“We Have a Right to Save Seeds. Right?”

posted in: Commentary | 44

So says a video produced by Open Solutions Project.

Flowering purple basil on my patio. I also grew Italian basil and Thai basil. Photo by Anastasia Bodnar.
Flowering purple basil on my patio. I also grew Italian basil and Thai basil. Photo by Anastasia Bodnar.

I can appreciate that people want to be able save seeds. I grow a few herbs on my patio and it would be nice to be able to save the seeds… assuming I had the time and wanted to spend the effort to dry the seeds, etc instead of just buying seedlings that have already established!

I did let my basil plants flower so the bees could enjoy them, and I had big plans to save the seeds but realized I just don’t have the time between my day job and all my Biofortified and other communication activities not to mention spending time with hubby, cleaning the house, etc!

Still, I know some people save seeds and even do some breeding as a hobby. This could be fun for those who have gardens in their yards or even for small farmers. Again, this assumes that the efforts in drying the seeds is worth the time and effort when one can buy premium seeds for relatively low price. It’s pretty unrealistic for row crop farmers to save seed, at least if they want to have good genetics, but that’s another post.

If I had the time and space, I’d love to be able to do some breeding projects, maybe I could make my own variety of purple Thai basil or something. Thai basil has a lovely anise type flavor and has purple stems but the leaves stay green. Purple basil has a slightly spicy but mild flavor. I bet they could be combined with a bit of effort, and I think purple basil would be beautiful in pho!

Basil breeding would be cool just as a hobby, and if I was in the business of selling basil, it could potentially be a way to create a niche market for myself. But hey, if I did then go and spend years making careful crosses, then sold my lovely purple Thai basil plants to people, then anyone who wanted more of the basil that I spent years developing could just plant the seeds from them. And there’d be nothing to stop them from selling the plants from those seeds. Unless there was a way for me to protect my invention, just like wheat breeders do.

If I was just doing this as a hobby or if I wanted to share my purple Thai basil with the world for free, that’d be great. Yay for sharing seeds! But what if I needed to make money from the basil? What if this was my full time job and I made money because my basil was special and if people just started growing it and giving it away or selling it, this would cut into my market and all of my efforts breeding a special variety would in the end have all been just a waste of time because now I can’t make a living off it. Boo for sharing seeds!

Some people want to breed new varieties just for fun, or they may have other reasons to not claim intellectual property for the varieties they develop. And that is wonderful, just as we bloggers really, really appreciate people who take beautiful photos and share them on Flickr with a Creative Commons license. But some people want to make a living from their work, whether that is plant breeding, photography, or other art or inventing types of activities. Sometimes I do get frustrated when I find the perfect photo to illustrate a blog post but I really don’t want to pay a license fee just as sometimes people find the perfect plant variety that they’d like to save seeds from but they don’t want to pay the license fee. But that doesn’t mean that the photographer or the breeder doesn’t have the right to charge for their work.

Happily, there is plenty of room for both non-profit and for-profit inventing and creating in this world. There’s room for the big seed companies, there’s room for small companies and even small breeders like the Zaigers and their pluots, there’s room for non-profits and academics who do breeding, and for farmers and hobbyists who want to save seeds. The only caveat is that you can only save seeds from someone who has allowed it – just as a Creative Commons license allows free use of a creative work but it’s not cool if you use someone’s work without permission.

Now I just know someone is going to come by and say “but Monsanto controls all seeds!” so to help nip that in the bud (don’t you love plant-based idioms?) here is some interesting financial info about Monsanto that I recently researched…

When we look at the revenues of various food and agriculture companies in the US, it’s actually kinda shocking how tiny Monsanto is, given their big bad reputation. They only bring in $11.82 billion per year – compare that to Sara Lee’s $12.10 billion per year! John Deere rakes in $32.01 billion, talk about control of the market! And none of these compare to the real heavy hitter of BASF (which makes a variety of chemicals and recently got into biotech) at $104.04 billion. I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the top 1 and 2 revenues: Exxon Mobil at $452.93 billion and Wal-Mart at $446.95 billion (not shown here because they’d literally be off the chart).

Chart by Anastasia Bodnar. Click for larger image.
Chart by Anastasia Bodnar. Click for larger image.

The companies shift around a bit if we look at profits rather than revenues. Monsanto is still comparable to Sara Lee, with $1.61 and $1.29 billion respectively. Archer Daniels moves down in the rankings because a lot of their money is tied up in supply chains. And Coca Cola overtakes Pepsi.

2012 Profits
Chart by Anastasia Bodnar. Click for larger image. (Syngenta, Bayer, and BASF are not shown here because I didn’t want to force an inexact comparison as they are not listed in the Fortune 500).

The data above is for all revenues, though, not just agriculture based. So let’s zoom in on the “big six” companies that produce seeds and agricultural chemicals. Monsanto is just 19.5% of agriculture revenues, and that doesn’t even include hundreds of smaller companies so Monsanto’s market share is even smaller. One really interesting thing about this pie chart is the dominance of non-US based companies. Syngenta, Bayer, and BASF are all European companies. If we look at US companies vs European we get $32.05 vs $28.63 billion. Want to buy American? Support Monsanto, as well as DuPont (Pioneer) and Dow. There’s always surprises when you actually look at the data!

2012 Agricultural Revenues
Chart by Anastasia Bodnar. Click for larger image.

EDIT: I learned at the Feeding the Planet Summit that Land O’ Lakes, in addition to being a great butter producer, also owns Purina, and has a very successful agricultural research and development side called WinField. They sell seeds as well as other inputs, and at this time all of their seed is non-GMO. According to their annual report, they’ve been pretty aggressively buying up smaller businesses, including seed companies, to grow the company. Their 2012 sales for seeds and agricultural chemicals was $4.73 million. They aren’t as big as the “big six” but they certainly shouldn’t be ignored!

EDIT: Thanks to Justin Hand for tracking down Which company is ‘top seed’? by Jim J. Jubak on MSN Money from Jul 26, 2013. In this article, Jim presents the percent of sales that consist of seeds only for Monsanto, Syngenta, and DuPont (unfortunately he does not share his source data). I multiplied those percentages by 2012 revenues to get the following table, showing that of these three companies, Monsanto does sell more seed than the other two. Jim also states that “In 2010, by Monsanto’s figures, the company had 36% of the branded corn seed market, 29% of the branded soybean market and 41% of the cottonseed market.”

Company 2012 Revenues Seed  Seed Revenues Crop Protection Crop Protection Revenues
Monsanto  $    11.80 73%  $      8.61 27%  $       3.19
Syngenta  $    14.20 25%  $      3.55 75%  $     10.65
DuPont  $    38.70 15%  $      5.73 15%  $       5.81

Jim continues: “But if you count not just the seed the company sells under its own brands, but the seed sold by competitors under Monsanto license, the figures, according to a DuPont law suit in 2010, come to 98% of soybean seed and 79% of corn seed.” However, that license only applies to one gene in the seed. The background genetics,which makes up 99+% of the genetic diversity of the crop is still owned by the company selling the seed. Some compare Monsanto’s trait licenses to computer manufacturers licensing Windows – but that’s a poor comparison since one or a few genes are not equivalent to an operating system. The background genetics is the operating system and the licensed trait is like a bit of code, or maybe a single small program – Paint and Notepad are useful programs after all but they are small.

I still contend that crop protection sales (fertilizer, pesticides, etc) are a very important part of farming so it seems a bit strange to focus so much on seed. If Monsanto disappeared tomorrow, we’d lose a large chunk of the seed market, but in the next few years, the other seed companies could simply grow more seed to sell from their existing seed programs. However, if Syngenta disappeared tomorrow, it would be very difficult for other companies to start making all the niche crop protection products that farmers (for better or for worse) have come to depend on. I’m not an economist, but this is what I see.

Feel free to download the charts and source data yourself and whip up your own graphs – let us know if you find anything interesting!

Sources: Revenues and Profits data from CNN Money and 2012 annual reports for Bayer, BASF, Dow, Dupont, Land O’ LakesMonsanto, and Syngenta.

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Anastasia is Policy Director of Biology Fortified, Inc. and the Co-Executive Editor of the Biofortified Blog. She has a PhD in genetics with a minor in sustainable agriculture from Iowa State University. Her favorite produce is artichokes!