Which Way Do You Sow?

by Ken Greene

When you sit down to eat food from the farmers market or your garden, you can trace the origin of the food, how it was grown and processed, and how it got to your plate. The food on your plate represents a choice you have made about how food is grown and distributed. In the food world people refer to this as “voting with your fork.”

Many eaters stop the search for the source of their meal at the farm where the food was grown. But that’s not the beginning of the story. There is a whole farming industry behind farming—seed farming. You can vote with your fork and trowel by asking where do the seeds that grew your food come from, who grew them, and how were they grown?

Collecting chive seed heads on the farm. Collecting chive seed heads on the farm.

When you buy produce from your local farmer (who had to buy seeds to grow the produce) or seeds from your favorite seed company, what are your seed dollars supporting? Many seed companies can truthfully claim that they are not owned by Monsanto and don’t sell GMO seed. But does that mean your seed dollars are supporting a responsible seed company? Not necessarily. Follow the distribution stream of where their seeds came from, and you might be surprised about the sources. Many seeds come from polluted headwaters.

One example of this is Seminis. Seminis is the largest developer, grower and marketer of fruit and vegetable seeds in the world. In 2005 Monsanto bought Seminis for $1.4 billion. Many seed companies, even ones that offer heirloom or organic varieties, buy a percentage of their seed stock from Seminis. This means that if you buy seeds from a seed company that gets their seeds from Seminis, (even one that is not owned by Monsanto and does not sell GMO seed), you are supporting GMOs and Monsanto.

Farmer-owned seed companies are rare in the modern seed industry. Most seed companies do not grow their own seed. They contract with large farms and buy seed from massive wholesalers. Some seed companies, like FEDCO, opted to drop all seeds from Seminis after it was bought and let their consumers know a bit about the farms where the seeds were grown. Other seed companies, large and small alike; still buy seeds from sources owned by biotech corporations without ever stating where their seeds come from to the consumer. Just as it can be difficult to tell who grew your food, how they grew it, and what your food dollars support when you buy food from the grocery store, there is little or no transparency in the bulk of home garden seed catalogs.

Here at the Seed Library, our goal is to grow as much of the seed we sell ourselves. As we continue to work towards developing regionally farm-grown seed, we have found that we need to buy seed from other sources in order to offer a full catalog. It’s taken a lot of research and hard-line decision making to feel good about our choices for purchased seed. We've even begun training local farmers on how to integrate seed saving into their food farms so that we can develop a network of responsible seed sources.

We’ve had many questions from gardeners about how to know if a seed company is good to buy from or not so we thought we’d share the way we make choices for our catalog.

1.      Sow True. We make sure none of our seeds are traceable to biotech, even six (or more) degrees of separation. Biotech is not just Monsanto. Other chemical and pharmaceutical corporations are in the business of buying up seed resources. One helpful resource (that is a bit out of date but still useful) is this map of seed consolidation.

2.      Sow Right. We contract with responsible farmers. We only work with small, independent farmers who use sustainable farming practices. We do not contract with any monocrop, industrial, or conventional farms.

3.      Sow Independent. When we have to buy from a wholesaler we make sure they are an independent seed house and not owned by, a subsidiary of, or related to biotech in any way.

4.      Sow Healthy. Whenever possible, our seeds are certified organic or we make sure they are sustainably grown. Conventional seed growing is even more toxic than conventional food growing.  We do not carry hybrids, which require more water, cheap labor, and chemical inputs to grow. We have always farmed using organic practices and this year, received our organic certification through NOFA-NY.

5.      Sow Local. We choose seed grown in America over seeds from other countries. We take this even further and work as close to home as possible. We believe in growing our local economy and creating regionally adapted seeds for gardeners and farmers. Everything from our printing, shipping boxes, labels come from small, mostly family owned businesses.

6.      Stay Seedy. All of the seeds we offer are heirloom or open-pollinated. There are no varietal protections, restrictions, or corporate ownerships. We actively encourage seed saving by teaching seed saving skills and providing incentives to our seed saving members.

7.      Sow Smart. We recognize that choosing to stick to these guiding principles means we have a smaller catalog, don’t make as much money, work harder, and can’t sell seeds for cheap, but this is the only way we can imagine running the Seed Library. We do the research and sow responsibly so you can too.

There are a few other seed companies in the country that are making equally responsible decisions about their seed sources, but there are many more that are not. Before you buy seed, take time to find out what your seed dollars are really supporting. Sow smart and vote with your trowel!