By Lisa Marshall
New Hope 360
A single food seed can be as tiny as a grain of sand. Yet many say the fate of the entire organic industry rests upon our efforts to protect the integrity of these small, but vital agricultural inputs.
“Seed is the first resource in our food production chain, so its integrity is vital to the success of organic farmers. Yet little has been done to address the issue of genetic contamination,” says Kristina Hubbard, director of advocacy for the Organic Seed Alliance. “I don’t think seed is getting enough attention.”
As the natural foods industry gears up for an unprecedented assault on genetically modified organisms (GMOs), much emphasis has been placed on convincing government to label foods containing GMOs and on swaying grocers and manufacturers to rid them from the retail shelf. But Hubbard and others say those actions will mean little if farmers can’t find clean, GMO-free seed to plant in the first place.
Thanks to floating pollen, stowaway seeds on delivery trucks, and the fact that even organic farmers must turn to conventional seed due to a shortage of organic varieties, seed experts say the vast majority of corn growing in the United States already contains some degree of genetically modified (GM) material. Soy, canola and alfalfa are also high on the list for possible contamination.
Even non-GM seed breeders—forced to buy their genetic material from biotech companies in an age of increased seed company consolidation—can’t guarantee that their seeds are genetically pure anymore, says OSA founder and consultant Matt Dillon. Furthermore, because funding for university research into natural, non-GM alternatives is a fraction of what it once was, Dillon says that it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find innovative solutions to protect the non-GM seed that still exists.
Meanwhile, organic consumers are growing outraged that even when they buy “organic” or “non-GMO” products, they may still be eating genetically altered food.
So what’s the answer?
“We have to create our own seed system,” says Dillon, who will join stakeholders from industry and nonprofits to roll out a host of seed-preservation initiatives in the coming months. “If we just say ‘stop GMOs’ and we don’t protect and develop the seeds we really need, we haven’t succeeded at anything.”
How did GMOs alter the seed landscape?
Dillon points to the 1980 Diamond v. ChakrabartySupreme Court ruling as the beginning of the end of seed purity. In that case, the court ruled that “a live, human-made micro-organism is patentable,” and by the mid-1990s, it was evident that this applied to plants too. Soon a handful of agrichemical companies including DuPont, Syngenta and Monsanto—which previously had showed no interest in seeds—owned more than 65 percent of the world’s proprietary seed.
Read more at New Hope 360