Seeds and Breeds - Where it All Begins

Karen Adler's picture

It’s hard to comprehend the magnitude of the loss of agricultural biodiversity that has taken place over the past 60 years. The recently released Proceedings of Summit on Seeds and Breeds for the 21st Century Agriculture, cites estimates of 50 percent. One half of the biodiversity that human life has depended on for more than 10,000 years, gone in less than one century.

Published by the Rural Advancement Foundation International, the proceedings cover key concerns discussed by stakeholders in the agricultural community, including the rapidly decreasing access to seed for farmers, consolidation within the seed industry, and the dramatic loss of agricultural plant and animal genetic diversity. The group also addressed the erosion of public plant breeding capacity and release of public seed varieties. “Over the past 25 years, there has been a steady decline in our nation’s public investments in public sector breeding programs housed primarily within our nation’s land grant university system and USDA research facilities,” said Juli Obudzinski, Senior Policy Specialist with the National Sustainable Agriculture Coalition.

Patenting of seed varieties is adding to the decline in innovation by restricting the ability of farmers and breeders to share germplasm, as well as the right of farmers to save their own seed. As Kristina Hubbard of the Organic Seed Alliance explained, “Patents are commonly enforced to remove a farmer’s right to save and replant seed, the very practice that helped establish much of the tremendous diversity of domesticated crops and varieties we have today.”

These are issues that OFRF has long been concerned about, along with our farmer, researcher, and plant breeder colleagues who participated in the summit. We have funded 29 cutting edge research projects focusing on the development of organic plant breeding and seeds, starting in 1999 with a corn breeding project led by Walter Goldstein, one of the prominent plant breeders who contributed to the summit discussions. Current projects include Kevin Murphy’s work in the Pacific Northwest to develop nutritious and delicious varieties of organic food barley, the Organic Seed Production and Improvement Training Program for Vermont, enabling organic farmers to build the supply of local and regional organic seeds, and Frank Kutka’s groundbreaking project, Developing “Organic-Ready” Maize Populations, providing farmers with a line of corn that will resist GMO contamination.

The challenges are great. The top ten seed companies currently control 94 percent of the global seed market, with three companies controlling over 50 percent. And, as documented by Kathy Jo Wetter and Pat Mooney of the ETC Group, the six seed companies that control 76 percent of the seed market also control 60 percent of the agrochemical market. The effects of this concentration on the choices that are available to all farmers are both immediate and long-ranging, and are especially impactful for organic farmers, who already face a severe lack of varieties that are specifically bred for organic production.

Biodiversity and the capacity for adaptation are needed now, more than ever, to address climate change and to enable food production to feed the world’s growing population. It is exciting that so many diverse individuals, institutions, and organizations, including OFRF, are joining together to identify and address actions and policy change to preserve and build on our precious seed heritage.



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