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Why did farmers stop saving their own seeds?

The expected corporate merger of seed company Monsanto and crop-chemical company Bayer, expected to take shape by the end of this year pending approval from the regulators in 30 countries around the world, has raised a new round of concern that a small handful of companies are coming to control nearly all the seeds used by farmers. Take the two biggest crops in this country, for instance. According to Wall Street analyst Mark Gulley, Monsanto now holds 36 percent of the seed corn market and 28 percent of the seed soybean market after the merger.

“If these posed mergers work like all of the past ag supply mergers that we have already experienced," Nebraska Farmers Union President John Hansen told Colorado's Summit Daily, "it will mean that [farmers] have fewer choices in the market place....”

That continuing market concentration fans the flames of Internet mythology that farmers have lost control of their seed destiny, including stories of farmers being sued for replanting seed harvested from plants of purchased seed (sometimes true), that farmers get sued when nature blows the pollen of neighbors' crops into their fields and pollinates theirs (not so true), or that companies have genetically engineered "suicide seeds" to cross-breed with plants and render them sterile so they can't reproduce usable seed in a next generation, forcing all farmers to come under the thumb of "Big Ag" to buy replacement seed year after year (ridiculously untrue).

It all raises an interesting question that may occur to some of your shoppers: Why in the world did farmers ever give up so much control over something as important to their livelihood and stop saving their own seed? Why do farmers do that?

It's not been that simple for more than a century. Yes, in pre-industrial America, when 9 out of ten people relied on their own farms to feed themselves, the typical farmer did depend largely on his own crop to provide seed for the following season. But as agriculture grew, that practice went by the wayside quickly. The nation's first commercial seed seller opened in Philadelphia only a decade after the nation's independence. By the last quarter of the 1800s, more than 100 U.S. seed companies were handling a large quantity of seed corn. By 1960, at least 96 percent of all corn seed was a purchased seed not grown on the original farm. Even as early as 1940, when USDA started collecting reliable statistics, less than half the red clover seed and less than 10 percent of the alfalfa, the two most important hay seeds, were being used on the farm where they were originally grown. Farmers have been buying seed from specialists for a long time.

It's made farming more reliable. It wasn't Monsanto that led to widespread abandonment of saved seed in this country. It was biology. After Congress set aside $1,000 in 1839 to collect and give seed away free to farmers, literally billions of packages were given to farmers until the program ended in 1923. But complaints soon grew widespread about the reliability of those seeds, and despite some public efforts to improve plant breeding, farmers were often disappointed with the reliability of those public seeds.

About halfway through that period, a Czech monk named Gregor Mendel unlocked the key to specifically identifying genetic traits that farmers in the past had bred into plants and animals only by the generational process of trial and error. When commercial companies began applying Mendel's concepts to seed breeding around the turn of the century, the age of the "hybrid" seed was born.

As this video clearly explains, hybridization tightly controls breeding of parent plants in order to help remove the random chance that occurs in nature—the reason some of us are born blonde, some brunette, some red-headed. Like specific building blocks, beneficial traits like disease resistance or tolerance to drought will reliably "express," or appear, in the hybrid plant, in the first seed that goes into a field as predictably as it does in the 10,000th. That predictability is the reason for any given Nebraska corn field's row after row of uniform plants. It's also the reason the Nebraska legislature is currently considering a bill that would allow a restraining order or injunction to be imposed on anyone who sells or represents corn seed as a hybrid variety if it doesn't meet the standards to do so.

And that predictability of a hybrid's performance is the reason farmers don't save hybrid seeds for the following season. By law of averages, only half the plants in the second generation of a hybrid seed will express the traits you originally wanted. Each succeeding generation of saved seed will dilute that trait further. Farmers buy hybrid seed rather than save their own because they know the cost of returning to the first-generation seed is generally worth it to get seed that grows true.

It's made them more productive. Going hand-in-hand with that reliability has come productivity by using purchased seed. Even advocates for sustainability and what's known as "open pollination," or use of seeds that don't rely on commercial, often patented, parent lines, don't doubt the boost in productivity that's been brought about by hybrid seeds. All else equal, studies show, modern hybrids often yield much more that open pollinated varieties, and they have done so for going on a century now.

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