Why activists, but few farmers, complain they can’t save patented seeds

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Pity the poor farmer who saves seeds. According to anti-GMO activists, the hapless seed saver who’s simply trying to raise crops more cheaply by not paying for new seeds each year, is being oppressed by evil “Big Ag” — companies that only want to sell their hybrid and patented seeds (often, but not always, genetically modified) every year.

Of course, GMOs are implicated as the cause of all this, because all of their seeds are patented. Oh, greed!

But there’s another reason to pity the poor seed-saving farmers: They are probably going to see crops with reduced yields, increased susceptibility to disease — and are even risking an increase in crop failure. And this is not because of Monsanto, GMOs or patent law.

It’s because of some basic biology lessons we all learned in high school. Or should have.

Blogs like this one in Alternet claim that “for as long as humans have been growing food, farmers have saved seeds from their harvest to sow the following year.” The meme, and it’s a familiar one in anti-GMO circles, goes on to accuse large agricultural companies of changing the game by developing crop varieties and receiving patent protection to prevent farmers from saving the seeds they purchased. Some critics even imply that these nasty companies have developed “terminator” seeds–sterile seeds designed so they can’t grow again.

But because of that 19th-century Austrian monk we should all remember from high school, there’s another, better reason why seeds shouldn’t be saved.

Around the same time Gregor Mendel was doing his work, in the United States, farmers moving westward began farming plants new to the New World. Many saved seeds, which had variable results. The U.S. government (and some states) began distributing seeds and plants for free, in the hope that farmers would use the latest, most improved varieties. Those county and state fairs where you can now eat deep-fried chocolate bars? They owe their origin to government officials trying to get the best plants to farmers everywhere.

The U.S. population gradually changed from an agrarian to an industrial, consumer-based economy, and the need for more consistent, large-scale agriculture grew stronger. The focus shifted to improving seed varieties.

F1 hybrid

The F1 (first generation) hybrid is a product of Mendelian genetics. You start with two parents that are homozygous for a trait you like, such as color or taste (let’s say, AA and aa, BB and bb). Breed the homozygous parents (aka, F0), and all the offspring have the trait you want (Aa or Bb). The traits you want are in that first generation (F1) plant. The main difference here between “open pollination” and this method is that you start with inbred homozygous parent plants, and carefully control how pollen gets to the offspring.

Trying this with a generation bred from F1 plants leads to worse results. The first generation from F1 (aka, the second generation) will have half of the traits you want. Keep breeding like this, and you stand greater chances of losing the traits you want, and growing traits you don’t.

This is why farmers don’t save seeds. Using saved seeds are less reliable. Many times the traits you must value are just lost, or the risk of less than high quality crops is high. Farmers are hard nosed business people; they can’t afford to risk weak harvests; they are willing to pay a premium for seeds that grow true.

Researchers have documented a distinct advantage to using hybrid seeds over “bin-fed” or saved standard seeds. A Wisconsin agronomist looked at data collected by North Carolina State University researchers, and “found a 1.9 bushel per acre advantage to certified seed over bin-run seed. In some cases, they were higher. Conley notes Wisconsin data showed a 2.2 bushel per acre advantage for certified over bin-run seed.”

The USDA helped pioneer the development hybrids decades before and independently of genetic engineering, contrary to the propaganda espoused by anti-GMO foods organizations. Researchers found that better F1s arose from controlling pollination of parent plants, usually by physical means including tenting parent plants, removing pollen-containing organs, and isolating hybrid plants from other varieties in a crop.

This process doesn’t happen overnight (hence the case for genetic engineering, which can cut development time down from decades to less than a year in some cases). Hybrids have to be pollinated by hand, and not every hybrid is a winner. Similar to pharmaceutical production, a successful F1 hybrid may take more than 10 years to develop. The justification for patenting new drugs and hybrid or GMO seeds is identical. Agricultural hybrids can cost about $150 million to produce. While that figure pales in comparison to the $1 billion it takes to develop a new drug, it still underscores the need for intellectual property protections of new products. And these protections are available to any hybrid, not just those that were produced through genetic engineering.

Now that the patent for “Roundup soybeans” has expired, does that mean we will have a flood of farmers saving the off patent seeds for the next harvest? That’s already happening of course. But with each succeeding generation, the quality will erode. Then it’s back to the higher quality patented seeds.

Andrew Porterfield is a writer, editor and communications consultant for academic institutions, companies and non-profits in the life sciences. He is based in Camarillo, California. Follow @AMPorterfield on Twitter.

  • Eric Bjerregaard

    Well done and correct. there are exceptions, of course. I asked a plant pathologist why I can never find Datil peppers in my catalogues. He said that they think there is a seed borne virus, not proven yet. And that the companies do not want the complaints or risk associated. I save my papaya seeds. I am trying to develop a strain that suits my purposes in an isolated and not ideal area for them.

    • Andrew Porterfield

      Oh yeah, not every hybrid’s a winner and even the winners can take a very long time. Just had a conversation with a canola farmer–it took 10 years to get a good F1.

      • Eric Bjerregaard

        Hey Andrew, I am crossing Waimanolo and Tainung number 2 so far. I will be selecting for short stocky plants with good flavor and precociousness. Any suggestions would be welcome.

        • Andrew Porterfield

          I wouldn’t know bout specific plants, but I am interested in another story about the challenges of growing hybrids. How long have you been working on the papaya crosses?

          • Eric Bjerregaard

            This will be the 4th year. I am getting some with red and some with orange flesh from the Waimanolo. I have noticed that some seem less effected by cooler soil temps in the winter in the greenhouses. When we get our first Nor’easter. We can get several days with clouds and drizzle followed by nights in the lower 40s or upper 30s. Soil temps drop and do not come back up until late Feb.

  • Jenna E Gallegos

    Here’s a video on the subject by grad students and scientists at UC Davis: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zI_lwy8KfHI

    • Farmer Sue

      Excellent video! From a world-class ag university. Thanks for posting, Jenna. And for producing and being in this video, btw!

      • Jenna E Gallegos

        Thanks Sue! You caught me in a shameless plug lol. Feel free to connect @foodbeerscience or check out the Davis Science Policy and Communication Group’s other projects at: https://davissciencepolicy.wordpress.com/ More videos to come!

        • Farmer Sue

          Great – keep posting them! Any shameless plug for science around modern farming and genetics is awesome!!

    • Stuart M.

      “Hybrid vigor” just entered my vocabulary and understanding! Thanks!

  • botanybob

    Spot on, I work in plant breeding for popcorn and agree with everything in this article.
    The only exception I would say is that self pollinated species like soybean or wheat are typically F8+ before release and genes are fixed, so if you save seeds and grow F9 it will produce very similar plants. Without patents you could get away with this for several generations before pests and pathogens evolve to overcome genetic defenses.
    With that being said, bin run (brown bagged) seed favors survivors and not necessarily best yielders, so you could see a decline in yield over time.

  • Ewan_R

    Error in the work citing the difference between hybrid and bin run seed. This work covers soy (which isn’t sold as hybrid) and highlights that certified seed is superior in yield to bin run seed (saved)

  • John Hatch

    Another point that never seems to get mentioned is that optimum yields require precision planting with modern equipment and seed that is sized to match. Bin run seed is not that uniform or clean, both of which will cause problems. Then, to have any idea of what breeding is in the seed you are using there has to be isolation from other sources of pollen. Corn, which is wind pollinated, needs a mile of space from other sources of pollen which you con’t get in corn country without some pretty big bean fields on all sides. Seed saving is done by folks raising heirloom varieties in garden plots and folks trying to farm in old traditional ways for religious or ideological reasons. They also get about half the yields and significantly more erosion than their more modern neighbors.

    • hyperzombie

      Corn, which is wind pollinated, needs a mile of space from other sources of pollen which you con’t get in corn country without some pretty big bean fields on all sides.
      Total BS, A mile? Corn pollen is very heavy it does not go far.

      • agscienceliterate

        Right. Minimal, at 28 meters.
        http://www.isb.vt.edu/articles/feb0502.htm

        • hyperzombie

          Hell yes, if corn pollen flew everywhere there would not be popcorn, MBR corn, field corn, and sweet corn, it would all be just corn,

      • John Hatch

        Well that was one figure I pulled off the internet and it’s one used by folks trying to maintain old varieties. To be more precise, if you are trying to produce seed corn, your ability to do so will depend on a number of factors; hybrid seed for a seed company, open pollinated for your own use, heirloom variety for sale or maintenance of a germ line, type of corn, days from planting until tassels form, size of the field, whether corn was planted there in the past year, your desired standard of purity and so forth. Here’s a link to a paper giving the requirements for hybrid seed: http://www.indianacrop.org/ICIA/Media/ICIA/Certification-Standards/CORN-STANDARDS-2007.pdf
        And if you are worried about GM material contaminating organic seed corn stock, here’s a paper from the U C Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources: http://anrcatalog.ucanr.edu/pdf/8192.pdf
        Read past the parts that say ” most of pollen settles within 20 to 50 feet (6 to 15 m) of the donor plant” because its a little more complicated that that.

  • botanybob

    Yes and no. I graduated with masters from nc state plant breeding program (mentioned in article). Depends on the type of plant. Soybean is self pollinated so it is usually at least F8 before it gets to growers and Is completely homozygous. You can keep that seed and grow it with no problems. Corn is open pollinated and F1 has hybrid vigor this is desired by farmers. Saving that seed and growint next year will not make true to type corn.

  • Michael Oosting

    I’m not sure where the author got the idea that farmers don’t care about the seed patent laws. Many farmers are opposing the seed patent laws, including our National Farmer’s Union here in Canada which is one of the largest national farmers’ organizations: http://www.nfu.ca/issues/save-our-seed

    Whoever wrote this article seems to be conflating intellectual property of seeds with the existence of hybrid seed – the two are not synonymous, most hybrid seed is neither GMO nor under patent. To be opposed to the former is not to be opposed the latter. There’s also a few other incorrect assumptions here.

    Many crops can be replanted from hybrid seed and retain some hybrid vigour as an F2, canola and wheat are often grown this way as hybrid seed is incredibly expensive. Seed patent laws prevent this, and force farmers looking for a desired trait to pay full retail price for seed.

    Also, though hybrid vigour is certainly the easiest way to a high-quality seed line, it is perfectly possible to maintain an O/P (open pollinated) line of high quality that is almost as true-to-type for much much cheaper – for this reason both O/P and hybrid seed are readily available on the commercial vegetable seed market and also on the forage seed market. Most niche grain crops even use O/P seed.

    Source: Ag major/farmworker.

    • Farmer with a Dell

      Mediocrity is always an option, of course. Must we make that the officially sanctioned gold standard?

    • hyperzombie

      National Farmer’s Union here in Canada which is one of the largest national farmers’ organizations:
      LOL, my local co-op has more members.

      Many crops can be replanted from hybrid seed and retain some hybrid vigour

      Untrue, they would no longer retain hybrid vigor. Because they are not hybrids anymore. .

      hybrid seed is incredibly expensive.

      Depends on the crop, some are even less expensive than some Non Hybrid specialty seed.

      Seed patent laws prevent this, and force farmers looking for a desired trait to pay full retail price for seed.

      And they should have to pay extra, the desired trait would not be available if it was not for patent laws.

      Also, though hybrid vigour is certainly the easiest way to a high-quality seed line
      Not high quality, but high yield for most hybrids.

      it is perfectly possible to maintain an O/P (open pollinated) line of high quality

      Sure but you will not get the additional yield/other traits that a hybrid will give you.

      for this reason both O/P and hybrid seed are readily available on the commercial vegetable seed market and also on the forage seed market.

      True, but very few farmers buy them and many are also patented.

      Most niche grain crops even use O/P seed.

      So what, what is your point?

      • Michael Oosting

        NFU has about 1/5 of all farms in Ontario, at the very least. I cannot speak to out west but I know their members number in the tens of thousands all told across the country.

        “Mediocrity is always an option, of course. Must we make that the officially sanctioned gold standard?” – I have no issues with hybrid seed and certainly it’s a godsend for many farmer’s yields. Just pointing out that the author’s knowledge of how seed works and what seed patent laws are seems spotty.

        “Untrue, they would no longer retain hybrid vigor.” – Totally true. With some crops (like I mentioned, wheat and canola) you can plant a mix of F1 hybrid seed, harvest, and end up with an F2 hybrid for replanting for much cheaper than the cost of just buying all of your seed as F1. You’d be bullshitting if you said absolutely no one does this as I have personally worked for some large farms who do. As botanybob describes above, it’s apparently also doable with soybean (something I didn’t know!)

        “True, but very few farmers buy them and many are also patented.” – Many farmers use o/p vegetable and forage seed. Precisely because it’s much much cheaper, and they can keep their own – many farms are still harvesting and using their own forage seed rather than buying certified. In the case of vegetables hybrid seed can sometimes be triple the price of o/p seed, so many choose the o/p lines because the best of them can be as productive as the hybrids at a fraction of the cost. And you are right, they can be and sometimes are patented, which leads us to the point of the whole comment…

        We’re arguing about things that aren’t synonymous. I was just pointing out some issues with the author’s understanding of seed. The biggest issue here is that they seem to be conflating the existence of hybrid seed with seed patent laws. As you mention, seed does not even need to be hybrid to be patented. It doesn’t even need to be seed – you can patent scions for grafting fruit trees, preventing farmers from propagating their own trees.

        Seed patent laws are insidious because it not only prevents farmers from propagating their own seed/trees/whatever, it prevents them from using patented varieties in their own breeding efforts. I recognize that R&D costs money and that without patents, unscrupulous seed companies could simply scoop up new varieties produced by other firms and resell them – the part where I take issue is how this targets the farmers that aren’t commercializing seed.

        • Farmer with a Dell

          For us farmers who aren’t “commercializing seed” (most, damned near all of us) and who have no intention of doing so, we have no problem with patents or contracts. We definitely are not “targets” — the dishonest folks who look to snag good technology and “commercialize” it for their own profit are the ones being “targeted” by patents and contracts, and rightly so.

          To be sure, the small old fashioned operators who prefer to keep seed from season to season are not “targeted” either. They don’t buy much new seed and on those rare occasions when they do it probably is certified seed in traditional varietals with contracts they have always been able to live with. These folks have no legitimate interest in patented varietals if they intend to save seed, that’s the deal, up front and all above board. For you to whine on their behalf smells fishy. Is that the sort of outfit NFU aspires to be, a defensive haven for petty seed bandits and backyard chicken thieves?

        • hyperzombie

          NFU has about 1/5 of all farms in Ontario, at the very least.
          Well i highly doubt that, but still there are very few farms in ontario, so it is still basically 0.

          their members number in the tens of thousands all told across the country.
          Still smaller than my Coop, and I highly doubt the numbers. Well unless membership is free.

          With some crops (like I mentioned, wheat and canola)

          There is no true hybrid wheat or canola as far as i know. wheat is already a polyploid.

          F2 hybrid for replanting for much cheaper than the cost of just buying all of your seed as F1

          Saving seed is normally not cheaper, lots of work needs to be done to save seed. work costs money.

          You’d be bullshitting if you said absolutely no one does this as I have personally worked for some large farms who do

          Well i would never say no one, but over 99% of all farmers buy seed, not because we are corporate drones, it is because it pays to buy seed.

          Many farmers use o/p vegetable and forage seed.

          You mean very few, some do, but most do not. (some veggie farmers cant even harvest the seed from the crop, they sell it with the veggies)

          so many choose the o/p lines because the best of them can be as productive as the hybrids at a fraction of the cost.

          Really??? Do you have any sales data on this factoid?

  • Diana Bernal

    That is from the point of view from inside USA, but in other countries, the situation goes that in order to enter free trade agreements, governments agree to make their farmers crop elite varieties, and don’t let them save seeds to plant next season. Therefore, you have agricultural authorities coming to destroy truck loads of rice, for instance, where there is so much people starving. Monsanto, Bayer, and other plant breeders do have a monopoly over seed production, and seek to optimize economic yield over any other concern. That makes an ill fated system unfair to many people around the world. In addition Monsanto produces glyphosphate, and push for air aspersion to destroy coca crops, with concentrations so high that are hazardous to humans and damage any crop around. But the won’t let any conutry regulation stand in their way of selling glyphosphate, no matter how much little farmers crops they destroy.

  • Su San

    http://www.foodrenegade.com/hybrid-seeds-vs-gmos/ I am so sorry, but 2.2 bushels increase in production, does NOT a bag of ‘certified’ seed, buy. Nope. And, nor does it pay for fungicide application, rigged fertilizer market prices, nor CEU mandated pesticide licenses. However, it does give the speculator fuel to depress the price at the elevator. That’s were the farmer profit is locked out. But that’s okay. Farmers enjoy growing grain, and every hobby has it’s price. The ones who are howling, went to work in town one generation ago, so that they too, could afford to farm. Imagine their shock when the farm overhead ate their 401k&payroll withholding to the HSA and general Savings Acct, for the year? The only profit made, is money not spent. Following the crop disaster, the seed that must be purchased, will cost the profit for the next crop. Now, where’s that timeclock so we can ‘afford’ to farm, next year?