How the Beginning of the Food Chain is Impacting the Entire Food System

60% of all the world’s seed sales are owned by four giant companies.

We are prying open the history of seed production and showcasing Dan Barber’s Op-ed piece in The New York Times which highlights how seed influences — determines, really — not only the beginning and the end of the food chain, but also every link in between.

The sale of GMO seeds at mass scale to industrial farms further fuel sales for the products needed to maintain and grow those seeds. Meanwhile, the health of our soil is disintegrating.

GMO byproducts degrade and deplete soils of vital minerals and beneficial bacteria, both of which protect crops from pests, viruses, and other threatening elements. Glyphosate which is used in conjunction with GMO seeds does not biodegrade, which means it is continually accumulating in the environment without restraint, perpetually altering soil composition and contaminating natural resources.

If what we put into the soil is toxic, what we get out is toxic.

We have a human health disaster which is what we are experiencing today which is why this story is so important to tell.

“From the Big Bang of agriculture around 10,000 B.C. until a hundred or so years ago, farmers saved their seeds to plant for the next season. Thousands of varieties evolved across the globe, constantly adapting to their environment and to the preferences of the culture and cuisine.

Nineteenth-century American farmers benefited from this diversity of vegetables, grains and fruits. It was a good time to be a seed. Not only welcomed but encouraged to stay through a government-backed seed distribution program, free seed allowed farmers to perform trial and error to see what worked.”

Biodiversity in the universe of seeds was plentiful, until this…

“Seed that was freely distributed, saved and traded by farmers, stifled privatization. After decades of lobbying, the industry won (surprise!) and Congress ended the program in 1923.

Meanwhile, thousands of years of intuitive plant breeding and selection were evolving into a science. On the heels of the Austrian monk-cum-geneticist Gregor Mendel, plant breeders began making intentional crosses between plant varieties to create stable hybrid offspring.”

“We think that the behemoths of agribusiness known as Big Food control the food system from up high — distribution, processing and the marketplace muscling everything into position. But really it is the seed that determines the system, not the other way around.

It is as if the seed is a toy that comes with a mile-long list of component parts you’re required to purchase to make it function properly.

The seeds in my palm optimized the farm for large-scale machinery and chemical regimens; they reduced the need for labor; they elbowed out the competition (formally known as biodiversity). In other words, seeds are a blueprint for how we eat. We should be alarmed by the current architects”.

Farmers examining hybrid seed corn in Grundy County, Iowa, in 1939, Library of Congress
Just 50 years ago, some 1,000 small and family-owned seed companies were producing and distributing seeds in the United States; by 2009, there were fewer than 100.

Thanks to a series of mergers and acquisitions over the last few years, four multinational agrochemical firms — Corteva, ChemChina, Bayer and BASF — now control over 60 percent of global seed sales.

The first hybrid corn became commercially available in the early 1920s. Twenty years later, nearly all of Iowa was planted with hybrid corn

Photo: National Geographic
“The slow march of seed consolidation suddenly turned into a sprint. Chemical and pharmaceutical companies with no historical interest in seed bought small regional and family-owned seed companies. Targeting cash crops like corn and soy, these companies saw seeds as part of a profitable package: They made herbicides and pesticides, and then engineered the seeds to produce crops that could survive that drench of chemicals. The same seed companies that now control more than 60 percent of seed sales also sell more than 60 percent of the pesticides.”

“Part of my commitment to the organic seed movement is to diversity the types of people who have the honor and privilege of stewarding seed.”

But there is hope. Rowan White, Coordinator of the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network represents a different voice that grows louder by the minute.

Organic growing reduces the use of harmful chemicals, improves the soil’s ability to sequester carbon and retain water, and strengthens biodiversity.

These efforts need more than our support; they demand our participation, the same engagement with seeds that humans had for thousands of years. Seeds not as commodities but as a vital part of our cultural commons; seeds not as software, but as living systems: seeds as the source of a new food revolution.