Apr 24, 2016

Plant varieties: Why are we losing them?

By Alan Broughton

Over the past century there has been a huge loss of genetic diversity in crop plants, running at about 2.5% per year, amounting to more than 75% of garden food varieties which have disappeared. For some crops the loss has been much higher (97% of peas for example). 

Of vegetable varieties in old USDA (United States Department of Agriculture) lists 97% are now extinct. Of the 7078 apple varieties in the US in 1904, 86% are extinct; of pears 88%. In India once there were 20,000 varieties of rice grown; now 75% of plantings are from 10 varieties. In Taiwan 2000 rice varieties were grown in 1910; by 1920 there were 390. In China in 1949 10,000 varieties of wheat were grown; by the 1970’s only 1000. If you compare Australian fruit or vegetable catalogues from early 1900’s with today’s you would see a huge reduction in varieties offered. Many of the early ones are no longer known to be in existence. At the same time wild ancestors of food plants around the world are disappearing as the land is being used for agriculture or grazing. 

There are several causes of this loss of diversity: government policies, concentration of ownership of seed companies, hybridisation, fewer farmers and home gardeners, and the drive for ever increasing profits.


Hybridisation started in the 1920s, leading to a big increase in profits for seed companies and a reduction in the numbers of varieties available. The new varieties produced by crossing separate species cannot be reproduced from their own seed, either because the seed is sterile or because it reverts back to part of its original parentage. This means it has to be purchased each year. 

Some hybrids give higher yields, but this is usually offset by reduced nutrient value (very significant in the case of corn), flavour or hardiness. For some, for example tomatoes, there is no yield or other advantage.  Flavour and hardiness are not the traits selected for in modern plant breeding – more important are colour and appearance, uniformity, ability to travel long distances, shelf life and yield. Not by coincidence do the seed corporations also produce pesticides.

Government policies

Governments have encouraged the planting of high yielding varieties, sometimes by force (in the case of Taiwan’s rice). Plant Breeders’ Rights legislation (which in Australia was passed in 1994, replacing earlier Plant Variety Rights Act of 1987) means that new varieties are patented – this does not mean that plant breeding has increased, the stated aim of the legislation, but only that the farmers have to pay more. The evidence shows that in most countries plant breeding has actually declined following the introduction of PBR. One of the first actions of the invading forces in Iraq was to introduce seed patent laws. Seed companies are less eager to sell seeds that do not carry the royalties of PBR varieties. 

Of the 1,663 plant patents applied for between June 2008 and June 2010, 77% were by six corporations – DuPont, BASF, Monsanto, Syngenta, Bayer and Dow. These were mostly for drought resistance, heat stress, salinity tolerance and other consequences of global warming and land degradation (for which these corporations are partially responsible for causing in the first place). 

Some governments have declared certain seeds reproduceable and others illegal. The UK government introduced in 1964 the Plant Varieties and Seeds Act which made it an offence to sell or put in a catalogue any seed not on the UK National List as published in the Plant Varieties and Seeds Gazette. Each year the list changes as some varieties are dropped off and others added. The European Union adopted similar policies in 1972, leading to the immediate outlawing of 1500 vegetable varieties. 

The British legislation states: “Attention is again drawn to the fact that it is an offence, subject to certain exceptions, to sell, hold with a view to sale or offer for sale or any disposal, supply or transfer of seed to a third party seed of a plant variety (a) unless and until the name of the variety is included in the appropriate United Kingdom National List or the EC Common Catalogue of varieties of agricultural plant species or (b) under a name other than that which is given in a National List or the Common Catalogue for that variety.” (http://www.fera.defra.gov.uk/plants/publications/documents/specialGazette2013-2.pdf). 

Under the legislation it is not illegal to grow the varieties as long as seed is not sold. They can be held in community seed banks such as that of the Henry Doubleday Research Association, and European governments did start developing seed banks to preserve old varieties. However by 1991 three quarters of the vegetable varieties grown in Europe became extinct as a result of those laws. Thankfully we do not have that type of permitted variety law in Australia. 

Seed corporations are now campaigning to force all seed sellers and exchangers to be registered, arguing that this will ensure quality. However, their unstated motivation is more likely to wipe out small competitors who would not be able to pay the registration and inspection fees. Mexico is the first country being targeted, and if successful other countries will most likely follow. Mexico has passed the Law for the Production, Certification and Trading of Seeds, stating that seeds may not be given away or exchanged, and only sold by registered and inspected seed companies. The law was promoted by Mexican Association of Seed Producers, which has Dow and Syngenta representatives on its board of directors and Monsanto on its board of honour and justice. The stated goal is for 60% of all seed used in Mexico to be certified and “protected” (that is, patented) under this law. Seed that is not purchased is termed “pirate”. The Association’s website says: “You will agree that we cannot allow pirate seed to damage our lands, our heritage and our prestige as agricultural workers. Together we can and must deal with this risk, by always ensuring that we buy only original seeds, distributed by reputable commercial bodies” (quoted in GRAIN p. 94). The penalty for non-compliance is 500,000 Mexican pesos (US$50,000), plus confiscation of the seed and harvest. 

Concentration of ownership

The ownership of seed companies is becoming more concentrated in fewer hands. Big corporations, often petro-chemical and pesticide producers, have taken over seed companies. As control increases, diversity decreases. For instance Byerley bought 27 Australian seed companies in 1985 and quickly reduced the range of varieties through company restructuring. By 2000 Seminis controlled 40% of the world vegetable seed market and was active in 120 countries (it owned 20% of Yates) – this company has now been taken over by Monsanto. Large corporations are only interested in stocking lines that sell well, and drop off less popular varieties. Seminis for example deleted 2000 varieties from its list in 1999 alone. Seeds locally adapted to specific regions are the first to be lost from the catalogue. Open-pollinated varieties are being lost in favour of hybrid and PBR varieties. 

By 2010 ten corporations controlled half of the global market for commercial seeds. The biggest player was Monsanto with 35% followed by DuPont with 22% and Syngenta 13%. Concentration is highest in large volume markets and GM varieties. Monsanto for example has more than 90% of the soy seed market in the US. 

The outcome of this intensification of control of seeds by corporations is a reduction of biodiversity, providing the conditions for major pest and disease outbreaks (for which the same corporations will sell the pesticides), greater dependence on chemical fertilisers for which the promoted varieties are selected, and reduction in the self-sufficiency and independence of farmers. 

Why protect genetic resources?

As Henry Kissinger declared in the 1970’s, ‘If you control the oil you control the country; if you control food, you control the population.’

Genetic diversity is essential for pest and disease management and adaptation to climate change. As plantings become more uniform the risk to food production increases – an attack by a new disease or bad weather conditions or climate change can wipe out huge areas of plantings. The more varieties planted, the better the chances of not all being affected. Farmers and gardeners over thousands of years have developed the genetic resources we use today; out or respect for them no more should be lost. People have selected strains that suit their local conditions, and those people must retain the right to keep those varieties. 

Seed saving networks and heritage fruits groups have sprung up around the world to protect the genetic diversity of food plants. The job of preserving plant genetic biodiversity has fallen to farmers and community organisations, on a voluntary basis. There are for example more than 50 local groups in Australia affiliated with the Seed Savers Network (www.seedsavers.net). The Organic Agriculture Association has a seed bank – members donate seed and this gets passed on to other people. The greater the spread, the greater the security of particular varieties. 

Without this work the losses would be far greater. Despite the rapid concentration of seed patenting and corporate control of seed companies, still 67% of seeds used in the world is saved by farmers and only 32% is certified. However the losses have been extreme and will continue without our efforts.

Some independent seed companies

Note: this list probably does not include all Australian independent seed suppliers.

Birdland Organic Seed: vegetables, herbs, edible flowers, Wallington, Victoria, 0433 389 901, www.birdlandseeds.com

Diggers Club: vegetables, flowers, fruits, http://diggers.com.au. 

Eden Seeds: vegetables, herbs, flowers, green manure crops, www.edenseeds.com.au

Goodman Seeds: vegetables, herbs, flowers, green manure crops, lawn seed, www.goodmanseeds.com.au

Green Harvest: vegetables, herbs, flowers, green manure crops and other propagating material, certified organic, www.greenharvest.com.au.

Greenpatch Organic Seeds: vegetables, herbs, flowers, grains and other propagating material, certified organic, www.greenpatchseeds.com.au

Mount Eliza Seeds: Non GM, non-hybrid and uncertified organic vegetable and flower seeds, http://mtelizaseeds.com.au/ 

Phoenix Seeds, vegetables, herbs, trees, shrubs, www.phoenixseeds.net.au.  

Select Organic Seeds: vegetables, grains, flowers, herbs, etc, certified organic (the certified arm of Eden Seeds), www.selectorganic.com.au

Vital Seeds: BD vegetables for home gardeners, www.biodect.com/seeds.php

WTree Nursery: organic non-certified vegetables, 03 5155 0248. 


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Fanton, Michel & Jude, The Seed Savers’ Handbook, Seed Savers’ Network, Byron Bay, NSW, 1993.

GRAIN, The Great Food Robbery, Pambazuka Press, Cape Town, Dakar, Nairobi and Oxford, 2012.

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