US [transgene?] Testing Network

Written by Matt DiLeo

“With over 80% of the corn grown in the US genetically modified, and biotechnology companies phasing out non-GMO corn seed varieties, American farmers have fewer choices for finding non-GMO seeds to grow.
As a result of this narrowing of farmer choice, a new initiative was launched in 2009 by Practical Farmers of Iowa (PFI) to address the problem. The US Testing Network (USTN) aims to develop and introduce new non-GMO corn hybrids in the market, while improving the quality and quantity of non-GMO corn hybrids available.”

I haven’t heard of any of these organizations before – and I would be interested if you know something about them – but it sounds like an interesting project. I couldn’t care less about avoiding transgenes, but I love the idea of small companies, public sector scientists and enthusiastic individuals working together to improve germplasm for niche markets too small for the big seed companies to serve.
Do you have any experience with these organizations?
h/t: Seed Today

Written by Guest Expert

Matt DiLeo has a PhD in Plant Pathology from UC, Davis. During his postdoctoral research at Boyce Thompson Institute, he researched unintentional effects of genetic engineering. Matt builds R&D teams and biotech platforms: genome editing, gene discovery, microbials, and controlled environment agriculture.

Guest Expert

Written by Guest Expert

The strength of the discussions on Biofortified depend on the diversity of expertise, perspectives, and backgrounds of our contributors and guest experts.

39 comments

  1. I actually know Sarah Carlson, who is quoted as being a founder of the project. I’ll send her an email to ask if she’d be interested in commenting.
    One thing that I don’t really understand is the claim that non-GMO hybrids aren’t available. As far as I know, each seed company offers hundreds of corn hybrids. Most contain RR or Bt traits because that’s what farmers want, but I’d be very surprised if at least some of them weren’t non-GMO. I’m going to ask Pioneer and Monsanto for info today.
    If there truly is more demand for non-GMO hybrids than is being met by supply, then why isn’t the market taking care of that? The big companies or some smaller ones would ramp up non-GMO hybrids if that’s what farmers wanted. Unless so few farmers actually want non-GMO seeds that a non-profit needs to do it. What I do see a great need for is other grains – amaranth, lentils, what have you – that have too small of markets for the big companies to do breeding with them.
    I am really interested in the last paragraph:

    Walter Goldstein of the Michael Fields Institute, Margaret Smith at Cornell University, and Major Goodman at North Carolina State have conducted research on a trait from popcorn, GaS, which blocks incoming pollen. This trait holds promise to block cross pollination from GM corn.

    I don’t know why people haven’t done something like this sooner. I hope it works out.

    1. I got a very fast response from my local Pioneer/DuPont rep Rhonda Birchmier. Note that her response refers only to hybrids available in the Ames, IA area, not what’s available to the whole country.

      I can tell you that I have access to 14 different hybrids that are not genetically engineered. I am sure that there are many more available throughout the US and the rest of the world, however the way that they try to simplify inventory for not only themselves but also us as sales reps and our growers they limit the number per area.
      As for the number of genetically engineered hybrids I counted 78 available to me. Before counting I would have guessed that 90% was genetically engineered and it’s actually closer to 85%.
      Here in my sales area, 100% of my sales the last several years have been genetically engineered hybrids containing at least the LL trait. Sales have to meet demand, and the demand is strong for these traits.
      Hope this helps.

  2. One thing about the market is that any one company can only do a couple things well at one time. If company X has the infrastructure and organizational know-how to make money selling a specific crop or to a specific market, it may not make sense for them to try to pick up an extra tiny revenue stream at the margins. You run into diminishing returns fast as you stoop to pick up smaller and smaller markets. Pioneer has whole departments centered on the major corn markets, earning millions and millions of dollars a year. If they wanted to also serve some tiny market, how would they fit into their current organization? Would they just hire 3 guys to be the “non-GM, Upper Midwest specialty popcorn department?” Who would manage them? How would you measure accountability (especially if the existing people aren’t used to dealing with the expectations and opportunities associated with this market)?
    I don’t have any data to support it, but I’d suspect that the decline in public funding and consolidation of the seed industry would allow more and more specialty/regional markets (that are locally important, maybe even enough to allow small companies to flourish) to fall through the cracks.
    I’m working on another post on it, but we often assume that the existence of an opportunity is all it takes to profit from it. Maintaining successful academic labs and small companies takes a lot of work and know-how in addition to a brilliant idea. I’m all for any effort to help make connections among those trying to make this stuff actually work.

    1. You’re right. Just because there is a small amount of demand doesn’t mean there’s enough to sustain even a small company, especially considering start up costs. How long would it take for a brand new company to acquire decent germplasm and get it into some sort of sellable shape, anyway?
      I wonder if USTN knows about GEM. I should probably find time to interview some of the GEM people so I can write a decent post about it but long story short they are a public maize germplasm resource that companies can use. They even release what traits different lines have as shown here.

      1. Hmm, I seem to remember reading that a typical breeding operation can transform a pile of random (but useful) germplasm into a new variety in about 10 years. … That’s 10 years of salaries to pay for, plus set up time and equipment, plus additional years to ramp up and market seed before you’ll get any income. Getting your germplasm in the first place may be as trivial as ordering seeds online, but if you’re working with modern lines you may need to enter some sort of licensing agreement (as you would need to do to use many basic molecular tools). Academics can ignore a lot of these legal hurdles – perhaps a non-profit start up could do the same? I also wonder if a small company could make much of their money amplifying and distributing already available (and useful) varieties, with improvement being more or less a side project? Isn’t that what Seed Savers does?
        Interesting links too – I’ll check them out when I have more time…

  3. Anastasia – a quick look through Monsanto owned brands (dekalb and channel seeds initially) shows only a handful of non-traited hybrids (3 available on channel brand and I think 3 on dekalb) – this actually surprised me somewhat as I expected more to be available although given the market penetrance of traits I guess it is somewhat understandable that untraited hybrids not be as commonplace – don’t have time to trawl through more to see how widespread this is but based on an initial look untraited corn isn’t impossible to get hold of but choices do appear to be limited at least from big-ag owned brands (to what extent this funnels down to smaller producers who license traits I don’t know – will take a look when time allows)

    1. lol Monsanto was not as useful as Pioneer at all. You better tell those guys to shape up! Here’s what I got:

      Dear Anastasia,
      Thank you for your message. We can send you a 2011 Seed Guide for this information if you will send your mailing address.
      Sincerely,
      Monsanto Website Support

      I am amused and annoyed that they don’t have it in PDF form. And annoyed that I can’t find a local Monsanto seed rep on their website. I found a Pioneer rep lickety split.

      1. AS far as I’ve been able to gather we sell seeds in such a diverse way that it’s hard to keep track of – if you look on the monsanto website there’s like 20+ different companies which sell seed, all of whom are owned by Monsanto – Dekalb is pretty obvious to anyone who knows much about agriculture, the rest not so much (although I’d imagine anyone who knows their local Ag market probably knows which companies are Monsanto owned and which just license the traits) I dunno how Pioneer works their supply to market side – it may be somewhat less confuzzled (marketing in general leaves me baffled at the best of times – I try not to think too hard about how Monsanto does it because it gives me a headache)

        1. lol Monsanto was not as useful as Pioneer at all.

          Also I note the lack of Pioneer replies direct on this post…*
          *although my usual disclaimer still applies….

  4. Oh, and just a quick quibble about the title of this post – I think “testing” in US Testing Network doesn’t refer to transgene testing but to testing of hybrids (in other words breeding).

  5. Yeah, what I meant was “[transgene?]” since it’s not clear from the press release what exactly they’re doing and I couldn’t find more info on it 😉

  6. I dont think that a lack of a non-GM research program is what is preventing non-GM seed from being widely marketed. For the most part the inbreds used to make the GM hybrids also exist as non-GM. Im sure you all know this but there is a big incentive to get farmers to buy GM seed. But also very importantly, for the most part, in my experience, the majority of farmers do want the GM seed. There are companies that have had a complimentary set of non-GM seed but the demand is waning.

  7. I am more familiar with the troubles in the organic seed industry, but it sounds similar. The market demand is too small for the large seed companies to bother. These folks have recently completed a nation wide study on the issue:
    http://www.seedalliance.org/
    Organic food sales are about 4% of total, but organic farmland lags behind at only ca. 0.6%. This has led to a dramatic rise of organic imports to the US.
    I do worry about over consolidation in the seed industry so thanks for bringing this up.

    1. Thanks for stopping by, Jason. Your points are very interesting and bring to mind many questions (not necessarily addressed to you but I hope you’ll stick around, the more the merrier).
      1) not really germane to this conversation but perhaps still relevant – is buying organic food from overseas more sustainable than equivalent domestic food grown conventionally? Or is this just another instance of well-to-do greens thinking they’re doing something good but not actually accomplishing anything?
      2) Back to Matt’s point that demand does not mean that supply will spring up – according to this the demand for organic food is greatly exceeding the domestic supply. That means there is a lack of one or more of these: domestic organic seed, farmers, or land. Does this indicate that producing organic food in the US just isn’t cost effective despite the price premium.
      3) Why is producing organic food in other countries cheaper? I’m guessing it’s due to cheaper labor costs so they can afford to hire people for backbreaking labor that is done with chemicals or machines on US conventional farms. What does that mean for social sustainability?
      4) Where are the overseas producers getting their seeds? Does organic food have to be grown with organic seeds?
      5) also not really related but I have been curious about this – is organic food from other countries actually organic? Does it meet the US standards? Who inspects this – the USDA? Who pays for the inspections – hopefully the farms and not taxpayers?
      6) not really a question but a comment – Consolidation in the seed business is unfortunate because it means less competition and fewer options for farmers, but it does make sense. Success of a breeding program means having enough germplasm to start with. Publicly funded germplasm resources have been on the decline. The best way to expand your germplasm collection, then, is to buy a small company. It’s just like software companies who instead of licensing new tools from other companies just buy the other company.
      Yes, I have lots of questions! Ok, lunch is over, back to work for me!

      1. In response to 1)
        You can’t really make the comparison with so little data, imported organic could be better, the same, or worse than home grown conventional (or organic) in terms of sustainability – by and large the transportation costs of a given foodstuff are negligible as compared to other inputs – it’s a bad metric to use if trying to eat sustainably or to reduce carbon footprints etc (eating local is to a large extent well to do greens doing utterly bugger all)
        My addition to point 2 is that a certain portion of land simply may not be suitable for the types of organic produce for which there is demand – purely speculation here but a lot of fruit and veg is pretty environment specific and there’s only so much of California to go around – while subsidies etc drive corn and soy production across the midwest for the most part I’d also have to figure that environmentally they’re better suited to vast swathes of Ag land than other crops (probably using environmentally in totally the wrong context here… simply positing that the environmental conditions are more favorable for ’em) – if I remember right the nutritional demands of vegetables etc far exceed those of row crops (at least if recent Chinese papers I’ve been reading are any reflection – they utilize nitrogen levels which would pretty effectively wipe out a field of corn)
        for organic production vs consumption does the study take into account only stuff produced for human consumption or is it taking Ag as a whole? I can’t help but think this would skew matters somewhat – if you utilize 50% of your land to grow crops to feed to animals then percentage wise organic land can be a lot less than conventionally farmed land while supplying a greater proportion direct to human diets (I think that makes sense… say if 0.6% of land is organic but 100% of that goes direct to market whereas 99.4% of land is not whereas only 50% of that goes to human consumption then the 0.6% of land used for organic actually supplies 1.2% (assuming equivalent yields) rather than a simply 0.6% (it also has to be kept in mind that a lot of the domestic non-organic grain produced is exported, so this would shift things somewhat (I can’t help but think there is some export of organic also to help befuddle the numbers further))

        1. Little followup on the 0.6% vs 4% numbers which I found somewhat interesting (I think it reflects my above point)
          Organic data stuff

          On the other hand, organic carrots (13 percent of U.S. carrot acreage), organic lettuce (8 percent), organic apples (5 percent) and other fruit and vegetable crops were more commonly organic grown in 2008.

          So the story ain’t entirely homogenous – given that (at least as far as the view from my window shows, which must be reflective of the whole nation!) corn and soy dominate many a rural landscape and that their organic %ages sit at around 0.2% (which is what imo is dragging the %age down) with wheat sitting at 0.7% – given the apparent lack of demand for organic corn and soy (given that these commodities aren’t going direct to humans for the most part) I wouldn’t expect that organic acreage would ever catch up to %age organic food consumed – although if you were to dig into the numbers a little more deeply and go crop by crop you may uncover a more telling story (13% of carrot acreage being organic for instance strikes me as incredibly high – particularly if the 4% figure holds even remotely true for carrots – are we exporting a lot of organic carrots? Are the yields 30% that of regular carrots, is there a carrot imbalance in that we have to import a lot of conventional carrots to make up the shortfall? Or is there just a far higher demand for organic carrots than I’d generally credit as realistic (seems odd that it’d be more than double that of apples and 50% higher than lettuce – which I’d have pegged as one of the top organic products in terms of demand what with tree huggers and their love of salad (although perhaps celery and onion also figure high – is organic mirepoix a driver behind vast swathes of organic production?))

          1. Yields per acre are about the same for organic vs conventional crops.
            Vegetables are one of the easiest class of food to convert to organic for a number of reasons, such as requiring very little acreage to produce large quantities and thus land costs low while returns per acre very high.
            Demand for organic produce is also high because fresh foods are most likely to have pesticide residues so folks worried about that first switch buying habits in that class of food.
            Pastured meats are also relatively easy to go organic since pasture is a relatively low-input, perennial system anyhow so the 3 year organic transition doesn’t reduce yields significantly when done right. Pasture land may also be subprime so not as expensive.
            Organic farmers tend to be younger, so they are more likely to be capital constrained, hence you see the dominance of organic vegetables and pasture/rangeland in terms of market share.
            Grains and seed crops are late adopters. However, organic grain and seed farmers (whether or not they get a price premium) are more profitable per acre due to lower input costs. So, seed farmers that can handle the difficult transition (have a 3+ year investment horizon and overcome social, technological and marketing learning curves) tend to do fine.

          2. Yields per acre are about the same for organic vs conventional crops.

            Citation(s)? The literature suggests otherwise as far as I’ve seen – yields can be similar but tend to be less, generally significantly so. (One USDA report by Leibman suggested that on a year by year basis organic methods could get similar yields but that economically the farm would suffer in the long term due to use of 3rd or 4th year cover crops with less economic value – so it isn’t always as black and white as a lot of the literature suggests)

            However, organic grain and seed farmers (whether or not they get a price premium) are more profitable per acre due to lower input costs.

            Again citation needed – a perusal of the literature suggests that without price premiums profitability tends not to be equal – this appears to be the case across crops (wheat, corn, soy, lettuce, grapes are those I’ve looked at thus far)

          3. Ewan,
            Even though it’s generally true that organic practices produce roughly half as much food per acre (oilseeds and grains) than conventional, organic farmers make more money annually than conventional farmers. I can’t find the original cite, but support for the latter claim is found at
            http://www.rodaleinstitute.org/20100319/nf_USDA-census-shows-profitability-of-organic-farming and in spite of the source they appear to have gotten it right.
            In short, premiums charged for organic (and likely a focus on vegetables) more than make up for lack of productivity.

          4. Eric – the reported figures don’t actually say whether organic farmers are more profitable or not (they may be, they may not – I’m looking in to it) just whether individual farms are more profitable on average – doing things on a per farm basis across all crops is clearly not a sane way to do things – as discussed organic agriculture is skewed towards vegetable production and conventional towards soy and corn – it should be pretty obvious that on a per acre basis you’re going to be making more on veggies than corn/soy (if not you’d jsut grow corn or soy as they’re easier) therefore it is entirely expected that such a broad view of agriculture will have organic farms coming out ahead on a per farm basis (doesn’t take into account size either – although a quick look at census data suggests that the average farm is ~418 Ac and the average organic farm only 284)
            Comparing apples to apples it appears however that the story isn’t quite so cut and dry as Jason appears to make it (yields the same, profits higher due to reduced inputs) – in 2007, looking at corn for grain(because that’s what I like to look at!) the average yield on organic acreage was 109 Bu/Ac whereas the average yield on all acreage was 147 Bu/Ac – if you assume a $7 per bushel premium (based purely by dividing the total bushels produced by org by the revenue generated) this means organic farmers netted $763 an acre on average compared to $1029 for conventional – clearly things aren’t as clear cut as portrayed (the data is spectacularly hard to actually compare apples to apples (I tried apples, it didn’t work!) for most things – but unless you compare by crop for both yield, income and cost you aren’t going to get a particularly useful answer (although in terms of propaganda the inclusion of all low income bigass commodity farms certainly makes the Rodale institute’s mission look a lot better)

  8. I like this web site. I’ll be around. 🙂
    1) not really germane to this conversation but perhaps still relevant – is buying organic food from overseas more sustainable than equivalent domestic food grown conventionally? Or is this just another instance of well-to-do greens thinking they’re doing something good but not actually accomplishing anything?
    Probably depends on what metrics you decide to measure to determine “sustainable.” If you are mostly concerned about net carbon flux, perhaps building organic matter in soils is greater than the travel emissions, perhaps not? If you don’t like persistent pollutants it’s a clear win for organics. What greenies are doing is signaling a demand that US farmers are having troubling meeting. I do think organic would be more sustainable in the ways I would define it, over the long run. (And I find the GMO issue to be a tiny part of the whole enchillada, but could get bigger if GMOs are created that enhance some key traits I consider important).
    Your point 2
    There are several reasons why organic farmland is not keeping up with demand. In my experience, if a farmer has a system that is working for them they will stick with it. Since the average farmer is about 60 years old, they have a long history with certain methods. Why go through 3 years of transition with poor economics (reduced initial yields, no price premium, learning curve, new markets, etc.) if you are doing fine now? So, those interested in organics tend to be younger farmers and they tend to be under capitalized. Land costs are too high, equipment too, especially for seeds/grains. Hence most organic farmers are either smaller scale vegetable production where land quantity (costs) are lower, or pastured livestock where land quality (costs) are lower AND equipment costs are lower. The big gap is in the farmers with combines and no-till drills and access to 1000 acres of prime soils. These folks do convert to organic, but they lag and they either have to “get religion” or be in some economic distress to do so.
    point 3
    I believe lower land and labor costs are allowing foreign competition to go organic faster. But not always. I ended up buying a bunch of organic seed from Europe! And the same stuff is grown around me. Really sucks. I tell me seed crop friends to get their acts together and grow for me. They will make more money. Some of it is social, for sure. If you think this is something “hippy dippy” you may avoid it.
    point 4
    You can buy non-organic seed if you can’t find an organic source.
    point 5
    All products labeled USDA Organic have to meet the same criteria as described in the National Organic Standards no matter where they are produced/processed. The USDA does not do inspections. There are ca. 55 registered USDA Organic Program certifiers and they are paid by producers for annual inspections. Organic farmers need to develop an Organic System Plan that describes how their operations meet the law and the certifier visits in person to confirm this.
    point 6
    As far as I am aware from talking to folks at the major seed companies and from USDA breeding programs (in private/off the record) the reason public funded breeding programs has declined is because industry successfully lobbied to get access to university germ plasm for free. This happened while Ronald Reagan was in charge and it made all the difference. Next came changes in US patent law that allowed companies to force farmers to buy new certified seed each year.
    I am a huge fan of genomics and marker assisted breeding and might be open to certain GMO techniques, but the social context is also crucial to appreciate.
    Now I am off to (late) lunch.

    1. I’m glad you like Biofortified 🙂 The conversation is alway more interesting with more points of view around too.
      Re: the hippy dippy problem. I think this problem is self-cultivated. I totally thought ecological based agriculture was hippy bs mainly because the people promoting it are mostly crazy hippies who don’t base their claims on science (cow horns filled with herbs and prayed over on a full moon?!). Boy was I surprised when I found that it’s a legitimate field of research! And a lot of it even makes sense, sound scientific sense. Now one of my absolute favorite researchers is Matt Leibman!
      Heck, I even though the whole organic thing was hippy bs until I read Tomorrow’s Table where Pam Ronald (a geneticist) and Raoul Adamchak (an organic farmer and certifying agent as well as professor) thoughtfully explain the benefits of reducing chemical use in farming (with references from the primary literature, of course). I’ve since worked on a minor in sustainable agriculture (where I’ve met both dippy hippys and scientists) and have formed a careful understanding of how organic and conventional methods can be used in combination to provide high yields while caring for the environment and reducing input costs.
      If organic advocates want to spread their methods they need to be more realistic. Expecting farmers to find religion (nice way to put it btw) is pretty useless. There needs to be calculations of cost-benefit analysis, step by step transition guides by region and crop, all that good stuff that seed and equipment dealers provide for conventional methods.
      They also need to stop being so gosh darn dogmatic. There are ways to be sustainable that doesn’t require an organic certification. If even 5% of conventional farmers adopt some organic techniques into their method set that could have huge ecological benefits, probably more than the entire acreage of organic farms combined. But right now, organic proponents are all “my way or nothing” and conventional famers have no reason to start listening to them.
      All of this frustrates me very much and makes me think that organic proponents care more about the “religious dogma” than they do about reducing inputs, switching from more harmful inputs to less harmful, stopping the dead zone, saving energy, or anything else. 🙁

      1. I agree with you and as a scientist am bothered by the same things.
        But I have also learned quite a bit from people that are into things like Biodynamics (which I can’t fathom) so I try not to dismiss everything somebody says because they may have a religion I don’t buy into. Truth is, the human brain is capable of cognitive dissonance to a degree that makes me uncomfortable. I know of plenty of medical doctors, for example, who are biblical creationists!
        Which means folks who are pro-GMO should also realize that this technology is not the be and end all of agriculture and the food system. It is a part, a new part, and even though organic agriculture bans it that doesn’t mean that organic farmers aren’t really good at what they do. They deserve to be studied and supported because I see many organic farming methods at the technological forefront in areas that many conventional farmers are not.
        I have not read the book you mentioned but will do so. I have met Pam while at UC Davis.

  9. Happy New Year!
    1. To Jason’s « What greenies are doing is signaling a demand that US farmers are having troubling meeting. » There are similar claims in France, and more generally Europe. I wonder, however, how much of this is wishful thinking or even posturing.
    Put otherwise : my usual supermarket (Carrefour, the chain that finances anti-GMO Séralini) has a fairly large stand of organic vegetables, but I do not see many patrons reaching to it (mind it : prices are two, three or even more times higher).
    2. To point 6 and Anastasia: Buying a small (or even a large) company is also a way of acquiring plant breeding and seed trade expertise, and a foothold in a particular region. Smart companies wll do their best to nurture this, for instance by maintaining the acquired company’s name, breeding and testing stations, possibly also the trade channels.
    To Jason on the decline of publicly funded breeding programmes. I wouldn’t bite in neither of your points. The first thing to do, however, is to define the species you are talking about. Wheat, corn, vegetables, fruit trees, etc. are very different and have followed different courses.
    The decline seems to me to stem from a declining interest in long-term investments in agriculture at large, and more specifically plant breeding – you know, that activity that may produce something 15 years or so down the road.
    There have been no changes in US (utility) patent law, and the practice of requiring farmers to buy new certified seed each year is too recent a phenomenon.
    Now I am off to (late) sleep.

    1. Corn is the primary example (and apparently wheat has a very different ownership and breeding history that made it less attractive to seed companies). Folks at land grant universities in the US midwest could talk to older agronomy professors to dig into this. My information is from individuals at Pioneer, Syngenta and USDA, not anything I have read.

      1. I’m working on a GEM post – just talked to one of their directors today. It’ll hopefully be done by the end of the month (she’s really busy).
        GEM is a public (USDA) germplasm system for maize, which while it isn’t a breeding program makes breeding programs of companies, non-profits, and foreign governments better. Does this count? I don’t think there’s anything as cool as GEM for wheat or other crops.

        1. Not sure…this may be trying to play catch up. The company folks I spoke to said that the old germ plasm is still available, but they have been selecting on historic lines for 20+ years while the public breeding programs withered. So, the old lines aren’t as competitive any more.
          Many crops have germ plasm exchanges, even the small grains. For some reason corn and soy got really concentrated in a few companies. Farmers used to be able to keep certified seed for replanting themselves (but not sell to others as planting seed), and I feel that the loss of this right in certain species is a major blow to food security and ends up costing farmers a lot of money.
          If GEM is working on more public domain seed sources that are not bound up in highly restrictive use agreements that would be great.

          1. Interesting… I wonder what the rationale at the time was for allowing then disallowing the re-planting of certified seed. It doesn’t seem like it would make a differences in the hybrid maize market – though I seem to remember hearing that seed sellers used to give away soybean seed free with maize seed and then started charging for soy seeds when they became more valuable for some reason…
            By the way, for anyone interested in the history of the organic movement (and how the final certification requirements ended up being a mishmash of sustainable and unsustainable practices), I highly recommend Agrarian Dreams, by Julie Guthman
            http://www.ucpress.edu/book.php?isbn=9780520240957

          2. The issues in the book are very important and touchy. Organic laws are pretty new. During the Bush years, there was rather poor regulation of the law and some modification by large corporate interests that either weakened laws or how they were interpreted.
            With the new administration (and following lawsuits by organic food organizations) the USDA organic standards are being better enforced. This gets to some of the issues in that book, but not all of them.
            Organic agriculture began as small scale and integrative (e.g., farms often didn’t specialize but had a diversity of production systems that fed from each other, akin to an ecological community). But the trend is for larger and larger organic farms that are highly specialized and if you visited them you would not no they were organic unless you read a sign saying so.
            If we want to talk about a sustainable agriculture then we would have to go beyond organic regulations. Energy in agriculture is probably a key vulnerability of any modern ag system. I’d also see what Wes Jackson is up to since he first coined the term and thinks ahead better than most.

          3. As far as I’m aware plant variety protection (that which protects hybrids) still allows for seed saving – can you point me to anything that shows that farmers can’t save certified seed?
            This document suggests that seed saving is still just dandy so long as you aren’t selling the seeds for propagation.

          4. Right, the document you cite is how it used to be. In the mid-1990s I believe the courts upheld a novel interpretation of patent law that allows companies developing GMO traits to force farmers to repurchase seed each season.
            See: http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=122498255
            http://www.vanityfair.com/politics/features/2008/05/monsanto200805
            Seed companies have been up to this for a while now. The whole notion of F1 hybrids was developed for the same reasons (you can breed varieties from hybrids that hold the desired traits by selecting for the mean in successive generations F2, F3, etc.).

          5. I would like to respond to the part about hybrids. Yes, you have to repurchase the seeds to get the same plants because saving seed gives you segregating plants. However, F1 hybrids were not developed solely for seed-saving purposes – they are often better than inbreds and populations and yield more due to hybrid vigor. If it were true that hybrids didn’t produce any more than their predecessors then it might never have taken off in corn like it did. Additionally, we are finding some genes that require the presence of two different alleles to produce a high-producing hybrid. There is a very good reason why hybrids are grown, apart from the desire of a seed company to protect its profits (or its genetics).

          6. Right, the document you cite is how it used to be. In the mid-1990s I believe the courts upheld a novel interpretation of patent law that allows companies developing GMO traits to force farmers to repurchase seed each season.

            Erm, farmers aren’t forced to repurchase seed each season – unless they want to use the GM trait again, in which case I guess they are (although forced seems a bit… forced here) – they can make the choice as to whether or not to repurchase, and the discussion was around saving of seed as you stated that

            farmers used to be able to keep certified seed for replanting themselves

            They still can. Just not traited seed.

            Seed companies have been up to this for a while now. The whole notion of F1 hybrids was developed for the same reasons

            What Karl said, with the additional point that rather than

            it were true that hybrids didn’t produce any more than their predecessors then it might never have taken off in corn like it did

            they categorically would not have taken off like they did – how could they have?

  10. It’s funny, every time this issue comes up–I ask people exactly which plants they have been unable to grow because of seed availability. I want a list.
    I never get one. Seems there are providers. And I hope they do well. Sounds like there’s opportunity.

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