Saturday, December 20, 2008

MUBs, F1s, Heirlooms...and the longest post ever

Hold on to your bridges. This is a long java-propelled-frustration-induced post.

I have been promising something a bit more substantial than shots of things with pretty colors for a long time. Here goes it.

A couple of evenings ago I was chatting with some well educated people and it turns out, a lot of well educated people don’t know the difference between Genetically Modified (GM) & heirloom seeds...and the problems (yeah, skip the word potential here as these are not potential problems) they present to this generation and the ones to follow.

I don’t blame anyone for not knowing. We are constantly getting bombarded with deadlines & urgent stuff to take care of…and that is exactly the reason that I decided to take the time to hammer this keyboard & leave the info here…just in case some unsuspecting soul comes looking for shots of things with pretty colors and decides to read this humble PSI ☺

First, allow me to introduce the monsters under the bed (MUBs). The ones who are feverishly working on grabbing your feet and tickle you into a slow death when you least expect it. There are six: Monsanto, Dow, Mitsui, Aventis, DuPont & Syngenta. Know these names. Together they control in one way or another 98% of the seeds in this world. Got your attention, eh?

In a nutshell, these MUBs are taking something that is inherently nature’s property and found a way to commodify it as their own. How? Well, it started by simply patenting seeds that will bear true just once during their life (F1s) leaving farmers unable to save and replant seed...after that the MUBs moved into more genetically scary territory (more on this below). That is why, we should make an attempt to educate ourselves so that when we are looking to buy seeds from a catalogue and read stuff like “F1,” “Biodynamic,” “Open Pollinated,” “Heirloom,” …we know what it all means and are able to make a sound decision…the same way we were practically forced to learn to read labels for the pantry stuff we buy. For our own good.

Keep reading...why should you? Seems like such a long & boring photos with pretty colors...well, MUBs, just like an unfaithful partner, are banking on our ignorance. That is why.

Let’s start with “F1” …and I can’t help it but wonder how the naming went down at the MUBs corporate fufu table…I can just see a greedy animal in a starchy suit saying -“This type of seed will make us rich beyond belief. It will make every farmer in the world fully dependant on us. And small farmers eventually will be forced to sell their farms because of their inability to pay for their overhead. Let’s call it F1!!!” Reminds me of the time Dr. Evil said "Let's call it 'The Alan Parsons Project!!!' Only this is not funny & makes you wonder what the F stands for. Well, I don't actually know for a fact who named these seeds F1 (still researching it...if you know please let me know)...but still...

**Clarification: there are two types of F1 seeds, the ones that haven't been GMd (and those I will gladly buy from a reputable company), and the ones that have been GMd. It is hard to know which is which because the MUBs are not legally obligated to disclose such an unimportant piece of in many cases it becomes a matter of trust.**

What these guys have done, surely in the name of science and with our well-being at the core of their decisions, is engineer GMs in the majority of our U.S.-grown corn, soy, cotton, and canola. By the way, did you know cotton & peanuts are the two most heavily pesticide laden crops? If you will choose ONE thing to buy organic let them be those two.

What they do is...

“ of two things: (1) put a bacterial gene into the plant that kills caterpillars, or (2) alter the crop’s physiology so it withstands the herbicide Roundup, so that chemicals can be sprayed over the crop. (The crop stays alive, the weeds die.) If you guessed Monsanto controls sales of both the resistant seed and the Roundup, give yourself a star. If you think you’d never eat such stuff, you are probably wrong. GM plants are virtually everywhere in the U.S. food chain, but don’t have to be labeled, and aren’t. Industry lobbyists intend to keep it that way.”

This excerpt was taken verbatim from Barbara Kingsolver's book, which I cannot recommend highly enough, Animal, Vegetable, Miracle.

By the way, it is not only the herbicides they are helping us put on our dinner table, but also, did you know that the EPA allows the use of toxic waste in non organic fertilizers? That means that any non organically grown foods we buy are likely to have that little added bonus. Makes my mouth water.

One more important item for gardeners to learn about involves seed suppliers. Kingsolver says that,

“In internal reports, Monsanto notes ‘growers who save seed from one year to the next’ as significant competitors, and allocates a $10 million budget for investigating and prosecuting seed savers…Agribusinesses can patent plant varieties for the purpose of removing them from production, leaving farmers with fewer options each year. The same is true for home gardeners, who rarely suspect when placing seed orders from Johnny’s, Territorial, Nichols, Stokes, and dozens of other catalogs that they are likely buying from Monsanto.”

I found a list online that includes most of the “dozens of other catalogs” Kingsolver refers to in the paragraph above and I will post it this week. As you can see, I have removed my ‘Favorite Suppliers’ list from my sidebar…I will have to start looking again to give my business to folks who are not related to the MUBs.

So what’s so wrong with reducing the varieties of seeds people have been saving from generations to merely the most marketable and cost efficient ones via GM? Well, for starters, these GM seeds create plants whose pollen will travel and contaminate (yup, contaminate) heirloom plants. As if that was not enough, the MUBs can sue (they have…and they’ve won) a farmer whose plants get Monsanto-marketed plant genes. Even if this was unintentional. Even if in a perfect world the farmer should truly sue the MUBs for messing up the gene pool of seed that have been kept and passed from generation to generation for hundreds of years.

Another crucial point is that we must safeguard our right to 1. Grow our own food if we chose to do so, and 2. The planet’s biodiversity.
We show so much care for the whales, and the owls, etc. and that is great…but what happens when the Irish famine (caused by the fact that they relied on solely one kind of potato) becomes the corn famine or the canola famine? How will we recover from such disasters?
These are just a few reasons why is so important to continue caring for our heirloom seed, buying it, sharing it and safeguarding its biodiversity with as much care and passion as we put into caring for whales or if our livelihood depended on it.
Because it does.


GreenJeans said...

Holy Moly. I knew some of this but not all of it. Thanks for this 'long and boring' post. It was kinda long but it certainly wasn't boring.

Really? Their pollen contaminates heirloom plants? I'd never heard that before. That's scary.

Gardening Fool said...

Not sure that "contaminate" is the right scientific term...but it has happen and I am sure it will continue to it did to this guy in Canada whose plants exhibited Monsanto manipulated traits and they sued him. And won. His name is Percy Schmeiser and I am sure there are more like him.

Hold on to your big ol' neck high bloomers GJ, there is more scary scary stuff to come...should have started during Halloween.

Oh...I am an ode to missed opportunities.

Gardening Fool said...

Correction: It has happenED...ugh...where ma coffee?

Bishops Homegrown said...

Good post friend, you should seriously consider posting more things like this. I would like to clarify a few things for readers however.

(F1) hybrids are not by nature evil. Hybrids were introduced at about the turn of the century (19’th-20’th) and are for all intents and purposes nothing more than the first generation offspring of two inbred or otherwise known as Open Pollinated lines of related plants, as such they do have their positives and negatives and to look at such a subject with an open mind I will discuss briefly those:
-Hybrid Vigor-faster growing, sometimes faster maturing crops, with combined disease resistance and generally decently suited to most environments having never had a chance to gain adaptations to any one or more locales.

-Reliable in multiple conditions

-increased disease resistance

-accessible genetic material for independent plant breeders

-don’t breed true, IE, don’t come true from seed
-must be bought yearly from producer
-most crosses made out of U.S. or other home countries contributing nothing to home economies.

Ok, so we have those facts out of the way. Yes, hybrids were created to some extent to get farmers to subscribe to specific seed companies (in some instances, in others they were made by independent breeders) and they are not as well adapted to any one area of production as a Open Pollinated variety grown in that locale would be, however where there is no corresponding OP variety for your locale they will do in a pinch. I should also point out that not all hybrids are GMO (genetically modified) or patented and backyard plant breeders often segregate the second filial (theres that word again, I’ll get that in a second) generation and it’s following generations out into a combination of genes resembling something close to an OP version of the original hybrid, in fact this is how all OP crops were bred, by selecting for traits close to what you want over a number of Filial generations (growing seasons) until you get something that is similar and breeds true to saved seed.

The word filial basically means; of, coming from, desendent of, or related to by generation. As such the original hybrid becomes generation one of mixed genes (all seeds true to description), F2 is the second generation removed from the hybrid and so on. Routinely segregation of hybrids takes about 8 generations or so to get something close to what you are searching for. Many small farmers, market farmers, and home gardeners not only make their own F1 seed but segregate those varieties and purchased F1 varieties into OP varieties that will one day with any luck become Heirloom varieties. No conspiracy here, this was all ferreted out before the “Green Revolution” which did turn things on it’s side for the worse.

OK, that’s out of the way, next let us discuss copyrights and PVP rights. PVP rights are the easier of the two to understand but none the less evil in my opinion. A PVP variety basically is a variety that is usually open pollinated and unique in some way (notice I said usually) that is covered by Plant Breeders rights, you can save and plant seed for your own use and you can use the varieties for breeding, however you can not reproduce seed for sale or trade. Still, to say anyone owns any living thing to me is BS.

Regarding gene patenting, particularly gene patenting and the dangers of GMO’s (least we not forget that Gene Patenting now applies to any genes hereto un patented as well including genes present in traditional, heirloom and open pollinated crops). This is the real monster under the bed you were speaking about and basically works as so. Said company takes DNA from one or more organisms, applies those genes to the crop or animal to be modified and then places a marker and a patent on those genes, then with very little testing they release the crops or animals out into the world and the marketplace without checking for specific consequences and effect of such modification. Once those crops are in the fields, depending on weather those crops are outcrossers (shed their pollen on the wind or to insects and easily cross pollinated) or self pollinating (harder to cross via wind and insects but not impossible) you get crosses and contamination (to the person who said in comments they wouldn’t call it contamination, what else would you call substances that people routinely test positive to allergies for and mice routinely test positive to cancer for?) in your own saved seeds. Once their specifically patented seed is crossed into your seeds, they effectively own your crop and any seed. If you are organic certified you loose that certification, and possibly most importantly you may eat something you really shouldn’t be ingesting and or allow a friend or loved one to do so seriously compromising your health.

It is my opinion that the businesses engaging in such tactics are bio-terrorists and that the governments allowing this action to continue are the same. I believe that this system is set up to encourage the crossing of contaminated pollen into traditional crops not only for the health consequences, population control and so forth but so that large multinationals (many of which have boards of directors filled with big name politicians and lobbyists) can claim a copyright on all of bio-diversity and seed and then claim them as their own. As such, he who controls the seed, controls the feed! Eventually they will make a grab for small garden crops as well.

Indeed these are scary times we are living in and I am here to try to open eyes.

Moving on to your favorite suppliers list. Sure there are some companies selling garden seeds mostly to market gardeners who do sell some amount of GMO sweet corn seed and some do sell some of the aforementioned PVP varieties, but for the most part, thus far the monsters have mostly been pushed and kept out of the veggie seed business. Most of the small companies that you list do not engage in business with Monsanto, Syngenta, or their subsidiaries or corporate rivals. An easy way to find out how your favorite seed companies view such issues is to e-mail them or look for a link on their site discussing the Safe Seed Pledge. Please don’t give up supporting the small companies and if you are afraid to do so then please check around on the net and find somewhere where you can request seed trades, some traders will even trade for free just to get the seed out in the open.

I personally run a message board where we do exactly that. Not only do we deal in Open Pollinated crops but we also delve into backyard plant breeding and wide bio-diversity as well as other issues in agriculture such as soil sciences, composting, vermicomposting, ornamentals, orchards, poultry, farm animals, aquaculture and so forth, please feel free to check it out at

For those interested also in trading seeds elsewhere than on the message board, please look into the Seed Trading Network talked about here and also on my blog at as well as Patricks Bi-furcated carrots blog at

Thanks for your time!
Sorry for the long comment!

Your Friend,
Alan Reed Bishop
Bishop’s Homegrown/Hip-Gnosis Seed Development/Homegrown Goodness.

Gardening Fool said...

Hi Alan-
First, I’d like to say that I love the name of your company hip-gnosis is genius. And it seems that you gnosis a lot about this stuff ☺ so thank you for the clarifications, encouragement, & for bringing up your view point.
Well, where to start? I am pretty passionate about this topic. I belong to the simple (yet not simplistic) group of folks who think that if something is working fine, why mess with it? My thought it most things is that, if I want to grow certain plants that, say, are not indigenous nor adapted to my area, thus having to introduce heavily GMd plants, then I am simply better off by just growing what Momma Nature thinks best. After all, she gnosis best, right?
I agree with you the F1s are not by nature evil & understand that in the same way in which folks have saved heirloom seeds, human curiosity and innate desire for progress has prompted many to ‘play’ with what they had growing in their gardens. Many of the beautiful and tasty specimens we currently enjoy would not be possible without these folks smarts. It was not my intent to discard F1s as el Diablo here…rather to show a bit what the possible point of departure for us humans to start thinking about patenting and go psycho on what was already plenty good in the name of human greed. I was thinking of the progression of seeds and how we go about them…I mean, it had to start somewhere, right? I only hope it ends prior to Monsanto getting their Terminator seed approved (for those unfamiliar with this seed, it is basically a plant that self-destructs after producing the edibles thus eradicating any chance of seed saving).
FYI: I grow hybrids too. I am just trying to be more conscious of my choices and how they affect others around me, that’s all. Well, that’s not all, really, I also think that I have never tasted any variety of hybrid that had the bababoom gene most Heirlooms possess. I like bababoom in my food. Balance, I guess is the thinking behind it. I am also working hard on gaining a better understanding of where my seeds came from.
Also, I recall clearly when simple stuff like stones, rocks and water where free…seeds used to change hands with nothing more than a thank you for a long time…but I do understand that people need to make a living. Now, greed & absolute disregard for unintended consequences, that’s another story.
I agree with you on many of your thoughts on positives & negatives…but…☺ your last bullet point: “most crosses made out of U.S. or other home countries contributing nothing to home economies.” Two things about that: 1. Just by looking at how many US based seed suppliers one can easily find anywhere, that they are making a fairly good profit. I mean these large companies, that by the way keep growing, are not in it for the feel good experience, they want (and get) the mullah. 2. The mere fact that these hybrids are produced outside the US, possibly in countries that are not regulated like we are here, makes me a bit nervous.

Absolutely agree that not all hybrids are GMd, and I am glad you clarified that because I did not even think of it. My sin is thinking people know the thinking behind the thinking when I write.
I don’t agree with you on how most OP crops were bred, as it is my understanding that OP is the result of outcrossing to the same parental type, versus hybrids where simply put they have to have different parental types…with at least one different heritable trait…but I did not study botany so if you feel I either did not understand what you were saying or I got it all wrong, please feel free to slap me straight.
Filial, yeah, as in son or daughter…I got it. ☺

What do you mean when you say the green revolution turned things on its side for the worse?

Fear not. I won’t give up on supporting small seed companies! I just want to support the right ones.

Thank YOU for YOUR time and knowledge! (not yelling, comment postings don’t have the Italics option…)

Gardening Fool said...

Hey Alan, just came home and did what I should have done before I hit "send"...namely, proof-read my reply to be sure it made some sense...oh boy...lots of typos, no spaces (makes me sound like I am talkign without breathing in between) and such! Still, I hope it was somehow understandable.

Bishops Homegrown said...

Hey, glad to see you responded friend. Sorry if I came of wrong or anything, I didn't mean to.

Ok, a few things I'll need to clarify.

What I mean about seed companies hiring out third parties to make hybrids in other countries not contributing to the economy, I certainly agree the company is making copius amounts of money, just that the people in the country that the company is in aren't getting those jobs or making that money.

What I was saying about OP crops is that now they do bred true, but at one time they were all hybrids that were selected from and segregated out into a pool of similar traits until they became self replicating (open pollinated).

The green revolution (back when big ag started pushing major hybrid seed and all the nasty chemicals for growing and protecting them) is when, in my opinion, that the control of agriculture and seeds began, sometime around the 1950's.

I agree, GMO's should be avoided and fought against no matter what, they present far to much danger to health and environment. These big ag companies are slowly erroding our traditional agriculture and that must be fought tooth and nail.

When I was refering to breeding new varieties by backyard gardeners, most of these varieties are usually segregated out until they become open pollinated. I agree, if one can find OP's that do well in your environment then that's what one should stick with, however two things to bear in mind are that not all OP's will grow well everywhere because they are particularly adapted to one bio-region (for example, a high dessert traditional crop will not grow well in the Ohio Valley) and two much diversity in each independent bio-region has unfortunately been lost to time. For example, being in the Ohio Valley in Southern Indiana I have tried to track down as many OP seeds as what I can for each individual crop that I want to grow here since they will be better suited to my garden, however there are some categories where no local, traditional, op crop exists, for example: Watermelon. Since I didn't have a traditional variety to rely on, I might decide to breed a variety suited to my climate.

I hope this make sense, I'm kind of fighting a cold and my brain isn't working quite right at the moment.

Anyhow, keep up the good work, help us fight our battles friend, and thanks for the compliment on our name, it is greatly appreciated friend! Hope to correspond with you more in the future.

I'll be adding you to our blog roll.

Your Friend,
Alan Reed Bishop

Gardening Fool said...

Oh no! Your message did no come across in the wrong way! Don't worry!

I think we are in the same boat :-)

Thanks again for taking the time to share your knowledge here...I truly appreciate it.

As I sign of Beasty Boys' "You gotta fight, for your riiiiight to parteeee!" comes to mind. Only I would change 'party' for 'seed.' ☺

Hope you feel better soon!