One of the biggest myths surrounding the adoption of biotechnology in agriculture is that farmers are no longer legally allowed to “save seeds” because of patents on the GMO traits.
Here’s the deal. When a company like Monsanto develops a new GMO crop variety, they usually obtain a patent on it from the federal government. That patent allows them to control the use of the seeds containing the GMO technology. When purchasing the seed covered by a patent, farmers sign a Technology Agreement with the seed company. Among other things, that agreement restricts farmers from saving part of their crop and using it as seed in a subsequent year. Instead, farmers have to purchase new seed directly from the company if they wish to once again plant a GMO crop variety.
This has caused many opposed to biotechnology to cry foul. They believe that this agreement prohibiting the use of a crop as seeds takes away the fundamental rights of farmers. They believe the prohibition on saving seeds is costly for farmers, because it forces them to purchase new seeds. It prohibits what was once a common practice among farmers and puts power into the hands of a few seed companies. Finally, they see it as some type of time-honored practice by farmers that allowed them to be self-sufficient and self-reliant.
Fortunately, none of those concerns are realized and this is really a non-issue for farmers.
An Old (Mostly Outdated) Practice
Although people associate the prohibition of keeping seed and reusing it the following production year, the reality is that this practice went out the window with the advent of hybrid varieties in the 1930’s. In a nutshell, hybrids are the result of taking two sexually-compatible species of plants and mating them to create a new species. Breeders then select the plants that exhibit beneficial traits and use them to create new varieties. The Honey-Crisp Apple, a relatively new apple variety, was developed using this method.
The problem with reusing these seeds is in the genes.
Without getting too deep in genetic science here, suffice to say that the second generation of plants do not always exhibit the beneficial traits the hybrids were bred to exhibit. If you’re familiar with how genetic traits are passed from one generation to the next, including a general knowledge of dominant and recessive genes, you’ll understand that only a certain percentage of the second generation plants will exhibit the qualities that made the hybrid variety so special.
For example, let’s say a farmer chose a particular hybrid of corn because his soil is more sandy and he needed a variety that could withstand a dryer growing season. In the first growing season, the seeds came all from the seed company and should exhibit the genetic traits that make it more drought-resistant. However, if the farmer harvested the corn and tried to use those kernels as seeds in the next season, not all of the corn will demonstrate the same genetic traits. That means a certain percentage of the crop will not be as drought-resistant as the first year, and may not survive or produce as well in the sandy soil.
In reality then, the practice of “saving seeds” did not end with the advent of GMOs. Rather, it was a practice farmers ended on a large-scale basis quite a bit ago.
Don’t forget – the same problem with the second generation hybrids could also occur in second generation GMOs. Even if farmers were allowed to save biotech seeds and plant them again, there could be problems with the entire crop exhibiting the right traits.
The decision to purchase new seeds doesn’t just revolve around the genetic quality of those seeds either. For example, our corn planter works best when the seeds are a uniform size. That allows the corn to be placed in the ground with more precision, and prevents things like double planting or skipping. Those all impact how efficient we are and, ultimately, the bottom line. When seed comes from the seed company, it is more likely to be a uniform size and shape. When we grow it and plant it ourselves, it won’t be.
Another issue is that a crop that is saved for use as seeds requires cleaning. During harvest, parts of the plant can get caught with the crop and the combine may fail to throw it out. For example, we find parts of the corn cobs in with the corn kernels, or soybean pods with the soybeans. In order to get these ready for planting, a farmer would have to get the crop cleaned up, which usually means paying someone to do it.
Finally, consider that there is a division of labor here that is very important. It is true that farmers could work to grow a crop that is genetically desirable, sort out the seeds to make them a uniform size, and clean them. But why do all of that? Seed companies can do it much more efficiently and cheaply than we can. That’s what they do and they’re good at it. Instead, we can focusing on raising the best crop possible with the resources we have.
Having a crop that doesn’t meet its maximum potential is exactly why a farmer would generally choose not to replant a second generation seed. In agriculture, the profits are all in the margins and we carefully make decisions to maximize those margins. Seeds are one of the first and most fundamental decisions we make each growing season. We want to use quality seeds with the genetic traits we need. Just as in any other business, it just doesn’t make sense for farmers to cut corners on something that is going to really make a difference.
But Those Technology Agreements!
So, farmers don’t necessarily want to plant a second generation hybrid seed, but there is nothing stopping them from doing it. Therefore, the restrictions placed on biotech seeds is more restrictive. Right?
Yes and no.
Many GMO varieties also have a mixture of hybrid traits as well. As I explained in a previous article, we select which seeds to purchase based on various factors. Although we may want a seed with herbicide resistance, we also may choose a seed that is more drought-resistant. The herbicide resistance is a GMO trait; the drought-resistance is a hybrid trait. Therefore, even seeds that utilize biotechnology that would always be expressed in the second generation are not good for replanting because those hybrids traits may or may not be expressed in the second generation. Again, we choose these particular seeds because they will work best on our farm. It isn’t worth losing the benefit of those genetic traits in subsequent years simply so we can skip purchasing new seeds.
But it is true that normally the purchase and use of a hybrid variety does not require farmers to sign a Technology Agreement. In that sense, the use of GMOs is more restrictive, because the option to reuse the crop as seed is taken away. As I explained though, for most farmers, this isn’t really going to be an issue. We make decisions to maximize yields each year and that starts with using the right seeds.
If a farmer is so dead set on saving seeds from his crop and absolutely must use his own seeds for the next season, he can. The patent on the original Round-Up Ready seeds has expired and now anyone can use them without signing the Technology Agreement. Or, a farmer can save the seed and simply pay the technology fee associated with using them. Finally, a farmer can just purchase seeds not under any type of patent. There are plenty of non-patented seed options available from various seed companies, including Monsanto. If seed saving is a high priority (and I’m not really sure why it would be considering all the benefits of buying new), then a farmer can make that decision without any problems.
Unlike what you may have heard, farmers are not forced to purchase or use certain seeds. We ultimately make that decision.
Look, as a farmer’s daughter, I’m happy that people are concerned about our ability to make decisions on our own farms (assuming, of course, their concern is genuine). I’m glad they don’t want to see big companies bully us and force us to change the way we farm. But that concern is misplaced. We aren’t being bullied. We aren’t being forced to farm a certain way.
The bottom line is that we’re making decisions on our farms that are right for us, the environment, and consumers. In general, saving seeds from one crop to use for the next is not in line with those goals.
Jenna E Gallegos says
Here’s an explanation that gets into the genetics with a simple analogy:
Farmers love buying seeds.
Will a farmer save money if he saves his own seeds? Or will a farmer who buys a product that essentially guarantees to save and potentially make a farmer a profit? Farmers are business owners. The externalties that affect a farmer’s bottom line is infinite….. GMO’s were designed with this in mind. GMo’s are meant to save time and money. Wish those against the technologies would try to understand this. If they want to change our practices. Perhaps first by changing the # of people who farm to a larger #? 1.5 % farm today. If we went back to 20% they might have an argument. Until then, they are only hypocrits and talkers, not walkers. My 2 cents.
John Denys says
Thanks for writing articles like this. It’s refreshing to read something from someone who actually knows about farming.
Great points here! And there’s more! Not just cleaning (getting rid of weeds, soil, inert matter, etc.) but sizing, treating, packaging or distributing in bulk that makes sense for the farm operation (not everyone is dumping 50lb bags into their planter anymore) . How about storage and quality control on other things like germination, disease, varietal purity? The list keeps going and going…if you visit a seed production facility or (university seed lab), talk with their agronomists, technicians, and seed growers and you will find there is much more involved than just walking out and picking a few seeds off of the plant.
Michael Conant says
I’m curious, do anyone know of any studies or statistics on just how much hybrid seed is planted yearly as opposed to reused from past years either in the U.S. or worldwide? Not being a farmer, this was a revelation to me that farmers have no desire to reuse seed. I’m just curious what the numbers are.
I’m not sure I understand the question. As I explained in the article, you would not want to save seeds from a hybrid plant because the entire crop would not exhibit the beneficial traits from the hybrid variety. Also, for modern planters, you have problems with seed size and uniformity.
I do not have an exact number and a reference, but it is Extremely close to 100%.
Another point to make, growers are aware that they cannot legally save seed from the patented varieties they buy and grow. They do this willingly seeking higher yields or reduced production costs. Should farmers be allowed to disassemble their John Deere tractor, measure and fabricate all the parts, and then start build and selling their own tractors?? NO . . . . there are patents!!
Chris Rutland says
Make that *Agricultural Research Service*
Chris Rutland says
Not sure if this is posting twice:
The USDA Agricultural Research Service collects this information. At least for corn, about 95% of the acres in the US are planted with hybrid varieties, which you can assume are purchased new every year for the reasons outlined above. The rest is probably organic or other niche-type systems. Also, if you were to think of this in terms of % of total corn production (instead of acres), it would probably be higher because hybrid yields are typically much better than non-hybrid (which is why the vast majority of corn land is planted with hybrid). However, not all crops are hybridized. For instance, soybeans aren’t. So I guess theoretically you could save soybeans, but it would still be impractical for the other reasons listed above, and also a violation of the contract the farmer signs when he buys the seed.
Here is the link to the USDA source: https://www.ars.usda.gov/oc/timeline/corn/
Michael Conant says
I followed the link given from usda (https://www.ars.usda.gov/oc/timeline/corn/) and was surprised to see what lengths we had gone to manipulate seed even 50 years ago. At the bottom of that story it says that it originally appeared in 1962. I wonder if the statistics at the lead are from 1962 or present day.
Michael Conant says
To rephrase, how prevalent are modern practices (large farms that use hybrid seed) over the old ways of doing things (saving seed). Would it be like 90/10?
Chris Rutland says
The USDA Economic Research Service collects that data for the US. About 95% of the corn acres in this country are planted with hybrid corn (which for the reasons detailed in the post can assumed to be purchased new every season). I suspect the percentage would be higher if we were talking about actual production and not acres, as yields on non-hybrid corn are typically a good bit lower. Here is the link to the report: https://www.ars.usda.gov/oc/timeline/corn/