Seeds of tragedy

My dad sold seed corn. He was an amazing salesman and selling seed was his perfect job: He got to drive around the Nebraska countryside, talk to all the farmers, and look out over green fields he'd helped to plant.

Farmers work harder for less than just about anybody. Pests both floral and faunal, not to mention the whims of the weather, can wipe out an entire family's annual income in minutes. And a farmer's likely to pay more for the seed he plants than he'll earn from the acres of crops he harvests.

That's why farmers use every possible advantage—equipment, irrigation, pesticides, herbicides—if there's a possibility of decreasing expenses and increasing yield. Most farmers aren't crazy about efforts by environmentalists to ban genetically modified (GM) seeds. Even the "terminator" seed technology abandoned last week by Monsanto, the world's second largest seed company, probably would have sounded good coming from a sincere, farmer-friendly guy like my dad.

If the name "terminator seeds" calls up visions of Ah-nold, you're close. Think Rambo.

Terminator seeds are a nasty piece of work, designed to do to Third World farmers what Nestle does to Third World babies. Nestle, in case you've missed that long-running boycott, is reviled for distributing baby formula samples to new mothers in some of the world's poorest regions. Sounds charitable—except that the samples last only until Mom stops lactating, ensuring Baby's dependence on expensive formula.

Sick, isn't it? The terminator seeds work on the same principle. Farmers in developing countries traditionally save the year's best seeds to replant next spring. Terminator seeds, however, are designed to be sterile, creating dependency where once there was self-sufficiency. Single-use seeds destroy thousands of years of agricultural practice and foster a dependency not on good farming methods but on Monsanto-set prices for next year's seeds.

Computer folk will recognize this practice right away: It's a licensing agreement. Where once the seed company sold its product, it now wants to merely license its use, preventing second-year planting of "unauthorized seeds." Call it seedware.

It gets worse. Monsanto sterilized seeds by soaking them in tetracycline, an antibiotic. The world is already awash in antibiotics, so much so that the germs are wising up: Doctors report increased drug resistance from diseases we used to have under control thanks to antibiotics. They blame overexposure. What happens when these seeds spend their entire life span leaching chemicals into the soil and water table?

Monsanto alleges that "any lethal toxin gene" could reasonably be used to sterilize noncommercial seeds (for instance, those of ornamental plants). The company doesn't say what happens to animals that eat such plants. In addition, little information is available on possible effects on the seeds' nutritional value. There's not even much data on how to store these things—and one bad seed can turn thousands of bushels of grain to mold if not stored just so.

Monsanto did the right thing by pulling back from terminator seed technology. However, it ain't over yet. Just as Ah-nold didn't go big with the Terminator until the sequel, T-2 seeds are on the horizon, and they look even worse. One theoretical example is a seed from Company X that wouldn't grow without regular applications of a particular chemical also, conveniently, sold by Company X.

How did Monsanto justify this? The arguments I've seen claim improved flavor—a claim easily debunked by anyone who's compared delicious heirloom vegetables with their plastic-like ultramodern kin—and (ironically) decreased dependence on pesticides and herbicides. And then there's the increased-yields gambit. Higher yields, they say, benefit both farmers and starving folk in the rest of the world, who aren't getting enough food. Therefore we must make more and better seeds.

This would be a persuasive argument if both environmentalists and farmers weren't telling us that we grow plenty of food already. The problem is that governments and corporations aren't committed to getting it from the fields to the folks who need it—because of politics, profit margins, and other things that have nothing to do with Nature's bounty. Family farmers, screwed by everything from Jimmy Carter's grain embargo to the processed-food industry that charges more for a box of cornflakes than it pays for a bushel of corn, know that starving people ain't their bag.

What we have here is a failure to communicate—or, actually, we have people like my dad doing a better job of communicating the seed companies' perspective to farmers than environmentalists have done of communicating theirs. Monsanto's backtracking wasn't about helping family farms to survive; it was about pressure from environmentalists. Good for the environmentalists; we finally caught a break. Now I suggest that some of my tree-hugging friends become a little more like my communicative dad, or this victory will be only temporary.

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