Farming sometimes feels like a fight; against the weather, against time, against insects or diseases. Seasonal challenges are part of the business, but the end product is usually worth it: delicious produce, healthy animals, beautiful flowers, robust nursery plants, flavorful honey, fresh cider–there are as many plant varieties, animal breeds and farm products as there are farmers to grow and process them and customers eager to buy them. Each farmer has different interests and skills that shape the focus of their farm, adding to the rich diversity of crops and animals being raised by America’s growing number of direct-market or regional wholesale farmers.
Although we accept the seasonal battles on our farms as part of the job, no one goes into farming because they want to battle with multi-national corporations or the US patent office. Yet at the start of each growing season, as I open my long-awaited seed catalogs to decide what to grow, I feel the chilling reach of national and international patent laws and legal debates about biological processes and plant characteristics creep onto my tiny farm, as welcome as an infestation of flea beetles on a just-germinating crop of heirloom radishes.
My small farm sits on the north Oregon coast outside of the city of Astoria, near the mouth of the Columbia River. We sell produce, plant starts and cut flowers direct to customers through farmers markets and a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program, and to local restaurants and retail outlets. We grow plant varieties that adapt well to our cooler coastal summers and milder winters, attract pollinators, look beautiful and, of course, taste delicious. We are not a certified organic farm, but our customers trust us to produce our plants and crops in keeping with the values we both understand and share: good land stewardship and use of natural resource, no use of chemical pesticides or herbicides, support for biodiversity and wildlife habitat, and the use of certified organic seeds wherever possible.
This carefully nurtured bond between farmer and consumer is at the heart of all local food systems where one person is entrusted to grow safe, healthy food for another. Another critical relationship for a plant farmer like myself is that between my farm and the source of the seeds I plant each year. Seed saving is not necessarily hard, but it can be tricky, time consuming, and weather dependent. When you grow over forty varieties of plants, saving seed from each becomes daunting. When you need to plant in succession to keep crops coming on during market season, allowing a plant the luxury of time to go fully to seed isn’t possible. If you grow any hybrid varieties–plants that are produced through a natural biological process of selection and breeding, but which will not come true from seed–it’s impossible. Although I occasionally try my hand at saving seed from certain open-pollinated favorites, I prefer to purchase my seeds from people who are skilled not only at saving and storing seeds, but who also breed new varieties that adapt to different growing conditions and changing customer tastes.
A few big agribusiness companies are equated in the public mind with ‘GMOs’ (genetically modified organisms), of which they have developed, patented, and released into the world a daunting number of varieties, none of which I either could or would grow on my farm. I am no fan of GMOs. I would love to see them not only labeled as ingredients in all processed foods, but wish they would vanish entirely from the face of the earth. These corporations anger me more because they push the consolidation of seed ownership and plant variety patenting that has been snowballing in recent decades. Dr. Philip Howard, an Associate Professor at Michigan State and creator of a widely shared infographic on seed company ownership, has observed that whereas in 1996, the top three global seed corporations owned 22% of the industry, they now own more than half. Since 2008, over 70 independent seed companies have been acquired by a handful of large corporations and biotech companies. This ownership gives them control of the very biological material that plant breeders use to develop new varieties adapted to our ever-changing climate, evolving pests, diseases and growing conditions. Along with consolidation of seed ownership comes the disappearance of many varieties deemed unprofitable or otherwise undesirable by their new owners, varieties that may have a smaller audience due to their adaptation to regional climates or specialized markets. Mixed with the excitement and anticipation my seed catalogs bring each winter comes trepidation, as I look to see which of my favorites will have vanished.
Many consumers fear being forced to consume GMOs against their will. I think they should fear the loss of seed sovereignty as much, if not more. A seed is where most of your plant-based food begins, and who controls the seed ultimately controls what you are allowed to eat. Patenting of living organisms in the United States has had a long, slow path towards the place we now stand, where it’s possible to patent seemingly every and any part of a plant, from it’s very DNA to specific plant characteristics such as the natural ability to resist a certain virus, the color, shape or glossiness of a leaf. A patent claim has even been made on the ‘pleasant taste’ of a melon. As more seeds are sealed off behind a fire-wall of ownership and patent protection, the number of varieties that farmers and gardeners are restricted from growing, replanting, and sharing as they have done for generations increases.
Seeds are our common cultural heritage, the basis for much of the food we need to stay alive. To watch them treated as mere commodities, reduced to the sum of their biological parts, is heartbreaking. As a small farmer dependent upon others to grow my seeds, I feel helpless and frustrated, shaking my fist at these industrial Goliaths who seem to have all the favorable political and legal winds behind them. I navigate the seed catalogs carefully, trying to ensure that our farm’s hard-earned money isn’t ultimately ending up in Big Ag’s bank account, and each year the challenge gets harder.
For every Goliath, there will always a David – feisty, fearless people willing to do battle with giants, in this case to save the integrity of the very food we eat. These individuals and companies are our small farm’s heroes. Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seeds, Dr. Jim Myers, plant breeder and professor of genetics at Oregon State University, Alan Kapuler of Peace Seeds, and Tom Wagner of TaterMater Seeds are all breeders of some of our farm’s favorite open-pollinated varieties. They are joined by a new generation of seed breeders like Andrew Still of Adaptive Seeds, whose small farm-based seed company is breeding new varieties as well as preserving rare heirlooms. Other small northwest seed companies like Uprising Seeds, The Victory Seed Company and Siskiyou Seeds not only grow much of their own seed but contract with other small regional organic farms to grow seed for them as well, building seed security into our region and ensuring diversity in the gene pool. Nationally, the work of Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa has preserved thousands of heirloom plant varieties from extinction, and the launch of the Open Source Seed Initiative in 2014 seeks to ensure a supply of seed varieties that are free from restrictions on use. Internationally, organizations like No Patents on Seeds and advocates for seed sovereignty like Dr. Vandana Shiva speak loudly and eloquently about the need to exclude from patentability biological life forms like plants and animals and the natural process of breeding them.
Farmers, gardeners and consumers each play a vital role in this struggle each time we make a choice about which seed to purchase, which plant to grow, what food to purchase and eat. Educate yourselves about seed sovereignty, and support the small farms, plant breeders and seed savers whose work will hopefully ensure that this very vital source of life can grow unfettered by the restrictions that international giants would place upon them.