Saving Nation’s Seed Supply

  • Multinational corporations started taking control of seeds around thirty years ago. Now, ten corporations own over half the world’s commodity seed supply. (Photo by Scott Bauer, courtesy of the USDA Agricultural Research Service)

Some small gardening businesses
are noticing more customers want organic
and heirloom seeds. Experts think that
trend might be important for the world.
Kinna Ohman reports they believe
those seeds might be the hope of future
food supplies:

Transcript

Some small gardening businesses
are noticing more customers want organic
and heirloom seeds. Experts think that
trend might be important for the world.
Kinna Ohman reports they believe
those seeds might be the hope of future
food supplies:

John Meshna points to a half empty rack of vegetable and flower seed packets in his
store.

“We’ve emptied this thing at least a half a dozen times this year. I thought maybe
we’d have a rush in the spring and that’d be the end of it. And it looks like it’s
going to be going through the winter.”

Meshna owns and runs DirtWorks – a green garden supply business in New Haven,
Vermont. He’s been selling organic and heirloom garden seeds for more than twenty
years. Heirloom seeds come from vegetables that have almost disappeared. And Meshna
thinks people want those types of seeds more and more because they’re worried about our
food supply.

“People call us just to make sure sometimes before they order, now, ‘these are really
organic seeds, right?’ Yeah, it says it right on the label. It’s gonna make you very
happy when you get that package.”

And it’s making certain experts happy too.

Hope Shand is the research director of Etcetera Group. It’s an organization that’s
concerned about corporate control of the food supply. Shand says when more home
gardeners and small farmers grow plants from organic and heirloom seeds, that helps
keep variety in the world’s food supply.

“This is an incredibly important service. People, gardeners, small farmers, urban
gardeners, are conserving, and saving seed diversity. No one else is really doing that
job.”

Hope Shand says multinational corporations started taking control of seeds around thirty
years ago. Now, Shand says, ten corporations own over half the world’s commodity seed
supply. And she thinks that’s risky.

“The seed is the first link in the food chain. Whoever controls the seed literally
controls the world’s food supply. We can’t afford to have the level of vulnerability
and dependence that that entails when we have a handful of multinational seed
companies controlling the world seed supply.”

(sound of watering)

“I’m growing greens without heat.”

At a small organic nursery in Hinesberg, Vermont, Julie Rubaud is one of those who
wants to get these seeds and plants to more people. For her, it’s not just preserving a
strain of a vegetable, it’s trying to match up those plants with the right gardener.

Rubaud grows close to eight hundred varieties of organic and heirloom plants for her
customers. She says that helps her connect people with the right plants for their gardens
and tastebuds.

“I always start out asking, ‘how much room do you have?’ And then I ask them
how they like to eat tomatoes. It’s nice to be able to cater everyone’s garden plan to
their individual needs because we have so many varieties.”

And if next year’s anything like last year, Rubaud will have at least forty varieties of
organic tomato plants ready for new gardens by next spring.

She wonders – with the economy the way it’s been – if one plant might do exceptionally
well.

“There’s Radiator Charlie’s Mortgage Lifter Tomatoes. Have you heard of that
one?” (laughs)

Radiator Charlie’s tomato has been around since the 1940s. You probably won’t find it
at the big-box discount-store gardening department. It’s one of those colorful, hardy,
productive plants that many people think will help bring back variety to our food supply.

For The Environment Report, I’m Kinna Ohman.

Related Links

Legislation Dividing Organic, Biotech Farmers

  • Organic farms are concerned about nearby farms that produce genetically modified crops. They fear that the genetically modified crops will cross with and alter the genes of their own crops. (Photo by Rene Cerney)

The nation’s agricultural seed companies are fighting local restrictions on their genetically engineered products. They say it’s the federal government’s job to regulate food safety. But critics say federal agencies aren’t doing a good job of testing genetically modified food for safety. They’re backing the right of local governments to regulate genetically engineered crops themselves. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Sarah Hulett reports:

Transcript

The nation’s agricultural seed companies are fighting local restrictions on
their genetically engineered products. They say it’s the federal
government’s job to regulate food safety, but critics say federal agencies
aren’t doing a good job of testing genetically modified food for safety.
They’re backing the right of local governments to regulate genetically
engineered crops themselves. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s
Sarah Hulett reports:


Genetically engineered crops are created when genes from other plants,
animals or bacteria are used to alter their DNA.


Critics call them “Franken-foods,” and two years ago, three California
counties banned farmers from growing genetically altered crops. That
alarmed the agribusiness industry, and now it’s fighting to keep that from
happening elsewhere.


So far, the industry successfully lobbied 14 states to pass laws preventing
their local governments from putting restrictions on engineered crops.
Four other states are considering similar measures.


Jim Byrum is with the Michigan Agri-Business Association.


“Frankly, it’s pretty frustrating for us to look at some of the rumors that
are floating around about what happens with new technology. It’s
reduced pesticide use; it’s reduced producer expense in production. It’s
done all sorts of things.”


Genetically engineered seeds are created in the laboratories of big seed
companies like Monsanto and DuPont. The modified plants can produce
higher-yield crops that make their own insecticides, or tolerate crop-
killing problems such as drought or viruses.


Proponents of the technology say genetically altered crops have the
potential to feed the world more efficiently, and they say it’s better for
the environment. That’s because the crops can be grown with fewer
polluting pesticides, but critics say not enough is known yet about
engineered crops’ long-term ecological impact, or on the health of
people who eat them.


(Sound of farm)


Michelle Lutz is among the skeptics. She and her husband run an 80-
acre organic farm north of Detroit. She’s watching about a dozen head of
the beef cattle she’s raising. They’re feeding on cobs of organic corn
grown several yards away.


“I’m surrounded by conventional farmers. The farmers right over here to
my east – they’re good people, and I don’t think they would intentionally
do anything to jeopardize me, but they are growing genetically modified
corn.”


Lutz worries that pollen from genetically modified corn from those
nearby fields could make its way to her corn plants – and contaminate
her crop by cross-breeding with it. Lutz says people buy produce from
her farm because they trust that it’s free from pesticides, because it’s
locally grown, and because it has not been genetically altered. She says
she shares her customers’ concerns about the safety of engineered foods.


Lutz says letting local governments create zones that don’t allow
genetically engineered crops would protect organic crops from
contamination.


But Jim Byrum of the Michigan Agri-Business Association says no
township or county should be allowed to stop farmers from growing
genetically modified crops. He says every engineered seed variety that’s
on the market is extensively tested by federal agencies.


“Frankly, that evaluation system exists at the federal level. There’s
nothing like that at the state level, and there’s certainly nothing like that
at the local level. We want to have decisions on new technology, new
seed, based on science as opposed to emotion.”


Critics say the federal government’s evaluation of genetically modified
crops is not much more than a rubber stamp. The FDA does not approve
the safety of these crops. That’s just wrong.


Doug Gurian-Sherman is a former advisor on food biotechnology for the
Food and Drug Administration.


“It’s a very cursory process. At the end of it, FDA says we recognize that
you, the company, has assured us that this crop is safe, and remind you
that it’s your responsibility to make sure that’s the case, and the data is
massaged – highly massaged – by the company. They decide what tests
to do, they decide how to do the tests. It’s not a rigorous process.”


Gurian-Sherman says local governments obviously don’t have the
resources to do their own safety testing of engineered foods, but he says
state lawmakers should not allow the future of food to be dictated by
powerful seed companies. He says local governments should be able to
protect their growers and food buyers from the inadequacies of federal
oversight.


For the GLRC, I’m Sarah Hulett.

Related Links

New Gmo Grass to Get Federal Approval?

  • The quest for a perfectly manIcured lawn has driven some lawn care companies to create a grass resistant to weed killer. Some worry, however, that they've created an invasive species. (Photo by Philipp Pilz)

An environmental watchdog group is hoping to block federal approval of a new genetically modified type of grass. The group says the grass poses a threat to natural areas. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports:

Transcript

An environmental watchdog group is hoping to block fedral approval of a new genetically
modified type of grass. The group says the grass poses a threat to natural areas. The Great
Lakes Radio Consortium’s Erin Toner reports:


Two companies – Scotts and Monsanto – want the government’s approval to commercialize a type of
creeping bentgrass. The grass would mainly be planted on lawns and golf courses because it’s
resistant to Roundup, a popular weed killer. But critics of the bio-engineered grass say it
needs more testing. For one thing, they say, genes from the grass can spread and strengthen
non-native plants.


Joe Mendelson is with the International Center for Technology Assessment.


“The end result is you’re going to create a grass that is invasive, that will take over natural
areas like our grasslands and or forest areas, and we won’t be able to control it. That’s going
to have a very negative impact on a number of sensitive ecosystems.”


The U.S. Forest Service has also weighed in, saying the grass has the potential to have a
negative effect on all of the country’s grasslands and natural forests. Scotts has said the
bio-engineered grass poses no threat to natural areas.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Erin Toner.

Related Links

Cleanup of Toxic Sites in Limbo

Monsanto has agreed to clean up one contaminated site of hundreds that need to be cleaned up. The toxic site cleanups have been in limbo because of a recent bankruptcy. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Tom Weber explains:

Transcript

Monsanto has agreed to clean up one contaminated site of hundreds that need to be cleaned up.
The toxic site cleanups have been in limbo because of a recent bankruptcy. The Great Lakes
Radio Consortium’s Tom Weber reports:


Monsanto contaminated this one site in southern Illinois with dioxins, PCB’s and other toxic
chemicals for 40 years.


Legal questions arose because Monsanto created a company called Solutia in 1997. Solutia took
responsibility for Monsanto’s chemical clean ups. But Solutia went bankrupt last year. And it
refused to clean any of the 300 sites across the country while in bankruptcy.


Glenn Ruskin is a Solutia spokesman. He says Solutia can’t clean up the site, but Monsanto’s
decision to do so offers hope for people who live at the other sites.


“It just indicates that there are parties out there who are still in existence that are willing and able
to do that clean up.”


The matter is even more complex because much of Monsanto was bought by Pharmacia. Pfizer
then bought Pharmacia.


A bankruptcy judge will ultimately decide who has to clean which sites.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Tom Weber.

Related Links

Biotech Companies Agree to Regional Moratorium

Several biotech companies have agreed not to grow genetically modified crops in Corn Belt states, including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, parts of Kentucky, parts of Nebraska, and Minnesota. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston reports:

Transcript

Several biotech companies have agreed not to grow genetically modified crops in Corn
Belt states, including Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, parts of Kentucky, parts of
Nebraska, and Minnesota. The Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Natalie Walston reports:


Twelve biotech companies including Monsanto and Dow agreed to the moratorium. In
states where the corn might contaminate nearby fields planted with crops for human
consumption.


Lisa dry is with the Biotechnology Industry Organization in Washington, D.C.
She says the companies won’t grow corn and safflower used for medicines.


“This is pharmaceutical production, it is not agricultural or food production. We are
taking every single possible precaution to make sure that it stays in its intended use
channel and does not end up in the food or feed.”


Dry says commercial grocers, exporters, and food processors have been concerned about
the Starlink scandal of 2000, when genetically modified corn approved for animal feed
turned up in 300 varieties of taco shells, tostadas and chips. The biotech companies say
they will grow crops in non-traditional areas such as Hawaii, Arizona, and Puerto Rico.


For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Natalie Walston.