The GMO Seed Monopoly: Reducing Farmers’ Seed Options
06 Mar, 2013
One of the claims made by proponents of genetically modified crops is that GM technology increases farmers’ seed choices. They also claim that farmers in countries that restrict GMO production have fewer seed options. But recent research shows the opposite—that instead of increasing farmers’ choice, the introduction of GM crops has limited farmers’ seed options.
Angelika Hilbeck, senior scientist at the Institute of Integrative Biology at ETH Zurich (Swiss Federal Institute of Technology), and several other researchers analyzed seed catalogs in Spain, Germany, Austria, and Switzerland. They found that in Spain—the largest European country to adopt GM corn—farmers’ seed choices declined overall and increasingly became a choice among GM varieties.
“Non-GM cultivars of maize were replaced with fewer GM cultivars,” Hilbeck said.
But, in three EU countries that ban plantings of GM corn—Germany, Austria, and Switzerland—farmers have either many more corn seed varieties available to them now than in the 1990s (Germany and Austria) or at least the same number (Switzerland).
Hilbeck presented their findings at a conference on GM crop cultivation in Bremen, Germany in June 2012.
Decreasing non-GMO seed choices in US
Hilbeck said that decreasing farmer seed choices in the United States because of GM technology led her to see if there was a similar trend in Europe. “We could not find any evidence to the contrary, which is what developers and proponents of GM technology in agriculture claim: increased choice,” Hilbeck said. “All evidence points to a decline rather than an increase.”
Proponents of GM crops claim that demand for GM seeds is strong as evidenced by the high adoption rates of GM corn and soybeans by US farmers, but a big reason for this is that large seed companies are phasing out non-GMO varieties. As a result, farmers have little choice but to buy GM seeds.
Research by Hilbeck and others found that the number of non-GMO corn seed varieties in the US decreased 67% from 3,226 in 2005 to 1,062 in 2010, while the number of GM corn seed varieties increased 6.7%.
“Farmers are facing fewer choices and significantly higher prices in seed,” says Kristina Hubbard, author of the Farmer to Farmer Campaign report. “Seed options narrow when a handful of companies dominate the marketplace.”
Iowa farmer George Naylor says he has trouble finding non-GMO soybean seeds: “Some seed companies don’t offer any. One company’s soybean seed lineup is all Monsanto’s Roundup Ready2 (seeds).”
Todd Leake, a farmer in Grand Forks County, North Dakota, sees similar problems. “Most of the conventional, non-GMO soybean varieties that I can find are ten to twelve years old,” he said. “Their disease resistance and yield have fallen well behind the Roundup Ready varieties.”
“In terms of non-GMO in general, there is less breeding,” said Jim Orf, professor of agronomy and plant genetics at the University of Minnesota, who breeds non-GMO soybeans for food use.
The problem is similar with corn. In 2009, University of Illinois entomologist Michael Gray surveyed farmers in five areas of the state to ask if they had access to high-yielding non-GMO corn seed. He found nearly 40% said “no,” while nearly half (46.6%) in Malta, IL said they did not have access to elite non-GMO corn hybrids.
Wendall Lutz, a farmer who grows non-GMO corn in Dewey, Illinois, said, “I don’t have the variety of genetics to choose from that farmers who buy GM corn do.”
The situation is even worse with sugar beets where there is no farmer choice. When GM Roundup Ready sugar beets were introduced in 2005, the sugar beet processors decided to convert the entire US production to GMO.
“This was a coordinated effort to genetically modify an entire sector of the processed food industry simultaneously and without holdouts that might otherwise have provided a source of conventional beet sugar to fulfill non-GMO consumer demand,” said Frank Morton, owner of Wild Garden Seeds and a plaintiff in a lawsuit to stop production of GM sugar beets in Oregon’s Willamette Valley.
Reduced seed options for organic farmers
GM technology has also reduced seed choices for organic farmers. Several organic corn seed companies have reported testing seed and finding low levels of GM presence. Organic farmers have had their crops rejected by buyers and suffered economic losses when their crops tested positive for GMOs. As a result, some US organic farmers have stopped growing corn because of the GMO contamination threat.
In Canada, organic farmers lost the market for organic canola due to GMO contamination.
“With the proliferation of GM canola, it is almost impossible to buy uncontaminated seed, let alone contend with contamination from pollen drift,” said Arnold Taylor, an organic farmer and president of the Saskatchewan Organic Directorate, which filed a lawsuit against biotechnology companies for the loss of the organic canola market.
GMOs are also affecting rare heirloom corn seed varieties, says Jere Gettle, founder of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds. “Over 50% of historic corn varieties are now contaminated with Monsanto’s GMO crops,” Gettle said, based on tests his company has conducted on heirloom seed.
Market control in Brazil, South Africa, and India
Farmers are seeing less seed choice in other countries where GMOs have been introduced. In Brazil, it’s getting harder for farmers to obtain non-GMO soybean seeds, says Ricardo Tatesuzi de Sousa, executive director of ABRANGE (the Brazilian Association for the Producers of Non-GM Grains).
Brazil’s acreage of non-GMO soybeans has decreased steadily since the commercialization of GM soy in 2005. Tatesuzi de Sousa estimates that about 20% of Brazil’s soy production is non-GMO.
He says that large companies such as Monsanto, Pioneer Hi-Bred, BASF, and others dictate what seed growers produce and what seed distributors sell to farmers.
“If the seed growers want access to good (genetic) material, they have to submit to what the companies want,” Tatesuzi de Sousa said. “They can tell farmers not to plant non-GMO.”
Meanwhile, seed distributors withhold non-GMO soybean seeds from farmers. “They keep (non-GMO) seeds unavailable and when farmers buy all the seed, they say ‘we had all this non-GMO seed available.’ But they aren’t putting it into the market,” Tatesuzi de Sousa said.
He refers to a commonly used term—the 85/15 rule, which means that distributors will sell 85% GM seeds and just 15% non-GMO.
“This is control of the market,” Tatesuzi de Sousa said.
A similar situation is occurring in South Africa. Willem Visser, marketing manager for Delta Seed, an independent seed company, says it is “virtually impossible to get non-GMO soy seed in South Africa.”
There, the soybean market is essentially dominated by three companies: Pioneer and a subsidiary, Pannar, and Link Seed. A glance at the companies’ websites showed that all soybean seed varieties offered are Roundup Ready.
In India, genetically modified Bt cotton accounts for 85% of the country’s cotton production. Non-GMO cotton seed varieties are being phased out by private and public seed breeders.
“Farmers buy Bt seeds because they have little choice—it is very hard to find non-GM seeds anymore,” said Glenn Davis Stone, a professor of anthropology and environmental studies at Washington University in St. Louis, MO, whose research has focused on India’s cotton production.
Resurgence of interest in non-GMO seeds
In response to increasing dominance of GM seed, non-GMO seed initiatives have been launched in several countries. Some small US seed companies—such as eMerge Genetics for soybeans and Spectrum Premium Genetics for corn—are breeding non-GMO seed varieties as farmers face increasing weed and insect resistance problems with GM seeds.
In Brazil, the Soja Livre or “Soy Free” program was launched by Embrapa, Brazil’s leading agricultural research organization, along with several other groups. The program aims to breed non-GMO soybean varieties and “provide greater competitiveness to the production chain.”
Tatesuzi de Sousa says Soja Livre is succeeding. “We now have 13 seed companies selling non-GMO seed when before there was only one.”
In India, the University of Agricultural Sciences Dharwad, bioRe India, Ltd., and Swiss-based Research Institute of Organic Agriculture launched a joint effort in 2011 “to re-establish the seed value chain for non-GM cotton.”
In South Africa, Visser also sees farmers returning to non-GMO seed because of insect resistance problems. “There seems to be a spark of interest from more and more farmers about non-GMO corn and soy seed,” he said. “We’ve been yielding better in trials than most GMOs, and our products are more consistent. Our pricing is also much better than the GMO hybrids.”
Ken is editor of The Organic & Non-GMO Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.