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A Seedy Business

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The business of farming has undergone an arguably ominous shift and the commodity most at risk is our seeds. Twenty years ago, farmers controlled almost 100 per cent of their seed supply by saving it year after year. Now 80 per cent of Canada's seed supply is under corporate control.

The business of farming has undergone an arguably ominous shift and the commodity most at risk is our seeds. Twenty years ago, farmers controlled almost 100 per cent of their seed supply by saving it year after year. Now 80 per cent of Canada’s seed supply is under corporate control.

Only two percent of North Americans are involved in some aspect of food production, down from 85 percent in the 1950s. At the same time as mass-production farms have replaced the traditional homestead, seed biodiversity has also shrunk. Our ancestors regularly ate more than 200 varieties of fruits and vegetables; nowadays, 20 plants provide an estimated 90 per cent of our grain, fruits, and vegetables.

Many proven seed varieties have fallen to the wayside. For example, since 1900, about 86 per cent of the thousands of apple varieties once commonly found have gone extinct. Nowadays it’s common to see fewer, ubiquitous varieties, e.g., Red Delicious, Gala, McIntosh, and Granny Smith, on supermarket shelves. An estimated 4,000 varieties of vegetables are currently considered “endangered” (in danger of becoming extinct) in Canada and the US.

Meanwhile, the seed industry has been transformed. During the 1990s, about half of all small, independent seed companies either went out of business or were bought out. A December 2003 report, “Oligopoly, Inc.,” by the ETC Group (etcgroup.org) reveals how the world’s top ten seed companies now control one-third of the $23,300 million commercial seed market.

Many of these multinational com-panies invest heavily in genetic modification (GM), a process of considerable controversy. We can expect to see more GM seeds infiltrating the market in the future. Dupont, for instance, released biotech varieties of 28 new corn hybrids and 19 new soybean varieties in 2003. Similarly, Monsanto allocated 80 percent of its 2003 research and development budget to biotech seeds. Its GM products alone are estimated at $26 billion.

There’s also considerable overlap between the GM and agrochemical (i.e., pesticide, herbicide, etc.) industries. Syngenta is the world’s third largest seed company and also the biggest agrochemical firm. Monsanto, second on the seed company list, is the third largest agrochemical company, with 2002 sales at $3,088 million.

Do we want to support these industry giants, or seed companies who stand for seed diversity and against corporate seed control? Ask your seed vendor where the seeds were grown and gathered. Otherwise, you may be inadvertently filling unexpected coffers, as some seemingly independent seed outlets merely purchase seed from the above sources and add their own labels.

Equally important for concerned Canadians is to support heritage seed preservation programs (see resources below). With some effort, our diverse plant and food biodiversity can be save for future generations.

World’s Top 10 Seed Companies

Company 2002 Seed Sales, in US millions

1. Dupont (Pioneer) US $2,000
2. Monsanto (US) $1,600
3. Syngenta (Switzerland) $937
4. Seminis (US) $453
5. Advanta (Netherlands) $435
6. Groupe Limagrain (Vilmorin Clause) France $433
7. KWS AG (Germany) $391
8. Sakata (Japan) $376
9. Delta and Pine Land (US) $258
10. Bayer Crop Science (Germany) $250

Source: ETC Group, etcgroup.org.

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