Believe it or not, farmers in the United States did not always need to purchase their own seeds. Instead, a core function of the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) when it was founded in 1862 – and the Patent Office before that – was the collection and public distribution of germplasm, or seed. The federal government mailed millions of seed packages to farmers across the country, free of charge, writes Robin Kimmer on  

Today, seed is treated as a privatized agricultural input. According to a recent report by the Family Farm Action Alliance, The Food System: Concentration and Its Impacts, just four multinational biotechnology corporations are responsible for at least 50 percent of sales in the global seed market: Bayer, Corteva, Limagrain, and ChemChina. Meanwhile, Bayer, Corteva, and ChemChina as well as BASF are responsible for roughly 65 percent of market concentration in the agrochemicals industry, which includes herbicide and pesticide development. 

To many, the advent of the modern seed and biotechnology industry represents the pinnacle of benevolent ingenuity for our food system. There are certainly conversations to have about the role genetically engineered crops play in increasing yields and boosting the productivity of agricultural land per-acre through the reduction of crop loss. However, just as important but less present in mainstream conversations is a frank consideration about whether those gains can be justified given the adverse, long-term impacts that conventional farming has on people, animals, and the land. 

When these conversations are better informed by the growing number of studies that point to the benefits of sustainable farming models, as well as its scalable potential, we are compelled to ask: “Is the status quo worth defending?” It could be if the power imbalance between farmers, rural communities, and multinational corporations did not breed adverse consequences for the former. Recall that seed was once treated as public property and openly shared – not only in the 1800s but for millennia on this continent by Indigenous people. In addition, integrated crop-livestock systems kept pests and weeds at bay while limiting soil disturbance to preserve the microbial community and prevent erosion, among other restorative benefits for soil health. No rising input costs or potentially dangerous chemicals were necessary, unlike today. 

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