Seed Industry History and Opinions

The roots of heirloom seed companies can be traced from the mid-1800s when seeds were part of the public trust, to the disappearance of family-owned seed businesses in the 1970s, to the renaissance of heirloom and organic seed companies today.

An article in Acres USA, “Seeds of Sustainability”, by Bill McDorman, author, and founder of two seed companies, and Stephen Thomas, provide not only a historic overview, but also, offer provocative thoughts about where the market is headed.

Over 50 small and family-owned companies were acquired by multinational conglomerates after the Plant Variety Protection Act included seeds as intellectual property that could be privately owned in 1970.

Ten years later, a supreme court ruled that patenting life-forms based on their genetic code could legally be privately owned. Seed company mergers and buyouts followed until there were few regional, independent companies left.

Major seed companies choose to focus on breeding new high-yielding hybrids. The major drawback of hybrid seed is that its progeny are unpredictable, requiring farmers to purchase seed each year.  Seed companies dropped countless old fashioned, open-pollinated varieties that could be saved and focused on traits that benefited agribusiness, uniformity maturity, toughness to withstand shipping and long shelf life. These varieties thrived when grown with heavy chemical inputs.

Modern plant breeders call the ancient, holistic approach to selecting and saving seed horizontal resistance. “This technique considered the overall health and quality of a broad population of plants along with its adaptation to regional growing conditions,” explained Mc Dorman.  Plant breeders discarded this in favor of vertical resistance, seeking specific genes to confer quantifiable improvements for specific problems.  (Whether or not it is possible to isolate individual genes for specific characteristics is a hotly debated subject)  Mc Dorman explains, “The problem with vertical resistance is pests can more easily evolve to overcome the resistance conferred by single genes.”

The gap in the marketplace created a niche for the germination of small, independent seed companies and non-profit organizations in the 1980s. Bountiful Gardens had its start at this time, as did, Seed Saver’s Exchange, Johnny’s, Territorial, Garden City Seeds, and many others. These small, independent companies were alike in being started by visionaries with commitment to maintaining seed diversity while they differed in their mission of who they served.  The emerging seed businesses branched at this juncture: some focused on preserving a wide array of open-pollinated and heirloom seeds and making them available to as many people as possible.

Some seed companies targeted primarily market gardeners and small-scale farmers. While providing open-pollinated seeds, they also offered hybrids and several of the more savvy entrepreneurs even cultivated trial gardens to introduce new sustainable varieties.

Other companies targeted home gardeners and homesteaders; they kept a low overhead, stayed small and choose not to promote their products through glossy catalogs. Some choose to keep their prices down while others were trendsetters.


The seed industry’s next growth spurt came in the 1990s, prompted in part by the National Organic Program (NOP) requirement for certified organic growers to buy certified organic seed, when available. Tom Stearns, founder of High Mowing Seed Company, has been written up in “Seeds of Success” by Cheryl Cesario, also in the January 2011 issue of Acres U.S.A. Although a highly informative piece about a leader in the field, it is beyond the scope of this article.

Here is one insight to ponder from Stearns: “ Many of the hybrid varieties on the market today are developed under high input conditions.  Even for seeds produced organically, they were most likely developed in chemical agriculture systems. How can these varieties then thrive in organic systems?”  Stearns continues,  “Even if the hybrid seed crop is grown organically, the genetics just aren’t there.  It’s like milking a Black Angus because she is the only cow around.  The organic farmers in this country don’t have the right seed genetics to support true organic farming methods.”

Mc Dorman corroborates, “Organic seed is becoming just another industrial market niche. One-size-fits-all hybrid organic seeds, produced by multinational giants are beginning to flood the market.”

While the NOP requirement for organic seed is hailed as an incentive to banish chemicals from organic farming, some growers are concerned that the rush to procure organic seed must not be at the cost of losing more heirloom diversity.  The challenges to offering organic seed are as follows, the seed companies face higher production costs, added expense of certification for organic handling, and reluctant farmers.  The organic farmers and market gardeners in turn are confronted with inadequate seed supply, greater expense for seed and the risk of growing untested varieties when their livelihood and reputation are at stake.

What many people seem to be acknowledged is that open-pollinated, organic varieties hold a promise for us to adapt to an increasingly unpredictable climate.  As a culture we can’t expect the farmers and seed companies to take all the risks. Some see the need for the government in the form of the land grant colleges to usher in the transition. Organizations like the Organic Seed Alliance are actively working toward breeding what they call “heirlooms of tomorrow”. Some people suggest that the successful organic foods industry help fund the transition. Finally, it may come down to individuals who step forward to make the commitment to saving and breeding their own seed.

Where Our Food Comes From: A Book Review

Where Our Food Comes From: Retracing Nikolay Vavilov’s Quest to End Famine

By Gary Paul Nabhan, 2009. GPN is an ethnobiologist, conservationist, farmer and author of eight books.

Most of the crops we depend on for food were domesticated in ancient times, in just six regions on five continents.  This is the story of a brilliant Russian plant breeder who devoted his life to food security through exploring those regions to glean seeds and essential agrarian knowledge. Nabhan followed in Vavilov’s footsteps and met with scientists that continue this important seed conservation work.  He also talked with traditional farmers in the field on each of those continents.  Vavilov is recognized today for three primary contributions:

Establishing a seed bank from the hundreds of thousands of seed he collected.

Mapping the world’s centers of biodiversity for food crops, utilized today by conservation organizations as Biodiversity Hotspots.

Recognizing the importance of, and recording the knowledge of regional farmers about their crop varieties.

My favorite story was about a 90-year-old plant geneticist from Kazakhstan who told Nabhan how Vavilov changed his life.  One day the great scientist was coming to his town to look at the forests of wild apple trees in the surrounding hills. At the time, Dr. Aimak Dzangaliev was a sixteen-year-old stable boy who was invited to accompany Vavilov and translate for him. Dzangaliev was so impressed by the genius that he saved money and studied for ten years, until one day his dream came true and he studied under Vavilov; he went on to become Kazakhstan’s expert on wild apple diversity.

An example closer to home is the account of Vavilov collecting wild sunflower seed in Texas.  He brought the seed back to his staff of oilseed breeders who worked on crossing the sunflower with the cultivated Helianthus annuus, our common garden sunflower. One plant geneticist, Pustovoit, continued breeding sunflowers for thirty years, using that same wild relative. He developed a strain, a stable hybrid sunflower with unusually high levels of polyunsaturated oils that became an oilseed crop in the Soviet Union. Many years later, farmers from Texas, USA, came to the agricultural research station where Pustovoit’s daughter gave them seed to take back to Texas, where it now grows as a crop.

The food crops indigenous to the US include wild rice, sunflowers, Jerusalem artichokes, tobaccos, low-bush blueberries and amaranths. Vavilov lectured in the US and spoke of crops unknown to his audience of American scientists, including tepary bean, maypops, maygrass, sumpweeds and chenopods, little barley and Chicksaw plums.  To learn more about these crops see another of Nabhan’s books, Renewing America’s Food Traditions.

One insight that Vavilov showed the world was that crops don’t grow in a vacuum where they are randomly attacked by insects and diseases. Vavilov looked at plant pathology from an evolutionary, geographic context. That was part of his fascination with what we now call biodiversity hotspots. Vavilov deduced that  “…those centers still held ancient diverse forms of crops that had co-evolved with pests and diseases over many millennia.”

Nabhan relates that to this day whenever there has been major crop failure caused by disease or insect pests, plant specialists have gone in search of the crop’s wild relatives and ancient landraces; somewhere in the world’s centers of diversity they have found the seeds of genetic resistance.  Although much diversity has been lost, farmers and scientists around the world are working to preserve food systems. Where Our Food Comes From is an urgent reminder to save traditional farming along with the seeds.