Who controls our seeds? Mark Schapiro wants to know. Schapiro is an investigative reporter and lecturer at the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism specializing in food and the environment. In his new book, Seeds of Resistance: the Fight to Save Our Food Supply (Skyhorse Publishing), he documents how just three chemical companies control more than half of all commercially available seeds globally. But Seeds of Resistance is not another woebegone tale of runaway capitalism and environmental loss.
“When I told people I was writing a book on seeds, they’d go, ‘Oh, you’re writing a book on Monsanto.’ And I’d say, ‘No, actually, it’s a book on seeds,’” said Schapiro.
Schapiro’s interest in the subject came from early work investigating the southern leaf corn blight of 1970, when a fungal epidemic destroyed 15% of the corn crop in North America. Because the majority of the U.S. corn crop goes towards animal feed, most Americans were unaware of the devastation, noting a slight uptick in the price of meat if they noticed at all. But for affected farms, the damage was catastrophic, totaling $1 billion in losses.
“People [were] losing their corn crop because all of the seeds were exactly the same — the same in Iowa as they were in North Carolina and as they were across the country,” said Schapiro. Nearly 85% of the crop planted that year was the same variety of corn. “The 1970 corn blight was the first time that Americans were alerted to the destructive impacts of deliberate crop uniformity.”
Shortly thereafter, Schapiro pursued a story on the National Center for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado. The facility is a combination Noah’s Ark and Fort Knox of seed preservation, housing more than 850,000 samples of genetic material for all crops important to U.S. agriculture in a vault capable of withstanding floods, tornados and “the dropping of a 2,500-pound object traveling at 125 miles per hour.” If there were a variety of blight-resistant corn somewhere on earth, it would be found there.
“So, on the one hand, there were farmers grappling with the loss of their crop because there was seed uniformity, genetic uniformity,” he said, “and on the other side the preservation of the diversity of seed. It was the first couple big stories that I did, and I’ve never forgotten it.”
Throughout Seeds of Resistance, Schapiro frequently equates seeds with power, detailing how national policies have come to favor monocultures, genetic uniformity and what’s referred to as “fencepost-to-fencepost” agriculture, or saturating every available growing space so as to maximize commodity output — the very same socioeconomic conditions that led to the corn blight of 1970.
Yet Schapiro makes a point to sympathize with farmers on the receiving end of these policies. He interviews the McLeans, an Iowa family who farms by conventional means because the combination (monocrops, GMOs, chemical pesticides) “reduces uncertainties in an already volatile profession.” He then contrasts the McLeans with organic farmer Tom Erhardson, who tries to keep his crop GMO-free in compliance with USDA organic regulations, but is financially punished for a 2% genetic contamination of his crop owing to cross-pollination from a neighbor’s fields. Because the European Union bans import of GMO commodities, Erhardson was shut out of the export market and saw the value of his crop slashed by more than 50%. The USDA’s response to farmers who see their crops financially ruined due to actions beyond their control is more or less “sort it amongst yourselves.”
“The main beneficiaries are not the American farmer as one might imagine the American farmer to be,” said Schapiro. “Commodity companies like ADM and Cargill and Bunge and a few others have an interest in as low a cost as possible for their commodities. And that’s a very important thing to remember because that means every farmer who sells into that system is under super intense pressure to create very, very low-cost commodities.”
Given this cabal of market forces, government policy, commodity companies and chemical giants, readers may be left wondering what hope remains for farmers and consumers vested in preserving an independent future of food production, or at the very least avoiding a repeat of the 1970 corn blight.
Schapiro does offer a message of hope, albeit a mixed one. There is a “resistance” in Seeds of Resistance, through the work of seed banks, seed researchers, organic farmers and larger market forces. Schapiro said farmers who made the switch to organic saw comparable yields from when they farmed by conventional methods, with the caveat that organic requires roughly 25% more labor. However, the increased labor is offset by the decrease in chemical costs and the increased value of their product.
Consumers are willing to pay more for food they can feel good about. A 2017 survey by the Organic Trade Association found that organic food represents a $49.4 billion domestic industry, and puts market growth at six times that rate for conventionally grown foods. During a time when many conventional farmers are seeing the market value of their yields reduced by tariffs, the USDA records that the total number of certified organic farms is on the increase, having doubled since 2006.
However, the total amount of acreage under organic cultivation still represents less than 1% of all farmland. Not to mention the current administration has reversed many Obama-era restrictions on the use and labelling of GMOs and has come down in favor of Monsanto by determining controversial pesticide glyphosate as safe for human use. To further muddy the waters, Schapiro ends Seeds of Resistance with the same question with which he begins: who controls our seeds?
“I did that deliberately,” he said. “This is still very much a matter that can be determined by people, by us, by the public.”
“We’ve allowed a chemical company that makes GMOs to hijack the whole idea of seeds and we’ve got to get that back. Seeds are the legacy of life on earth.”