Saving the Seed or Saving Romantic Assumptions

Modern agriculture is increasingly being used as an all encompassing category of evil by critics of globalization and transgenic (genetically modified) food crops, and by street protestors and their mentors and organizers. Implicit in the protest rhetoric is a dichotomy between modern agronomy (assumed to be large corporate enterprises either farming or selling to farmers) and small self-sufficient farmers, who replant their own seeds from year-to-year and have little or no reliance on the market for inputs.

The difference between the two presumed types of agriculture could not be more stark in the minds of the believers. The enemy is the monopolistic seed corporations and industrial farms that are mechanized, use purchased inputs including synthetic fertilizers and chemical pesticides, and are by definition “corporate polluters.” In using commercially acquired industrial inputs, modern agriculture has removed some vital essence from our foodcrops and become divorced from the natural ecological environment. In contrast, the small scale traditional agriculturalist follows more benign practices, substituting labor for technology, and otherwise using more natural time-tested practices and inputs that preserve the soil and do not pollute the environment. Commercial “organic” farmers in developed countries are seen as a permitted exception to the agribusiness category, as they are assumed to be following a regimen that is the larger scale environmental equivalent of traditional agriculture. Even here, among the “organic” enthusiasts, there are purists who bemoan the take-over of the movement by large corporate enterprises and advocate buying from small local producers even if the price is significantly higher. To these purists, “organic food is being openly accused of selling its soul” (Vidal 2003). Most of us who grew up in the United States assumed that “soul food” was an expression used by Black Americans to describe home cooking, not to be taken literally and definitely not an appellation reserved exclusively for food grown with manure.

SAVE THE SEED has become the slogan of choice for those opposed to modern agriculture in general, and genetically modified crops in particular. The claim is made that the vast majority of the world’s farmers plant only seeds from their previous harvest, as those who went before them have been doing for the several millennia since agriculture began in their region. The FAO indicates that there are 1.4 billion farmers who save seed for planting from harvest to harvest. Unfortunately, FAO does not distinguish between farmers who never have bought seeds, and farmers who go into the market one year and replant it for one or more years until a new higher yielding is available, or a new disease-resistant variety becomes necessary. Nor does it identify the very common practice of poorer farmers in many regions who in replanting their seeds will mix with it anywhere from 40 to 60% of a purchased variety. Even more affluent farmers have for the last 4 decades been crossing modern varieties with local ones, providing the Green Revolution seed package with far greater diversity than the critics seem to be aware.

The idea that agriculture can in any way be “natural” or in “harmony with nature” is silly if not downright pernicious. This does not mean that we are free to do whatever we wish and not be concerned with the consequences. It does mean that in transforming nature we have to acquire a scientific understanding of as many dimensions of agriculture and the environment as possible, and then devise and continually revise rules of the game so that we can grow and raise our food sustainably. In agriculture, we are concentrating nutrient that is also nutrient for birds, rats, insects, fungus, bacteria and viruses. In a word we have to protect the plant which historically has required a “pesticide” of some sort or another in addition to the plant’s natural defenses. When we grow a plant in one location and eat it in another, we are mining and transporting soil nutrient which has to be replenished. If nature doesn’t provide sufficient nutrient in usable form, as is the case with nitrogen, then humans have to produce it (Smil 2000 and 2001). The question then is – who owns nature – particularly when an ownership claim is made by those who oppose patenting life forms (Brown 2003).

My first encounter with agriculture in a developing country was four decades ago in 1962 in the Gezira scheme in the Sudan in Africa. There the farmers in an agricultural scheme irrigated by the Blue Nile were required to buy cotton seeds that were grown over a thousand miles away in a delta on the Red Sea. Farmers not only did not replant their own seed, they were not allowed to do so; they were even required to dig up the roots of the cotton plants in rock hard soil and burn them in the blistering sun, in order to keep disease under control. This requirement was not out of any bureaucratic or authoritarian impulse, but a necessity to prevent an outbreak of a disease which had the potential to destroy the entire crop for everyone in the project.

Some of the reasons that farmers do not replant their own seed or would prefer not to do so if an alternative were available:

  • Disease is carried over from one crop to another as are the seeds of competitors. Ironically, commercial farmers in developed countries are often more able to save seed from year to year because of better disease management and safer storage – see point 8 below.
  • Post harvest losses – Nobody as far as I know has trained rats, insects and microorganisms to distinguish between the crop that farmers store to eat and that portion which will be saved for replanting the next year, providing all of them with continuing life sustaining nutrients.
  • Genetic deterioration – Even without an understanding of all the mechanisms of replication, most farmers recognize that inbreeding a crop can lead to its deterioration over time (Heisey and Brennan 1991 and LSN 2003). Even some farmers who might fit the SAVE THE SEED definition of “traditional” will exchange seeds among themselves.
  • Where the climate permits, farmers will plant a succession of crops, sometimes different varieties of the same crop. They may plant an IRRI (International Rice Research Institute) variety of rice when irrigating, and a domestically bred variety for a monsoon crop. And they may have a third crop of an entirely different food crop. Saving the seeds for three different crops plus possibly those for the kitchen garden is not always easy or convenient.
  • Contrary to the slogans of the urban white European and North American males who dominate the activists’ movement, farmers are not naive simpletons in need of the protection of those who know nothing about raising food. Farmers actively seek crop improvements such as higher yields, disease resistance, or improved quality and marketability. Remember the doomsday predictions about the Green Revolution? Even the most techno enthusiasts among us (like myself) were surprised at the speed and extent to which farmers defined as “traditional” adopted the Green Revolution technological package when credit was available.
  • Many farmers in Africa (if farmers anywhere fit the activist definition, it would be in sub Saharan Africa) have switched to hybrid maize, making it a major food crop (Byerlee and Eicher 1997). Hybrid maize essentially requires annual purchase of seeds, as hybrids do not breed true to form in the field. In East Africa, new banana trees are grown from tissue cultures to break the cycle of fungal infestation while research is conducted in creating transgenic disease-resistant varieties.
  • Cleaning seeds and coating them with pesticides is often the most efficient form of pest control and it can be done better and more safely by professionals.
  • Ironically, saving seed from harvest to harvest is on the increase in Europe where many of the urban SAVE THE SEED activists live. European farmers have a higher level of crop protection, which reduces the possibility of carry-over diseases, and they have access to mobile seed processors who can do the necessary on-the-farm seed preparation which is impossible in most poorer regions. In the region with militant advocates for the immutable farmers’ right from time immemorial to replant their own seeds, farmers are required to pay fees for using their own seed where that seed is protected by plant breeders’ rights. The 1994 European Union’s legislation allowed farmers to pay a “sensibly lower remuneration” for the use of farm saved seed. These fees are collected in the United Kingdom by “farmers’ unions and mobile seed processors, who are contracted to collect the farm saved seed payments. Mobile seed processors move from farm to farm cleaning and treating farm saved seed for farmers” (Turner 2003).

The specialization of some farmers (or farmers in some regions) in seed production for planting by other farmers has a much longer history than most of us realize. According to Tripp, “trade in seed is literally as old as agriculture” while “formal commercial seed trade is hundreds of years old” with a least one recorded instance as early as 1296 in the England and Scotland (Tripp 2001, 36).

By the middle of sixteenth century markets and shops in London were supplied with a range of vegetables and pulse seeds by growers who specialized in seed production. A pamphlet from a seedman in 1732 describes seed imported from Italy, Turkey, Egypt, France, Holland and Brazil (Tripp 2001 36).

In the post Civil War period, the US Department of Agriculture and land grant agricultural institutions were providing new varieties of many important crops while state extension services were encouraging the formation of agricultural associations. Private and public research using the emerging knowledge of biological replication and evolution were producing improved varieties. Before then, the US government had gone overseas to seek varieties of wheat that would grow in the new territories which were being settled. By the 1890s, the US government was sending out millions of packages containing packets of several different seeds each year. The era of commercial seed companies came to the forefront with the development of hybrid maize (Tripp 2001, 36-37).

Going into the market to buy inputs generally but not always means going into the market to sell some output. It does not take a great deal of time in the field to realize that there are not many farmers who fit the activist’s definition of a “traditional farmer.” One finds farmers in Africa who wish to plant a better, higher yielding variety but are uncertain whether the credit or fertilizer or pesticides will be available to them in time. Even without the additional inputs, the farmers recognize that the improved seed would give them a better crop, but not enough better to warrant the expenditure for the seeds. To the extent that the oft-described traditional farmers exist and are committed to saving their seed, they would clearly not be the prime target to sell genetically modified seeds.

As this is being written, changes are underway that are rapidly diminishing the numbers that fit the romantic category of traditional farmers. In India and China, an increasing percentage of their rice output is the result of a new complex and sophisticated form of hybridization, while farmers in the Punjab in India who have been growing high yielding varieties of wheat are now growing even higher yielding hybrid varieties; wheat farmers in China are expected to follow with new hybrids produced by their government. And may we add that there is greater genetic diversity in the wheat planted in the Punjab today than was the case a half century ago prior to the Green Revolution.

Hybrid maize has become an increasingly important crop, with maize production expected to exceed that of other grains sometime in the next twenty years. Of the roughly 200 million maize farmers in the world, circa 98% are in the developing world. In many developing countries, hybrid maize has become “the predominant seed type … for example 84% of the 105 million Chinese maize farmers buy hybrid seed, and 81% of all maize seed used in Eastern and Southern Africa is hybrid” (James 2003).

Some of the farmers who most closely fit the idealized concept of “traditional” are engaged in agricultural practices that are anything but environmentally benign. The author’s experience with upland rice farmers in a Southeast Asian country is indicative of some of the complex problems facing “traditional” farmers and those seeking to encourage more environmentally sustainable practices. Throughout Asia, farmers are planting upland rice on cleared hillsides that are subject to rapid erosion and with yields that have changed little over the last forty years, while those of their lowland neighbors in paddy farming have seen their annual output at least triple. Those with whom the author has been involved were gaining a very meager subsistence from their plot, which they supplemented with two to three days labor in the local village or nearby town. Most if not all were aware that their farm was rapidly eroding, with their very modest yields declining as their farm would eventually be totally denuded. Their response was simple and logical – the farm fed their family and their off-farm employment provided for school fees for their children and other necessities. By the time their land was no longer arable, their children would be grown and employed elsewhere, they could then get by on the income from the occasional paid labor. (Over half the farmers in Java obtain more than half their real income off-farm. This is increasingly the case in the United States also.) When an aid development worker proposed substituting a bush or tree crop such as papaya that would protect the soil, their negative response was equally simple and logical. Like the vast majority of the world’s agriculturalists, the farmers lived in a village apart from the farm. Night raiders are unlikely to try to harvest a rice crop but they could clean the trees of their entire output. Anyone who travels in the Third World will see the fruit trees and kitchen gardens tightly packed around the village households for precisely this reason.

Clearly for the upland farmer, yield was a critical factor. It is low yields and low incomes and limited opportunities which force the poor to farm the hillside or cut down rainforest or otherwise bring land under cultivation – land that is marginal for agriculture. Low yields perpetuate themselves in a vicious cycle of low yields and continued poverty and environmental degradation of all kinds.

A variety of new agricultural technologies and techniques, both high and low tech, hold significant promise to make agriculture more sustainable and environmentally friendly. Some are more likely to be associated with agribusiness but they need not be. No-tillage agriculture in which farmers use a drill for planting or lightly disc the field, and then use herbicides to protect the crop, has several advantages. By maintaining ground cover, soil moisture is preserved and soil erosion is prevented, and greater biodiversity is preserved from year-to-year. The “organic” agriculture alternative to using herbicides is to deep-plough the field to turn the weeds under so they cannot regenerate and/or to hand weed with low paid migrant labor once the crop is growing (Lee 2003, Henshaw 2003, Fulmer 2003 and Roane 2002). Added to the widely practiced conservation-tillage or no-tillage agriculture, is what is now called precision agriculture, which combines the best in a variety of techniques. Using GPS (global positioning systems) and other technologies on their combine, farmers can measure the precise output from each and every area of the farm so that they can more precisely regulate the next year’s planning in order not to use too much or too little of any inputs, including fertilizer and chemical pesticides. Contrary to some critics, no farmer, corporate or individual, wishes to destroy the land in which they have invested, nor do they wish to waste money using excess amounts of inputs of any kind. By means of a high tech form of IPM using computers with expert systems software and access to online data sources, and a variety of technologies for taking temperature, humidity and other measures including soil moisture, farmers can monitor their fields (“scouting”) for insects etc. and plug in the data into their expert system program to learn whether they should apply a pesticide and more important, whether they should refrain from doing so. The result is greater output obtained with fewer chemical inputs and less disruption of the soil.


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Thomas R. DeGregori is a Professor of Economics, University of Houston and author of Bountiful Harvest: Technology, Food Safety and the Environment, Cato Institute, 2002 and the recently published book, Origins of the Organic Agriculture Debate, Blackwell Professional (formerly – Iowa State Press), 2003.

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