The first time you bite into a perfectly ripe, fresh-picked heirloom tomato, you’ll wonder how you ever settled for anything less. A conventional tomato’s flavor just pales in comparison. That’s because heirloom crops come from special seeds whose lineage has been protected and cultivated for more than fifty years. They’re pollinated through natural sources like wind and insects, which preclude them from being subjected to large-scale farming efforts that require less variable results. (Open pollination, being less controlled than other methods, yields new generations of plants with different gene pools, and therefore different types of crops.) And that’s exactly why heirloom seed cultivation has experienced such a resurgence as of late—it’s the antithesis of the modern agricultural movement and of Monsanto, its leading proponent.
Documentaries like Food, Inc. and The Future of Food give audiences a staggering glimpse into how Monsanto, a biotech corporation responsible for the majority of food production in the United States, turned the simple, age-old act of farming into a highly industrialized, genetically engineered endeavor. In its quest to acquire more seed companies, claim more seed patents, and bully more competing farmers out of business, Monsanto has made sure that the vast majority of crops grown in the United States will be from their lab-made seeds.
As Monsanto gains power and agricultural influence, heirloom seeds—those that can be traced back to a time when seeds weren’t created to mesh well with pesticides—become increasingly harder to find and grow. How has Monsanto put naturally delicious and nutritious heirloom crops in danger?
Paving the Way with Chemicals and Coercion
To understand Monsanto’s looming role in today’s heirloom seed industry, it helps to know the company’s role in farming overall—specifically, the fact that it didn’t even have one up until a decade or two ago. Monsanto started out as a chemical producer back at the turn of the twentieth century, generating sweeteners like saccharin and industrial products like sulfuric acid before moving into insecticides like DDT in the 1940s. The current leading food manufacturer in the United States, Monsanto used to make one of the worst chemicals, both environmentally and health-wise, ever created. They helped make Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, too.
Monsanto shifted to biotech during the 1990s, a little more than a decade after they figured out how to modify a plant cell genetically—the result of which they could patent, thanks to a 1980 Supreme Court–case ruling allowing seed patents for the first time. (It used to be that you couldn’t patent living things, but once genetics were brought into the mix, judges decided that the coding created in plant seeds could be owned.) Once patents were allowed, pharmaceutical companies entered the agriculture business and started buying up seeds left and right and creating new strains to patent. But Monsanto was especially entrepreneurial. Not only did it bring genetically engineered seeds that were designed to withstand cold weather and promote fast growth onto the market, it also introduced an especially efficient weed killer called Roundup. Soon after, Roundup Ready seeds, a line of seeds created to work well with the popular herbicide, were also released.
What does this have to do with heirloom crops? Monsanto has a rule for farmers who use their Roundup Ready seeds, and considering that the company is responsible for over 90 percent of soybean crops and 80 percent of corn crops in the United States, that means the vast majority of farmers out there have to follow it. The rule is that seeds can’t be reused the next year, forcing farmers to buy new seeds after each harvest. That rule also goes against how heirloom crops are produced year after year. And since Monsanto is in the business of growing its profits more than anything else, it buys up or drives out of business smaller companies that sell heirloom seeds. It’s getting harder for independent farmers to get their hands on any non–genetically modified seed, let alone any with long, intact lineages.
Monsanto Spreads Its Seed, Then Sues
The fact that Monsanto’s seeds are so far-reaching is bad news for heirloom crops in another way, as well. Remember that heirlooms are pollinated by wind, insects, and rain, which also carry pollen from other sources. The problem is that you can’t fully control what other sources invade your crops. Since Monsanto has crops all over the country (and world), it’s increasingly difficult to keep heirloom (and organic) crops from getting contaminated. What’s worse, if Monsanto finds out that any of their patented materials landed in non-authorized fields, even if it’s by an act of nature, they can sue. In fact, that’s one of the company’s primary means of success—bullying competing farmers into submission with threats to sue, or bankrupting them by making good on the threat.
Monsanto has attempted to sue many farmers and companies in recent years. The most well-known case happened in Canada in 1998. Monsanto operatives tested farmer Percy Schmeiser’s canola fields (they do this regularly to non-Monsanto farmers), found their Roundup Ready canola crops growing in them, and then sued for infringement. Schmeiser argued that he didn’t knowingly plant their genetically engineered seeds and that his crops were contaminated by the wind. It went all the way to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Monsanto’s favor, setting a precedent that not even ignorance or innocence could protect independent farmers from Monsanto’s aggressive lawsuits.
Giving Thanks for Banks
The more you delve into modern agricultural practices and the ways Monsanto’s genetic engineering now drives them, the scarier the outlook seems for heirloom seed preservation. Monsanto’s big in the corn, soy, canola, and cotton industries, but with various company acquisitions, they’ve made headway into vegetable crops as well. Most notable was its 1995 purchase of Seminis, which controlled 40 percent of the U.S. vegetable seed market, including beans, tomatoes, and lettuce (three popular heirloom crops). Seminis sold to both conventional and organic farmers, seed catalog companies, and co-ops, some of whom elected not to carry any of its seeds after the Monsanto purchase.
Farmers who want organic or heirloom seeds don’t want the corporation’s laboratory farming interfering with their more natural techniques. But how much say they have in that is decreasing more and more as nature (who isn’t picky about pollen) spreads Monsanto’s seeds farther and farther, and as Monsanto makes it that much harder for farmers to operate out of its jurisdiction. Plus, its heavy use of weed killer has created “superweeds” that are resistant to Roundup and all other pesticides. These weeds, like pollen, can spread far beyond Monsanto’s fields and damage other crops.
However, all hope isn’t lost. There are seed banks throughout the United States that work to preserve the integrity of heirloom seeds and protect biodiversity among crops. The Future of Food estimates that 97 percent of what was grown at the beginning of the twentieth century is no longer grown, thanks to modern agribusiness’s focus on growing larger quantities of a fewer set of crops rather than the other way around. That makes what these seed banks do all the more special and essential.
If you’ve any interest in maintaining crop diversity and avoiding Monsanto’s genetically engineered varietals, doing business with seed banks (or donating to them if you’re not a farmer) seems the best way to go. Seeds of Change and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds are two websites that ship seeds across the United States, though there might be a brick-and-mortar seed bank in your area. The extra work involved might be worth it if it means preserving the choice between an heirloom tomato and a genetically modified one.