Down on the farm, there is simultaneously an explosion of super weeds and a decline of seeds, a waxing and a waning, the yin and yang of Big Ag. These concurrent phenomena are (not coincidentally) caused by the same companies who are striving to control and harness agriculture. They hope to force every last bushel of productivity out of every single acre, achieving yields well beyond those imagined even a few years ago.
These companies laid down their financial roots producing toxic chemicals. In days gone by, they brought chemical warfare into the fields of battle with the likes of Agent Orange. Now the war is being fought in the fields of our farms. Corn fields, soy fields and cotton fields, are all now battlefields, where weeds run rampant, and seeds are at a premium. How is it that the proliferation of weeds and the demise of our seeds are entwined? This story begins thousands of years ago…
Innovations in agriculture developed some 12,000 years ago, taking root in the Fertile Crescent in Asia. Neolithic peoples slowly began transitioning from wild harvesting and began planting wheat, barley, figs and peas. They harnessed the waters developing irrigation, they discovered soil amendments increasing yields, and most notably they saved the seeds of the juiciest, sweetest and healthiest plants to plant the next year and the year after that.
This arrangement served us well as a species: civilizations sprang forth, we built pyramids, sailed ships and set about populating the globe. Everywhere our ancient ancestors went they brought their seeds, shared them with others and replanted only the best. Seed sharing was common, and seed saving was inherent to the survival of our species. In fact, one of the first written pieces of law, “The Code of Hammurabi,” had specifications on how to pollinate crops and improve the next generation of seeds.
In 1883, private seed companies began lobbying to end public seed distribution. By the year 1924, public seed distribution had vanished. Usher in the technologies from WWII and plant breeding took a new turn to increase harvest and withstand agricultural chemicals. In the 1990s, the Supreme Court deemed that seeds and plants could be patented which prevented farmers from saving them and researchers from studying them. Back in the 1960s, more than 60% of soybean farmers in the US saved and replanted their seeds. They had rights and securities on next year’s crop. Today, less than 10% of our soybean farmers save their seeds.
The plot thickened as large pharmaceutical companies began buying up independent seed companies and research dollars for public plant breeding were slashed. Now just five companies control 60% of the global seed market. Three of them control 47% of the world’s proprietary genetics.
If you want to learn more, read “The greatest story never told” at http://www.seedmatters.org/, it’s an epic one!
Most of the seeds now being developed and patented are genetically altered (GMO) to withstand heavy applications of pesticides and herbicides in the fields. It is no coincidence that the very patent holders of the seeds are the same actors who make and sell the chemicals being applied.
This onslaught of chemicals worked for a few decades, but as we know, nature marches on and learns how to evolve rather quickly. Those pervasive superweeds have evolved to thrive despite even heavier applications and noxious concentrations. Just last week, Monsanto and DuPont announced a partnership to sell new “Roundup Ready 2 Xtend” soybeans which are genetically altered to resist dicamba and glyphosate to fight the rise of superweeds. As a result, Monsanto’s own analysis has indicated that dicamba use on cotton and soy will rise from less than 1 million pounds to more than 25 million pounds used per year.
Today the dilemma of superweeds is upon us. The EPA’s Office of Inspector General said in March that it will open an investigation into the spread of superweeds and how the toxic chemicals used to combat them affect farmers. EWG’s AgMag commented that “there’s already abundant evidence showing that GMOs haven’t been good for the environment or the health of farm workers. The Inspector General’s investigation is likely to add more proof.”
Right now there are ways we can support seed biodiversity. Organizations doing good work to preserve our seed biodiversity include The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, which seeks to maintain seed purity. They have developed an online digital resource library for the organic seed community.
The Organic Seed Alliance is committed to advancing the ethical development and stewardship of the genetic resources of agricultural seed. Their just released State of Organic Seed, 2016 is now available! This report is part of their ongoing project to monitor the status of organic seed in the US and execute recommendations that increase the diversity, quality, and integrity of available organic seed.
I am proud that the UNFI Foundation supports these and many more organizations that seek to protect our genetic legacy through organic biodiversity. You can follow the UNFI Foundation on Facebook to learn more about its work supporting organic agriculture.
Organic Agriculture can be the productive ceasefire that promotes open source seed biodiversity and works within the balance of nature to control weeds. Let’s take back our agricultural legacy and end the industrial chemical warfare.