Four companies control over 60% of the world’s seed sales

Photo Illustrations by Jamie Chung





These are the seeds of a revolution.

Each dot above represents a seed company from the 1990s.

By 2018, they were all wholly or partly owned by Monsanto, then the largest seed producer in the world.

Last year, Monsanto was acquired by the German conglomerate Bayer, making it the world’s biggest agrochemical and seed company.

Today, just four giant companies control more than 60 percent of all the world’s seed sales.

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Opinion


Save Our Food. Free the Seed.




A mild Asian mustard named Vibrant Ultraviolet. When the plant goes to seed, it sends out green-gray leaves.



Not long ago I was sitting in a combine tractor on a 24,000-acre farm in Dazey, N.D. The expanse of the landscape — endless rows of corn and soybeans as precise as a Soviet military parade — was difficult to ignore. So were the skyscraper-tall storage silos and the phalanx of 18-wheeled trucks ready to transport the grain. And yet what held my attention were the couple of dozen seeds in my palm — the same seeds cultivated all around me.

We are told that everything begins with seed. Everything ends with it, too. As a chef I can tell you that your meal will be incalculably more delicious if I’m cooking with good ingredients. But until that afternoon I’d rarely considered how seed influences — determines, really — not only the beginning and the end of the food chain, but also every link in between.

The tens of thousands of rows surrounding me owed their brigade-like uniformity to the operating instructions embedded in the seed. That uniformity allows for large-scale monoculture, which in turn determines the size and model of the combine tractor needed to efficiently harvest such a load. (“Six hundred horsepower — needs a half-mile just to turn her around,” joked the farmer sitting next to me.) Satellite information, beamed into the tractor’s computer, makes it possible to farm such an expanse with scientific precision.

The type of seed also dictates the fertilizer, pesticide and fungicide regimen, sold by the same company as part of the package, requiring a particular planter and sprayer (40 feet and 140 feet wide, respectively) and producing a per-acre yield that is startling, and startlingly easy to predict.

It is as if the seed is a toy that comes with a mile-long list of component parts you’re required to purchase to make it function properly.

We think that the behemoths of agribusiness known as Big Food control the food system from up high — distribution, processing and the marketplace muscling everything into position. But really it is the seed that determines the system, not the other way around.

The seeds in my palm optimized the farm for large-scale machinery and chemical regimens; they reduced the need for labor; they elbowed out the competition (formally known as biodiversity). In other words, seeds are a blueprint for how we eat.

We should be alarmed by the current architects.

Just 50 years ago, some 1,000 small and family-owned seed companies were producing and distributing seeds in the United States; by 2009, there were fewer than 100. Thanks to a series of mergers and acquisitions over the last few years, four multinational agrochemical firms — Corteva, ChemChina, Bayer and BASF — now control over 60 percent of global seed sales.




Flowering curly kale, a variety called Baltisk Rod Purpurkal, being grown for seed at Fresh Roots Farm in Montana. The farm is collaborating with the Organic Seed Alliance on a toolkit for farmers who want to produce seed.

I have never talked to a farmer who is comfortable with this level of concentration. It’s unprecedented.”

Kristina Hubbard

Director of advocacy and communications at the Organic Seed Alliance

Flowering curly kale, a variety called Baltisk Rod Purpurkal, being grown for seed at Fresh Roots Farm in Montana. The farm is collaborating with the Organic Seed Alliance on a toolkit for farmers who want to produce seed.

I have never talked to a farmer who is comfortable with this level of concentration. It’s unprecedented.”

Kristina Hubbard

Director of advocacy and communications at the Organic Seed Alliance

Flowering curly kale, a variety called Baltisk Rod Purpurkal, being grown for seed at Fresh Roots Farm in Montana. The farm is collaborating with the Organic Seed Alliance on a toolkit for farmers who want to produce seed.

“I have never talked to a farmer who is comfortable with this level of concentration. It’s unprecedented.”

Kristina Hubbard

Director of advocacy and communications at the Organic Seed Alliance

The financial crisis brought us from boom-era complacency to nail-biting angst over institutions that were considered too big to fail. A decade wiser now, why are we not spooked by just four chemical companies largely controlling our future food supply?

Disclosure — I am a co-founder of a small seed company, so I have seed in the game. But so does anyone who cares about good food.

Flavor, long under siege, is having its moment as consumers abandon the processed foods of the center aisle in search of local and organic ingredients. Cooks have known forever that this kind of food tastes better; scientists are confirming that it’s better for the earth, too.

Organic growing reduces the use of harmful chemicals, improves the soil’s ability to sequester carbon and retain water, and strengthens biodiversity. As the climate grows more severe and unpredictable, we will need seeds adapted to this kind of farming, and to their environments — precisely what a centralized, chemical-driven industry is not built to provide.

Instead, Big Seed keeps getting bigger, doubling down on a system of monocultures and mass distribution.

The problem is not that these seed corporations are too big to fail. It’s that they are failing to deliver what growers need to grow and what we want to eat.

It’s worth noting that seed oligarchies are a relatively new thing. Scratch that. Seed companies are new.

From the Big Bang of agriculture around 10,000 B.C. until a hundred or so years ago, farmers saved their seeds to plant for the next season. Thousands of varieties evolved across the globe, constantly adapting to their environment and to the preferences of the culture and cuisine.

Nineteenth-century American farmers benefited from this diversity of vegetables, grains and fruits. It was a good time to be a seed. Not only welcomed but encouraged to stay through a government-backed seed distribution program, free seed allowed farmers to perform trial and error to see what worked.

It was a brilliant idea — except from the perspective of the nascent seed industry. Seed that was freely distributed, and freely saved and traded by farmers, stifled privatization. After decades of lobbying, the industry won (surprise!) and Congress ended the program in 1923.

Meanwhile, thousands of years of intuitive plant breeding and selection were evolving into a science. On the heels of the Austrian monk-cum-geneticist Gregor Mendel, plant breeders began making intentional crosses between plant varieties to create stable hybrid offspring.

Farmers examining hybrid seed corn in Grundy County, Iowa, in 1939.
Library of Congress

A hybrid seed corn dryer in Grundy County in 1940.
Library of Congress

Hybrid seeds were a hit with farmers because they could provide higher-yielding and more uniform plants. And seed companies loved them because they forced farmers to buy new seed every year. (If you save seeds from hybrid plants, the next generation will not be uniform.)

The first hybrid corn became commercially available in the early 1920s. Twenty years later, nearly all of Iowa was planted with hybrid corn.

Some seed purists consider hybrids the original sin. Tempting farmers away from saving their own seed is, by their measure, directly connected to the corporate seed juggernaut we’re faced with today. Since I’m writing this while sitting next to a brigade of cooks preparing several hybrid vegetables and grains for our restaurant’s menu, I’d argue that in a fallen world, hybrids are often reliable — and, in the right breeder’s hands, delicious. It’s true, though, that hybrids displaced valuable diversity and precipitated seed privatization.

The knockout punch for farmer-controlled seed was the utility patent. In a landmark (and utterly bananas) decision in 1980, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of allowing patents on living organisms. It wasn’t long before the same protections were extended to crops. New advances in genetic engineering supported the argument, with companies claiming seeds as proprietary inventions rather than part of our shared commons. Utility patents restricted farmers’ freedom to save and exchange seed and breeders’ right to use the germplasm for research.




Patents on plants rights have become more common …

Utility Patents

For CultivarS

1,013

1970

2015

1,074

Plant Patents

Asexually reproducing

1970

2015

Plant Variety

Protection Certificates

4,16

1970

2015

… as private breeding research funding has risen sharply.

$3 billion

inflation

adjusted

Private

Funding

$2 billion

$1 billion

Public

funding

$0

1975

1995

2015

Note: Dotted line is extrapolated. Source: USDA

Patents on plants have become more common …

Utility Patents

For Cultivars

Plant Patents

Asexually reproducing

Plant Variety

Protection

Certificates

1,074

1,013

416

1970

1970

2015

1970

2015

2015

… as private breeding research funding has risen sharply.

$3 billion

inflation adjusted

Private funding

$2 billion

$1 billion

Public funding

$0

1975

1995

2015

Note: Dotted line is extrapolated. Source: USDA

The slow march of seed consolidation suddenly turned into a sprint. Chemical and pharmaceutical companies with no historical interest in seed bought small regional and family-owned seed companies. Targeting cash crops like corn and soy, these companies saw seeds as part of a profitable package: They made herbicides and pesticides, and then engineered the seeds to produce crops that could survive that drench of chemicals. The same seed companies that now control more than 60 percent of seed sales also sell more than 60 percent of the pesticides. Not a bad business.

More than 90 percent of the 178 million acres of corn and soybeans planted last year in the United States were sown with genetically engineered seeds. It’s a vision as dispiriting as it is unappetizing.

Vegetables have been spared some of this genetic tinkering but are increasingly victim to the same aggressive corporate seed environment. Last year the pharmaceutical company Bayer acquired the world’s largest vegetable seed company, Monsanto.

For these megacompanies, capturing a large share of the vegetable seed market means capturing patentable genetics. Since 2001, the scope of utility patents has expanded to include novel plant traits. (Before this, you could own a variety, but not its traits, in the same way that you can own a beachfront property but not the particles of sand.)

On his Oregon farm, Frank Morton produces 146 varieties of organic lettuce, 88 of which he created.

His lettuces, like this Lava Dome mini crisphead, are coveted by top chefs for their distinct colors, flavors, crispiness and butteriness.

In three decades of breeding, he has never filed for a patent on his lettuce varieties, because he wants others to build on his work.

“Patents are completely unethical. We all need access to traits. My varieties are probably being used to create new varieties right now. I love that.”

There is now a patent on “low pungency” onions and “brilliant white” cauliflower. There are patents on grape tomatoes with enhanced sweetness and a long “shelf life” gene and a patent on a “pleasant tasting” melon (which sounds as tempting as toothpaste). For lettuces, there are too many to count — salad greens are some of the most lawyered-up vegetables in your refrigerator.

If the consequences of this genetic land grab are not immediately apparent to us, they are to plant breeders who find themselves maneuvering around recently restricted genetic traits.

A carrot breeder recently told me about working on a new variety of purple carrot only to bump up against restrictions for the level of purple color: “I had to be careful I didn’t infringe on their ‘purpleness’ patent and instigate a lawsuit, so I stayed clear.”

But there’s more. Investigative journalists heed the maxim “follow the money.” Let’s follow the carrot.

With the risks involved, most breeders avoid purple carrots entirely (and red carrots, too — there’s a patent on a certain level of redness). Orange carrots keep their hegemony.

Ever notice how supermarket carrots in January look identical to carrots sold in August? That’s the seeds’ software at work again: Carrots cultivated in different regions of the country, and increasingly different regions of the world, look and taste the same. What’s true of carrots is true of zucchini and onions and celery and you name it.

One breeder described it as “the aesthetics of sameness.”




People get diversity in tomato or corn, but they tend not to translate that to other crops like cilantro.”

Lane Selman

Founder of the Culinary Breeding Network, which brings chefs, farmers and breeders together to develop new organic vegetable varieties

“People get diversity

in tomato or corn, but they tend not to translate that to other crops like cilantro.”

Lane Selman

Founder of the Culinary Breeding Network, which brings chefs, farmers and breeders together to develop new organic vegetable varieties

“People get diversity in tomato or corn, but they tend not to translate that to other crops like cilantro.”

Lane Selman

Founder of the Culinary Breeding Network, which brings chefs, farmers and breeders together to develop new organic

vegetable varieties.

This entrenched standard forces the breeder to select for similar genetic traits; it squeezes out diversity. The wacky purple carrot becomes a casualty, but so do differently shaped and sized carrots, and the distinctively flavored ones, or the carrots best suited for cold hardiness or drought resistance. Unique kinds of carrots — the product of decades, if not generations of selection — are discarded.

This is an ineffable loss. It does, however, suit retailers and processors and just about everyone trying to sell you vegetables. Less diversity locks in harvesting rates, machinery, shipping crate sizes, shelf space, and on and on. Above all, the seed industry argues, it lowers prices.




This is a uniform romaine variety, ideal for packaged lettuce. The nonorganic seed is produced by Seminis, which was bought by Mosanto in 2005 and is now owned by Bayer.

Valley Heart

Here are six organic varieties that feature romaine’s characteristic crisp leaves and thick ribs, but with diverse colors and forms.

Pandero

Devil’s Tongue

Winter Density

Lava Lamp

Total Clown

Crisp Mint

Illustrations by Melinda Josie

This is a uniform romaine variety, ideal for packaged lettuce. The nonorganic seed is produced by Seminis, which was bought by Mosanto and is now owned by Bayer.

Valley Heart

Here are six organic varieties that feature romaine’s characteristic

crisp leaves and thick ribs, but with diverse colors and forms.

Pandero

Devil’s Tongue

Lava Lamp

Total Clown

Winter Density

Crisp Mint

Illustrations by Melinda Josie

It doesn’t take long for these proclamations to dissolve like a lump of sugar. What we’re really doing is restricting innovation and narrowing choices for farmers and consumers.

For organic farmers, the options are especially grim. They need seeds bred for their ability to outcompete weeds and to resist pests and disease. But large seed companies don’t invest in organic research, not really. Why bother when most farmers can simply spray the problem away? And when you’re making money on the chemicals, the logic really breaks down.

According to a report published by the Organic Seed Alliance, most large-scale organic crop acreage is planted with conventional seed. Despite a recent uptick in the production of organic seed, there isn’t enough to go around. “Not if you want to plant 200 acres,” one midsize organic farmer told me. “Not even if you want to plant 50 acres.”

Farmers find themselves hobbled by weak plants that were designed to be weaned on chemicals.

It’s not hard to see why organic food is expensive. Farmers have to price the organic carrots to reflect the cost of production in a world designed for them to fail. In the checkout aisle, we wince. A consensus is reached: Organic carrots are a noble idea but not a practical one to feed our growing population.

And yet, these ingredients could be a lot more practical and affordable if they received more than a sliver of research and development investment. From 1996 to 2018, funding for public organic plant breeding totaled $27.5 million. I’m reminded of a multinational seed company executive who once boasted that his company invested a million dollars a day in corn seed research. A million dollars a day! In 27 days he would blow through 22 years of public organic seed investment.

Imagine the advances an organic vegetable breeder could make with a fraction of that.

Now picture that funding originating from public tax dollars, where plant breeding can be focused not on capturing patents and profits, but on increasing organic yields, along with flavor and nutrition.

And what if we replicated this model across different regions, with an institution in each state?

Before you dismiss this as an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez carrot fantasy, know that we don’t need to invent such institutions. We already have them. Our land-grant college system — conceived to promote agriculture and technical education — has been, for more than 150 years, the envy of the world. These universities were home to thriving public plant breeding departments until a wave of defunding in the 1980s gutted them.

Today, land-grant breeders are an endangered species. (Many have been replaced by plant scientists studying the genome, supporting the next generation of genetic tinkering like Crispr — often at the expense of classical plant breeding research.) Hundreds of programs have been whittled down to single digits for each crop. Onions are down to three land-grant breeders. Sweet corn has two.

Bill Tracy leads the sweet corn program at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. His work is intended to help the state’s corn farmers.

“I probably have graduated 40 Ph.D. students, and none of them have gone into academia because of what they perceive as a funding disaster.”

Carrots have just one land-grant breeder: Irwin Goldman at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

According to Dr. Goldman, short of overturning intellectual property law (unlikely to happen) the federal government could level the playing field against private interests by revitalizing these public programs. For $10,000 a day, he believes, carrot researchers could address a long list of needs, like breeding carrots with large green tops to suppress weed growth in the absence of herbicides, and selecting carrots for specific soil conditions for greater mineral absorption and nutrient density. There’s untapped deliciousness, too — new flavors and culinary potential to discover, if breeders are given the freedom to look for them.

That vision may sound quaint against the industry’s Feed the World narrative, but imagine those gains across tomatoes, sweet potatoes, corn, wheat. In a world of waning diversity, what if we could give breeders the resources to create new crop varieties, as accessible as they are craveable?

It’s a future that we may soon be speaking of as the present.

What has stayed with me after that visit to North Dakota and the 24,000 acres of corn and soybeans was not dread or despair, or even intimidation. It is the opposite, really. Looking back at it, I felt the way you might feel staring down a mainframe computer from the 1960s. This was supposed to represent the future? For all its high-tech efficiency, it managed to feel outmoded. It’s a system that will, in the words of Shakespeare via the great environmentalist Aldo Leopold, die “of its own too-much.”

The end has probably already begun.

Today’s food culture is experiencing a tectonic shift as the rebellious stakeholders of our modern food movement — farmers, independent retailers, nutritionists, educators, chefs and ever-more-informed eaters — upend the marketplace. Their work is like those points in a Seurat painting, dizzyingly complex, but coordinated in impact.

The more that I’ve come to understand its intricacies, the more I appreciate that lasting change in our food system has to begin with seeds.

That acknowledgment is shared by a community of hard-nosed farmers, gardeners, activists and independent seed companies. With little fanfare, they continue a 12,000-year-old tradition of seed saving and improvement. They include people like Rowen White, the founder of Sierra Seeds, who is dedicated to stewarding and reanimating traditional indigenous seeds, and Lane Selman of Oregon State University, whose Culinary Breeding Network promotes the seed-to-table conversation.




Rowen White visiting the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. Ms. White sits on the board of the organization, which is growing several varieties of seed that can be traced back to indigenous growers.

“Part of my commitment to the organic seed movement is to diversify the types of people who have the honor and privilege of stewarding seed.”

Rowen White

Coordinator of the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network

Ms. White is coordinating the return of seeds, like this Narragansett Eight Row flint corn, to tribes whose food traditions were disrupted by colonization and displacement.

Rowen White visiting the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. Ms. White sits on the board of the organization, which is growing several varieties of seed that can be traced back to indigenous growers.

“Part of my commitment to the organic seed movement is to diversify the types of people who have the honor and privilege of stewarding seed.”

Rowen White

Coordinator of the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network

Ms. White is coordinating the return of seeds, like this Narragansett Eight Row flint corn, to tribes whose food traditions were disrupted by colonization and displacement.

Rowen White visiting the Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa. Ms. White sits on the board of the organization, which is growing several varieties of seed that can be traced back to indigenous growers.

“Part of my commitment to the organic seed movement is to diversify the types of people who have the honor and privilege of stewarding seed.”

Rowen White

Coordinator of the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network

Ms. White is coordinating the return of seeds, like this Narragansett Eight Row flint corn, to tribes whose food traditions were disrupted by colonization and displacement.

The movement is buttressed, too, by organizations like the Open Source Seed Initiative, which Dr. Goldman helped found to “free the seed.” It’s created a new bastion of open source seeds, safeguarded from patents and other restrictions.

These efforts need more than our support; they demand our participation, the same engagement with seeds that humans had for thousands of years. Seeds not as commodities but as a vital part of our cultural commons; seeds not as software, but as living systems: seeds as the source of a new food revolution.


Dan Barber is the chef and co-owner of the Blue Hill and Blue Hill at Stone Barns restaurants in New York and the co-founder of Row 7 Seed Company.

Ash Ngu is a graphics editor for The New York Times.

Ruth Fremson is a staff photographer for The New York Times.

Produced by Jessia Ma.

Top photo illustration by Jamie Chung.

Consolidation data from Phil Howard at Michigan State University.

Seeds from Fedco Seeds.

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