Student Organic Seed Symposium: An Address on Advocacy

Hubbard_headshot_thumbnail_finalMy name is Kristina Hubbard, and for those of you who aren’t familiar with Organic Seed Alliance, we are a national non-profit organization that advances the ethical development and stewardship of the genetic resources of agricultural seed. We accomplish our mission through research, education, and advocacy programs that closely engage organic farmers and other seed professionals.

Each year, OSA educates thousands of farmers and other agricultural community members, conducts professional organic plant breeding and seed production research on multiple crops, and advocates for national policies that strengthen organic seed systems. Our advocacy priorities focus on addressing the concentrated ownership of plant genetic resources, restrictive intellectual property practices, the genetic integrity of organic seed, and the need to reinvigorate public cultivar development. We also work to showcase the benefits of organic seed systems.

Now I am not a plant breeder, far from it, but I don’t have to understand the intricacies of the science to know that your decisions as plant breeders make a huge impact on people and the planet.

A lot of people ask me how I got into this work. The work of advocacy. The work of advocating for policies and positions that support the expansion and viability of organic seed systems, that support the management of seed as a public resource accessible to farmers and breeders, and ultimately that support food production and our environment in a way that builds health and doesn’t subtract from it.

Honestly when people ask me this question, my answer is different depending on which memory comes to mind first. As I was preparing these remarks I was looking at a bottle of Miller High Life in my office. The bottle is filled with corn.

I kept these kernals from a trip to Akron, Iowa, where I helped my friend, Katie, with the last harvest of her career. For 30 years she raised a lot of hogs and a lot of corn and soybeans. To me the corn in that bottle represents a form of collapse. See, my friend was getting out of a production system where sometimes she hoped her crop would fail because the insurance coverage brought a higher price than if the crop went to market. It seemed wrong, of course, but so did the remnants of sunken homes and barns littered along the horizon, what was left of a time when land was parceled smaller and more often farmed by the owner.

At dinner one night Katie’s father asked me if after graduate school I would go work for Archer Daniel Midland, since I was interested in agriculture. I said no, actually, I’m more interested in learning how companies like ADM have managed to control so much of agriculture. His wife said: that’s just the way it is.

At the age of 54, headed for bankruptcy, my friend was through with gambling on weather and crop returns and the newest hybrids. “I may be bankrupt,” she said. “But I feel free.”

At the time I didn’t understand the nuances of her situation or of farm policy. I still don’t fully understand farm policy. But I understood that the system wasn’t working and that she felt defeated. She felt discouraged. And she felt like she had no control or say in this system.

I had come to Iowa for a week shortly after leaving a job in Washington, DC, where I had spent the previous year talking to farmers about what essentially boils down to the social implications of agricultural biotechnology. Katie flew me to Akron to speak with farmers in her community face-to-face.

I had just researched and co-authored a report about farmers’ experiences being investigated and sometimes sued for illegally saving seed that was protected by patents. These stories painted a disturbing picture that seemed unique to the times: the largest seed company, whose technologies now claimed the majority of the nation’s major crop acreage, was aggressively pursuing its customers for using a product they had already purchased, for saving seed.

The most troubling theme that I discovered through these conversations was a culture of fear in rural communities targeted with these investigations, where farmers didn’t communicate with each other in the same way as they used to out of fear of being ratted out for saving seed. Times were changing. They didn’t share as much, be it seed or even advice.

I thought to myself, regardless of one’s position on plant biotechnology or patents, when seed divides communities, there’s a problem.

That was 10 years ago. And in that time I’ve been working to understand the forces that led to concentration, including the abuse of certain intellectual property practices, and how these practices and policies impact public research, farmers, and the communities they feed.

Many of you probably know that last year was the USDA’s 150th anniversary, as well as the establishment of our land grant university system through the Morrill Act, giving states a place in the plant sciences. From the beginning, one important role of our land grants has been to conduct research in areas that may not be attractive to private ventures.

Reading again about this history reminded me that in many ways these laws were about sowing seed. For example, by the end of the nineteenth century, a third of USDA’s budget was allocated for germplasm collection and distribution. The seed was distributed to farmers, and scientists also exchanged plant seed freely. We know this formed the foundation of progress in plant breeding. The important take-home here, I think, is not so much that the department was giving away free seed – it’s easy to understand that this practice was essential to expanding U.S. agriculture for the sake of prosperity and security – but the take-home I choose is that they were treating seed not so much as a commodity but as an essential natural resource best managed in the hands of many, not in the hands of few.

Fast forward 150 years to today and we see that a lot of our seed is no longer managed as a public resource but a highly concentrated and privatized market. This is especially true for major commodity crops. Farmers tell me that it’s increasingly difficult to find high-quality corn and soybean options without transgenic traits or aren’t governed by intellectual property restrictions. This isn’t surprising given that four major chemical and biotechnology firms command 86% retail market for corn. Two firms command about 66% of the corn retail market and about 62% soybean market. Economists say that an industry has lost its competitive character when the concentration ratio of the top four firms is 40% or more.

I probably don’t have to describe to this crowd how seed companies have rapidly consolidated in the last 40 years, absorbed by chemical and biotechnology firms with no previous interest in seed, especially organic seed.

So why am I reminding you of this fact? Because this level of increased ownership and control in the hands of a few has impacted the expansion of organic seed. And the increased privatization of seed was coupled with a dramatic decrease in public investments in plant breeding. I’m not aware of more updated figure but a 1994 analysis found that commercial breeders outnumbered public breeders two to one.

When Matthew Dillon and I were working on OSA’s State of Organic Seed report, which serves as the first comprehensive analysis of the barriers and opportunities in building the organic seed sector, we identified a few ways that concentration has impacted the expansion of organic seed systems:

First, dominant firms have non-organic interests. This is because the organic community has rejected their primary technology – genetic engineering – as an excluded method in the National Organic Program. The organic and biotechnology sectors are generally in conflict with each other’s goals, objectives, practices, and values.

Second, we have lost hundreds of regional, independent seed companies. The Independent Professional Seed Association estimates that the U.S. has lost at least 200 independent companies in the last 15 years alone. Some of these companies were developing seed for specific regions, and some were entering into the organic seed marketplace.

Third, public breeding programs are increasingly privatized. Industry funding of research surged after the 1980 Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed, for the first time, the patenting of publicly funded research. Public funding declined dramatically. Land grant universities and other public breeding programs now find themselves increasingly dependent on industry dollars. This isn’t necessarily something to criticize on its own, but as a result of this trend, research goals have narrowed to meet the needs of specific industries and often times for major crops rather than the diverse needs of farmers and markets like organic.

And, fourth, utility patents lock up important genetics, and hinder innovation by removing valuable plant genetic material from the pool of public resources breeders rely on. As one public plant breeder in this room once told me: “Now utility patents can tie up everything…And that is the intent. There’s germplasm I wouldn’t touch as a plant breeder because companies could assert their rights under the patent.”

I know that students in this room have already experienced this frustration. When asking one of you recently what you saw as the biggest challenge to managing and improving crop genetics today, your response was: “Access. As a student,” he said, “the most frustrating moments are learning that I can’t work with a variety because some entity has claimed exclusive ownership of the pile of genetics that make up that seed.”

Licensing agreements to purchase seed, including for research purposes, can be so onerous at times that they dictate what kind of research on patented seed can be conducted and published.

In 2009, citing many of these concerns with licensing agreements, 26 university researchers, corn insect specialists, to be exact, wrote the EPA stating that “no truly independent research can be legally conducted on many critical questions.” They said that these agreements prohibited growing these crops for research purposes, which kept them from fully researching the effectiveness and environmental impact of genetically engineered crops.

It’s important to note that these scientists withheld their names from the letter submitted to the agency because they feared being cut off from industry research funding.

To back up, in 1990, it was the first President George who said: “Science, like any field of endeavor, relies on freedom of inquiry; and one of the hallmarks of that freedom is objectivity. Now more than ever, on issues ranging from climate change to AIDS research to genetic engineering to food additives, government relies on the impartial perspective of science for guidance.”

The freedom of inquiry, the impartial perspective that science provides, seems awfully stifled by what again I believe boils down to a highly concentrated and privatized seed culture.

So how do we fix this problem? These challenges are daunting, to say the least. Just like seed as an organism is complex, so too are the issues surrounding it. But we can, and we must, continue to find solutions that ensure seed is developed and protected in a manner that does not divide communities but in fact builds them.

First we must remember that the most important work ahead of us isn’t necessarily about fixing what’s broken.

Seed itself is the embodiment of the next generation, of potential. And that’s inherently hopeful.

And you here, collectively, also embody potential that has yet to be realized. Your diverse knowledge coupled with diversity that can be teased out of each seed is incredibly hopeful.

When I asked that same graduate student I mentioned earlier what he found hopeful or inspiring in his work as a plant breeder. He said it was walking through a field that is filled with genetic diversity, seeing the tall, the short and the collapsed; the disease-resistant, the sick, and the dead; and somewhere in that tangled mess seeing the couple of bright upright plants that might work. He said it was this coupled with seeing the work of his academic mentors to push the science and utility of public plant breeding that he found hopeful.

One way to fix some of these problems is to not allow organic seed to follow the same path as its conventional counterparts, to do things differently, to get creative with new models.

That’s why I’m so proud to work for OSA. With our partners, including with several land grant universities, we are establishing farmer-oriented seed production networks to provide farmers and other seed professionals shared knowledge and resources. We are creating regional networks for participatory plant breeding and seed production that focus on farmers’ roles and rights as partners in seed stewardship, that further seed innovation and choice in organic seed, and that help to define the principles and values that should guide organic seed system development. This includes developing appropriate intellectual property models that protect new seed varieties from patents while developing economic models that deliver returns to reinvest in the next generation of seed and breeders.

One breeding example is the sweet corn example that Bill Tracy talked about earlier. When this new variety is released it will be a new, early maturing, cold soil tolerant, and good tasting organic sweet corn. As Bill discussed, this corn was bred in partnership between University Wisconsin, OSA and an organic farmer. The release of this corn is very timely, especially in the maritime NW. Organic farmers in this region depend on the variety Temptation, owned by Seminis and now owned by Monsanto. Temptation is one of the very few varieties that will mature in our cool, maritime climate before the winter rains arrive. This year Monsanto released Tempation II, a new version that includes a genetically engineered trait. Is it only a matter of time until it replaces the current Temptation variety and NW organic farmers will be faced with losing access to this suitable variety? It’s possible. That’s been the trend in the conventional field corn market. For some examples, I documented this trend in a report called Out of Hand: Farmers Face the Consequences of a Consolidated Seed Industry.

We hope that the participatory release of this OP sweet corn fills this gap and delivers a variety farmers can steward themselves.

Farmers are responding. We have seen a number of regional seed companies pop in response to increased consolidation in the market. These smaller companies often focus on open-pollinated vegetable improvement and are eager to collaborate on breeding projects and to release commercial products through new models of intellectual property protections that aren’t based on fear and intimidation but on fairness, and reasonable returns, and that respect farmers’ time-honored right to save seed and meet their own farm challenges through their own crop improvement work on their farm.

There has never been a more important time for you as students to be engaging in research that supports organic seed. Although we’ve seen tremendous improvements in the availability of organic seed for farmers across the U.S. we still have a ways to go to fully meet demand, and, importantly, meet the need for seed that is not only bred in an organic system but adapted to specific regions – seed that is resilient to help us address the challenges that come with our changing climate, production practices, market needs, and, of course, nutritional needs. The organic food industry now boasts $30 billion in sales each year, yet annual organic seed investments represent approximately .002% of these sales.

This is why creative funding sources and initiatives – including the Seed Matters organic plant breeding fellowships – are so important. OREI to date has funded the majority of organic plant breeding and other organic seed projects yet this funding source is at risk given that the future of the next farm bill is uncertain. This leaves public sector breeding with an interest in organic agriculture in an even more vulnerable place.

And while we don’t have to wait for changes in Washington, DC, we do still need to keep showing up there – be it in person, or with a phone call, or email. This is especially important when it comes to funding our breeding programs committed to the release of public cultivars.

We know seed work is slow work. I hesitate to admit to you that policy work is even slower. I have sensed from some in the public plant breeding community a sentiment of discouragement, maybe even futility when it comes to engaging in policy initiatives that aim to reinvigorate funding for classical plant breeding projects that deliver public cultivars. This sentiment extends, of course, to access to genetics, as I’ve already discussed.

But policy inevitably responds to groundswells.And this, too, is something I’m seeing.

For years OSA and our partners have been advocating for USDA to reinvigorate public funding directed at classical breeding that results in regional cultivars held in the public domain. The 2008 Farm Bill included a congressional mandate that classical plant breeding be a priority within the Agriculture and Food Research Initiative (AFRI). There have been other requests by congressional agriculture and appropriations committees for USDA to make classical plant breeding and public cultivar development a priority. To date, USDA has not fulfilled the 2008 congressional mandate. The National Organic Coalition conducted an analysis of 127 AFRI funded projects between 2009 – 2011 related to classical breeding and found one project that aimed to deliver a finished cultivar.

In general there has been a lack of response from USDA to address our concerns about the direction of public funding of plant breeding research. But there are signs of positive change.

Public discourse about genetic diversity and our plant breeding programs has been constrained in recent years because of the privatization of knowledge that I described earlier. But there is still space for public dialogue and debate for plant breeders and others representing different disciplines, including those in the social sciences and law. We all must be engaged.

Next week I’ll be in Washington DC for a couple reasons. The first reason being that I have a meeting with Secretary Vilsack along with some of our partners to discuss USDA’s oversight of experimental field trials following the discovery of genetically engineered wheat in Oregon this spring. I’ll also be providing comments to the department’s newly formed Plant Breeding Working Group. The working group is convening to discuss some critical questions, including:

• How can we be better at attracting and retaining young talent into plant breeding and how can we increase diversity in the field?

• How can public plant breeding be more flexible and responsive to stakeholder needs?

The fact that they’re holding this listening session to ask some critical questions about the state of public plant breeding is a sign that the advocacy work we’ve engaged in with our partners has been having an impact, and is at least moving the conversation forward.

Of course some of this comes back to communicating what’s not working, but more importantly, to offer solutions and evidence of what kind of support we need. I will be providing a short presentation at this listening session and I would be honored to take you with me, if only in spirit, if only on paper, as this is a critical opportunity to communicate the needs of the next generation of plant breeders.

I encourage you to relay your personal stories about why you chose this path, which were so inspiring to hear this morning. I encourage you to relay your big ideas for public breeding, for supporting the availability of more organic seed, and to also relay what’s not working.

We need to bolster public support of classical plant breeding and public cultivar development, where research goals don’t relate to any interests of shareholders, but on the diverse and regional needs of farmers. Cultivars developed in the public sector are necessary to balance our increasingly concentrated seed industry. And we should communicate, too, that farmers have played crucial roles in building our nation’s germplasm base for modern agriculture to thrive, expand, and meet new agricultural challenges.

This doesn’t mean we have to return to the day where all farmers saved seed. But we must remember the role farmers can and should play in seed innovation. Farmers are at the heart of OSA’s research program. As one farmer relayed in the 2003 Summit Proceedings on Seeds & Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture: “If we are to ever be successful addressing the agricultural problems in the 21st century throughout the world, breeding must not be done ‘for’ farmers, it must be done collaboratively ‘with’ the recipient farmers, respecting their experiences, needs, and regional knowledge base, blending it with our knowledge, skills, and resources, melding the best of all systems to solve the sticky problems.”

We have a lot of work to do beyond this listening session.

I do not have all the answers to these questions. But I know that collectively we have many of them.

I want to end by sharing that last December we lost one of the greatest organic food and farming advocates of our time, Russell Libby, the former executive director of the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association. I only knew Russell for a short time before he lost his fight against cancer, but what his legacy taught me is that at the heart of political action is talking to one another and acting in concert. I have silently dedicated this year to his memory, to his legacy, I guess silently until today.

And we can apply that legacy of acting in concert, of concentrating our own form of power, to promote solutions both in the field and in Washington, DC.

As maddening as policy work can be sometimes it is an important component to achieving sustainability and health in agriculture, in taking back some of the control that has been lost. And this work must begin with seed. We must ensure that public plant breeding thrives and serves as a much-needed complement to that of the private sector. And we have to better balance and support the underserved needs of American agriculture, especially organic.

And that’s why OSA and our policy partners need you on our team. We need your help as the next generation of plant breeders to not only achieve success in some of the more immediate battles of securing better funding for public breeding that supports regional cultivar development and that supports organic systems. But we also need your help in moving toward the bigger goal, the bigger vision, of creating systems, practices, and policies that honor the ethical development and stewardship of seed. This is the mission statement of Organic Seed Alliance. And this year we’re celebrating our ten-year anniversary. I have never been more confident in my colleagues and in the broader community to build systems that deliver regionally appropriate and adapted seed that performs well for organic farmers.

We hope you’ll join us.

Thank you.

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