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The State of the Seed Industry (And Why You Should Care)

Mark Schapiro, award-winning international and environmental journalist, talks about his most recent book Seeds of Resistance: The Fight to Save our Food Supply, how he got interested in seeds to begin with and how seeds are—in many ways—the most primal thing living organisms on this planet share. (Which is why the current state of seed breeding, seed patenting and total control of the seed industry by huge corporations is so troubling!)

Tune in to hear about:

  • Who, exactly, controls the world’s seed varieties.
  • Why Mark calls seeds bred by large corporations for wide application “crack baby seeds” and how these seeds differ from locally bred varieties.
  • How the seeds produced by huge seed companies are not helping our world’s climate change predicament one iota.
  • Why, in spite of the discouraging current state of affairs, Mark feels hopeful about the future of our seeds, agriculture and planet.

Listen at the link below, on iTunes, Stitcher, Google Play or wherever you get your podcasts!

Theresa Marquez with Mark Schapiro

Transcript: Rootstock Radio Interview with Mark Schapiro

Air date: Nov. 19, 2018

THERESA MARQUEZ: Hello, and welcome to Rootstock Radio. I’m Theresa Marquez, and I’m here today with Mark Schapiro, who has written a very, very excellent book called Seeds of Resistance. And I am excited to be here at Bioneers with him, where we are recording this, and so if you hear things in the background you’ll know it’s a lot of people engaged with lots of exciting conversations. Mark, thank you so much for talking with us today.

MARK SCHAPIRO: Thank you. It’s great to be here.

TM: Yeah, it is. And I know that you have written several books. How did you get interested that “I need to write a book about seeds”?

MS: Yeah, I’m a journalist, and I’m an environmental journalist. I’ve been following environmental questions for a long time. And I’ve started following seeds, way back a couple decades ago, when I first went to a seed repository in Fort Collins, Colorado, of all places. And I thought, first of all, it’s an amazing experience to walk into a vault of seeds, where you walk, shelf upon shelf upon shelf of seeds in different colors, different shapes, different multiple forms. And it was an extraordinary kind of memory that I’ve carried with me for several decades. I was like wow, what are these seeds and why are they preserving them?

And that image has kind of stuck with me as I’ve followed many other trails over the course of my career, including climate change. So I wrote a lot about climate change back over the last ten years or so, and I started seeing this convergence. And the convergence was the impact of climate change on agriculture and how that was changing conditions in food-growing lands around the world, and at the same time, the incredible consolidation of control over the seed industry at the very time that all these scientists were telling us we need a diversity of seeds. We need to have a lot of seeds to choose from in order to actually have the ability to respond to these dramatic changes. And so I thought it was time to take a deep dive into this question of who controls the world’s seeds, and the fight by many people across this country and around the world to retain dominion over their own seed varieties.

TM: Well, you know, I started watching how there used to be these seed trucks that went around from farm to farm, and people would share their seeds. And that isn’t happening now. What happened?

MS: Well, excellent question. What’s happened is that over the last 30 years, the major chemical companies who produce pesticides and herbicides and biological substances that kill what are perceived to be threats to crops have steadily and pretty relentlessly, actually, bought out many hundreds of local seed companies. Steady, steady, steady, over the past 30 years. So it used to be, like I’m sure you have experienced and you’re familiar with, and I’m sure many of your listeners are familiar with, there were many, many different varieties that were bred to specific conditions and specific locales. And the big chemical companies—I say “chemical companies” because they’re all chemical companies, they all have roots in agrichemicals—started buying out those small little seed companies that you’re talking about and replacing those locally bred seeds with seeds that are bred to be planted over huge, vast swaths of territory.

But there’s a very critical thing they need in order for that to happen. So as opposed to a seed that’s evolved in a particular set of conditions and has evolved the ability to respond to those conditions, these seeds require chemicals to keep them alive—chemical boosters to replace what’s not there in the integral nature of the seed. And I call these, in my book, “crack-baby seeds.”

TM: Yes, I saw that, crack-baby seeds. And these seeds, of course, are genetically altered so that they can be sprayed on and they won’t die, but everything else around them will die.

MS: Yes, they’re basically born addicted to chemicals. And what I explore in my book, Seeds of Resistance, is essentially how that model, which is essentially at the core of the industrial agriculture model, is or is not suited to the particular set of challenges we have with climate change transforming conditions.

TM: Well, in your book you say that there are three chemical companies. And I think that it’s kind of like almost counterintuitive to say, what does a chemical company have to do with seeds? What are the three companies?

MS: The three companies that now control more than half of all seed transactions—not literally all seeds in the world, but the transactions involving seeds—are Monsanto-Bayer; Monsanto was purchased, absorbed, by Bayer Chemical, so Monsanto, which started as a chemical company, by the way, way back in the 1920s around St. Louis and began buying seed companies in the ’80s and is now this huge seed company, was purchased by Bayer. Bayer is Germany’s biggest chemical company. So now it’s called Bayer-Monsanto.

TM: So it’s not even an American company anymore.

MS: Right, yes, it’s German-American.

TM: A German company.

MS: Yes, German company basically. And then you’ve got DowDuPont. Dow and DuPont used to be two competitive chemical companies that produced some of the most toxic substances that Americans and people around the world have ever been exposed to, many of which are now banned, thankfully, but there’s still a lot out there. These two huge chemical companies, Dow and DuPont, merged and they’re now called DowDuPont. And the third seed company is Syngenta, which is a Swiss company that’s now owned by the largest chemical company in China, called ChemChina.

So when we think about the seed companies, this is what I write about in my book, is actually we’ve got to think of these as chemical-seed combines. So their whole marketing approach is to market not just the seed but the chemical that goes with the seed. And so there are many questions around this approach to growing food.

TM: One of the things I wanted to ask you is, I remember a Canadian farmer who always saved his own seeds, and they were soybeans. I’m forgetting his name…

MS: Schmeiser, Percy Schmeiser.

TM: Percy Schmeiser. Wasn’t that a case where he lost? His seeds were contaminated. They took actually samples of his crop out of a gutter, I think, along the road, and then took him to court and sued him. And that stopped a lot of the farmers from saving their own seeds. Did I get that wrong?

MS: You go that mostly right. But I think what’s important about that case, the Percy Schmeiser case, a farmer up in Saskatchewan, Canada, who was found to have Monsanto’s soybean seeds on his field even though he did not buy those seeds. If you’re a farmer and you buy Monsanto’s seeds, now Monsanto-Bayer, it’s in the tag. It’s called the bag tag, and you rip open the bag and it’s like a agreeing to that provision. So Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian farmer who basically was discovered with Monsanto’s seeds on his farm, was then challenged by Monsanto for violating their patent.

Now, what’s very important to remember about that case, in addition to the principle it established, that farmers could no longer exchange seeds in the ways that they have over many generations, is that it’s the legal principle established by that case and related cases that made it possible for the chemical industry to move into the seed industry. The very important thing that happened, really in the ’90s, was a whole sequence of Supreme Court decisions and legal actions which I describe in my book, which affirmed the ability of seed companies to patent their seeds—to create a seed and then patent it. That was not a given. That was battled out in numerous court cases over the ’90s.

And what that created was the ability for seed companies to go into the U.S. Patent Office—I was in the U.S. Patent Office, it’s an amazing place outside of Arlington, Virginia—and to go in there and obtain a form. They describe the seed—they say, you know, it’s a broccoli seed or a cauliflower seed or a soybean seed or whatever it is, it’s all described, it’s got a number and everything. And that is now our patented seed, which means nobody else can plant that seed. Without those legal provisions, the consolidation of the seed industry we see today wouldn’t have been possible. So that’s why the Schmeiser case was a tragically important case for the seed companies’ ability to assert their ownership of seed varieties, which has now accelerated and brought us to the point we are today.

TM: Thank you so much for explaining that to me. You know, I feel outraged as you’re talking. I mean, seeds—I mean, they’re ancient. You talk about farming as 10,000 years old. That’s how long we’ve been collecting seeds. How can you patent something that started 10,000 years ago? It seems like if anything should be in the public domain, it should be seeds. You’re a terrific storyteller, and I loved some of the stories that you talked about in your book, but this one doesn’t make sense to me. Shouldn’t somebody be suing them for taking things that are really the public good and then trying to own them? It just doesn’t make sense!

MS: Well, no, on a profound level there is an extreme level of dissonance in this idea. And when I dived into this world I realized how dissonant it really was, because seeds are, in a sense, the most primal ingredient that we have here on the planet that we all share. A seed drops into the ground; with water, sun, minerals in the soil, it becomes a plant. And if we’re lucky we can go eat that plant, or other organisms can go eat that plant. It sustains life here on earth. So there’s something very primordial and fundamental about what a seed is on earth.

And so the reason for this discomfort and this dissonance that kind of clatters your brain when you think about this concept is that we take this very commercialistic, commercial, kind of mercantile idea of how you can own a product, an invention, which is a patent that’s supposed to protect an invention. In this case, the seed companies are arguing that they invented a particular type of seed and therefore own the rights to it.

And that is, I think, a fundamental, comes up in direct collision with our basic understanding of ecology. And ecology is all about, essentially, how these various elements in an ecological system interact with one another—the organisms in the soil and the water that comes down from the skies, and the multiple minerals, and their interactions with the gases that are in the atmosphere, the multiple… It’s a beautiful and also complicated system. And so the idea that you can actually patent and claim ownership over that creates a great deal of dissonance.

Now, what’s interesting, as I look at in the book, is not only looking at this as kind of a, in a sense, it’s a fundamentally moral question, on the one hand, but it’s also a question of, a deeply ecological question, and it’s a question of how does that model work within the huge, tumultuous changes that are now under way in the conditions for growing food? And what we find out—and I looked in some depth into these questions about how those kind of patented uniform seed varieties function and respond to these dramatic changes. And what we’re finding out, farmers, scientists, people all over the world are discovering that it’s actually these diverse seed varieties, multiple different types of seeds in a field, that actually are much more resilient to climatic changes than these huge industrial uniform farms.

TM: One of the stories you tell in your book is about corn nuts. And I’m just wondering if you might tell that story, a little bit, for our listeners, because that has to do with this patenting of seeds. And this is where I get outraged, where corn nuts really got stolen from the Native Americans, and then they got sued for it.

MS: Yes. Well, yeah, no, this is an incredible tale that I write about. There’s an incredible seed-saving center outside of Tucson. It’s called Native Seed Search, and they actually hold on to many of the seeds that have evolved within the Southwest, and many of those from indigenous communities throughout the Southwest, throughout Arizona, New Mexico, parts of Colorado. This place is very important and kind of a repository for those seeds. And they work very closely with the tribes in that area, including the Hopi tribe. And in addition to preserving these seeds, you know—if you go down there or you have listeners who are in Arizona, it’s worth a visit. It’s an amazing place where they preserve seed from throughout the Southwest. And they also have a little retail store, and that retail store sells little things. You can get seeds there and other things. They also sell these kind of delicious boiled corn with salt, big chunky kernels of corn.

TM: And aren’t these like traditional? They’ve been doing this forever.

MS: Yeah, yeah, so the Hopi have been doing these traditional corn kernels for like centuries. And so Native Seed Search started selling these corns, working with a Hopi pueblo in New Mexico. And they described them on the back of the package as these delicious Hopi corn kernels; they taste kind of like Corn Nuts—which they do, by the way.

TM: Only better!

MS: Yeah, much better, actually, because the kernels are really big and chunky, actually. And into their mailbox one day comes a letter from Frito-Lay, the monumentally huge food-processing company, claiming that they were forbidden, to cease and desist using the words “Corn Nuts” as a way to talk about these kernels of corn.

And I tell this story in my book because I think it’s such an incredible portrait of like how have we reached a point where something as fundamental as corn nuts—by the way, cultivated for centuries by Native American people in the Southwest, who have actually kept alive corn in this continent. So when we think about who controls the genetic resources that we need to basically feed ourselves and also respond to these changing conditions…

There’s another thing I want to mention about Hopi corn but also corn grown by indigenous people in New Mexico and Arizona, and in Mexico, is that those seeds, in addition to having a deep history in those regions, are also found to be some of the most effective for responding to the increasing heat and the diminishing water that is happening all across the Southwest and many other parts of the world. So not only is it important to recognize the principles that are at stake here, but also how important these seeds are to all of our future.

TM: If you’re just joining us, you’re listening to Rootstock Radio, and I’m Theresa Marquez. And I’m discussing seeds with Mark Schapiro, who is an investigative journalist, also an author of several books, and a super storyteller. And I just am aghast at the whole idea that an organization like Frito-Lay would go after a small Hopi tribe. It seems almost immoral.

But you know, in your book, you also talk about the relationship between the seed and seed ownership and industrial agriculture and climate change. And I wonder if you could talk a little bit about that.

MS: I think what was interesting for me to dive into—because there are fundamental ecological principles here, moral principles, but there’s also the question of how industrial agriculture performs within this set of high volatility. And so what was interesting for me to discover in the process of reporting this book was how many studies are starting to come out, from scientists working with farmers, analyzing how the big industrial ag fields—dependent on chemicals, one uniform kind of seed variety over many, many, many, many hundreds of acres—how do they respond when the patterns of water fall and the patterns of temperature start to change? What happens when new pests and diseases follow those changes? And over and over and over again, what has been shown is that these large industrial ag fields planted with uniform seed varieties are extremely vulnerable to these changing conditions.

And so in a way, that’s what I write about in my book. I write about how essentially climate change is shining a very harsh light on the industrial agriculture model that we’ve been pursuing over the past several decades. And climate change gives us an opportunity not only to understand the collateral damage on our health and on the health of the soil and on the health of human beings exposed to these substances often associated with industrial agriculture, but also to actually analyze the impact of whether this model is suited to this incredibly, these unprecedented conditions that are now actually changing the way we need to grow food.

And so when I write about this in the book, which I thought was very important for me to establish, one, to tell—I tell many different stories, as you know, in the book about people who are holding on to seeds, the battles over seeds, how people have confronted some of these corporations, of seeds from the Middle East and Southwest and all over the world are important, this mix of different varieties are extremely important. But also to ground that in the scientific findings, which more and more scientists are now starting to find. Why? Because we have 20, 30 years now of experience with a rising organic movement, a rising critique of industrial agriculture, different ways of doing farming that can actually be analyzed and compared next to the industrial forms of doing farming. We now have long-term assessments, and what they’re showing is that that industrial agriculture approach is uniquely vulnerable to the changing conditions that we now face.

TM: Well, you know, you do talk a little bit about, in your book, you go back to 1982 when you first went to Arizona and saw the vault. And that was a time in Wisconsin and in the Midwest and the Corn Belt states where there was a dramatic shift from family farm. There was almost 2,000 dairy farmers, particularly in the Midwest, a week that went out of business. And it was a very, very dismal time. But I hadn’t stopped a lot to think about how it also was a time that seeds changed as well, right? The ownership of seeds starting changing then, in the ’80s, as well.

MS: Yeah, you have a deep history in this area, so I think that you offered some perspective. And I go back to that period too, when in the early ’80s I started writing about the impact of consolidating farms on individual farmers, and what that meant to them. And what you find is that there were a whole series of government policies that encouraged farms to get bigger, bigger, and bigger and bigger, to actually create the kind of foundation for this commodity-based agriculture that we have now. So, in a way, the phenomena we’re seeing today began at that time, because then you were creating ever bigger farms that needed single types of seeds that they could reproduce endlessly in certain conditions.

And in fact, in the course of doing this book, I interviewed a representative of Monsanto. And I said, “So how are you responding to the changing conditions in agriculture?” And her comment, I thought, was very revealing of this process. She said, “We’re trying to separate the seed from the environment around it.” That was her description. And Monsanto, well, there you go. It’s like—

TM: That’s counterintuitive!

MS: Serious yes, one would think! And so it’s more this dissonant question because they produce the product that enables you to insulate the seed from the conditions in which it’s growing, because you saturate it with chemicals, you kill all the bugs around it, and basically you are creating your own conditions. I mean “you” meaning the company is creating the, takes this package of chemicals to re-create the same conditions over and over and over and over again. And so, in a sense, the chemical companies get to sell things on both sides of that equation. They get to sell the chemical and they get to sell the seed that goes with it.

TM: Well, being in the Midwest and knowing and reading about the fact that we’re going to have an increase of almost up to 200 percent, by 2020, of some brand-new… Well, they’re not new; 2,4-d is not exactly new. That was part of Agent Orange. And so now they’re having to reengineer seeds, aren’t they, because the old seeds were only tolerant to glyphosate.

MS: It’s called stacking.

TM: Oh, stacking? Is that what it’s called?

MS: Yeah, they get stacked—stacked not only to resist glyphosate, which of course has been under extreme concern, given its health effects on people who work with it. So what we’re finding over and over and over again is that the weeds are getting resistant to the glyphosate; you have to have new herbicides to drop on top of the weeds; then the genetically engineered seeds have to be resistant to those. So you get plants now that are stacked with two, three, four, as many as five different characteristics. It’s getting, essentially, on a treadmill, a chemical treadmill that’s very difficult to get off.

And I think there’s also a profound matter here, also, again dealing with climatic shifts within this kind of health critique of this approach, is by insulating seeds from the forces of evolution, what we’re finding—and I describe in the book, actually—the seeds that do best in environmentally stressed circumstances are those seeds that have evolved in a particular place, have characteristics that can resist the conditions that are coming at them, and that includes diseases, pests, rising heat—

TM: Drought.

MS: Drought, exactly.

TM: What I think I got from your book is some hopefulness in that we still have these seeds. They are in vaults. Will we be able to take those seeds and get them to the quantity we need when we need them? Is that a hopeful thing?

MS: Yeah. The hopeful thing—and about half the book is actually about this movement. That’s why it’s called Seeds of Resistance: The Fight to Save Our Food Supply, because there is a fight under way, and a big chunk of the book is about this fight and who’s fighting it. And I actually came out of this more hopeful, because the incredible movement, not just seeds in vaults, which are actually detached from the evolutionary forces, but seeds that people are planting, that people are exchanging, that they’re learning from in the process of doing that, new, more sophisticated principles being associated with organic agriculture on a larger scale, and incredible efforts, both in this country and actually abroad, to actually pursue a different kind of agriculture. So I’m actually hopeful.

And I wrote the book with the idea of, number one, revealing the essence and the roots of this problem, and two, exploring the responses and describing the incredible response around the world by people, by farmers, by citizens, by activists, the whole spectrum of people that are actually not only saving seeds but planting them, exchanging them, studying them, remembering what works, what doesn’t, allowing populations of different varieties to flourish and seeing which ones survive and which ones don’t under different conditions. This is a huge flourishing movement, and I was pretty encouraged in it.

TM: Well, Mark, thank you so much for that hopefulness. And so I really want to recommend this to our listeners, a hopeful book, a book that we all need to know about, because in a way we all own these seeds. And it’s Seeds of Resistance: The Fight to Save Our Food Supply, by Mark Schapiro. And Mark, you have a website around this.


TM: So we’ll be looking forward to more of your writing about seeds.

MS: Thank you.

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