View from the farm: Why conventional and organic farmers don’t want to save seeds

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I live and farm with my boyfriend, a fifth generation farmer, on a 2,000-acre farm in Northeast Iowa. Together, we raise sheep and beef cattle and grow oats, alfalfa, GMO corn and soybeans.

As farmers, I think we’ve heard it all. In today’s day and age, less than 2% of the population of North America are farmers. Compare that to 1930 when 21% were (and the population was much smaller) and it’s easy to understand today’s disconnect between farmers and consumers. The vast majority of people are generations removed from the farm.

Given that such a small number of people actually produce the food we eat, it can be easy for farmers’ voices to get lost in the media shuffle. When trying to look up information on modern farming practices, it can be very difficult to decipher fact from fiction. That is why I started my blog, Farm Babe, to educate people on modern farming practices—what we do and why we do it. And, a lot of times, farmers today are left shaking our heads, wondering where people come up with this stuff, the myths surrounding GMOs.

I’d like to address one today, and that is the myth about seed saving. I’ve heard time and time again that conventional farmers are forced to grow GMO crops, and companies like Monsanto twist farmers arms with corporate control and don’t let any farmers who buy their seeds, GMO and conventional, save them—and that includes organic farmers, many of whom buy their seeds from large agricultural companies.

Here’s just one of thousands of headlined examples on the web from advocacy media or NGO sites—and sadly even from some reputable media–that present this misinformation as fact.

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Yes, the “rules of the game” have changed, but it is not because of Big Bad Ag. It is true that farmers who buy patented seeds, used by organic and conventional farmers alike, sign technology agreements and agree we won’t save seeds, however this is not a problem for farmers today because saving seeds hasn’t been popular since the 1930’s. In the 1920s, a farm family could typically pick an acre a day. They’d pick it, husk it, and throw it in the wagon. Farmers would pick the best ears and save them for seeds. But there wasn’t a lot of genetic variety and, the traits did not breed true; farmers were lucky to get 25 or 30 bushels an acre of quality, sellable corn. (A bushel is fifty-six pounds of corn grain.)

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An early 1930’s corn wagon

In the early 1930’s, the first hybrid corn seeds became available. GMO hybrid corn seeds hit the market in 1996. Today, using patented hybrid seeds (most of which are genetically modified but many of which are sold to organic farmers) that have to be purchased each year, the average US corn farmer yields 168.4 bushels/acre, and many farmers top 200, according to the USDA.

There are a variety of reasons why modern farmers in the United States, Europe and most developed countries do not save seeds. In general, today’s farms are so much bigger than they used to be. The economy of scale makes absolutely no sense to save seeds. It’s expensive, time consuming, and there’s many genetic varieties; saving seeds does not guarantee germination.

Farmers are business people. We would never buy hybrid seeds each year if the extra cost was not more than made up by the returns for selling truer bred, higher quality corn. And we are not bound to any one seed company as each purchase is just for that use year. Today, when choosing seeds, we work with seed reps and crop advisors to make decisions. We have hundreds of seed companies to choose from and thousands of different varieties. It is not uncommon to plant five or six different varieties, often made by different companies, on one farm. On ours, we plant four different crops and 750 acres of that is corn alone.

We plant about 35,000 seeds on one acre, which yields over 200 bushels today. If you do the math, this is nearly 27,000,000 seeds. Do you want to figure out how to save 27 million seeds? I didn’t think so. Who has time for that?

More importantly, when we work with seed reps, the advice we get is extremely helpful. There are so many factors when choosing the right seeds. Previous crop, (we rotate, us no-till methods, cover crops) climate, soil type, time to maturity, (harvest time) expected rainfall, etc. If and when we fill an order, these seeds come with warranties and money-back guarantees. We want the technology. We want better yields. We want guaranteed germination.

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Improved corn yields with better genetics

Another benefit to buying seeds is the quality assurance and uniformity. Every seed goes through a long and complicated process, which guarantees uniformity for our planters and equipment.  Every part of our planter is attached to a sensor during planting. If one of the seeds is slightly off, it will not drop the seed and it will notify us in our tractor cabs on the computer screen if something is wrong.

Then it comes down to harvest. Have you ever noticed when you look at a cornfield, every plant looks about the same? Uniformity, the same height, the ear placement and size, the same stand, everything is precise. Everything is guaranteed. Everything is uniform to ensure a smooth harvest through the combine and equipment. Every crop goes through levels of quality and inspection before it can be sold  so this is is very important. When you use old seeds, this does not happen and the chances of them even germinating are not very good.

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A typical cornfield in 2015. Notice the uniformity and germination

Some activists have turned criticism of farmers who save seeds into a cult. Vandana Shiva, the Indian philosopher who opposes modern technology in farming, is particularly critical.  “The desire to save seeds comes from an ethical urge to defend life’s evolution,” she writes on her web page. Yet farmers in developing countries are rapidly abandon seed saving because the benefits—higher yields—far exceed the marginal extra yearly cost of buying more reliable patented seeds. And with the adoption rate increasing, and after years of stagnation, yields are finally growing.

In conclusion, within the farming world it is very easy for us to see the need to purchase new seeds every year. It’s no different whether you farm organically or conventionally. We want the technology, we like working with seed reps and we value the expert advice. If we all saved seeds, they wouldn’t germinate; this would make planting and harvesting a nightmare. Our yields would be far worse than they are today. No one has the time and energy to sit and save tens of millions of seeds each year; it makes no sense. Hopefully this helps more people understand the myth of saving seeds and why this has not been popular in over eighty years. Quality, germination, uniformity, and technology are all very important necessities for today’s modern farm.

To learn more about why farmers plant GMOs, read my other article here: If you care about the future of our planet, here’s why you should support GMOs

Michelle Miller, Farm Babe (@thefarmbabe), raises sheep and beef cattle and farms with her boyfriend in Iowa. She believes it is important to bridge the gap between farmers and consumers, and does freelance writing and public speaking. View her blog on Facebook.

  • William

    Great blog Michelle!

  • Rickinreallife

    People have a well meaning belief that saving seed is essentially free, and thus by avoiding the cost farming is more profitable. Thus, farmers purchasing seems to be contrary to their economic self interest and therefore the practice must be because they have been conned or coerced in some way.

    You’ve outlined the most important cost, foregoing yield, disease resistance and other advantages available in new seed varieties. But there is also the cost of income foregone from not selling the portion saved for seed, the risk of seed quality deterioration if not stored properly, including risks of poor germination. There is also the problem of genetic drift that slowly deteriorates yield and other qualities. Purchased seed comes with guarantees of purity, germination. Seed companies also add value with seed treatments that protect seeds from fungal and larval pests in the soil. Purchasing seed is therefore easily explained as a rational economic choice for a farmer to make, it does not require coercion to explain.

    A lot of the public is not aware that farmers were trending toward universal utilization of purchased seed inputs well before genetic engineering arrived on the scene in the late 1990’s, and would likely not go back to seed saving if genetic engineering were abandoned, even in open pollinated crops.

    The USDA’s Economic Research Service periodically publishes data on the U.S. seed industry. This link [ http://www.ers.usda.gov/publications/aib-agricultural-information-bulletin/aib786.aspx%5D is to the 2004 report. Look at tables 4 & 5 on page 10 of the report. Each table includes a column for % of acres planted with purchased seed that year for major crops. Table 4 is for 1982, a decade and a half before ge varieties were offered. Table 5 is for 1997, when ge varieties were just entering the picture and would have represented only a very small fraction of seed planted that year. Even in 1982, purchased seed was used on 95% of corn acres, and over half of soybean and cotton acres. By 1997, purchased seed was used on 100% of corn acres and 80% or more of soybean and cotton acres. This trend toward universal adoption of annually purchased seed precedes genetic engineering and is therefore not explained by the introduction of ge varieties.

    Even wheat, which by 1997 still had a majority of planted acres utilizing saved seed, the picture is not as romantic as some would believe. Even in 1982, most saved wheat was not heirloom wheat, i.e. wheat planted from continuously saved lines over generations. Rather, farmers periodically purchased new seed varieties, and grew these varieties for three or four years from saved seed, then would purchase new seed as improved varieties were offered. The majority of new wheat varieties are developed by public breeding programs, often with development paid for by associations of wheat producers, but there are also commercial wheat seed companies. Aslo, saved seed suffers from genetic drift and yield drag over time, and even if farmers liked the variety, they would purchase new certified seed from time to time to restore more pure genetics. I would estimate that even in 1982, 95% of wheat acres were planted with wheat saved from seed purchased within the previous 4 years.

  • Mandy Pepperidge

    What are some examples of patented hybrids used in organic farming?

    • hyperzombie

      All most all commercial Organic row crops are the same variety as the GMO crops, just without the GMO trait inserted. Grab a seed catalogue sometime and see for yourself all the patented crops that are available.

    • Yes, hyperzombie is spot on. Hybrids general are a GM trait plant crossed into a cultivar suited to the local area. This is great for having the new tech without having to try and also get the disease resistance, yield, grain size, etc, that decades of breeding have already done.

    • hyperzombie

      Even home gardeners can buy patented hybrid crops, see burpee Amaize corn.

      http://www.planetnatural.com/hybrid-sweet-corn/

  • Ken S., As Seen On Watch Lists

    Thank you for posting this! Somebody gave me the film Food, Inc. a while back, and it makes a big deal out of seed saving. It’s good to have some input that comes from farmers themselves instead of through activist film producers.

    • hyperzombie

      Yep, very few farmers save seed, it is just not worth it. There are professional seed growers that are excellent at growing seed. Just leave it to them.

      You can make your own TP, but most choose to buy it from pro TP makers.

      • Good4U

        I laughed for 5 minutes at this one! You made my day.

  • I often find that the anti-mordern farming people (anti-GM, anti-cropping, etc) aren’t just ignorant of farming but also have this mythical pre-green revolution idea of what farming looks like. The number of times I’ve seen people talk about monocultures whilst having no idea just how many different types of the same crop there are, let alone different crops.

    But apparently farmers have time to breed their own crops, hand weed crops, sing lullabies to their animals, are gullible fools easily deceived by evil companies trying to destroy the world, whilst being too stupid to understand how to farm.

    • hyperzombie

      The folks that mention monocultures like it is something new to farming always make me laugh. What do they think they grow in all those ancient rice paddies all over Asia…

  • S.M. Stirling

    Dude, it’s been a long, long, long time since farmers in the US generally saved seeds. Like, many generations.

  • Cerceris

    Great post, great comments.

    Another upside to purchasing certified seed is cleanliness, i.e., minimization of weed seed carry-over.

    Seed-saving and sharing with other farmers has distributed problematic weeds beyond their original range. The parasitic plant dodder has been of particular concern because chemical controls are so limited and mechanical controls are so destructive.

    The use of certified seed, GM traits and herbicide applications to minimize aggressive weeds in agro systems helps delay the appearance of these pests in landscape settings where herbicide users are not nearly so well-trained as farmers.

    • Good point.

      We had dock on the family farm as a result of poorly cleaned seed. Hard to get rid of that one since it was so similar to the cereals.

  • agscienceliterate

    The chart on historical US corn grain yields says it all – excellent graph, Michelle. This clearly shows the environmental footprint advantages per acre of hybrid and GE corn.

  • Snickers

    So, if saving seed is so rare, then why are seed companies so intent on making sure it doesn’t happen? If yields are so poor, it wouldn’t happen more than once and companies would no subject themselves to such bad PR.

    • agscienceliterate

      Seeds have been patented since 1930. This is a very old issue. Has nothing to do with bad PR. Many articles from farmers discuss why they do not save seeds. Read them.

    • That is fallacious thinking. Seed companies aren’t intent on anything of the sort. And the reason for yield decline from saved seed is down to basic genetics. The article fairly concisely explains why farmers prefer “fresh” seed, I suggest you reread the article.

      • Snickers

        You are missing my point. When Monsanto sues elderly farmers it makes great headlines. This is bad PR. If yields are so poor and farmers lose money, very few of them will do it. Some people need to learn by experience. Suing farmers when not many of them do it makes Monsanto look bad in the eyes of the public. Just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.

        • agscienceliterate

          1. Monsanto (and other GE seed companies or any company with a patented trait, GE or not) sue farmers who violate their contract agreements.

          2. Yields of saved seed are lower, which is why serious farmers don’t.

        • I’m not missing the point, and what is more important is that you are un or misinformed.

          Monsanto haven’t sued farmers for retaining seed. They have sued farmers who have deliberately breached patent or contract agreements. The most famous case had someone trying to breed their own line of RR crops.

          So the only reason seed companies would look bad is if you buy into nonsense propaganda from anti-science fools.

        • Rickinreallife

          There are a number of reasons. Lets start with the first.

          Yes, there is an economic component. Private sector companies would have little incentive to invest in the considerable research, development, seed production and distribution and regulatory costs to bring new varieties to the marketplace if intellectual property were easily bypassed. We would all love that — Peter takes the financial risks and is out the money to provide a product at great cost, and Paul gets to use it for the fraction of a cost that Peter incurred. Absent respect for intellectual property, there would be no rationale or capability for the private sector. The farming public would be reliant on public and philanthropic, or collective investment, in other words transferring the cost of seed improvement to the taxpayer or generous benefactors, or taxing themselves to support the development of new varieties.

          Ask yourself, would farmers be tempted to save seed of patented varieties if there were no value. There are public domain varieties available, at less cost with no restriction on seed saving. If the value wasn’t there, why would the farmer take the risk? The fact that the farmer perceived a value in wanting to save seed suggests that the companies have provided something useful and I have little trouble with a legal and economic system that rewards private investment risk and entrepreneurial energy to encourage private sector development of useful products.

          But I get your point, if producers were mostly voluntarily purchasing seed annually because of the advantages of doing so, why would there be a need to enforce licensing restrictions. While I support Monsanto or any seed producer obtaining and enforcing intellectual property, I do feel Monsanto’s bedside manner in doing so was heavy handed and a PR nightmare. However, ge traited varieties with bt and ht traits were such a success and in demand, and they were sold at a premium, there is still the temptation for producers to brownbag, to grow a variety and sell it as seed to others, or cross breed desired traits from a protected variety purposely or inadvertently with a public domain variety. That is a problem with or without ge.

          Which brings me to the second reason, maintaining integrity of the marketplace. Brownbagging is a problem because products of cottage seed producers of pirated genetics are typically inferior — non certified seed producers typically cannot provide the purity of genetics or traits get added to varieties that are not suitable for local growing conditions, other reasons that create caveat emptor conditions. Producers of legitimate seed products are harmed since the public becomes wary of the performance of traits advertised by seed companies because they wrongfully associate poor performance of the trait with poor performance of brownbagged varieties of dubious genetic quality. This is true regardless of the method by which new seed varieties are developed, and it plagues public and philanthropic breeding programs as it makes it harder for farmers to be certain they get the genetics they are paying for. Policing illegal brownbagging is not a practice just of Monsanto and private sector seed companies, it is something Universities and other non-commercial breeding programs that breed new varieties as a public good have to do to avoid diluting the value of seed development for the sake of farmers themselves.

          Finally, there are regulatory compliance purposes as well. The technology use agreement, with its restrictions on seed saving, are the means by which seed companies meet the requirements of release of new ge, and even some non-ge varieties. For example, approval of commercial release of bt traited crops typically requires that the seed company enforce the planting of refuge in a portion of their crop as a resistance management requirement imposed by the regulatory agency. If not through the technology use agreement whereby a producer is contractually bound to plant refuge acres, or to acquire new seed with refuge seed interspersed with the bt seed, producers would have no restriction on planting all bt seed, undermining resistance management for themselves and all of their neighbors. We might have to come up with an alternative means of enforcing resistance management, perhaps even criminalizing non-compliance of farmers, again transferring costs to the taxpayer. We are already seeing these regulatory requirements relating to resistance management extend to ht traits, and the technology use agreement is a means by which seed companies can meet their regulatory expectations to manage herbicide resistance.

          I myself would like to see greater public investment in public research to develop crops with traits that ge puts within our reach as a public good. But even here, there needs to be legal and regulatory steps taken to preserve seed identity and quality so that the public investment is not squandered, as well as to generate revenues to support new public crop development. I realize that this is essentially the taxpayer subsidizing this, but I think some of the most valuable innovations would not necessarily be commercially viable and would require public subsidy.

  • Thank you so much for this article.

  • Shadeburst

    When you plant your 27 million seeds your input costs per acre are going to be the same whether the seeds germinate or not: fuel, labor, water, soil tests, fertilizer, herbicide, pesticide, amortization of machinery, land taxes. That’s why it pays to buy guaranteed seed, in fact it’s a no-brainer. The seed companies have taken a bet that their seeds will germinate, fully and evenly, and you can’t lose.

    • Exactly.

      Although, I’m not sure if this holds in other countries, but I would assume it does, Australian seed companies do germinability tests that indicate a percentage. We have calculators that expect that figure to be available for farmers to work out their inputs for production.