Global agriculture is big business, and that includes the seeds that farmers need to grow their crops. The R+D priorities of the seed-biotech industry have huge implications for farmers and consumers alike, as the seeds available to put in the ground each spring determine the types, taste, and nutrient profile of the fresh produce and grains we have to choose from at the grocery store.
In a visually attractive new website, an international team made up of an Italian science communications firm – formicablu- and the South African Center for Investigative Environmental Journalism have launched a fresh effort to highlight the importance of plant genetics and seeds, with special focus on who controls seed genetics.
Their project, SEEDcontrol, is exploring how consolidation of the global seed market, intellectual property rights, and economics are making it harder and harder for farmers to remain a part of the global effort to advance plant breeding and openly share plant genetic resources.
In 1996, the 10 largest seed companies owned about 17% of the global seed market. Mergers and acquisitions over the next 20 years changed this picture dramatically. Today, the top companies control over 75% of the market. Plus, there are currently three mega-deals in various stages of regulatory review around the world that will, if they go forward, merge six of the industry’s largest players into three mega-corporations.
Many of the seeds sold by these ag corporations are protected by patents that make it illegal for farmers to save seeds to replant, or to use this year’s seed to develop next year’s improved variety. And, for farmers interested in growing something different, perhaps an heirloom variety, seeds can be very difficult, if not impossible to find now that so many small companies have been bought out.
The SEEDcontrol website is set up as a three-part story. It includes interviews from small seed developers and farmers around the world. It’s encouraging to see the grassroots efforts underway to keep alive the long-standing agricultural traditions of seed saving, locally-driven breeding, and free exchange of seeds. Time will tell whether these efforts gather steam, or if they are incrementally marginalized by continued consolidation of control over global, plant genetic resources.
As SEEDcontrol points out, the purchase of Syngenta by ChemChina, the acquisition of Monsanto by Bayer, and the DuPont (Pioneer)-Dow merger, if approved, will create an industry were the top three corporations control around two-thirds of the global seed supply, and even more importantly, the genetic resources from which all seeds, forevermore, will come. Stay tuned for updates as the approval processes move forward.