Seed for the People

This year marks the 150th anniversary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which President Abraham Lincoln, in his last address to Congress, deemed “the people’s department.” This same year, 1862, our land grant university system was established.

This infrastructure aimed to expand U.S. agriculture for the sake of prosperity and security – to further research, education, and innovation, and make advancements accessible to all.

In important ways these laws were about sowing seeds. A core function of the Department of Agriculture when it was formed was the collection and distribution of seed. Efforts to introduce new plants to the U.S. started centuries before, and for much of the nineteenth century, before the Department of Agriculture was established, the Patent Office eagerly carried out these activities by mailing millions of seed packages to farmers across the country.

The Department of Agriculture continued this practice, and by the end of the nineteenth century, a third of its budget went toward seed collection and distribution. The department encouraged farmers to experiment with new crops, and continued to distribute seed free of charge. The states had a role to play now, too, where newly formed land grant universities focused on collecting seed and conducting research in areas that were not profitable to private ventures.

Picture it: The U.S. Department of Agriculture freely distributing seed to farmers not so much as a commodity but as an essential natural resource best managed in the hands of the people. The department understood that the nation’s growing crop diversity was a product of farmers serving as the nation’s first plant breeders. We have our farming ancestors to thank for the diversity of food crops we enjoy today.

Yet, today, 150 years later, the intent of the laws that established the department and our land grant system have been undermined by policies and practices that collectively leave farmers with less access to what was once a public resource.

Concentration in the seed industry stands out as a major contributor to this problem. Companies have rapidly consolidated in the last 40 years, absorbed by chemical and biotechnology firms with no previous interest in seed. Most of these mergers and acquisitions went unchecked by the Department of Justice. The current state of seed is also a consequence of a Supreme Court decision that allowed biotechnology and other seed products to be patented, often restricting the saving and reproduction of seed.

Together, these factors led not only to concentrated market power but concentrated ownership of seed.

Furthermore, a law passed in 1980, the Bayh-Dole Act, allowed universities, for the first time, to patent products that result from research funded by taxpayers. Universities had previously regarded patents as at odds with their non-profit educational mission, but following Bayh-Dole, they began to earn royalties by licensing research to private companies. Industry funding for academic research surged after the Bayh-Dole Act, and now provide nearly a quarter of the funding for agricultural research at land grant universities.

Industry’s funding of public universities may not be something to criticize on its own, especially in light of dwindling public funds, but industry funding often dictates the terms and direction of research. Crop research in general has narrowed, prioritizing lab-based methods like genetic engineering and focusing on commodities where the most profit can be made.

The result has been less choice in the seed marketplace, especially public seed, and a crumbling infrastructure that once better provided for the diverse and regional needs of farmers.

This doesn’t mean we have to return to the day where all farmers saved seed. But we must be aware that, like our water, air, and soil, seed is a natural resource that requires careful management. As our nation’s first plant breeders, farmers have an important role to play in seed conservation and innovation, but their role has been marginalized and their rights as seed stewards undermined.

Make no mistake: land grant universities continue to play a key role in managing seed and breeding new varieties. And more public programs are working to engage farmers in plant breeding efforts.

But it’s not enough to overcome the fact that much of public agricultural research has been privatized, undermining access to public seed on which the Department of Agriculture and the land grant system were founded.

That is why it is more important than ever for our land grant universities to deliver more choice to farmers in the form of regional seed varieties that are not patented but held in the public domain.

This summer, Senator Tester introduced an amendment to the Senate Farm Bill to provide adequate funding of land grant projects that deliver farmers high-quality public seed. Though unsuccessful, the intent was in line with the Department of Agriculture’s original mission, a mission that more lawmakers, and agency and university leaders, should recommit to.

This is Kiki Hubbard for the Alternative Energy Resources Organization. AERO has been linking people with sustainable agriculture and energy solutions since 1974. Visit us online at aeromt.org.

This commentary aired on September 13, 2012 on Montana Public Radio.

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