Friday, January 14, 2011

Charting a Course for Seed Self-Determination

Photo credit: Judy Owsowitz

In 2005, when Monsanto purchased Seminis, the world’s largest vegetable seed company, organic farmers found themselves facing an ethical quandary. Do they continue purchasing seed varieties they had relied on for years, now owned by a multinational biotech giant, or do they scramble to find alternatives that work as well on their farm?

Count Judy Owsowitz of Whitefish, Montana, among those organic farmers who chose to abandon Seminis varieties. Owsowitz was also not alone in asking seed companies she purchased from to stop doing business with Seminis, citing Monsanto’s commitment to genetic engineering and open hostility toward organic. Some seed companies did drop their Seminis line. Others could not afford to do so and, in some instances, alternatives weren’t readily available.

Five years later, Owsowitz is still working to replace an estimated 20 percent of varieties that she dropped following the acquisition.

“The biggest losses,” she says, “have been varieties that have a short growing season and traits for cold tolerance and cold soil emergence. Alternative varieties I’ve come across do nothing for Montana’s organic farmers.”

Owsowitz’s experience is not unique. Responses to a nationwide survey conducted by Organic Seed Alliance in 2010 indicate the organic sector is underserved in genetics specifically adapted to organic cropping systems, regions, and market niches. For varieties of organic seed that are available, many farmers are challenged by a lack of sufficient quantity.

While problems surrounding organic seed are complex, consolidation in the seed industry stands out as a major contributor to the basic lack of availability of organic seed. Companies have rapidly consolidated in the last 40 years, absorbed by transnational firms with chemical and biotechnology interests. The result has been less competition and choice in the marketplace and a lack of infrastructure to provide for the diverse needs of organic farmers.

“The organic industry wasn’t particularly well served to begin with,” says University of Wisconsin plant breeder Bill Tracy. “But consolidation has removed commercial cultivars that organic growers really liked and made them less accessible. There’s no question consolidation has increased the problem.”

Some of the worst concentration exists in major field crops. Three firms account for 75 percent of corn seed sales nationwide. Genetically engineeredtraits, namely RoundUp Ready® and Bt, have facilitated concentration of market power. For instance, nearly all conventional U.S. corn, soybean, and cotton acreage is planted to genetically engineered varieties controlled by Monsanto.

Dozens of mergers and acquisitions followed the expansion of agricultural biotechnology. Many smaller companies could not compete with large firms that owned much of the genetic resource base in seed. Licensing genetics from these firms was costly, creating a barrier to new private research firms. At least 200 independent seed companies have been acquired or gone out of business in the last thirteen years, including companies interested in providing for the organic and conventional seed market.

Concentration is a consequence of weak antitrust law enforcement that should have stopped anticompetitive mergers and acquisitions. It is also a consequence of Supreme Court decisions that allowed agricultural biotechnology and other plant products to be patented. Together, these factors led not only to concentrated market power but concentrated ownership of plant genetic resources — the lifeblood of plant breeding.
Tracy explains the current role of intellectual property rights. He says intellectual property rights developed by plant breeders — which include plant patents established in 1930 for asexually reproducing plants and hybrids and protection certificates established by the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) of 1970 — all protect varieties but do not protect genes. That is, people can use protected varieties to develop new ones. Congress was clear in its intent to avoid hindering innovation by including two important exemptions in the PVPA: 1) researchers can use PVPA protected varieties to further innovation; and 2) farmers can save seed from protected varieties.

A 2001 Supreme Court decision, however, held that utility patents — patents for inventions — could not only be applied to your toaster at home, but to sexually reproducing plants. “Now utility patents can tie up everything,” Tracy explains. “And that is the intent. It’s certainly a chilling force. There’s germplasm I wouldn’t touch as a plant breeder because companies could assert their rights under the patent.”

Patents therefore have the potential to hinder innovation by removing valuable plant genetics from the pool of resources breeders rely on. Breeders are restricted or prohibited from using patented varieties, traits, or tools unless onerous licensing agreements are signed and expensive royalties paid. Or, as Tracy describes, some breeders are simply restricted by their own fear of being sued.

Farmers also live with this fear, as patents eliminate their right to save seed. Saving seed provides farmers both agronomic and economic benefits. They can select seed from plants that performed best in their local climate while saving money on new seed purchases for the next growing season.

Monsanto has pursued thousands of farmers in patent infringement investigations for allegedly saving seed, and over a hundred have been pushed into court and forced to pay thousands — or even hundreds of thousands — of dollars to the company. Patent holders like Monsanto enforce their patents through technology agreements. These agreements recently started showing up on Seminis vegetable seed packets, bringing Monsanto’s presence in the vegetable market — and the company’s aggressive enforcement of patents — into stark relief. Simply opening a packet of the popular Big Beef tomato seed variety now enters the grower into a licensing agreement with Monsanto.

In 2010, the U.S. Department of Justice focused on these and other licensing agreements as part of an investigation into competition in the seed industry. These are historic, ongoing investigations, and the focus should be broadened to examine the consequence of utility patents on plants that are slowing innovation. Congress could help by clarifying in law that the PVPA should be the sole intellectual property protection for sexually reproducing plant varieties, as was the original Congressional intent, ensuring that breeders have access to more varieties for research and that farmers can save seed. The PVPA provides patent-like protections for plant developers, including exclusive rights to propagate and market the variety for 20 years, yet also provides reasonable exemptions for researchers and farmers so that innovation can occur.

But, even if those two things happened, positive movement in these areas is not enough to ensure organic farmers have access to quality organic seed. Organic farmers still rely on a private seed industry highly concentrated by firms with non-organic interests. And the public sector, historically the most important source for regionally adapted seed, lacks the ability to provide for the organic market in the face of dwindling funds for traditional plant breeding and the related increase in private dollars funding research.

Bolstering public funding for plant breeding and keeping this research in the public domain would go a long way toward building organic seed availability. But there are opportunities the organic community can seize right now, without government action. We can work collaboratively to build the infrastructure for developing and distributing organic seed.
Owsowitz, who dumped Seminis after its acquisition, sees farmers like herself as part of this solution. She recognizes that consolidation is a deep-seated trend in the seed industry, having seen competition and variety options decline before Monsanto entered the vegetable scene. Seminis dropped more than 2,000 varieties (25 percent of its product inventory) in 2000 to cut costs, leaving farmers in a lurch even back then.

“That’s why I’m selecting seed for certain traits from my own fields,” Owsowitz says. Owsowitz is developing vegetable varieties on her farm that survive northwestern Montana’s short growing season and cool temperatures. Each year she selects seed — most notably from spinach, pumpkin, and pepper plants — that demonstrate desirable traits in her organic system. Each year she sees more advantages. Organic Seed Alliance is helping farmers like Owsowitz restore the skills needed for seed production.

With our partners, including four land grant universities, we are establishing decentralized, farmer-oriented seed production networks across the U.S. These collaborative networks, such as the Northern Organic Vegetable Improvement Collaboration, provide farmers access to shared knowledge and resources, including seed growing equipment. Program goals include developing varieties optimal for organic systems and safeguarding invaluable plant genetic resources.

As an organic community, we need to keep challenging threats to the integrity and expansion of organic agriculture, especially consolidation. But we also need to devote attention to positive solutions, including organic seed systems that restore farmers’ role and rights, ensure new varieties are available and shared for breeding purposes, and provide a diversity of healthy food now and into the future.

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