real seeds is a pleasure, a huge energy savings, a powerful way to improve our health…and an effective way to underthrow the government/corporate assault on nature.

In India, they consider seed control a serious threat to their liberty and food security. In 1993, an angry group of farmers destroyed a $2.3 million seed processing center being constructed by Carrel, the largest privately held corporation in the U.S. (Remind you of something?)

The Boston Tea Party was primarily a protest against corporate and government collusion. Members of the British Parliament owned stock in the East India Company, the original giant multi-national corporation; they legalized the company’s monopoly on the colonists’ tea supply. Even though it was cheaper tea, the Americans dumped in into the ocean, preventing further encroachment on their liberty and ours.

It’s now our turn to preserve the natural rights we inherited. Plant real seed.

“The sun never shined on a cause of greater worth…’Tis not the concern of a day, a year or an age; posterity are virtually involved in the contest, and will be more or less affected even to the end of time, by the proceedings now. Now is the seed-time….” — Tom Paine

John MacArthur is a freelance writer. This article was revised from its originally printed version in Central Oregon Green Pages, Oct. 1994. Subscriptions $7.50/3 issues from PO Box 1302, Bend, OR 97709. 503-389-9749.