Several years ago rumors started flying on social media and in certain news publications that farmers are not allowed to save seed, “Big Ag” dictated to them the type of seeds they could utilize and then further dictated their crop protection products. This has been widely debunked and clarified by many in the agriculture community. But what has not been explained some of the reasons WHY we do not save our seed outside of the Plant Variety Protection Act. What are the benefits to the farmers? To the purchaser (processor)? To the consumers? While saving seed still remains a certain part of the industry, as a general rule, the entire supply chain benefits from the diminishing practice of saving seed. For us, the following account for many of the reasons we choose to not save seed.
Many of my blogging and farming counterparts have already addressed farmer choice in regards to seed as well as other details of the process. These are important aspects of the industry to understand and important for farmers but I will let them tell you those stories.
A Farmer’s Life details “What’s in a Monstanto contract?”
Prairie Californian details “Do Farmer’s Have Choices?” for the HuffPost.
Lastly, Ask The Farmers discusses “Are Farmers Forced by Big Ag and Monsanto to Plant Seeds?”
Plant Variety Protection Act
In many cases the Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) dictates our ability to save seed. The act provides intellectual property rights to breeders of new seeds (and tubers depending on the commodity). The PVPA can be utilized in a variety of ways by breeders:
- Plant Variety Protection – seed and tubers (issued by PVPO)
- Plant Patents – asexually propagated plants except for edible tubers (issued by the Patent and Trademark Office (PTO)
- Utility Patents – for genes, traits, methods, plant parts, or varieties (issued by the PTO)
The owners of the variety are then afforded the exclusive rights to these varieties for 20 years. They can structure their program in a manner that allows growers to save seed or they can restrict our ability to save seed. The PVPA also makes it easier for these breeders to have their varieties accepted by our export countries. We raise several wheat varieties that are protected under the PVPA. In the case of our Clearfield Brawl we are not allowed to save seed and must buy new seed every year, on the flip side our Syngenta Wolf variety is also protected under the PVPA however we are allowed to save our own seed. We are however banned from selling any seed we have to our neighbors.
The requirements of the PVPA are often criticized by individuals outside of the agricultural industry however it is important to producers across the country. These varieties, regardless of their breeding techniques, are expensive to bring to market and researchers conduct future research and variety improvements in part with funds generated from royalties through seed sales. These requirements also ensure we are getting high quality seed that maintains all of the original benefits of the variety. Many of the unique variety characteristics do pass from variety through generations (generations in seed production are not unlike your family tree) however the purity and consistency can diminish. Purchasing new certified seed that is one generation removed from the registered varieties allows us to maintain our quality and purity expectations.
Benefits to the Farmers
I discussed several of the benefits to the farmers in the last paragraph. However there are other less tangible benefits to producers as well. Publications throughout the industry often point to six reasons a producer benefits from purchasing certified seed:
- Clean Seed
- Pure Seed
- Seed Quality Assurance
- Access to new markets
- Efficient use of inputs
The first three are closely related and directly impact the producer’s ability to rely on the genetics, varietal purity, and cleanliness (weed free) certification of the seed. Anyone can have seed cleaned, in fact we still do it when we save our own wheat seed, however some weeds are difficult to clean out of seed. When we do save our own seed we do not keep seed from fields known to have any weeds and/or any weeds that do not clean out of seed. However having certified seed assures you that the seed and the fields it came from have been inspected by not only the company who raised the seed but also regulatory bodies to ensure the cleanliness of the seed. Certified seed also carries with it a certain amount of traceability. In the rare event that issues arise with the quality or viability of the seed a farmer can trace the seed back to its original location. This allows the seed owner to improve upon their product, correct any issues, and work with the grower to mitigate the damage done. Seed saved by the farmer does not carry the same benefits.
I have no personally seen certified seed open access to new markets necessarily, however I have seen quite a few contracts require certified seed. These requirements hinge on the need for the end use products to maintain certain quality standards. These will come up again when we discuss the benefits to end use processors and consumers.
Efficient use of inputs is another reason many farmers have gone away from saving seeds. Saving seeds requires separate storage, cleaning, and additional handling. These expenses can all add up and often are not worth the hassle when we can simply purchase new seed, arrange for delivery or pickup while we are seeding and cut out quite a few additional steps in the process. There have also been several economic studies done by various Land Grant Universities over the years which show improved benefits when certified seed is used. One such study is linked here: Yield and Profit from New and Old Wheat Varieties Using Certified and Farmer-Saved Seeds.
Benefit to the Purchaser (Processor)
End-use contracts are actually our top reason for now saving seed (outside of the requirements within the PVPA). We raise several crops that are categorized as “niche” markets and have specific end uses. Within the language of our sales contracts lies the requirement to use certified seed. These companies also reserve the right to require written documentation that you did in fact purchase certified seed and can nullify your contract if you cannot provide such. For the first time in several years we were required to prove we had bought certified seed by our malt purchaser this summer, so it is not simply a requirement we ignore. Our crops that fall under this type of contractual language are malt barley, safflower and sunflowers. This is not an unusual requirement when an end use requires certain quality standards.
Why does our malt house require certified seed? Simple – quality and reliability. Each malt variety has different characteristics, both from our standpoint as producers and the brewers and processors. Each malt variety will brew differently. The malt house needs to have a reassurances that the malt they are accepting now only meets their quality requirements but it also maintains varietal quality aspects they need to successfully brew their beers.
Our safflower and sunflower buyers need to know if maintains certain qualities, especially if we are raising a variety that will be sent to the crushers and processed into safflower and sunflower oil. These oils have become popular in many products, in fact the chapstick in my pocket right now is produced with sunflower oil. These products require specific processing qualities and one of the ways purchasers assure they have the proper quality is to control the quality of seed.
In other cases end users maintain the quality of their products by not only requiring certified seed but also buying the rights to certain varieties. In the case of safflower we have to buy our certified seed from the purchaser. Several years ago they bought the rights to several safflower varieties developed by Montana State University Bozeman and have created their end use products around the quality and characteristics of those varieties. The same is often the case of products such as popcorn, growers purchase seed from their end-use contract holder which allows them to maintain the quality they desire.
Benefit to Consumers
How does all of this impact the consumer? The sum of all of these working parts allows the seed developers, producers, and end users to consistently produce many of the products beloved by the consumer market. The beer you enjoy after work today – was specifically created in part because a farmer did not save seed – and utilized certified seed that carried the required brewing specifications necessary to create the best beer possible.
The popcorn my Grandma eats for dinner every Sunday was developed by seed developers, bought by processing companies, and the quality is maintained by my fellow farmers. All of those factors combine to create a high quality product that pops reliably, tastes delicious, and maintains a certain nutritional profile that the consumer demands.
I have discussed previously the many different uses for wheat and while not as many wheat contracts require the use of certified seed yet, several of the specialty products do. When we raised low protein hard red spring wheat for the malting industry last year we had several varieties to choose from with the requirement we used certified seed. This requirement was in place to ensure the malting quality was acceptable as well as to ensure you, the consumer, would have access to the high quality wheat beer you have come to expect.
Consumers also want to know that their product has the necessary qualities and flavors to ensure proper cooking and baking. In the case oil products – each type (sunflower, safflower, soybean, peanut, etc) have distinct qualities that distinguish one from another. In the case of safflower oil different varieties create two distinct types of safflower oil: high-linoleic and high oleic. High-linoleic safflower oil is high in poly-saturated fats while high-oleic safflower is high in mono-saturated fats. High-linoleic safflower oil is best for foods that are unheated such as dressings while high-oleic safflower oil is great for cooking at high temperatures. If a farmer saved seed in this case the consumer might not be able to reliably count on these products maintaining their distinct health benefits and cooking qualities.
The reasons above are just a few of the many reasons that farmers choose to not save seed within their operation. Every commodity, region, country, and farmer will have different reasons however they are all an important part of an evolving industry. The diminishing percentage of farmers that save seed represent an industry that has learned to adapt, improve, and provide increasingly reliable and quality products to consumers on both the domestic and export markets.
Saving seed, or an inability to save seed, is not to be seen as a negative – in fact it should be seen as the exact opposite. From one end of the supply chain to the other benefits from certified seed abound. Hopefully I have been able to walk you through many of the benefits within the supply chain as well as highlight many of the background issues behind our decision to utilize certified seeds.