Seed Industry History

State of the Seed Industry Today

The global seed industry has become consolidated under just a handful of companies that have bought out small seed producers and who are committed to controlling virtually all of the commercial seed that is sold in the world. Even more concerning, most of these are also chemical companies that are focused on the production of GMO varieties made to withstand large doses of their toxic, synthetic agrochemicals. For a visual of this consolidation, check out this chart from Dr. Philip Howard of Michigan State University.

These entities are focused almost solely on developing and distributing so-called elite seed varieties that are patentable and remain under the ownership and control of private corporations. This seed is designed primarily to serve the largest commercial farms and the major agricultural regions around the world, as well as the large seed providers. These varieties represent an extremely narrow slice of the world's genetic diversity, yet they are becoming an ever-larger percentage of all seed planted. As a result, the smaller, diverse farms that provide a significant portion of the world's food are often forced to use seed varieties that are not only expensive, but may not grow particularly well in their environments.

As this happens, traditional and heirloom open-pollinated varieties, representing a 10,000-year, public-domain agricultural heritage, are largely being neglected by commercial seed companies since this material cannot be patented, and maintaining and selling it offers very little financial reward. These open-pollinated varieties contain numerous valuable agronomic and horticultural traits, representing foundational genetic information that is essential for establishing a reliable and just food system as climate change begins to threaten agriculture. A growing movement has emerged to preserve these varieties. Unfortunately, the quality and quantity of this seed is still mostly unavailable to the world's farmers. At the same time, mega seed companies are prohibiting customers from saving seed, squashing food and seed sovereignty, threatening food security and threatening the traditional practice of seed saving. On top of this, GMO contamination is being found organic seed from large companies, threatening the organic industry's' access to truly organic, non-GMO inputs. These factors motivated the Family Farmer Seed Cooperative to form with the mission of providing organic, open pollinated, public domain seed directly from farmers to farmers.

The following detailed history was written by Matthew Dillon

One hundred fifty years ago the United States did not have a commercial seed industry; today we have the world’s largest. A nation once a ‘debtor’ in plant genetics now supplies the world. In 1854, seeds were sourced through a small number of seed catalogs, on-farm seed saving and seed exchanges, and through the beneficence of the United States government. Beginning in the 1850s, the U.S. Patent and Trade Office (PTO) and congressional representatives saw to the collection, propagation and distribution of varieties to their constituents throughout the states and territories. By 1861 the PTO had an annual distribution of more than 2.4 million packages of seed, reaching its highest distribution volume in 1897 at 1.1 billion packets of seed.

Fostering Food Security

The government’s objectives in funding such a massive movement of seed stemmed from the recognition that feeding an expanding continent would require a diversification of foods. To the early colonies, the introduction of wheat, rye, oats, peas, cabbage and many other vegetable crops was as critical to food security as was the adoption of the corn, beans and squash. Immigrants were encouraged to bring seed from the old country, seed-exchange societies were formed, and the U.S. Treasury Department issued a directive to its overseas consultants and Navy officers to systematically collect plant materials.

Growth of the Seed Trade

The first commercial seed crop of cabbage was produced in 1866 on Long Island for the U.S. wholesale market. Early seed trade professionals felt their growth was stymied by the government seed programs, as well as the self-replicating nature of their product. In 1883 the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) formed and immediately lobbied for the cessation of the PTO seed distribution programs, claiming they were “antagonistic to seed as a commodity-form and in direct competition with the private seed trade.”

In the early part of the 20th century, the first wave of hybrids provided seed companies with the potential for increased profits; hybrids required farmers to return to the seed distributor for seed each year. However, most of the hybrid development was occurring at land grant universities (LGUs), and these universities refused to give the companies exclusive rights to the seed. Industry argued that yield increases from seed developed in government programs had slowed and privatization of seed development would foster greater food security.

In 1924, after 40+ years of lobbying, ASTA succeeded in convincing Congress to cut USDA's seed distribution programs. The American Society of Agronomy and American Society of Horticulture Science argued that the LGUs' role was training plant breeders and performing fundamental research for private industry to capitalize on. These changes in the public role and improvements in hybrid techniques led to the growth of regional seed companies following World War II. Americans planted Victory Gardens and the seed trade reflected this diversity in food production.


In the 1960s, a few larger seed firms began to purchase smaller companies, acquiring stronger hybrid holdings. Consolidation increased rapidly following a Supreme Court ruling on June 16, 1980, in the case of Diamond v. Chakrabarty. Prior to the Chakrabarty decision, a plant (or animal) could be owned, but the genetics could not. Following the ruling, the PTO granted more than 1,800 patents on life forms. Companies that had no historical seed interests, including chemical and pharmaceutical firms, began purchasing seed companies, resulting in billions of dollars in mergers and acquisitions. No other natural resource has ever shifted from public to private hands with such rapidity, such intensity of concentration, with little to no regulatory oversight.



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