Can a Trash-Talking Seed Get People to Care About Consolidation in Agriculture?

Only six companies control more than half of the world's seeds. That number could soon shrink to three. The Clif Bar Family Foundation hopes Mr. Seed will engage a new audience in the discussion about what that shift would mean.



A campaign aiming to prevent further consolidation of the seed industry has a new spokesperson. Meet Mr. Seed, a foul-mouthed organic cartoon character that decries the agrochemical industry’s control of seed.

In the space of 4 minutes and 22 seconds, Mr. Seed’s bleep-filled tirade mocks the chemical dependency—and virility—of modern seed, touts the vigor of organic seeds’ tougher roots, and delights in field-based breeding tips he reads aloud from the “Kama Seedra.”

“The video challenges the myth that giant agrochemical companies are feeding the world,” says Matthew Dillon, director of Seed Matters, an initiative of the Clif Bar Family Foundation (CBFF), based in Emeryville, California. In fact, Mr. Seed physically destroys that message in the edgy animation, released today.

Dillon hopes the video goes viral, accomplishing two goals. CBFF wants to start a conversation about both the importance of plant breeding and seed—and the consequences of a seed industry largely controlled by agrochemical companies.

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Secondly, viewers will be steered to the Seed Matters website where they can sign on to a letter requesting that the Department of Justice and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) block pending and future mergers of the seed industry. The letter makes the case that more, not less, diversified approaches to crop improvement are needed for food security.

Currently, the so-called “Big Six” agrochemical seed companies control 63 percent of the commercial seed market and 75 percent of the global agrochemical market. The R&D budgets of these companies is 15 times higher than all U.S. public spending on agricultural research. If the mergers and acquisitions that are currently on the table—such as Bayer’s recent $63 billion offer to buy Monsanto—take place, the number of major seed companies would be reduced to just three.

These types of mergers could have far-reaching consequences, says Dillon, such as further reducing the genetic diversity in the seed market, and leaving more farmers marginalized. Such mergers would also likely increase seed prices, he says, which have already doubled, and in some cases tripled, for many crops in the last two decades. “Fewer choices for farmers (no matter what type of farmer) increases risk for all farmers,” he says. And yet, he adds, the lack of regulatory oversight in the seed industry is “frightening.”

The widespread loss of regional seed companies has been a frustration voiced by thousands of farmers in recent years. “No other industry has concentrated so much power so quickly. It took 500 years of global banking systems to concentrate to the point where they are today—and they are not even as concentrated as the seed industry,” says Dillon. “Yet no other industry is as necessary for our sustenance and survival.”

Whether Mr. Seed can deliver signatures on the letter, crafted by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), Farm Aid, Organic Seed Alliance, and Seed Matters, remains to be seen. Michael Sligh, director of RAFI’s sustainable agriculture program, says any traction that helps educate consumers about how consolidation impacts competition and farmer access to seeds will be welcome. “I don’t think people understand that farming barely resembles what it used to be,” he says.

 

 

 

Civil Eats is a 2015 grant recipient of the Clif Bar Family Foundation.

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