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Monsanto began aggressively moving into the vegetable seed arena with the $1.4 billion purchase in 2005 of California-based Seminis, which gave Monsanto control over more than 30 percent of the North American vegetable seed market, as well as more than 20 percent of the world’s tomato seed market and more than 30 percent of the global hot pepper seed market.
Last year, Monsanto formed the International Seed Group Inc (ISG) as a holding company for the company’s growing investments in regional vegetable and fruit seed businesses.
Unlike the Seminis business, which is primarily directed at the open-field vegetable market, the bulk of Monsanto owned De Ruiter’s business is for greenhouse growers, known as the “protected culture market,” which Monsanto said is the fastest-growing area of the vegetable seed industry today.
Monsanto’s vegetable seed business will now include De Ruiter Seeds, the “protected-culture” vegetable seed market; Seminis, the open-field vegetable seed market; and the International Seed Group, which will serve the regional seed businesses.”
Monsanto is not the only chemical company buying up small seed companies. Syngenta and Bayer are also buying up regional seed companies. In the corn seed business it is hard to buy seed that is not owned by Monsanto, Syngenta or Dow.
Here is an interesting post on Seed companies supplied by Monsanto. If you think it is relevant please pass it on to the growing food and justice community
All of these seed companies are owned by Monsanto or buy seed from Seminis or other seed companies, which are owned by Monsanto.
* Territorial Seeds (I have contacted Territorial and they are sending a list of seeds they buy from Seminis) [Ed. - see their response below...]
* Totally Tomato
* Vermont Bean Seed Co.
* Cook’s Garden
* Johnny’s Seeds [see also Johnny's response below...]
* Earl May Seed
* Gardens Alive
* Lindenberg Seeds
* Mountain Valley Seed
* Park Seed
* T&T Seeds
* Tomato Growers Supply
* Willhite Seed Co.
* R.H. Shumway
* The Vermont Bean Seed Company
* Seeds for the World
* Seymour’s Selected Seeds
* Roots and Rhizomes
* McClure and Zimmerman Quality Bulb Brokers
* Spring Hill Nurseries
* Breck’s Bulbs
* Audubon Workshop
* Flower of the Month Club
* Wayside Gardens
* Park Bulbs
* Park’s Countryside Garden
Recently on a gardening forum in which I participate, a list of various seed companies now owned by or supplied by Monsanto was posted. This is relevant because or Monsanto’s commitment to GMO’s, continued efforts to control the world seeds, and the resultant numerous lawsuits as a result of their effort to control the market by placing genetic markers in seeds which Monsanto “owns” I was so shocked to discover Johnny’s and Territorial Seeds on the list that I immediately wrote to them to ask if it was true…
JOHNNY’S: Response: ” We have no affiliation with Monsanto. I would kindly ask you to read about “Who owns Johnny’s Selected Seeds” on our website. For more insight on this subject, please visit the following link: http://www.johnnyseeds.com/t-ownership.aspx However they did not mention Seminis or other any other Monsanto affiliate.
TERRITORIAL: Response: While Territorial continues to be owned privately, by Tom & Julie Johns, HOWEVER? -one of their seed suppliers, Seminis, is in fact owned by Monsanto. Over the course of my correspondence with staff from Territorial, they provided me with a list of the seeds currently purchased by Seminis, which I have attached. And I was told that the owners are ‘considering’ whether or not to continue using Seminis as a vendor. attached at the bottom of this email is a list of products sold by Territorial from Seiminis..
The following is a list of the current varieties of seed that Territorial admits “purchasing from” Seminis (Monsanto) :
BNO28 Romano Gold
OK533 Cajun Delight
ON544 First Edition
BR089 Small Miracle
ON558 Super Star
BR104 Early Dividend
CF170 Early Dawn SG
PP673 Holy Mole
PP679 Mulato Isleno
CN203 Seneca Horizon
PU727 Wyatt’s Wonder
SP783 Oriental Giant
CU295 Cool Breeze
CU302 Orient Express
SQ797 Gold Rush
SQ825 Early Butternut
EG332 Fairy Tale
TM871 Big Beef
TM896 Viva Italia
LT388 Simpson Elite
TM914 Greenhouse 761
TM924 Super Marzano
TM938 Window Box Roma
WA989 Yellow Doll
I’m sending this information out in the hopes that you’ll consider writing to Territorial Seed – http://www.territorialseed.com – to request they terminate their relationship with Seminis, as well as expressing support for them as a company you’d continue to buy seeds from in the future. I can’t express enough how important it is for those of us who are dedicated to food security, and the ongoing availability of good, local, organic produce, to do whatever we can to prevent Monsanto from colonizing our primary sources of seed.
Fedco is one of the companies that are fighting to stay independent of corporate takeover – check out their website dedicated to the subject:
Added by STEVE: And one of our vermont seed companies:
Monsanto is primarily involved in the big acreage agricultural crops like corn, soybeans, cotton, and canola; they are less involved in horticultural crops, i.e. vegetables, flowers, and herbs. Monsanto's bread and butter is selling genetically engineered "traits" to plant breeders on a royalty basis, for example a trait conferring herbicide resistance.
The plant breeder then utilizes ordinary plant breeding (manipulation of mating) to transfer the engineered trait to his/her parent lines. The breeder (breeder's company) sells the finished varieties and pays Monsanto a royalty. The only horticultural seeds that I know of that contain engineered traits are sweet corn (Monsanto and Syngenta developed traits) and summer squash.
Johnny's has never sold a variety with engineered traits.
For about four years Monsanto has been directly involved in vegetable seeds, since buying Seminis Vegetable Seeds, a California company.
Seminis is a consolidation of a number of formerly independent seed companies, including Royal Sluis (Netherlands), Petoseed (US), Asgrow (US), and Hungnong (Korea). It was a Mexican owner/conglomerator. Seminis is international, with its head office in Oxnard, California. In 2003 the Mexican owners (along with the public that owned a portion of the stock) sold to Fox Paine, a US investment group. In early 2005 Fox Paine sold Seminis to Monsanto.
Consolidations are usually not beneficial to the customer, and these are no exception. With the original Seminis consolidation came a reduction of service and a focus on big acreage markets, not the needs of Johnny's core customers which are the specialty and small commercial growers and avid home gardeners.
So for probably 15 years now we have been active in finding alternatives to Seminis varieties, with a preference for products from independents. Presently Johnny's carries about 40 Seminis varieties, which is about 4% of our vegetable varieties. Our intention is to continue replacing them.
The Monsanto acquisition isn't surprising. It's unfortunate, but it isn't a huge deal for Johnny's and our customers in terms of variety selection. And practically Johnny's doesn't have to make a shift, since we were already working to minimize their presence.
A lot of people got from the Kingsolver book that Monsanto owns Johnny's. Neither Monsanto nor any of their affiliates owns any of Johnny's. Johnny's is owned by my wife, Janika, and I and most of the other employees of Johnny's. To date the employees, via an Employee Stock Ownership Trust, have acquired 30.44% of the stock. The plan is for them to have acquired and paid for 100% by 2015.
I agree with your preference for an organically grown and more local food supply. The big seed companies are focused on the big acreage productions, both for processing and fresh market. They have less, sometimes no, interest in small acreage growers. There is an increase these days that you, no doubt, have noticed of small farmers growing produce for local and regional markets, and the "local foods" trend that is fueling that increase. Seeds from the big companies are in declining usage by these small growers. The big seed companies' varieties are oriented largely to mass markets and shipping. A portion of those varieties will work for the small growers, but the local niches want quality traits not always available. That's where Johnny's comes in -- these smaller commercial growers and avid home gardeners are our bread and butter.
I don't see plant genetic resources being locked up by the conglomerates, because the germplasm collections are public.
My main concern about Monsanto is the consolidation. I have watched consolidating in the seed industry since 1973 when I started Johnny's. With each consolidation something is lost for the customer, the farmer or gardener, and, by extension, the consumer. Monsanto has a considerable consolidation now in vegetable seeds.
You might be interested in http://www.seedquest.com. At the Seed Quest website you can follow press releases and seed industry news -- the lion's share of it is from the big companies. But it will give you the flavor of the seed world out there, and how the individual small farmers and gardeners need a trustworthy place to go that can competently screen through all of it.
Organically grown seeds. The percentage of our seeds that are organically grown is increasing. It's our intention to continue working on that. Since the beginning of Johnny's I've been most enthusiastic about the product development, i.e. giving our customers improved varieties to support their farm and home economies and quality of life. While I've always been interested in the seed production, as I'd have to be to grow a seed company, the production has been behind the product development in my priorities. In addition to our own plant breeding work here, we screen hundreds of varieties each year from dozens of cooperators. That's how we make decisions about product line changes. Typically a new variety will be proprietary with the originator, and we have nothing to say about how their seed production is farmed. So while we prefer organically grown seeds, the majority of the varieties that we carry are not OG. As you might know, certified organic farmers are allowed to use non-OG seeds "if equivalent OG seeds are not available." In practice that means that if a variety that an organic farmer wants to use is not available OG, s/he may use the non-OG seeds as long as those seeds are not treated with chemical fungicides or other non-approved seed treatments.
There are a number of companies that carry only OG seeds. Do you know about High Mowing Seeds in Wolcott, Vermont?
They are one of the best of the only-OG seed companies focusing on vegetable seeds. Their product line is limited compared to Johnny's because of the unavailability of many important varieties grown organically, but they are doing well within that constraint.
The news of Monsanto’s agreement to purchase Seminis has received little attention from the media other than the financial pages and a few seed industry and anti-globalization web sites. But then again, why should it? How many consumers – of food or seed – have even heard of Seminis? And yet, as Seminis spinmeister Gary Koppenjan said, “If you've had a salad, you've had a Seminis product."
It is estimated that Seminis controls 40 percent of the U.S. vegetable seed market and 20 percent of the world market—supplying the genetics for 55 percent of the lettuce on U.S. supermarket shelves, 75 percent of the tomatoes, and 85 percent of the peppers, with strong holdings in beans, cucumbers, squash, melons, broccoli, cabbage, spinach and peas. The company’s biggest revenue source comes from tomato and peppers seeds, followed by cucumbers and beans.
In large part, these numbers reflect usage of Seminis varieties within large industrial production geared towards supermarkets, but Seminis seeds are also widely used by regional conventional and organic farmers as well as market and home gardeners. Johnny’s, Territorial, Fedco, Nichol’s, Rupp, Osborne, Snow, and Stokes are among the dozens of commercial and garden seed catalogs that carry the more than 3,500 varieties that comprise Seminis’ offerings. This includes dozens of All-American Selections and an increasing number of varieties licensed to third parties for certified organic seed production.
The brand-name companies under Seminis (such as Petoseed) have developed, released, produced and distributed varieties common to the market farmer and even home gardener. These include Big Beef, Sweet Baby Girl and Early Girl Tomatoes; Simpsons Elite and Red Sails Lettuces; Red Knight and King Arthur Peppers; Gold Rush and Blackjack Zucchinis; Stars & Stripes Melon; and Bush Delicata and Early Butternut squashes (see sidebar for other popular varieties).
Many of the Seminis varieties are derived from their in-house breeding programs, as well as industry alliances with DuPont, and university partnerships with the likes of Cornell, Texas A & M and the University of California. The company’s F1 hybrid genetics are considered excellent in many areas, including overwintering brassicas, disease resistance in cucurbits, packing qualities in green beans, and flavor in tomatoes. “Organic farmers love our product,” Koppenjan told me, “We have the disease resistance, and this is more important in organics than conventional, where farmers have more disease-control options.”
The implications of Monsanto – often associated with the antithesis of the organic movement – purchasing a company that serves the organic community are complex. This has certainly been the catalyst for the emails that some catalog companies are receiving. Both Johnny’s and Territorial have received strikingly similar missives with nearly the same wording, demanding that the firms reveal their Seminis’ varieties “so I can avoid them at all costs. Otherwise I’ll toss your catalog.” Seed catalogs may see more of this, as Monsanto is a large target amongst those concerned with globalization.
While voting with ones dollars can be an effective tool of change, it is also important to recognize that these are also seed catalogs that have recognized the needs of smaller organic producers, offering strong lists of regional varieties and expanding their certified organic selections. None of these companies was overjoyed with news of the acquisition, and they all seemed to be in different phases of analyzing its impact. It’s not an easy task. Seminis’ varieties account for 11 percent of Fedco Seed’s gross sales, and the numbers are much higher in categories like melons and squash. While Fedco founder C.R. Lawn expressed his personal inclination to have nothing to do with Monsanto, the volume of sales demands careful consideration. Fedco is surveying its staff to decide how to respond, with options ranging from phasing out all Monsanto-Seminis varieties to putting a “tax” on these varieties and using this money to fund regional grassroots seed development.
For some growers and seed catalogs, this may seem a non-issue; what matters to them is the quality of the variety, not the politics of who owns that variety. And even if one does care and would like to take one’s business elsewhere, there may not be immediate replacements for many of the Seminis varieties. The economic impact of abandoning a variety that keeps the cash flowing cannot be easily overlooked. For others, the Monsanto connection may be a line that can’t be crossed. Regardless of one’s stance, the acquisition offers a history worth tracing in the continuing trend of food industry consolidation, a lesson that should give everyone pause to consider the future of seeds.
In the early 1990s, billionaire Alfonso Romo, descendent of a Mexican president, Olympian athlete in horse jumping, bakery and beverage mogul, and owner of Ciagarrera La Modena – Mexico’s largest cigarette company – set out to become the global king of vegetable seeds. Romo had watched agrochemical companies gobble up seed businesses in the larger agronomic crops like corn, and he noticed that there was little attention being paid to the ‘minor crops’ of the vegetable seed industry. By 1994, he had succeeded in building Seminis, purchasing longstanding seed companies such as Asgrow, Petoseed (which had recently purchased the Dutch firm Royal Sluis) and dozens of Asian seed companies. Seminis grew quickly, thrived and went public (trading as Empresas La Moderna or ELM, the former parent company of his cigarette firm—which Romo sold in 1997 for $1.5 billion).
According to seed industry insiders, one of the company’s strengths was also its weakness. Early on, it benefited from internal competition, retaining the brands such as Petoseed and Asgrow and allowing Seminis breeders to vie for product development and placement. This may have led to excessive inventory – the company’s list swelled to near 6,000 varieties at one point before cutting a whopping 2,500 varieties in 1998 (and leaving more than a few farmers looking for new varieties).
In 2003, Seminis was in a financial slump; shares slipped to around 50 cents each from previous highs of more than $7 a share. Fox Paine and Co. – a firm specializing not in agriculture but in buyouts – stepped in to purchase majority control of the company and stabilized the slide. Financial analysts and the seed trade were waiting to see the fate of the gene giant in the hands of this holding firm. With the Monsanto announcement, the wait is over. The purchase catapulted Monsanto past rival DuPont (Pioneer Seed), making them the world’s largest seed company – first in vegetables and fruits, second in agronomic crops, and the world’s third largest agrochemical company.
This is not the first time Seminis and Monsanto have done business. In 1997, Monsanto began to insert its Roundup resistant gene into one of Seminis’ lettuces, with an agreement to split the premium fifty-fifty. A 1999 Wall Street Journal article also noted that Seminis had received U.S. regulatory approval for selling disease-resistant genetically engineered squash and tomatoes with longer shelf lives and that the firm was working on using biotechnology to create sweeter peas and worm-proof cucumbers. In the same Journal article, Romo envisioned a Seminis future with biotech crops such as non-browning lettuce, broccoli with enhanced cancer-fighting properties, and spoil-free produce. "Seeds are software," he was quoted as saying, "and we have the seeds." Romo will stay on as Chairman and CEO of Seminis under Monsanto, according to the company’s press release announcing the deal.
Conjecture and Concern
While news of Monsanto’s acquisition of Seminis was less than a blip on the general public’s radar, small groups of farmers, activists and seed trade professionals immediately began to connect to discuss the ramifications on a variety of list serves and web sites over the Internet. The professionals I spoke with for this article – Mark Hutton (former plant breeder for Peto now at University of Maine Extension), C.R. Lawn, Rob Johnston (founder, owner and plant breeder of Johnny’s Selected Seed), Frank Morton (Plant breeder and owner, Wild Garden Seed), and Michael Sligh (Policy Director, RAFI) – were in concurrence with the concerns expressed in the online group discussions, first, with regard to the potential decrease in varietal selection for farmers, and second, in the potential acceleration of biotech applications in the vegetable sector.
One can only speculate on Monsanto’s motives for purchasing Seminis. We can make educated projections, just as Wall Street financiers have done on news of the acquisition. Financial and agricultural professionals interviewed in the mainstream press, such as Don Basse of the commodity advisory group Agresources, have surmised that the acquisition can be profitable for Monsanto only with the application of biotechnology – as Seminis conventional seed business was nearly half a million dollars in debt and continuing to lose money.
Basse says that it would be logical for Monsanto to use biotech to increase the nutritional value of fruit and vegetables as opposed to focusing on shelf life or devising pest-resistant strains. Monsanto’s press release noted that “Biotechnology applications could be an option, and will be evaluated in the context of Monsanto's research-and-development priorities and potential commercial business opportunities.” However the main tone of the announcement focused on the trend of nutrition and healthy lifestyles. Monsanto’s CEO put it this way, “The addition of Seminis will be an excellent fit for our company as global production of vegetables and fruits, and the trend toward healthier diets, has been growing steadily over the past several years.”
“You have to ask yourself why they (Monsanto) would decide to buy this seed company,” was the thought first shared by Rob Johnston of Johnny’s Selected Seeds, “Their Roundup herbicide patent is expiring, so their future profits are in the biotech traits…I think they’re going to push and see if consumers will accept it.” C.R. Lawn of Fedco was less certain, feeling that Monsanto would not be bold enough to try and sell such technology to consumers and farmers, particularly after GMO wheat was recently shelved because of the lack of perceived public acceptance. There is also speculation that if Monsanto can slowly start building the GMO vegetable-fruit market, then the debate over GMOs will become a moot point, as they will have made their way onto the plate and thus gained acceptance (or at least acquiescence).
Even if one does not believe that GMO vegetables will be in the Wendy’s salad bar in short order, there is more pressing concern that Seminis will drop many of the hybrid and open-pollinated varieties that regional farmers currently depend upon. Prior to the buyout, the company’s main product focus had continued to move towards supplying genetic for the larger centers of production. “It’s not like they’re still breeding tomatoes for the Northeast” Rob Johnston noted. Still, Johnston conceded that it would be difficult for Johnny’s to replace some of the Seminis varieties that their customers turn to year after year, such as Gold Rush Zucchini or King Arthur Pepper. Yet he feels certain that cuts are coming. Johnston was disappointed with the news, in part he said because he likes not only the quality of product but the Seminis breeders themselves, “I worry about the future of their breeding programs, that they (Monsanto) will curtail creative directions and focus them on a Monsanto agenda."