close up green wheat

Down on the farm there is simultaneously an explosion of weeds and a retraction of seeds, a waxing and a waning, the yin and yang of Big Ag. These concurrent phenomena are (not coincidentally) caused by the same companies who are striving to control and harness agriculture. They hope to force every last bushel of productivity out of every single acre, achieving yields well beyond those imagined even a few years ago. These companies laid down their financial roots producing toxic chemicals. In days gone by they brought chemical warfare into the fields of battle. Now the battle is being fought in the fields of our farms. Corn fields, soy fields, cotton fields, are all now battle fields, where weeds run rampant and seeds are at a premium. How is it that the proliferation of weeds and the demise of our seeds are entwined? This story begins thousands of years ago…

Innovations in agriculture developed some 12,000 years ago, taking root in the Fertile Crescent in Asia. Neolithic peoples slowly began transitioning from wild harvesting and began planting wheat, barley, figs, and peas. They harnessed the waters developing irrigation, they discovered soil amendments that gave them larger yields, and most notably they saved the seeds of the juiciest, sweetest, and healthiest plants to plant the next year and the year after that.

This arrangement served us well as a species: civilizations sprang forth, we built pyramids, sailed ships, and set about populating the globe. Everywhere our ancient ancestors went they brought their seeds, shared them with others, and replanted only the best. Seed sharing was common and seed saving was inherent to the survival of our species. In fact, one of the first written pieces of law, “The Code of Hammurabi,” had specifications on how to pollinate crops and improve the next generation of seeds.

In 1883 private seed companies began lobbying to end public seed distribution. By the year 1924, public seed distribution had vanished. Usher in the technologies from WW II and plant breeding took a new turn to increase harvest and withstand agricultural chemicals. In the 1990s the Supreme Court deemed that seeds and plants could be patented, which prevented farmers from saving them and researchers from studying them. Back in the 1960s more than 60% of soybean farmers in the US saved and replanted their seeds. They had rights and securities on next year’s crop. Today, less than 10% of our soybean farmers save their seeds.

The plot thickened as large pharmaceutical companies began buying up independent seed companies and research dollars for public plant breeding were slashed.

Now just five companies control 60% of the global seed market. Four of them control 50% of the world’s proprietary genetics. 

If you want to learn more, read “The greatest story never told” at it’s a good one!

Most of the seeds being developed and patented are genetically altered to withstand heavy applications of pesticides and herbicides in the fields. It is no coincidence that the very patent holders of the seeds are the same actors who make and sell the chemicals being applied. This onslaught of chemicals worked for a few decades, but as we know, time marches on and nature learns how to evolve rather quickly. Those pervasive weeds evolved to withstand chemical applications and to thrive despite even heavier concentrations. The era of superweeds came with no warning.

The U.S. Department of Agriculture now says that “70 million acres of U.S. farmland had herbicide resistant weeds in 2013.” Farmers are spraying more herbicides but they are clearly losing the battle. Reuters reported that “Resistance to glyphosate, the main ingredient in the widely used Roundup herbicide, has reached the point that row crop farmers in the Midwest are struggling to contain an array of weeds…” Mark Buchanan, of Bloomberg View, commented that “The relentless pursuit of efficiency has repercussions that humans are only beginning to understand. The myopic focus on certain crops means that many farmers and businesses see no option but to use increasingly powerful and more toxic chemicals, causing the depletion of bee and bird populations.”

This battle of the super weeds stemming from the loss of our seeds is being fought all over the globe. Many countries ban planting of biotech crops or have strict labeling requirements. Despite this, many native peoples all over the world are being force fed GM seeds to supersede their native bio-genetics and cultural seed heritage.

A WikiLeaks cable revealed that in late 2007, the United States ambassador to France requested that the European Union, along with particular nations that did not support GMO crops, be specially penalized.

Reports in the Foreign Policy Journal highlight that the United States will withhold approximately $277 million in aid, unless El Salvador purchases genetically-modified seeds from biotech giant Monsanto! El Salvador banned glyphosate and other chemicals in September 2013 because they posed serious toxicity concerns.

Western Africa is also being targeted by Monsanto as the residence of their next seed takeover, with superweeds to follow. From Tanzania to Zimbabwe and Ghana the war is on to control seeds and start the vicious chemical cycle. There is a bill pending in the Ghana Parliament called Plant Breeders’ Bill which, if passed, would take away farmers’ rights to use, sell, save, and exchange farm-saved seeds. The people of Africa want to protect their traditional knowledge and protect their genetic biodiversity.

Visit and to learn more about their freedom fight. 

There are ways we can support seed biodiversity here at home. Organizations doing good work to preserve our seed biodiversity include The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association, which seeks to maintain seed purity. They are developing an online digital resource library for the organic seed community. The Organic Seed Alliance is committed to advancing the ethical development and stewardship of the genetic resources of agricultural seed. They hosted the 2014 organic producer seed survey, conducted every five years to monitor organic seed availability and use, challenges in sourcing organic seed, and organic plant breeding needs.

I am proud that the UNFI Foundation supports these and many more organizations that seek to protect our genetic legacy through native biodiversity. Let’s keep the superweeds at bay and assure our community of seeds stay.

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About The Author

Melody Meyer's picture

Melody is the Vice President of Policy and Industry Relations for United Natural Foods (UNFI). In this role she is responsible for communicating and educating all stakeholders on critical organic issues. Her Blog covers a range of organic and sustainable food issues.

She is the executive director of the UNFI Foundation which is dedicated to funding non-profit organizations that promote organic agriculture Melody serves as Secretary of the Board of Directors for the Organic Trade Association

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