The Dirt on Seeds.

F.H. King is trying something new this semester.  A casual potluck and discussion that brings together everything the organization is about: food, education, sustainability and a sense of community.

On Thursday, March 24th, the first official “Get the Dirt” dinner was an incredible success thanks to some pumpkin bread pudding and Jack Kloppenburg.

For those of you who don’t know, Jack Kloppenburg is a professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology here at UW Madison.  Though his interests are multifaceted, seeds and the social impacts of biotechnology are his specialty.

A cozy couple dozen students and community members sat in the basement of Science Hall to become enlightened on the politics of the seed industry which has become dominated by two major companies: Dupont and Monsanto.

Jack’s story began with the power and beauty of the seed life cycle.  “They are both the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end.”  You plant one seed and it produces, leaving the planter with hundreds of seeds.  It is hard to imagine something so “savable” could ever become so marketable.

So how you ask, did it happen?  Well the seed companies had to somehow stop this cycle from ensuing.  They needed to stop farmers from saving seeds by destroying the cycle.  And they did this two ways: through technological means and through politics.

First, science and technology.  Through hybridization, seeds were still savable, but farmers held no benefit from doing so.  These new seeds had major advantages for agriculture but their growth deteriorated significantly in subsequent years.  Experiments and research on GURTs (better known as terminator technology) since the 1990s could really seal the deal in the future, if companies have their way.  Seed saving could be prevented entirely, as the technology would keep seeds from being fertile in a second year.

As technology and science paved the way for the seed market, politics aided the industry with patents.  In 1935, patents were only allowed for seeds of plants like roses: nonsexual reproducing plants.  But by the 1980s, patents extended to food plants’ seeds.  This meant that companies owned the technology behind your seeds.  Whether you had purchased them or not, the company now owned the genes and you could not reuse or conduct research on them.

Obviously, companies’ seed technologies alongside their ability to be patented has had great consequences for the agricultural industry.  The consequences of which will have to be saved for another day.  Or ask Jack about it, I can guarantee he’s willing to share this story again and again.

For further reading- First the Seed: the political economy of plant biotechnology.  By Jack Kloppenburg.