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Farmers deserve to be able to control what they grow

Farmer Lance Unger holds a corn seed to be planted in one of his fields, in Indiana, where he uses minimum tillage practices to improve yields. Associated Press file photo

My grandma calls him the “seed man.”

He used to come by our farm outside of Fond du Lac, Wisc., every year, trying to persuade us to buy the latest variety of corn and wheat seeds. If the “seed man” didn’t have something we liked, then there were the options at the local grain elevator where we milled our corn. We also grew and saved seeds, especially for sunflowers, pumpkins and tomatoes.

My family, like others in our community, recognized the power of seeds.

As important as rain and healthy soil is for farming, we also need access to diverse seed varieties so that we can experiment to see what works and control our production.

A new bill, The Seeds and Breeds for the Future Act, would help lower seed prices and make genetic diversity more of a priority. The act was introduced by U.S. Sens. Baldwin, D-Wis., Martin Heinrich, D-N.M., Tina Smith, D-Minn., John Fetterman, D-Pa., and Ron Wyden, D-Ore., and is supported by dozens of farmer groups and their allies.

In terms of details, the bill dedicates $75 million in USDA research grants for the development of new public seeds and animal breeds, focusing especially on those that are regionally adapted and bred for environmental resilience. It would also create a special coordinator position that would strategize with farmers and other public stakeholders on what to research and how to increase genetic diversity .

Given the negative impact that corporate consolidation has had on our food and farm system, this legislation is critical. Researchers, for example, have found that increasing consolidation makes supply chains susceptible to breakdown, while also allowing corporations the power to manipulate prices and collude with competitors.

Concerning seeds specifically, the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration has highlighted that four firms — Bayer (including Monsanto), BASF, Corteva Agriscience and ChemChina-Syngenta — control more than two-thirds of commercial seed and pesticide sales worldwide.

That the USDA reports seed costs rising more than 700% between 2000 and 2015 for genetically modified seeds, and more than 200% for non-genetically modified seeds during that same time, shouldn’t come as a surprise. This, in part, also explains the persistently high food prices we’ve seen this year, as rising input costs — of which seeds are a part — are passed off from farmers to consumers.

Corporations take more than their fair share at both ends of the food supply chain, while consumers and farmers struggle.

The Biden administration has taken these concerns seriously by creating a task force in March with members from the USDA, Patent and Trademark Office, Department of Justice and Federal Trade Commission to research intellectual property rights and monopolization in the seed and agricultural input sector.

As we wait for the task force’s recommendations, our legislators could place The Seeds and Breeds for the Future Act into the Farm Bill, which is slated to expire later in 2023. Concretely, the act could be included into the lesser known, yet critically important research title of the Farm Bill that is currently moving its way through the U.S. House and Senate.

While the seed man who used to come by our farm is gone, what he represents remains: the importance of competition and local control in our food system. Farmers must regain some of the power to grow what they want, as they also struggle to face what climate change and the market throws their way. Let’s hope that our legislators pay heed before it’s too late.

Anthony Pahnke is the vice president of Family Farm Defenders and an associate professor of international relations at San Francisco State University in San Francisco. This column was produced for Progressive Perspectives, a project of The Progressive magazine, and distributed by Tribune News Service.

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