The Milkweed Diaries

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Seed Shopping, Seed Saving, and Seed Sovereignty

"In Hindi, seed is bija or 'containment of life.' . . . Seed is created [by plants] to renew, to multiply, to be shared and to spread. Seed is life itself."
-Vandana Shiva, February 2009

"We now believe that Monsanto has control over as much as 90 percent of (seed genetics). This level of control is almost unbelievable."
-Neil Harl, agricultural economist, Iowa State University

Above: processing and sharing seeds at a seed swap last winter

'Tis the season of seeds. Seed catalogs arrive daily in my mailbox with their titillating images of flower and fruit. The seed catalog season kicks off just when serious withdrawal is beginning to hit and we are desperate for a fix -- grey overcast skies and icy temperatures sharpening the craving for the summer garden's sensual pleasures.

With seeds, as with most things that we value, the profit motive corrupts and predatory capitalism corrupts utterly. The most egregious example of this corruption is the Monsanto corporation. It is mindboggling to imagine what Monsanto has done: they have taken the wholesome, life-giving, generous nature of the seed and hoarded it, pressed it into ownership, and manipulated it for profit.

The idea that the genetic material in seeds could be "intellectual property" belonging to a corporation violates everything I hold sacred. But it is not only plant-loving dirt worshippers who should be concerned about what Monsanto is doing. A recent AP article explains: "Declining competition in the seed business could lead to price hikes that ripple out to every family's dinner table. That's because the corn flakes you had for breakfast, soda you drank at lunch and beef stew you ate for dinner likely were produced from crops grown with Monsanto's patented genes." Read the full article here.

In terms of food justice, the issue of who owns the means to produce food is critical. For gardeners and farmers who care about seed sovereignty, food justice, the future of food, and the sanctity of seed, the question quickly becomes how to avoid Monsanto. Far easier said than done. Monsanto is everywhere. Especially in the world of seeds. Let me repeat one of the quotes with which I began: "Monsanto has control over as much as 90 percent of (seed genetics)." Shopping for seeds and trying to avoid Monsanto is like shopping for anything else and trying to avoid "Made in China."

Seed may be organic, heirloom, and sold by a hippified little seed company, and still be ultimately sourced from or owned by Monsanto. I discovered a while back that Monsanto seeds were being sold in a number of my standby seed catalogs, including Territoral Seeds, Cook's Garden, Burpee, and Johnny's. I wrote a post [which you can read here: "Are Monsanto Seeds in YOUR favorite Seed Catalog?"] including a link to a thread on Freedom Gardens with information about all of the seed companies that carry Monsanto seeds--this discussion on the forum is very informative and contains a ton of factual information about which companies and which varieties are coming from Monsanto, and what we can do to avoid buying them.

My number one recommendation for seed shoppers looking to avoid Monsanto is this:

Fedco, a consumer- and worker- owned cooperative company that carries a staggering variety of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds as well as plenty of modern hybrids, made a decision three years ago to drop all Monsanto varieties from their catalog. This was a major risk, given that their largest supplier at that point was Seminis, which had just been acquired by Monsanto.

Fedco has a great overview of how and why the company's owners (workers and consumers) made the decision to eliminate Monsanto seeds, and how they've implemented it here. Their explanation of their seed sourcing policy is really worth a read -- they assert that "too many of us have allowed seed to become just another industrial input rather than a life force" and offer a thorough, studied view of the seed industry as a whole and how to make ethical seed choices.

I highly recommend Fedco as a seed source -- not only do they guarantee no Monsanto varieties and no GMOs, but their prices are significantly lower than most other sources. Sometimes they will sell a variety for a third of the price of some of the big corporate-owned companies like Seeds of Change (now owned by M & M Mars).

Seeds changing hands at the Heritage Harvest Festival.

Seed exchanges by their nature refuse the paradigm of corporate seed ownership. Even better than buying from Fedco is exchanging seeds outside the money economy all together, or buying from individual seed savers.

From local seed swaps to the grandmother of them all, Seed Savers Exchange, seed trading networks are an excellent alternative to Monsanto. Seed Savers Exchange publishes the incredible "Yearbook" -- a listing of seeds available for sale and trade from thousands of members all over the world, and also has a nice, glossy catalog that can compete with any seed catalog garden porn, if you're into that sort of thing (I am). Another small company that I recommend is Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which is particularly great for gardeners in the American South wanting to grow heirloom varieties from our region.

If you are going to buy from companies other than these (I still buy a few things from Baker Creek, for instance, a militantly anti-GMO heirloom seed purveyor) make sure at the very least that the company you're buying from has signed the "Safe Seed Pledge" assuring that your seeds will not contain GMOs. The pledge was created ten yeas ago by a group of seed companies led by High Mowing Seeds and states:

"Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms poses great biological risks, as well as economic, political and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds. Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems and ultimately healthy people and communities."

One final thought:

In the face of growing corporate ownership of seed genetics, saving and sharing seed is a radical act of resistance, and an embodiment of the world we want to create. My mantra is: buy seed now if you must (I must), and save and share seeds as much as humanly possible!


Daphne said...

I love Fedco. I like how they list on a scale from 1-6 where each of the varieties of seed comes from. One being the small farmer and six being Monsanto. BTW they do have one seed this year that is labeled 6. Only one from Monsanto.

BTW I have a whole bunch of seed that I'm giving away on my blog. I can't vouch for the leftover commercial seed, but the seed I saved myself is not a Monsanto seed.

And I hate how Monsanto is taking over the seed world. I find a lot of their practices very big brother.

el said...

There's another small seed house that I recommend: Turtle Tree Seeds. Their on-line store won't open until Jan. but you can get a catalog from them fairly easily. I only do open-pollinated, which is why my cauliflower and Brussels sprout crops uniformly suck, but...I at least can save their seed. And I see you've found the one seedgrower in KY that I was going to recommend to you. There's also this kooky lady in PA. IN other words, look small!

I am envious of your seed party though.

(list coming soon, need to finalize it!!)

Milkweed said...

Thanks y'all!
El, have you tried Roodnerf (green) and Falstaff (red) Brussels? I haven't grown them, but they're both open-pollinated and Fedco carries them with high recommendations.

I'm excited to see your list, Daphne! And love the thought of a new small seed source, el ... amishland ... hurrah!

Think small. . .words to live by.

Aimee said...

thank you for posting this - I knew that the seed situation was bad and Monsanto a culprit, but the 90% figure blew my socks off. I will be ordering my seeds (few though they be) from Fedco. And may I have permission to quote from your post on my own blog?

el said...

Falstaff, yes, fairly tiny for me. I am simply wondering if I am constitutionally unable to grow big cauliflower and BS crops. But I keep trying, masochistically.

One thing to mention about any of these small houses is that their stock is small, in particular since their prices are huge. Mostly, they'll sell you just enough to start your own seed crop, not eating crop. So: you've gotta be patient, not one of my strong suits when it comes to gardening...

Dana said...

Hey Lady. Awesome post and I agree with everything. Are you having another seed swap? Can I come? It is about my favorite activity other than growing and collecting the seeds (well and drinking tea). I only have a few varieties to share this year, but they are good none the less and I can also provide tea made in China (can't assure the genetic purity of the plants though). Call me up sometime, I would love to get together. I am home.