Monday, September 21, 2009

Who owns my seeds?

When I talk about “the commons” to people unfamiliar with the concept, I often use examples that seem very obvious to me, such as water and air. Many people are familiar with water wars and how Coca-Cola, Vivendi and other multi-nationals have bought water rights, or how towns and cities have to fight to keep their water systems publicly owned, and how many people have lost that fight. Air presents a different problem, since no one can own the air, but because of that, corporations can dump pollution into the air for free. Still it’s something that people easily grasp as part of the commons.

One example of the commons that people are often surprised is even an issue is seeds. If I buy tomato seeds and grow tomatoes, it seems obvious that if I wanted to, I could keep seeds from some of my tomatoes and plant them next year – ditto for corn, rice, wheat or whatever. In fact for most of the world’s history, this is exactly how crops were grown—seeds from one crop became the plants for next year.

Enter Monsanto to whom the right to keep my own seeds and plant them next year is not at all obvious. What is obvious to them is that they should own all seeds and that people should have to buy seeds from them every year. As of this year, here in the United States, Monsanto – through acquisitions and cut-throat business practices – has cornered 90% of the soy, 65% of the corn, and 70% of the cotton markets, and has a rapidly growing presence in the fruit and vegetable markets. Monsanto seeds are sold all over the world, but here in the United States, we theoretically have anti-trust laws to prevent this kind of thing. Further, in order to be as productive as possible, Monsanto's seeds need the toxic herbicide, Roundup, which is also owned by Monsanto. And, as the final nail in farmers’ coffins, Monsanto raised its prices 42% on its most popular genetically modified seeds, which in many areas of the country are the only ones available.

So far there has not been a peep from the Obama administration about this clear and flagrant abuse of anti-trust laws. I am sure that this is partly due to the fact that most people who are not farmers could never imagine the notion of owning seeds, let alone owning almost all of them, and so there is little outcry. David Bollier says that the preeminent task of our day is recognizing all the commons in our midst and certainly this is an excellent example.

For more information and to send a letter to President Obama's antitrust chief Christine Varney, visit

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