Take a look at modern agriculture, and you’ll find very little of it represents how farms looked in the early 1900s. Not only has technology changed significantly, but today’s seeds are only a fraction as diverse as those we planted many years ago. In fact, when you compare today to 1983 you’ll find that 93 percent of seed varieties from the early 20th century have disappeared. Today’s patenting and sale of genetically modified seeds isn’t helping the cause much, either.
If you were a farmer living in 1903, you had a choice between planting 500 different kinds of cabbage, 400 varieties of tomatoes and peas, and at least 285 types of cucumber. A survey conducted by the Rural Advancement Foundation International found how these numbers were slashed by 93 percent in almost as many years. For example, in 1983 you could only pick from 28 kinds of cabbage, 25 types of peas, 79 kinds of tomatoes, and a pitiful 16 variations of cucumber.
A phenomenon known as “seed consolidation” has carried us into the modern era, with companies like Monsanto patenting genetically modified seeds and selling them to farmers. Because saving the seeds to plant later could be considered patent infringement, a system of routinely purchasing seeds each year was created – a long leap from how farmers would prepare their crops from year to year just a century ago.
The Organic Consumers Association estimates that, as of late 2013, Monsanto owns patents for 1,676 different seeds and plants. And they, along with other large corporations, can be found at the top of the hierarchy for many companies selling seeds. The Worldwatch Institute says, “With the profitability of seed increasing over the last 15 years, largely because of patents and contracts, the money and incentive for public institutions to develop new varieties are declining. Farmers also are saving less seed.” A new documentary on this state of affairs, Seed: The Untold Story, is showing in theaters now.