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The Market of Seeds: Selling the Right to Biodiversity

Words by
November 01, 2016
According to their website, Monsanto is a “sustainable agriculture company,” but dig a little deeper and you’ll find that their current agriculture empire was built from a toxic past. They got their start as chemical manufacturers and are notorious for the production of Agent Orange, a defoliant chemical that was sprayed from American aircraft during the Vietnam War from 1962 to 1971. Agent Orange is composed of the herbicides 2,4-D (Dichlorophenoxyacetic acid) and 2,4,5-T (Trichlorophenoxyacetic acid). Its widespread use devastated an entire rain forest, a rich environment that once held 275 species of animals, 800 species of birds, 180 different reptiles and 80 amphibians. Not to mention the 4.8 million Vietnamese that were exposed to Agent Orange, and the resulting birth deformities, disabilities and high tumor rates that continue in the still-toxic zones today.

Developed during the forties to use on large jungle plants, an offshoot of the original Agent Orange recipe is still used today in agriculture despite the fact its byproducts are highly toxic and cancerogenic to man. It’s creator, Monsanto, is now the world’s largest seed company.


Biodiversity at Risk: Seed Ownership

The seeds that Monsanto pumps out every year are, for the most part, GMO seeds. GMO indicates genetic modification, and in most instances, these seeds will only survive if they are treated with a particular herbicide made in the same laboratories that create the modified seeds. These companion herbicides are frighteningly close in chemical makeup to the original Agent Orange defoliant. The result? Plants that are able to resist these powerful herbicides while surrounding weeds die must be some sort of vegetable Rambo.

When Monsanto sells their seeds, the farmer is obligated to sign a contract. In this contract, it’s written that the genes within the seeds are the property of Monsanto, and thus the plants as well, and so they must be cultivated according to the terms Monsanto lays out. The farmer can’t keep, sell or replant the purchased seeds and they must be grown exclusively with accompanying herbicides.
The Market of Seeds
photo © Beatrice Tamagnini
With seed genetic modification developing hand in hand with chemical herbicide and pesticide research (exclusive combinations from which large multinationals primarily profit), it makes you wonder who is looking out for our personal health and the environment. The seeds and their genes are loyal to their makers. If the seeds aren’t treated with their chemical companions produced in the same laboratory, they will die. In this case, the farmer isn’t just buying a seed, but also the accompanying chemicals to allegedly ensure productive yields, while at the same time yielding corporate control to the likes of Monsanto and other large multinationals. A costly gamble for the farmer.

The seeds and their genes are loyal to their makers. If the seeds aren’t treated with their chemical companions produced in the same laboratory, they will die."
In addition to the economic aspects, we have to take into account environmental and food costs. It’s not just the plants that are transforming into Rambo-like species, but also the weeds. And as the weeds get stronger, so must the herbicides, leading to the dispersal of increasingly stronger herbicides used in large intensive monocultures, all composed of the same chemical bond created for Agent Orange forty years ago. It’s truly possible the GMO corn might be a healthier product for humans compared to a normal strain because the gene has been so carefully selected, but that means the chemical companions needed for these super crops to survive are included in the deal. And what is so healthy about that?


The Apples of South Tyrol

In Italy, we’re experiencing a microcosm of the global experience with the empire of the red apples up in South Tyrol. In a territory that has long cultivated apples, the effects of seed ownership and genetic crop modification are clear. Farmers in South Tyrol purchase their trees and seeds under contract and in exchange are given an instruction booklet to follow precisely. Outlined in their manual is how and when to water, prune, and harvest, and of course what pesticides to use in what quantities. Even market price for each harvest is stipulated by the contract. The quantities of apples harvested must always be proportional to the number of trees, an agreed upon proportion set by the owner of the patent who, by default, claims as property the seed, the gene, the apple tree and all the apples. And if the proportion between tree and harvest is not met, the tree is quickly removed.

Not only are apple cultivators in South Tyrol at the economic mercy of these so-called seed owners, but they also suffer the consequences of following the regime prescribed by their instruction manuals. The rate of tumors found in the South Tyrol population is increasing, as is Parkinson’s disease, two major health concerns that have been linked directly to pesticide use. Professor Marco Tomasetti of the University of Le Marche explained the effects of chemicals and pesticides on human DNA. At a genetic level, healthy cells can be damaged, unable to reproduce in a healthy manner, causing prerequisite conditions that can (but doesn’t always) lead to cancer or degenerative disease. Our seeds are changing, our food is changing, and so are we.
The Market of Seeds
photo © Beatrice Tamagnini

From South Tyrol to the World: Consolidation of Ownership

In 1994, the world’s four largest seed companies controlled only 21% of the market, but now the top four seed companies and top four agrochemical firms command more than half of their respective markets. 2016 brings new market consolidation, which can be frightening for consumers and farmers alike. Dow Chemical and DuPont are attempting to come together in a $59 billion merger that would bring under one roof two of the largest US chemical makers. State-owned Chinese company China National Chemical Corp. is proceeding with the purchase of Syngenta, and Monsanto has agreed to a buyout from Bayer, the German pharmaceutical giant.

It’s as though those selling cars were selling the gas as well, and even playing mechanic, offering to repair damages for a steep price."
The divide between chemical, drug and seed companies is no longer apparent. Those selling seeds are distributing the accompanying pesticides. And those selling pesticides and seeds are then manufacturing pharmaceuticals, pulling research from the same chemical laboratories. It’s as though those selling cars were selling the gas as well, and even playing mechanic, offering to repair damages for a steep price. The economic upper hand accompanied by human health deterioration evident in South Tyrol will only tighten as multinational mergers become a reality.

“I don’t think the rank-and-file farmers are excited” about the deal, said Wade Barnes, president and chief executive of Farmers Edge, an agriculture technology company. “When two manufacturers come together, there’s less optionality of who to buy from, so the price point will probably be higher for them.” It seems clear that the only ones benefitting from multinational consolidation are the seed owners, whereas farmers, the land and the consumers are being left behind.

Challenging Monocultures

But not all are convinced of this monoculture method, with its intensive chemical use, even if pesticides have been widely deemed the easier and cheaper way to fight against insects and other plagues of nature. Since the start of agricultural tradition, planting methods have combined various crops to keep insects at bay and crop rotations have been in place to nurture soil.

Salvatore Ceccarelli is among many who want to find a solution to the cut down on chemicals on the fields. Instead of using a single variety of wheat in a field, the geneticist and seed expert suggests using a mix of different grain seeds. This creates an unexpected effect on grain reproduction, but it avoids much of the pest problem. In fact, since the plants are all different and the roots arrive at various depths in the ground, it’s more difficult for weeds to take root. At the same time, the various genes of the mix of seeds adapt to climate and physical changes more easily. It all comes back to biodiversity.

Organisms develop a stronger immune system when they live in a diverse ecosystem. They’re able to adapt to different environments, evolve effectively and learn new habits to keep them resilient and thriving. The same goes for humans: if we become used to a too sterile environment, we become more susceptible to infections. Likewise, if we are always eating the same food products, always absorbing the same chemical bonds and the same genes, we are also more susceptible to develop illnesses, food intolerances and allergies. In the last 80 years we have lost 93% of the world’s plant varieties. The loss of diversity is a health problem, an environmental problem and a global problem.
The Market of Seeds
photo © Beatrice Tamagnini

Taking Action

Our genes, the genes or our food, were never meant to be held only in the hands of few. Especially not the hands of big multinationals that primarily make decisions for their own economic motivations — the same multinationals that produce both seed and the accompanying chemicals the plant needs in the same laboratory. I’m not saying we can put the blame of this heavy problem on the shoulders of others, blaming multinationals for careless acts. Instead, we need to be the solution to the problem. We have to solve it. We have to face it.

I assure you that there are effective ways to make social change through small actions. And we can start little by little. If we aren’t growing ourselves, support those who are. With the resources at our disposal, it now requires less effort to inform ourselves about the seeds we buy, the food we grow or buy, so we can seek out seeds and plants that do well for our bodies and for our environment. We have the power to make a choice! But it is still up to us: if we want to make change for a better future or if we prefer to remain inert, turning a blind eye to the world where shiny apples packed in plastic and produced (almost) in labs are waiting for us on the supermarket shelves.

In the next articles, I will explore the world of those making choices and change of this nature. I will present people, projects and places that have embraced alternatives to GMOs and continued to cherish the biodiversity of nature. It will be an interesting, insightful and hopefully inspirational journey, and I promise, it can be tasty too!