Why Corporations’ Control of the Seed Supply Worries This Chef

As told to Kate Krader

Just look at what’s happened in the last decade: We have four multinational corporations—Bayer, Corteva, ChemChina, BASF—that control more than 60% of our seed supply. Four multinationals control the future of our food.

Bishkek, KyrgyzstanMost polluted air today, in sensor range 72% Carbon-free net power in the U.K., most recent data

50,​820 Million metric tons of greenhouse emissions, most recent annual data

$69.​9B Renewable power investment worldwide in Q2 2020 +0.​97° C Nov. 2020 increase in global temperature vs. 1900s average

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They’re all chemical companies. These are companies that know that seeds don’t make money, what makes money is the intervention—the pesticides, fungicides, and fertilizers. That’s why the fight for genetic modification is so intense. It’s not that the yields are so great. It’s that they own the operating technology embedded in the seed. That’s where the value is. And the interventions are sold to you by … those same chemical companies. Nice work if you can get it, right?

Furthering my middle-of-the-night anxiety is that before now, there had been a divide between companies focused on grain and vegetable seed companies. Not anymore. There’s not a big market for genetically modified vegetables. But now, grain companies see an opportunity to gobble up seed companies—which had been mostly small family businesses—and consolidate.

They’re saying, “Let’s create a carrot that grows well in Florida and Mexico and China. We want the carrot to perform in multiple environments, one size fits all.” They buy up all these smaller seed companies, all the vegetable companies, and get rid of the seeds. Because you can’t just store seeds for long periods of time. It’s not that they put them in a nice Norwegian vault. They have to be grown to stay alive. The expense of keeping them is monstrous.

And now the GMO people—these multinational conglomerates—are all in a tizzy about patenting. Patenting is a way to protect their profits. They’ve patented purple carrots. That’s taking nature and owning it. I was just on the phone with a lettuce breeder, he’s telling me that 70% of genetic traits for lettuces is now owned. He says that when he tries to create a new variety, it’s like walking through a minefield. It’s like this: If you’re painting a mural, and you dip your paintbrush in a color, and a lawyer taps you on the shoulder and says, “That color is patented.” But it’s those diverse genetic traits that we need to combat climate change. We need crazy amounts of diversity for plants to defend against, say, a certain kind of mildew, a pest. And now those traits might be owned.

We don’t actually know how climate change will affect plants—what types of pests will become more prevalent, what types of disease will develop. What we do know is that having as many tools as possible in the toolbox is the key to resiliency. Genetic diversity is our best asset.

Dan Barber is chef and co-owner, Blue Hill and Row 7 Seed Co.

— With assistance by Kate Krader

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