The Farmer Diaries

Monsanto pushback: Texas farmer opts to save his own seed

Monsanto pushback: Texas farmer opts to save his own seed

Non-GMO seed
Open pollinated seed from companies that have pledged to stay GMO-free. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Protesters March Against Monsanto in Dallas
Protesters stated their case against genetic engineering in the Dallas March Against Monsanto on May 25, 2013. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Indian blanket flower
An insect rests on the part of the Indian blanket flower that will become seed as the flower dries out. Photo by Marshall Hinsley
Non-GMO seed
Protesters March Against Monsanto in Dallas
Indian blanket flower
On May 25, 2 million people in 58 countries took to the streets to protest Monsanto, a company whose PR department has likely been racking up the overtime in a desperate attempt to save the corporation's failing image.
 
The protestors' signs may have read Monsanto, but it was not so much the century-old chemical company they had in their cross-hairs as it was the act of splicing genes from one plant or animal into another to produce a genetically modified organism, otherwise known as a GMO.
 
Monsanto isn't the only company engaged in genetic engineering. But with 2013 projected to net Monsanto $3.3 billion in profits, its name has become synonymous with the genetically modified seed they peddle worldwide — sort of like how every fountain drink is a Coke.
 Monsanto's GMO crops contaminate non-GMO crops wherever they're planted. Every year, it gets harder to find seed that hasn't been contaminated.
 
Monsanto talks a good talk, presenting itself as a player in the sustainable farming movement whose products can lift up the family farm while solving the world’s growing hunger problem.
 
In reality, the work of Monsanto for the last 20 years has brought nothing more to the commercial farmer than crops that can withstand application of the company’s best-selling herbicide, Roundup. Sales of this chemical are better than ever, while the fate of ecosystems has never looked more bleak.
 
The company is no friend to the farmer. Those who refuse to buy Monsanto's seeds face lawsuits if a hint of pollen contaminates their crops — even without their knowledge that contamination has occurred. In the first 10 years of selling its Roundup-ready seed, Monsanto served papers to more than 4,000 farmers accused of patent infringement. Small, organic farmers have little recourse against the biotech giant's army of lawyers.
 
Unfortunately, Monsanto's GMO crops contaminate non-GMO crops wherever they're planted. Every year, it gets harder to find seed that hasn't been contaminated with Monsanto's patented genes. I suspect that this is no accident.
 
Seed saving
This GMO threat has pushed the act of seed saving to the front burner of the true sustainable farming movement. Seed saving was once just a hobby of dedicated gardeners. Increasingly, it's becoming the only way to preserve pure seed for planting year after year and staying free from Monsanto's control.
 
I became acquainted with the art of seed saving when I was a child. Back in the '70s, our land had been a cotton field before my parents purchased it, and there were no wildflowers on it anywhere. They had all been eradicated by defoliants and herbicides. I wanted our field to look like one about a mile away that was full of bluebonnets and Indian blanket.
 
So my father and I spent some time in that field, after all the flowers had dried out, to see what we could glean. We weren't botanists and had no idea what we were doing. We just picked what looked like seed pods and dried-out flowers and planted it all right away in our own field. 
 I can harvest the seed from my best specimens and plant them the following year. They're not patented. No one owns exclusive rights to reproduce them.
 
The next spring, our field too was full of bluebonnets and Indian blanket, and our first venture into the art of seed saving proved a success. It was that simple.
 
Later when I was an adult, I came across a variety of tomato known as Texas Wild, reputed to have been discovered growing wild in a Texas field near the border of Mexico. I bought the seed, started seedlings and transplanted them in a small garden. They grew like weeds and were prolific producers that kept on yielding when all other varieties had given up the ghost in the summer heat.
 
Impressed with them, I tried to buy more seed the following year. But the seed company that offered them had gone under — and I hadn’t saved any of the seed. It took me more than a decade to track down another supplier, so now I save a little seed each year, just in case.
 
Until recently I merely dabbled in seed saving. Now I feel that the only way to ensure that growers have access to patent-free seed is to sort of go underground and trade pure seed with other growers, plus throw my support behind organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange, Botanical Interests and Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, who've pledged to stay GMO-free.
 
Sustainable, non-GMO seeds are open-pollinated, which means they are capable of producing indefinite generations of seed that share the same traits as the ones I buy from the alternative seed companies. All I have to do is keep the plants at some distance from any related varieties and nature does the rest.
 
When the plants reach maturity, I can harvest the seed from my best specimens and plant them the following year. They're not patented. No one owns exclusive rights to reproduce them. They’re as free as the rain. This is how it worked with the wildflowers when I was a child, and this is the way it works now with my food crops.
 
Saving my own seed gives me a greater feeling of independence from industrialized agriculture. Monsanto has a huge appetite for gaining total control of the commercial seed market; we may never be able to lick the company by going against it head-on.
 
But we may be able to starve the monster by opting out if its vision for the future of farming. If we can build an alternative, local farming community, both the growers and the people who support them will thrive — outside of this GMO lab test on the masses.
 
I make it a point to buy seed every year from alternative seed sources because I want to support their stand against biotech companies. I also buy seed so that my own seed stays fresh, mixed in with the rock-solid traits that professional seed producers keep alive in these heirloom varieties.
 
But I'll continue to save my own seed from the plants I grow and keep perfecting the art of seed saving — just in case.