Last week President Obama held a town hall meeting on the grounds of Iowa’s Seed Savers Exchange, an organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds.
The stop was part of a larger strategy to appeal to rural voters as the campaign season begins. The president spoke about job creation and the gridlock on Capitol Hill, both issues of concern, to be sure.
But what would have really resonated with rural America is a re-commitment to working toward fairness in our farm fields.
The President should know that growing economic opportunities in rural America will take confronting the concentrated market power (and thus political and legislative power) in several agricultural industries. It will take fulfilling a campaign promise to fight for family farmers and ranchers by ensuring fair and transparent markets.
The President couldn’t have picked a better spot to make this point. His venue, Seed Savers Exchange, is home to a trove of genetically diverse seed. It is the perfect counterpoint to the alarming extent to which ownership of this vital resource is privatized and concentrated. The top three firms, for example, account for more than 75 percent of U.S. corn seed sales.
Monsanto is the largest seed company in the world, receiving royalties from nearly every acre of corn, soybeans, and cotton planted in the U.S. It also has a hand in much of the vegetable and sugar beet seed supply. Indeed, this level of control over our plant genetic resources and the narrowing of diversity makes the mission of groups like Seed Savers Exchange so much more important.
Confronting concentration in the seed business is paramount for the success of farmers, especially new farmers and businesses seeking to cultivate a niche in agriculture. But just as seeds as an organism are complex, so is untangling the roots of seed concentration.
And this gets us back to President Obama’s missed opportunity at Seed Savers Exchange.
President Obama’s administration initially signaled a willingness to tackle the problem of monopoly in the seed business. His Justice and Agriculture departments held workshops last year on all aspects of agricultural competition.
These hearings were unprecedented. Farmers, ranchers, farm advocacy organizations, small businesses, and consumers were encouraged that the agencies were investigating consolidation in the seed, livestock, dairy, poultry, and food retail industries.
“We’ve waited a long time for justice in the heartland,” said Missouri state senator and farmer Wes Shoemyer at the first Justice/Agriculture workshop in Ankeney, Iowa, which focused in part on problems in the seed industry.
But the hope was short-lived. There is no indication that either agency is furthering these investigations or taking meaningful action on outcomes of the investigations. The agencies don’t even seem inclined to publish a report in response to the thousands of public comments personally delivered at the 2010 workshops.
And then the President appears at Seed Savers Exchange to talk about the rural economy and doesn’t mention seeds or any of the other issues brought up in his own administration’s workshops.
It would behoove the President to look at the comments received at these workshops before he talks about the rural economy. Tucked within the thousands of comments the agencies received are both evidence of the problems in the seed industry and reasonable solutions.
Take Eric Nelson, a fourth generation grain and cattle producer from Iowa who spoke on a panel in Ankeney. He explained, “I’ve seen pricing schemes using free seed that generally benefit the very large farmer at the expense of the small farmer.”
And then there’s Fred Bower, a farmer and seed dealer in Minnesota. When he started farming 34 years ago, there were fifty seed companies. And now he chooses from four. “We are not being treated properly as far as price,” he said.
“Customers will think that they’re making choices from different companies,” Nelson added, “when, in fact, they’ve purchased the same product in a different bag from different companies, but it’s identical product.”
Todd Leake of North Dakota agreed. A soybean farmer for 30 years, Leake said he chose from a hundred different conventional (non-GMO) soybean varieties less than a decade ago. Today, he can choose from only a handful of non-GMO soybean varieties, as research and breeding are focused on patented GMO varieties that farmers cannot legally save.
“I am therefore forced as a farmer to have to go to the seed companies – these few seed companies that are left – to purchase my seed,” Leake said. “So it’s a combination of the utility patents and the consolidation of the seed industry, which has entrapped me as a farmer into having to utilize the GMO seed varieties.”
“So how do we fix the industry?” Nelson asked. “I say we disallow any monopolies and the anticompetitive activities that come with them…I think we have to re-examine the safety and wisdom of granting long-term patents on living things.”
Indeed, even the assistant attorney general for the DOJ’s Antitrust Division, Christine Varney, who has since left Justice, highlighted the problem of patents in her opening remarks: “You know, patents have in the past been used to maintain or extend monopolies, and that’s illegal, and you can be sure, Secretary, that we are going to be looking very closely at any attempt to maintain or extend a monopoly through an abuse of patent laws.”
Such abuse of patent law has come in a variety of forms. Nelson said he’s witnessed the misuse of confidential GMO seed contracts, aggressively enforced through patent rights.
Indiana farmer David Runyon took to the microphone to recount his experience of being wrongfully pursued by Monsanto for alleged patent infringement. It turned out his conventional varieties of soybeans were contaminated by GMO material. He laid out the need to transfer liability to the patent holder in such events so that farmers aren’t pitted against each other.
“In my case whom do I sue but my neighboring farmers?” Runyon asked. “Because they are taking the liability when they sign that contract. And that’s wrong. That’s why it should go back to [the] patent holder.”
Woven within many comments was a plea for USDA to protect genetic diversity in seeds and breeds, and to keep germplasm public and accessible to our public land grant universities.
“The crops that we grow are the basis of our civilization,” Todd Leake said. “If anything belongs in the public domain it is the crops we grow for food.”
Fred Kirschenmann operates an organic farm in North Dakota and also serves as a distinguished fellow at the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture. He told the Obama administration officials, “We have lost about three-fourths of our crop seed stock — that is the varieties of seeds that farmers have had available — and about 30 percent of our livestock breeds, and as we move into a more uncertain future with more uncertain climates…we’re going to need more diversity, not less, that are going to be locally adapted to these local conditions.”
Kirschenmann and others also pointed out that the future of our food supply relies on bringing young people into agriculture, which means ensuring they have a fair fighting chance at a profit.
“I believe our government has an obligation written in law not to pick winners and losers but to act as a referee and ensure the laws and regulations dealing with anticompetitive practices are enforced,” Nelson said.
These farmers’ messages were loud and clear, but they appear to have fallen on deaf ears. There has been no action (or even a peep) out of the Department of Justice. And President Obama didn’t mention his administration’s two-year investigation into the seed business when he spoke at the front door of an independent seed company.
In the coming months, let’s hope the Obama administration does more than pander to rural America. Instead, he should confront the corporate power that triggered the investigations his administration began two years ago. It’s time for the administration to honor hardworking American farmers and ranchers. They’re still waiting for justice in the heartland.