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Joan Obra of the Fresno Bee called a few weeks ago to ask questions about the seed industry. We get quite a few calls from reporters, and most of the time it’s a somewhat frustrating experience – with the reporters wanting to reduce complex ideas to a sound bite and even when they get you to squeak one out they often get it wrong. Sorry journalists, but this is the experience of much of the citizenry.

Not Joan.

She was fantastic, asked great questions, made follow-up calls to other experts and then back to us, and her hard work and good journalism paid off with one of the better pieces I have read on the issue of farmers losing access to important open-pollinated commercial varieties.

I think talking to all the seed freaks may have infected her with the passion, as she told me that she got enough material for several articles and plans to write them. Fresno is lucky to have her on the food beat.

Her article:

Seeds of change; Farmers work to maintain beloved varieties that otherwise could be lost

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Today I attended an awards lunch for one of my true heroes – Nash Huber of Sequim, Washington. Nash won the American Farmland Trust’s Stewards of the Land award. It’s a major award, in terms of recognition and money, and it’s my understanding that this is the first time it went to an organic produce farmer. No announcement yet on the AFT site, but there is this news article and look for one in the Seattle PI tomorrow. As Nash said today, the award goes not just to him, but to his amazing crew. Check out the web site of Nash’s Organic Produce.

Organic Seed Alliance has been lucky to have Nash as a research partner for a number of years on several vegetable breeding projects. Both Nash and his farmer manager Scott Chichester have also served as educators at OSA events. People are always inspired by their integrated vision of food, farms, and the role of seed. I am.

Those of us who work in seed think about inheritance, and about the potential of better that which we pass on. Nash, coming from a farm family and having farmed for over thirty years, really gets that. You have to care for the farmland, the soil, the water, the seed, and the culture of farming – but in doing so you also have to have a vision of improving them. American Farmland Trust is a fantastic organization, and they selected the perfect farm, crew, and farm leader to reflect their values.

Congratulations to Nash, his crew, and AFT.

Originally posted at OCM

Hugh Grant – Monsanto Chairman, CEO, and President – probably won’t notice the increased price of a loaf of bread. And if he does it will be with a smile. Grant is $13,000,000 and some change wealthier today than he was on Monday, as he choose to exercise stock options 116,000 shares worth – that netted him a profit of over $114 PER SHARE.

Like many of us, I wouldn’t mind paying the extra dollar per loaf of bread if I knew the majority of that dollar was going back into the hands of farmers. Instead, the higher prices at the checkout line are funneled to the agri-giants like Monsanto and Cargill, companies making record profits. Remind you of gas prices and oil companies? Reminds me that these agri-giants spent $100 million on getting their way in the Farm Bill, an investment with huge dividends – for Monsanto’s Hugh Grant anyway.

“I don’t believe any company has the right to come into someone’s home and threaten their livelihood.” – so says Indiana Farmer David Runyan in response to Monsanto’s bully tactics to intimidate and coerce farmers. Finally getting national attention, both from Vanity Fair and CBS.

Link to the CBS story on the web site of the Organization for Competitive Markets

Also on OCM site, a link to the recent Market Place (American Public Radio) segment on how large agribusiness firms are profiteering, much like oil firms in recent years with their record breaking profits while the rest of us pay, pay and then pay some more.

Well, the folks at ETC have another view on the Enola Been Patent appeal decision that I wrote about yesterday. Hope Shand’s comments give a bitter-sweet taste to what I saw as a happy ending of a tale that started out as a horror story. I have admired the work of Hope and Pat, RAFI and ETC, for many years. I agree with her on her points, but disagree with the PR approach on this one.

Specifically, I agree that the damage to farmer livelihoods should be addressed (and that is the bitterest piece of all), and recognize that, as in most court cases, Proctor’s lawyers delayed the process to suit their clients advantage, I am less inclined to see it as a “hollow” victory, which strongly implies that it is without meaning. It has meaning, it just doesn’t result in a full measure of justice. Unfortunately, justice will not be a meal served in a single course.

The patent system is a mess. Concentrated corporate interests influence the entire political process and as such PTO. A complete institutional overhaul is needed to address concentration in the agricultural sector, corporate influence on politics, dangerous technologies and practices, and our overall regulatory approach to plant genetic systems. But, I don’t think we can realistically expect change to come in any manner other than small victories that build cultural recognition of the issues and political reformation. I don’t see a revolution welling up outside the door to demand reform. I’d like to see Prius filled streets of Port Townsend – where everyone’s a “locavore” but government policy glazes peoples eyes – filled with pitchfork wielding populist radicals. In fact I offer tine sharpening services. But we also have to set realistic objectives, with accomplishments that we can attain, or it’s all doom and gloom.

I think that ETC, CGIAR, and others should pat themselves on the back for remaining vigilant, seeing this case to its current status, and continuing the fight. Don’t break any arms doing it, but we have to celebrate even small victories when the daily news on the agricultural front is constantly filled with such disastrous tides. Wow I sound like my mom, the preschool teacher, writing about giving gold stars – but I believe it is true. Don’t rest on laurels or imagine them more grand than they are, but an overly dark approach doesn’t do much to fuel those of us who continue to work for change. The Enola case helps builds a foundation. Bittersweet, but a victory nonetheless. I’m grateful for all the work that those on the case have put into it. And for the continued fight from folks like ETC.

Best news I’ve seen in a long while. It starts out a once upon a time nightmare:

In 1999 a US citizen – Larry Proctor goes down to Mexico, buys some beans in a market, comes back to Colorado and plants it, saves seed for a few seasons, and applies for a patent based upon the beans distinctive yellow color.  Granted. When the US Patent and Trade Office (USPTO) granted this those of us in the seed world were shocked. It was the most egregious misapplication of the patent process imaginable.

Since that time farmers throughout Latin America have been threatened with lawsuits for planting the bean – the same bean they have been saving for generations – a Monsanto like mafia tactic. Luckily the International Center for Tropical Agriculture challenged the patent. The challenge has been a long path, with intermittent victories, including a final rejection of the patent in 2005. Proctor appealed that 2005 decision, and yesterday he lost that appeal – with the USPTO fully rejecting all his claims on the bean. His last leg would be to appeal to the Supreme Court. I think it’s unlikely that he would do so based on cost, but if he does (with the help of other big pocket biopirates) and loses, it would be a landmark case against biopiracy and the patenting of indigenous plant genetic materials.

Story

By now many of you have seen the NY Times article on Sticker Shock in the Organic Aisles, in addition to that I suggest that you read this piece on Organic in Trouble from the blog Mulch. The poor federal policy decisions to support biofuel production (which continues to be shown to be a false panacea for positive energy and environmental impact) is now having a very serious detrimental impact on one of the great success stories of modern agriculture, particularly in organic dairies. The abandoning of Conservation Reserve Program acreage in order to fill gas tanks instead of feed humans is inextricably linked to agrochemical conglomerate powers of companies like Monsanto, and the huge influence they wield on our political and public system. Monsanto’s profits continue to skyrocket as more land gets converted to bt corn and RR soy for ethanol and biodiesel. They win, the rest of agriculture and our food security loses. Farmers may see some short term profits, but watch for the blow back. An article in Delta Farm Press from March of 2007 (which was based on some naive projections about the price per barrel of oil remaining at around $60) predicted that farmers would be back to “break even” within 2 years – that’s by 2009. Farmers want to believe that the fuel driven big prices of today will be their longterm economic security, but the only folks who are going to make out in the long run are the CEOs and major investors of the ag-chemical-seed companies who are driving this boom. Boom, bust – the Hegelian dialect innit? – and you can be sure who WON’T be on the bust side and who will. Farmers never win in these situations.

Cautionary note on the long term economics

And another

And of course perpetual growth illusions rely on the allied illusion that yields in corn and soy will forever increase via genetic engineering, but that is also being shown to be false. As the researcher says, every organism has its physiological peak – it’s unlikely a human will ever be able to jump 20 feet into the air, or run a sub 3 minute mile.

We can’t solve the energy-climate-agricultural crises with quick fix technological solutions. Changes in food and fuel consumption, break-up of unhealthy concentration in agriculture and energy sectors, and an acceptance that perpetual economic growth is not possible (or desirable) are more realistic platforms to build a longterm, economically and environmentally sustainable fuel-food-farm culture.  Cultural, ethical, and institutional shifts can nurture greater societal health, wealth, and happiness.

Health, Wealth, and Happiness lead me to Ben Franklin, and to a particular quote of his that I used to have written above the office of one of antique stores: “I conceive that the great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by false estimates they have made of the value of things.”

Pertinent thought not only for trading in antiques, but for the get rich quick rush towards biofuel crop production.

Pre-Emptive Strike

The April 6th edition of the New York Times reports that the Supreme Court is leaning towards a legal argument called “pre-emption” that would prevent companies from being sued for product liability once that product is deregulated by a government agency, in this case the FDA. Excerpt from article:

“For years, Johnson & Johnson obscured evidence that its popular Ortho Evra birth control patch delivered much more estrogen than standard birth control pills, potentially increasing the risk of blood clots and strokes, according to internal company documents.

But because the Food and Drug Administration approved the patch, the company is arguing in court that it cannot be sued by women who claim that they were injured by the product — even though its old label inaccurately described the amount of estrogen it released.

This legal argument is called pre-emption. After decades of being dismissed by courts, the tactic now appears to be on the verge of success, lawyers for plaintiffs and drug companies say.

The Bush administration has argued strongly in favor of the doctrine, which holds that the F.D.A. is the only agency with enough expertise to regulate drug makers and that its decisions should not be second-guessed by courts. The Supreme Court is to rule on a case next term that could make pre-emption a legal standard for drug cases. The court already ruled in February that many suits against the makers of medical devices like pacemakers are pre-empted.”

Full Article

The courts leaning this direction will have obvious ramifications in the world of GMO’s as well. Transgenic crops are regulated by a ragged, moth-eaten quilt comprised of the EPA, FDA, and USDA – with all agencies acting separately and no interdepartmental communications. Each agency, as in the case with the FDA in this Johnson & Johnson suit before the Supreme Court, depends only on REPORTED testing from the companies seeking deregulation. If Monsanto or Bayer or J&J say their evaluations are positive it gets a gold star and the product goes out to the public. Not surprising with the revolving door between government agencies, the university community, and corporations. The regulatory agencies require no independent studies. “We’ll take your word for it.”

Now, when a product turns out to have a negative ramification, for example contaminating a neighbor’s crops with transgenic pollen and making them non-marketable, the companies can say – “Hey, the government approved it. Tough luck.” Even if you believe that there are useful biotech applications in crops, what ethical person can support a zero liability approach to any product, one in which we take the word of corporations as the gold standard? We as a public deserve better than this. Or maybe we should manage other public entities in the same manner. The DOT will just ask you to sign a statement saying you read the rule book and know how to drive. And do we really need contractors to get building permits and have inspections? I mean who would really build a substandard apartment complex for low-income persons just for the money?

Have we really gone this far towards a pro-corporate, anti-public, perilous and unethical regulatory climate? Undoubtedly. Paranoia? No. How many cases do we need to read about before we recognize the FDA, EPA and USDA are not doing their job? Do we allow our local institutions to behave so poorly? We need to demand that senate and congressional representatives investigate the irresponsible behavior of our federal agencies. If the courts back the agencies with pre-emption, the only way to protect ourselves is with complete reform of the agencies. As my Sicilian grandmother used to say when I tossed my toys about the living room without concern for her tripping on them: BASTA! You make the mess – you clean it up! Now!

When Monsanto buys into a market they buy in big.

In 2005 Monsanto’s seed/genetic trait holdings were primarily in corn, cotton, soybean, and canola. That year they purchased Seminis, the world’s largest vegetable seed company (see And We Have the Seed) specializing in seed for vegetable field crops.

Now their takeover of the vegetable seed sector continues, as they have announced the intent to purchase the Dutch breeding and seed company, De Ruiter Seeds. This purchase diversifies Monsanto’s seed holdings in vegetable field crops (Seminis) to “protected culture” fruits and vegetables (primarily tomatoes and cucurbits produced greenhouse, hothouse, etc). Analysts from Bank of America say that this gives Monsanto 25% of the world vegetable seed market, but I believe that this is a low estimate. (I contacted both Monsanto and the BofA analysts to ask for their data but they did not respond to my emails.)

In 1998, according to their own figures, Seminis already controlled 26% of the overall global market in vegetable seeds, 39% of the US market, and 24% of the European market (Seminis. 2000. Seminis Annual Report—Fiscal Year 1999. Saticoy, CA: Seminis, Inc.). This is ALL vegetable seeds, but in their specialties – tomatoes, peppers, cucurbits, the percentage market share is much higher. A case filed by the US Government against Seminis in 2000 stated that they controlled 70% of the US fresh tomato seed market (the case was regarding an anticompetition agreement that kept a Israeli company from competing in the US tomato seed market. Syngenta initially lost in the federal district court case, but won in the Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit) And in 2005, at the time of the Monsanto acquisition of Seminis, I spoke with a tomato breeder for Seminis who estimated that they had 75% control of the overall US market.

With the De Ruiter protected-culture varieties they may hit 85% control of the total market, and that could increase considering the trend in expansion of hot house tomato production.

Hello, Department of Justice, do we have an antitrust case now?

I know it’s not corn, but fresh market tomatoes (FRESH, not including processing) was an industry worth over $4 billion (again, according to US Attorney General Documents). Tomatoes were the 9th most important agricultural food products in 2005 (and this against animal products) and the 4th (after corn, soybeans, and wheat) of food crops (non-animal).

De Ruiters is a Dutch company, so I believe the sale is outside of US DOJ jurisdiction. The Directorate General for Competition of the EU will likely not interfere, as Monsanto doesn’t own enough of the EU vegetable seed sector. There remains no cohesive international method for regulation on a global scale, which is wonderful for these global corporate firms.

One company with this much control in one of the largest agricultural markets in the US? Some economists use “The Rule of 3” – that a monopoly exists in a market if there are not a  minimum of 3 competing companies . There are certainly more than two other tomato seed companies out there, but with what kind of market share? Do any of them have 10%? What about 5%? Scale is a requirement for competition. So who is competing with Monsanto on tomato seed? The rest of the market is a quilt work of tiny companies in comparison to what Monsanto has created in under three years with a handful of quick and unregulated acquisitions.  Added to their seed concentrations in other crops, and given that food production starts with the seed, there should be no question of who controls our food supply. The only question is – will we do something about it?

I have to hope that the right administrative change will usher in the potential for a stronger Justice Department. At this point Obama has had the strongest voice in calling for greater government regulation of industry (primarily in reference to tightening up Wall Street). Regardless of who wins, we need to get farmers, food companies, and citizens working in concert to make congress, the executive branch, and Justice to hear our concerns about unregulated agricultural mergers. 

There have been several sugarbeet industry responses to the RR lawsuit filed by Organic Seed Alliance, Center For Food Safety, and Sierra Club.

First, an interview: Five Minutes With Luther Markwart, American Sugarbeet Growers
And along the same lines these comments from the American Association of Subarbeet.Please read the excellent public comments at the end of that article.

The one thing that I continue to see is a denial of how this technology impacts pre-existing rural economies/farmers/companies. These large commodity groups and their gene giant partners refuse to see that their acts/products can result in the loss of “freedom to operate” for farmers with an already existing market(non-gmo Beta vulgaris seed crops). They don’t want to pay for contamination testing, losses due to contamination, or even recognize that these seed grower’s products have value. And with seed the value is exponential – not only a value to the seed growers, but to the farmers who rely on seed free of contamination.

But then we get called “selfish”?

That was one of the nasty labels thrown out in a posting on Truth About Trade & Technology. It’s difficult to not respond with a volley of schoolyard name calling and an emotional rant such as was done by the TATT poster Noel Kjesbo. I’m not sure calling people “dishonest” and “selfish” without backing it up is an indicator of “truth” as much as it is juvenile and slanderous.

For the record Noel, Organic Seed Alliance has no links to Greenpeace (as you claim), nor are we an activist group. And, I challenge you to logically prove your slanderous statements (“fradulent”, “dishonest”, “hiding behind misleading names”, etc)

In any case, I would like to point my dear readers to Frank Morton’s (Wild Garden Seed) well reasoned response. Well done Frank.


FRANK’S RESPONSE:

As a farmer, seedsman, plant breeder, and member of the Isolation Pinning Rules Committee of Oregon’s Willamette Valley Specialty Seeds Association, I have another agricultural perspective to offer this author and his audience.

Our Valley produces virtually all of the sugar beet seed for our United States. It also produces some table beet seed and a huge percentage of the Swiss chard seed that ends up in the fresh salad trade from California to Maine and other markets overseas. We also grow seed for much of the world’s Brassica veg crops, cabbage, kale, broccoli, turnips and their kin. We think we matter as much as your sugar beet farmers in the Red River Valley, and we think our high value specialty seed trade with the Pacific Rim and the EU is a big deal. But this is all dependent on seed quality, and for us in our sensitive markets, seed quality means genetic purity–both for trueness to type, and freedom from transgenic contamination. Our buyers do not want GMOs in our seed whether you care (or we care) or not. Transgenes from Roundup Ready sugar beets or oilseed canola in our Swiss chard or Chinese cabbage will not be accepted by our overseas customers any more than they will by our organic seed customers in California. That’s the truth about trade that is obvious from my window.

What your folks see as a great blessing (may improve yields 10% I hear from the company that stands to gain the most) could hereabouts destroy the value of conventional seedsmen’s crops downwind of GMO plantings of sugar beets, canola, corn, or whatever the next transgenic specialty crop may be. BT-broccoli, RR-radish, onion, spinach–all of these are potential trade disasters waiting to happen to my happy valley, now 95% stocked with Roundup Ready sugar beets, brought in secretly over three years without any notification to neighbors, fellow seedfolks, or the seed association, until after planting of the third year.

This valley isn’t big enough to provide certainty of genetic isolation between GE-sugar beets and conventional beets and Swiss chard. Such certainty would require more than 6 miles of isolation distance between transgenic and conventional fields, according to the sugar beet industry’s own research. The Pinning Isolation Rules of the seed association provide for 3 miles of isolation, and these are the new rules, made in full cognizance (for the first time) that GMOs were among us. To provide the 6 miles necessary to keep conventional beets and Swiss chard transgene-free, sugar beet isolations would need to expand against their conventional neighbors, and due to production seniority, would push other producers out of the valley entirely. In other words, to protect the conventional beet/chard industry, it would be disappeared. That might seem fair in someone’s version of the truth, but not the guys I know.

None of these issues related to genetic contamination of world class seed production zones like ours were taken into account by USDA/APHIS, the Oregon Dept. of Agriculture, or my own WVSSA members that visited this suprise upon us about one year ago. Since these would have been the guardians of the public and commercial intrests at hand, and since none of this was in fact considered when USDA/APHIS deregulated GE-beets (nor when they began to planted in Oregon), it seems entirely reasonable to me that we specialty seedfolk have been infringed upon in more ways than one, and a Judge ought to have a look at the situation. Maybe our author and “the company that has the most to gain” would prefer to have their day in a Missouri Court to argue before a Judge, but my grief is happening well west of there, and I’m happy with our justice system in this regard.

This is no different than the Roundup Ready Alfalfa case. One company assumed it could ride in and transgenically contaminate everyone producing alfalfa–regardless of the market consequences–and get away with it. Alfalfa seed and forage farmers showed them different, and that company is paying a price for assuming it can push its heavy weight around any farming sector. RR-Alfalfa is a flawed technology put back in its box where it belongs. RR-beets are the same kind of buffalo bull, likely to cross the fence and make little beefalos where they are not the intended kind of cow.

I would think any farmer that knows the truth when he sees it would be able to understand this; milking beefalos will not do for the dairyman.

When biotech can manage to keep its pretties at home where they have a value to someone, and when biotech is proud enough of its work that it will label it, then maybe they will have a place in free and fair trade. As long as biotechnology has the potential to destroy the neighborhood’s product values by blowing on the wind, I think biotech has offered up a flawed device.

You think mine is a dangerous idea?