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Where Do New Seeds Come From?  

Frank Morton

At one time, seed was like a gift from God; but that was a long time ago. Then it became a treasure of trade. New seeds from far away...Imagine how that must have stirred the horticultural heart 500 years ago. Newly acquired seeds became national assets, jealously held. Mr. Jefferson considered it an act of patriotic quest to add another new crop to the nation’s source of wealth, and did his share by smuggling pounds of rice out of Italy, sewn in the lining of his coat; under penalty of hanging, were he caught. His unlawful wares founded the Americas’ first rice plantations in South Carolina; not a small consequence for national security in that day.

Seeds became a matter of state and national economics. American expansion into its unplowed treasures of the Midwest and California created a huge demand for seed and new genetics to suit new climates, soils, and markets. The Land Grant Universities were largely founded on the principle that they would lead agricultural innovation into new lands, and this meant (in part) the generation and distribution of improved genetics to the new regional farmers. This process of creating specific genetics to suit specific locations approached a sort of acme with Midwest- ern hybrid corn. By 1960, broad areas of the midwest corn belt were being served by “tricounty scale” hybrid corn seed producers making on-farm use of university inbred lines to create locally adapted hybrids. Thousands of such breeding lines could be mixed and matched to create F1’s with specific adaptations to county scale variations in soils and microclimate. Our GFT farming partner, John Eveland, grew up on an Iowa farm that was an “early adopter” of hybrid technology, and then became one of those hybrid seed producers for its local region.

Between 1970 and 1988, a sea change occurred in seed supply and control. Public breeding programs were cut as private corporate breeding took advantage of advances in hybrid germplasm development, the first Plant Variety Protection Act (PVP), and finally, Utility Patents, to gain proprietary control over seeds. PVP gave breeders their first opportunity to control who could legally sell their finished products, as copyright protects an author’s right to control who sells his work. PVP did not prevent the use of a variety for further breeding, nor did it prevent farmers or gardeners from growing their own seed from PVP varieties. Utility Patents, first granted on a lifeform in 1981, were another matter. These true patents were not so much for finished varieties, that is, stable constellations of genes that produce a whole plant; these were patents on genes that could be inserted into any variety, instantly making the background cultivar a new private property. Later, patents would be granted for “traits”; a certain yellow in beans, “heat tolerance” in broccoli.

By 2007, seeds are certainly not a gift of the gods, at least in any legal sense. The new-tech seeds, the products of our latest innovation, are all owned by some entity to some degree. The exception to this are those our gardeners and farming systems are creating and re-creating by selection each year. These are truly the latest in a long process of organic innovations between the earth and sky.

Printed in the 2007 Wild Garden Seed Catalog.

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