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Losing control of our seeds
The extraordinary success of hybrids and GE patented crops has given eight companies global control of 94% of our vegetable seeds.
The switch from publicly owned heirloom (open pollinated) seeds to hybrids began in the 1950s but reached a point when patents over living forms was allowed via genetic engineering in 1983. Australia has never been self sufficient in vegetable seeds, relying on British, then American and Dutch seeds companies for an estimated 95% of our needs.
It was the development of hybrids whose parentage is a proprietary secret (replanted next generation seed is not true to type) that forced growers back to the seed merchant each year.
Most gardeners are unaware that self-pollinated crops such as tomatoes do not exhibit hybrid vigour so that the hybrid process confers no benefit to the grower or consumer but a huge profit to the merchant. By our estimate, if all Australia’s fresh tomato crop were provided by open pollinated Australian heirloom seed it would cost about $30,000 but if it were grown in glass houses using F1 hybrid seed the cost increases to $12.3 million – a price premium of 644%.
All the huge, multi-national seed companies have gained corporate mass since the introduction of patents on GE food, which began with ‘Flavr Savr’ tomato in 1994 (which was subsequently withdrawn due to customer taste dissatisfaction). Monsanto launched its herbicide-tolerant (Roundup Ready) crops in 1995, which allows farmers to spray the complete crop without destroying the Roundup Ready seeds of soybean, cotton, maize, canola, sugar beet or alfalfa (lucerne).
Today 85% of GE crops have this trait and it has increased the sale of Round-up weedicide from 7.9 million lbs to 119 million lbs in 2006 just for soy, corn and cotton.
The extraordinary profits generated from the business friendly US government regulatory systems was enhanced by a corrupted approval process whereby Monsanto staff were hired to fast track approvals with inadequate health checks and denial of transparent labelling to meet consumer concerns.
Monsanto acquired the world’s largest vegetable seed company Seminis (2005) and over 40 other companies to gain the largest share of the vegetable seed market covering every crop from hybrid tomatoes, peppers and melons to lettuce and beans, none of which are sold under the Monsanto brand so gardeners are unable to avoid them at the time of purchase.
Syngenta, which is the world’s largest supplier of agricultural chemicals and the third largest in GE seeds, also hides its corporate name behind acquired companies such as Goldsmith Seeds, Sluis & Groot and Rogers. They are a major breeder of ornamental bedding plants – pansies, petunias, impatiens and geraniums as well as vegetables which are found in every backyard.
Editor’s note: The acquisition of Monsanto by Bayer means that, in 2018, just 3 companies control 66% of all food grown from seed. By patenting genes, these companies (the world’s leading pesticide producers), have superior legal rights over once-publicly-owned seeds and control of our food supply.