by Megan Westgate, executive director of the Non-GMO Project, and Courtney Pineau, assistant director of the Non-GMO Project
We all know humans beings need food to survive. And it may be equally obvious we need seeds in order to have food. But how much time do any of us spend thinking about what that really means? The sum equation of these two facts is: seeds = human survival. Most of us are pretty disconnected from the realities of their production, but that doesn’t make seeds any less relevant to our existence and our future.
For as along as we have had agriculture, people have been saving seeds. This has allowed us to amass an incredible biodiversity of seeds. Over many growing seasons we have developed, shared, and saved the seeds that have grown the tastiest foods, have been the hardiest, and have had cultural, historical, and nutritional significance. As a result, in India alone there are more than 100,000 varieties of rice!
But our 12,000-year-old seed-saving heritage has come under attack in recent decades. Currently, six multinational companies own approximately 60 percent of the commercial seed market. Key players include the world’s largest biotechnology companies, which are buying up traditional seed companies in an effort to control the industry and give preference to genetically engineered seeds and crops.
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are plants or animals created through the process of genetic engineering. This experimental technology forces DNA from one species into a different species. The resulting GMOs are unstable combinations of plant, animal, bacterial, and viral genes that cannot occur in nature or through traditional breeding.
Because GMOs are considered novel life forms, biotechnology companies have been able to obtain patents with which they can restrict their use. Farmers who plant these GMO seeds are then contractually bound not to save seed for future plantings, thereby making the farmers beholden to the corporation that owns the seed for their future harvests.
The most common GMO trait, comprising about 80 percent of global GMO production, is herbicide tolerance. Herbicide-tolerant seeds grow into plants that can survive direct spraying with toxic pesticides. Coincidentally (or not!), the same companies that make these herbicide-tolerant seeds also make the herbicides to spray on them. It’s a fantastic business model for the companies—no wonder they want farmers to only grow GMO seeds!
But there’s a hitch: GMOs and the accompanying chemical inputs are expensive for farmers, and they pose risks to consumers and to the environment. So, how to take over the seed market in spite of these facts? To the biotech multinationals, the answer was obvious: buy up the seed companies and give farmers fewer choices.
Perhaps the most insidious ploy within this model is to take desirable traits developed through traditional breeding and make them available only in combination with a genetically engineered trait. This means if farmers want access to important advances being made in conventional seed breeding, they have to sign restrictive licensing agreements and sign up for the chemical treadmill that accompanies GMOs.
How does all of this affect you? The biodiversity of our seed supply is critical in building resilience to a changing climate, protecting our cultural heritage, and ensuring that our agricultural systems are sustainable. As these companies develop more varieties of patentable genetically engineered seeds and purchase more of the world’s seed companies, they’re creating a global seed monopoly that threatens the future of the planet’s seed supply. And remember: seeds = human survival.
The good news? We all have the ability to make choices every day that help support a thriving and diverse food system. From the food we purchase and eat to the seeds we plant in our gardens, we can ensure our hard-earned dollars are supporting a future that serves the interests of our global community.
The next chance you get, we encourage you to hold a seed in your hands. Seeds are all around us—in our food, on trees, scattered in the air, and covering the ground. Remind yourself of how incredible it is that something so small can be the source of so much life. Simple choices you make each day can help protect the future of this vital and precious resource.
Here are some things you can do to help protect the future of our global seed supply:
- Support healthy and sustainable agriculture by purchasing foods that are grown from non-GMO seeds. To find non-GMO food choices, visit the Non-GMO Project website.
- Plant an organic garden with seeds purchased from an independent seed company. To find seed companies committed to not selling genetically engineered seeds, check out the list of signers for the Safe Seed Pledge.
- Save and share your seeds! Learn how here.
- Sign the Declaration on Seed Freedom and learn more about the Seed Freedom Movement.
- Educate yourself further about our amazing seed heritage. The Seed Matters homepage has a beautiful interactive
Megan Westgate is the Executive Director of the Non-GMO Project, which offers North America’s only third-party verification for products produced according to rigorous best practices for GMO avoidance. In recent years, this mission-driven organization has begun profoundly impacting the food supply in the US and Canada. Megan grew up in the rolling hills and abundant farmland of Western Massachusetts and now lives on a 5-acre homestead in Bellingham, WA. Her life’s work is to support connection and access to sustainable, nourishing food.
Courtney Pineau is the Assistant Director of the Non-GMO Project. From the time she was a young child, Courtney’s two favorite places to play and explore have been the kitchen and the garden. Her passion for growing food and nourishing the people she loves has inspired her ongoing commitment to ensuring that all people have access to safe and healthy food.