For years families have sat down together on cold February nights to pore over the Burpee Seed catalog and make plans for their summer gardens. The less ambitious gardeners among us have usually waited to be sure warm weather was really coming before heading down to the local hardware store or garden center to examine the Ferry-Morse or Northrup King seed rack. Either way, we would scarcely have guessed that these seed companies were anything but independent, old family businesses — the company names are so familiar and reassuring. Recently, however, seed companies have become attractive targets for corporate take-overs, especially by big chemical and drug firms. Purex Ltd. now owns Ferry-Morse Seed Co. Sandoz Inc. has acquired Northrup King. And Burpee is a subsidiary of General Foods, makers of Jell-O, Maxwell House Coffee, Bird’s Eye Foods and Gravy Train dog food.

In barely a hundred years, the U.S. seed business has undergone remarkable transformations. Not so long ago, farmers and city gardeners alike saved the seeds from their best plants for use the following year. Small family-run seed businesses grew out of these efforts but were quickly dwarfed by a number of large, national seed companies that came to dominate certain areas of the business. Half of the hybrid corn seed, for example, is supplied by just two firms — Pioneer and DeKalb.1 ACCO, Coker, Stoneville, and Delta and Pineland dominate cotton seed sales.2

Now many seed companies are being bought by multinational corporations. Twenty or more seed companies have sold out in recent years and there are at least six serious merger negotiations underway at this time.3

The $3.5 billion seed industry4 with its profit rate of over 15%5 is an attractive one to parent multinational corporations. It is a business that “lends itself to worldwide commercialization,” according to an industry expert.6 With the emergence of agriculture as “big business” all around the globe, the future of seed marketing would seem bright indeed. But internationalization of the seed business (and modern agriculture in general) is beginning to cause concern in many quarters.

Something New Is Something Different

In 1943, the Rockefeller Foundation launched a new era in seed breeding by establishing a center in Mexico for research into high yielding varieties of wheat and corn. After much cross-breeding and selection, such varieties were developed in their test fields and greenhouses. These new plants, and the ones that followed, differed in three important aspects from traditional varieties:

  1. The extra-high yield resulted from and was dependent on the plants’ ability to respond to more fertilizers and water — and the farmers’ ability to pay for these.
  2. High yielding varieties of many crops are “hybrids,” i.e., the offspring of two distinct varieties. Generally hybrids either cannot reproduce or their offspring are of very poor quality. Thus, farmers using hybrid seed cannot save their seed — they must buy new seed each year. Though high yielding non-sterile varieties could be developed, the seed companies have little incentive to do so.
  3. The new varieties are extremely limited genetically because of the intense inbreeding necessary to fix certain qualities found in the plants.7
Why Should This Concern Us?

Many of the new “miracle” seeds can be used in poor countries only by rich farmers, because only they can afford the seeds as well as the fertilizers, pesticides and irrigation equipment necessary to make them work. Therefore, although the new seeds might offer increased yields, their bounty has not benefitted the poor who need it the most. In fact, poor farmers unable to use the new technology have found it increasingly difficult to compete with the big farmers and have gone out of business. In many areas of the world, this has literally meant starvation for the peasant. Ironically, many areas where food crop yields have grown the fastest have the fastest growing malnutrition rates.8 Meanwhile, large landholdings devoted to the new seeds have grown even larger.

As the new seeds have spread across the world, they have replaced the old, traditional seeds. Where thousands of varieties of wheat once grew, only a few can now be seen. Herein lies the danger. Each variety of corn, for example, is genetically distinct from all other varieties. It contains genetic “material” not found in other species. If, because of genetic limitations, which result from inbreeding, new varieties are no longer resistant to certain insects or diseases (conceivably even insects or diseases never before known to attack corn), then real catastrophe could strike. And this is precisely what happened in 1970 when the corn blight struck the South, where farmers had planted their fields with a variety of corn defenseless against that disease. You may remember the Dutch elm disease, which is another recent example of this phenomenon. And there are more.9

When plant varieties are lost, their genetic material is lost — and lost forever. Without existing seeds which carry specific genes conferring resistance, it may not be possible in the future to breed resistance back into corn or any other crop. If this capacity of corn or wheat were lost and a new disease or pest were to attack, we would have only our chemicals and good luck to depend on. As in the case of the Southern corn blight, this might not be of much help. An atom bomb could scarcely wreak so much havoc.10

As the following chart shows, U.S. agriculture is alarmingly vulnerable to catastrophic disease epidemics.

100%  of all the millet in North America is from 3 varieties of seed.
96% of all peas comes from 2 varieties of seed.
76% of all snap beans comes from 3 varieties of seed.
72% of the potatoes comes from 4 varieties of seed.
71% of the corn is from 6 varieties of seed.
69% of all the sweet potatoes comes from 1 variety of seed.
60% of all dry beans comes from 2 varieties of seed.
56% of the soybeans comes from 6 varieties of seed.
53% of the cotton comes from 3 varieties of seed.
50% of all wheat comes from 9 varieties of seed.

Potentially available varieties of most of these crops far exceed the number in use. In some cases literally thousands of varieties exist. To avoid losing the genes these plants carry, the genetic material on which present and future world food supplies totally depend:

  1. A more concerted effort must be made to collect and store the thousands of seed varieties that are being lost. The U.S. government agency assigned this task did not receive a budget increase in its first 15 years of existence.11 Its collection is inadequate at best. One expert asserted, “If you are willing to entrust the fate of mankind to these collections you are living in a fool’s paradise.”12
  2. Seed development must not be concentrated in a few corporate hands. Corporations whose main line of business is fertilizer and pesticide production may have no economic interests in breeding disease- and pest-resistant plants or in preserving the genetic material that makes resistance possible.
  3. The government should require seed companies and other agribusiness companies to file environmental impact statements when their exports to other parts of the world might threaten the existence of old, traditional varieties of crops.
  4. You should encourage your grocer to stock different varieties of fruits and vegetables. Blackberries, loganberries, gooseberries, and other foods have nearly disappeared. Though in no danger of extinction, many varieties of apples — the Grimes Golden, the Pippin, the Cortland, the Baldwin and others — are no longer to be found in the stores. A whole generation is growing up thinking that Delicious and Winesap are the only apples around.

Recent Seed Company Takeovers
Acquiring Company Seed Company
Anderson Clayton Co. (ACCO) Paymaster Farms
Tomco-Genetic Giant
Cargill PAG
Dorman Seed Co.
Celanese Corp. Cepril Inc.
Moran Seeds, Inc.
Central Soya O’s Gold Seed Co.
Ciba-Geigy Funk Seeds Int’l
Diamond Shamrock Taylor-Evans Seed Co.
FMC Corp. Seed Research Assoc.
Garden Products Gurney Seeds
General Foods W. Atlee Burpee Co.
Int’l Multifoods Lynk Bros.
Baird Inc.
ITT O. M. Scott & Sons
Kent Feed Co. L. Teweles Seed Co.
Monsanto Farmers’ Hybrid Co.
NAPB (Olin & Royal Dutch Shell) Agripro, Inc.
Pfizer Trojan Seed Co.
Clemens Seed Farms
Jordan Wholesale Co.
Purex Ferry-Morse Seed Co.
Hulting Hybrids
Rorer-Amchem Jacques Seed Co.
Sandoz, Inc. Northrup, King
Rogers Bros.
Tate & Lyle Berger & Plate
Tejon Ranch Co. Waterman-Loomis Co.
Union Carbide Keystone Seed Co.
Upjohn Asgrow Seed Co.

Compiled by the Agricultural Resources Center

Some families are still handing down flower or vegetable seeds that have been in the family for generations. This won’t solve the problems of loss of genetic material, but it is a fine tradition linking us in an important way to our “roots.” If this is not one of your family’s traditions, why not make it one?

— Cary was assisted by Sara Fowler and Alice Ammerman.

  1. Eat Your Heart Out: How Food Profiteers Victimize the Consumer, by Jim Hightower. Crown Publishers, NY: 1975. p. 140.
  2. “Seed Monopoly,” by Bettina Conner. The Elements, February 1975. p. 7.
  3. “The Marketplace: Trends in Agribusiness,” by Daryl Natz. Feedstuffs: The Weekly Newspaper for Agribusiness, February 7, 1977. p. 10.
  4. “Some Plain Talk About Seed Company Mergers and Acquisitions,” Address by L. William Teweles to the 22nd Annual Farm Seed Conference of the American Seed Trade Assoc. Kansas City, Missouri, November 16, 1976. p. 3.
  5. Conner, p. 7.
  6. Ibid., p. 6.
  7. See Food First: Beyond the Myth of Scarcity, by Frances Lappé and Joseph Collins with Cary Fowler. Houghton Mifflin, 1977. Part V.
  8. See Poverty and Landlessness in Rural Asia, edited by Keith Griffin and Azizur Rahman Khan. International Labour Organization, Geneva, 1976. See also, “The Social and Economic Implications of the Large-Scale Introduction of New Varieties of Food Grains,” by Cynthia Hewitt de Alcantara. UN Development Program/UN Research Institute for Social Development, 1974.
  9. “Genetics of Disaster,” by Jack R. Harlan. Journal of Environmental Quality, Vol 1, No. 2, 1972. p. 213.
  10. Ibid., p. 212.
  11. “Our Vanishing Genetic Resources,” by Jack R. Harlan. Science, Vol. 188, May 9, 1975. p. 620.
  12. Harlan, “Genetics of Disaster,” p. 214.