GM seeds; a new global threat

Anne Christensen

Illustration by Sarah Cascadden/Contributor
Illustration by Sarah Cascadden/Contributor

A debate simmers over the threat to global seed stock diversity posed by agricultural corporations using genetically modified seeds to dominate farming industries. In the aftermath of California’s rejection of Proposition 37, which would have required food companies to label consumer products containing genetically modified organisms (GMO’s), the powerful industry behind GMO’s enjoyed another small victory on the road to controlling the global seed stock. The end result is a tight control on food product that is beneficial to only a select few shareholders.

The threat to seed diversity may not be the first thing that comes to mind when discussing GM crops, but it’s vitally important to understand the relationship between genetically engineered seeds versus heirloom seeds, agricultural practices and the future of global food supplies.

Seeds are used by professional farmers as well as amateur gardeners as the first step of growing anything: you plunk the seeds in soil, add water, sunshine, and voila! Green stuff grows. But the decoding of plant-based DNA, and the ability to selectively breed positive qualities while eradicating negative ones, has opened the Pandora’s box of GMO foods.

GM Seeds have been engineered to require a specific chemical paired with fertilizer and pesticide to grow to its full potential. So farmers may be tempted to try the seeds that promise extreme growth, reduced water usage, resistance to attacks from pests and vermin, and immunity to mold and other diseases. But the deal comes with a hidden cost: the farmers must buy all seeds, fertilizer and pesticides from the same company in a very expensive three-in-one deal that causes farmers, especially in developing countries, to remain trapped in a vicious cycle of poverty, according to the Council for Responsible Genetics.

Heirloom seeds are unaltered, natural seeds that come with no strings attached. According to Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds company—home to 1,450 varieties of non-GMO vegetable, flower and herb seeds—heirloom seeds have been harvested since the 19th-century and are considered “pure” because they have not been genetically tweaked to accommodate intense farming or reliance of chemically-based fertilizer or pesticides. But as GMO seeds are becoming more prevalent in agriculture, they’re posing a bigger threat to the preservation of global heirloom seed stock.

GMO seeds can be transported from one field to another by gusts of wind or in the beaks of birds, resulting in cross-contamination of entire crops. There is no way to police or verify what seeds go where once they’ve been deposited into the soil.

The biggest culprit in the prevalence of GMO seeds is Missouri-based Monsanto. Their seeds make up a terrifying 91 percent of soybeans, 88 percent of cotton and 91 percent of maize, according to the Center for Food Safety. Monsanto’s 2012 market value stands firmly at $42.2 billion according to Fortune Magazine, and Monsanto recently announced a 22 percent increase in earnings. Not much of a surprise for a company that has facilities in 68 countries worldwide.

Seeds are obviously big business for companies like Monsanto. Through heavy-handed legal action, they aggressively pursue farmers who they claim dodge patent laws by harvesting the offspring seeds from previously purchased seeds. The harvesting of seeds is a centuries old practice that guarantees future crops. But Monsanto argues that they own the property rights to any and all seeds that have ever been purchased from them, which essentially makes seed-collecting illegal. The Center for Food Safety has tracked Monsanto’s legal actions and found 142 patent infringements against 410 farmers and 56 small businesses in more than 27 states. Monsanto has pocketed more than $23 million from these lawsuits and shut down many small farmers in the process.

Those in favor of GMO seeds claim that because these seeds are not as susceptible to diseases as their counterparts, they will provide a more reliant food source for the population in areas where a failed harvest spells starvation and death for thousands. Monsanto claims that “…agriculture needs to produce more food because the world’s population is growing. Monsanto—along with many other companies, governments and organizations—have been working to develop seeds and other systems that help farmers grow more.” But the system they’re promoting is short-sighted and has devastating consequences: dwindling native seed stock, dependency of third party seed and fertilizer supply, and crippling debt for perceived food security through GMO seeds.

On a global scale, the reliance on GMO seeds threatens the ancient practice of seed harvesting. Mexican maize, Indian cotton and Scandinavian beet root are all threatened by the monopoly of a few profit-hungry corporations. Any potential benefit to agriculture that GMO seeds may bring to the table pales in comparison to the threat posed to the global seed diversity.

Complex problems can occasionally be solved with simple solutions. Consumers wishing to avoid GMO products and support a thriving seed stock can make conscious choices when shopping for produce. Choose items clearly labelled “USDA organic,” buy directly from local farmers who use sustainable agriculture practices, or sign up for delivery of fruit and vegetable boxes grown by your local Community Supported Agriculture business.

The most efficient way for consumers to take a stand against GMO agriculture is to vote with their wallets. Corporations will respond to fluctuations in their profit margins when consumers make the switch from GMO-laden produce to a chemical-free, organic future. The short-term benefits of a genetically homogeneous species should not outweigh the long-term benefits of a diverse seed pool. The worlds food supply is too important.