History of Seed Development
Agriculture was born around 8000 BC when observant Middle Eastern ancestors realized they could control their food supply by planting wheat seeds together in a field. Before then, people lived in small hunter-gatherer groups and moved across the land in search of naturally available food sources. They lived off wild berries, fruit, vegetables and collected wheat and barely. The planting of seed marks the beginning of the Neolithic Revolution, or in layman’s terms, the dawn of agriculture and the beginning of human civilization.
The continued existence of edible crops relies on plant diversity. Biodiversity occurs naturally as plants cross-pollinate between sexually compatible varieties, their seeds producing plants with new characteristics. The free flowing exchange of genes through open pollination with the help of the birds, bees, insects and wind results in differing plant, fruit, and vegetable types. Self-pollinating flowers can also be cross-pollinated, though this is more difficult, but also naturally experience random changes in chromosomes that result in slightly different plant traits. Plants are therefore able to adapt to surrounding environments, and fruits and vegetables become region specific as certain characteristics survive better in certain conditions.
By selecting seeds from plants with more desirable attributes, farmers are able to plant and direct crops into varieties more suitable to meet human needs. For example, Mesoamerican people in modern day Mexico developed large quantities of yellow and white corn by saving seeds from mutant teosinte corn plants, the natural variety of the day which was blue, spiky-eared and small seeded. For centuries farmers have been saving seeds from the best plants every year, ensuring viable variety that both thrives in its surrounding environment and promises crop for the next growing season.
Multinational corporations have seen the importance of seed in the world’s food supply and have invested mass sums of money into owning and selling seeds. In the beginning of the 20th century companies bought seeds from farmers and inbred a small number of plants to produce favorable market characteristic such as high yield, fast growing speed, crop uniformity, shipping durability and long shelf life. As a result, flavor and nutrition quickly became secondary in seed development. These hybrids were then resold to farmers. In 1926 the first commercially available hybrid crop, maize, hit the market. As science advanced, companies began investing in genetically altering plant genes to have special traits to resist chemical fertilizers and contain poisonous toxins to fend off insects. Plants can now be modified by any source (bacteria, animal, fungus, or other plants) through the isolation, cloning and introduction of foreign genes into plant cells.
In the past few decades seeds have become the object of intellectual property rights and agricultural monopoly. What for thousands of years was a common, self-regenerative human resource has been transformed into a commodity and taken up by the corporate sector. Agricultural companies hold patents over their seeds, and prohibit farmers from saving or exchanging the seeds, which has up until now been a method of human sustainability. By law, patented seeds have become non-renewable product and farmers are required to purchase new seeds every year. Lawsuits are filed by corporations against farmers and small seed companies for unauthorized use of seeds that contain traces of their patented varieties. To make matters worse, governments have granted subsidies to corporate giants that give them competitive advantages and distort market value by reducing prices, putting small farmers out of business.
Patenting and hybridizing have restricted the natural plant gene flow that allows adaptation and diversity, and has allowed agriculture to rapidly privatize. Today fewer than 12 companies own most patented plants in the world. Between 1995 and 2005 Monsanto, a multinational agriculture corporation, bought up 50 seed companies and had 250 million acres of genetically modified crops planted in the world. This single company holds 95% of all patents of genetically modified plant traits around the globe.