Monsanto’s quest for effective control of the food supply hasn’t been a widespread topic of discussion, although it should be. The company is steadily and quietly snapping up patents for a variety of commercially grown crops, and is applying pressure to farmers to effectively shut them out of business. If you grow Monsanto products, you’re forced to buy Monsanto’s chemicals, and you can’t save seeds, a time-honoured tradition. Instead, you are supposed to buy new seeds every year, from Monsanto. The effective monopoly also extends to pressure on small farmers who don’t grow Monsanto—woe betide the farmer with a cross-pollination or contamination problem, which is inevitable, even with Monsanto’s ‘sterile’ cultivars. If the company detects its genes on your farm, you will pay through the nose for them.
Now, Monsanto is getting sneakier. Prior to the last few years, home gardeners were mostly exempt from the Monsanto problem, because the company was focusing on big agriculture. Having penetrated that market thoroughly, though, Monsanto is turning to the home gardening market…with a vengeance. It’s buying up a number of major seed suppliers and that includes those putting out seeds for Early Girl tomatoes, Early Butternut squash, Sierra Blanca onions, and many, many more favourite cultivars that have been used by home gardeners for decades.
The tentacles have reached into the fence of your garden, and it means you need to watch out. Numerous gardeners don’t want to support Monsanto at all due to ethical concerns about the company, and a desire to avoid buying anything made under Monsanto’s umbrella. Others are worried about the potential legal consequences of growing plants from Monsanto seeds and starts.
Legal consequences? For gardening?
Given Monsanto’s attacks on small farmers, it’s legitimate to be worried that saving seeds, accidental cross-pollination, volunteers, and other issues that commonly arise in home garden management could become legal liabilities. Monsanto has successfully sued to prove that owning the patent on a cultivar means it has total control over when and how people grow it, which means that home gardeners could potentially be at the mercy of the company if they garden in the way they’ve always done; the way they were taught to, and the way people have been managing home gardens for centuries. You grow, you collect seed, you replant in the following year.
The company has succeeded in bankrupting small farms across the US which just weren’t prepared to pay the legal fees associated with protecting their right to grow crops, and home gardeners are legitimately worried that the same thing may happen to them. Given the current direction of the courts, it’s not unreasonable to be afraid that the court may not necessarily protect home gardeners making genuinely innocent mistakes like, you know, letting something go to seed and collecting the seeds to grow next year. You know. As one does. If one is a gardener.
With the purchase of Seminis and a number of small concerns, Monsanto may control up to 80% of the market in seeds for home-grown veggies. That is a substantial market share, and of course the company is well aware that home gardeners may prefer not to grow Monsanto cultivars. This means that it’s not going out of its way to informatively label packaging; you’re not going to find ‘Burpee by Monsanto’ labels, but the fact is that many cultivars carried by Burpee are now provided by Monsanto. The Seminis catalogue is a good place to start when it comes to finding out whether a cultivar is Monsanto-safe (if it’s in the catalogue, it’s not), and many gardeners are compiling detailed listings to help people find out which plants they can and can’t grow.
This speaks to larger problems with the food system. Monsanto’s stranglehold on the supply of seeds is a cause for serious concern, especially since the number of cultivars in common production is declining. Relying on a shrinking supply of seeds and cultivars is a recipe for disaster in the event of plant disease, because massive swaths of crops could be wiped out. This is one reason we have seed banks and organisations like the Seed Savers Exchange, but they alone can’t save us; we need to break up the dominance of a single corporation in the industry before it’s too late.
When I wrote recently about resource scarcity and the new horror, this was precisely the kind of situation I was talking about, one where a single company’s control over a critically needed resource could become deadly. Monsanto gets to decide what is released and when, how it should be priced, and which chemicals should be used with it. It controls how farmers grow it, and has deep pockets to go after farmers, gardeners, and charitable organisations that might be growing its crops. Allowing it to have a monopoly is something that will be devastating in the future, even if people can’t recognise that now; this much power concentrated in the hands of only one company may seem like something out of science fiction, but Monsanto is already here.
Food activists have been raising concerns about Monsanto for years, and it’s time for those concerns to be much more widely aired. Even people who don’t have gardens should be worried about the encroachment into the home seed market, which speaks of a driving desire to make it impossible to grow anything without going through Monsanto, which sets us up for very dangerous precedents. You wouldn’t want to rely on a single source of any resource, let alone one as critical as food.