Monsanto’s move into veggie seeds shakes up small organic farmers.
Here at Maverick Farms, a foot-thick blanket of snow swaths the cover crops and garlic beds, insulating them from sub-freezing temperatures. In the depths of the field, a big compost pile smolders. As at small farms all over the country, we’ve been been flipping through seed catalogs as we plan what to plant this coming season.
At this time of year, optimism burns bright, sparked by the glowing prose of the seed catalogs. Here is my favorite catalog, Fedco, engaging in a bit of beet poetry:
The genius of Alan Kapuler at work, this [root grex beet] is an interbreeding mix of Yellow Intermediate heirloom, Crosby Purple Egyptian heirloom and Lutz Saladleaf heirloom. It absolutely wowed me in my 2004 trial and aroused considerable interest at our Common Ground Fair booth display last fall. The term “grex” is commonly used in orchid breeding. There are 3 distinct colors in this gene pool: a pinkish red with some orange in it, a bright gold and a beautiful iridescent orange. We were impressed by the unusual vigor, glowing colors and length of these gradually tapered elongated roots.
Farmers have to work hard to avoid way overbuying seeds, with tempting descriptions like that dominating the catalogs.
This year, however, a new statement confronts us throughout the Fedco book: “This is the last year we will be offering this Seminis variety.” Many venerable varieties bear this unhappy statement. Last year, Monsanto bought Seminis, the world’s largest vegetable-seed purveyor, shaking up the small-scale organic farming world. (Here is an analysis of that deal I posted a while back.) Fedco, responding to outrage among its growers, decided to stop buying seeds from Seminis/Monsanto. And that means many varieties people have come to love in their CSA boxes and at the farmers market won’t be available for much longer.I find Monsanto, the world’s dominant seller of genetically modified seeds, a fascinating object of study. The company once did my modest investigative-research efforts a great honor by sending me a preposterous cease-and-desist letter, a gift for which I remain thankful.
Even after that interaction, the company seemed rather, well, theoretical to me. It sells huge amounts of seeds with built-in pesticides and herbicides to 1,000-acre and up corn and soy farmers in the midwest and South America, who turn them into inputs for industry. Interesting, yes; appalling, yes. But nothing to do with farming as I know it. Maverick cultivates a bit less than three acres, with which it supplies a small CSA, sells to five or six restaurants, and produces just enough extra to supply our monthly farm dinners and feed us. A genetically modified corn seed has as much to do with our operation as a giraffe — less, really, since a giraffe could at least supply fertilizer.
With its Seminis buy, Monsanto is dipping its tentacles down the food chain. Evidently, it hopes to snatch the vast profitability it squeezes out of grain, soy, and cotton farmers out of vegetable farmers as well.
The message to consumers is clear: The mega-corporations have noted rising interest in fresh, healthy food, and are scrambling to figure out how to make a buck out of it. If you want a robust supply of delicious fresh veggies, it’s not enough to buy Annie’s Processed Organic Crap, or even produce, from Whole Foods. Accept that the cheap food you’ve grown used to isn’t really cheap at all, in terms of its unaccounted-for health and environmental costs. Get to know farmers in your area. Join a CSA. Get thee to the farmers market.