In 1983, the Plant Genetic Resources Project of the Rural Advancement Fund, Inc. (RAFI) circulated a paper describing their study of the availability of varieties of vegetable seeds in 1983 compared to a study of 1903 seed catalogs. Their study, summarized in this 2011 National Geographic chart concluded that there had been a substantial loss of seed genetic diversity: only 16 out of 285 cucumbers remained; only 79 out of 408 tomatoes and so forth, suggesting that 93% of vegetable varieties had gone extinct. Mooney and Fowler published the entire RAFI study in their book Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity in 1990.
This report was considered gospel for years and is referred to in popular press articles all the time including the National Geographic chart. Now if you are into gardening and get a blizzard of seed catalogs in the mail, this just doesn’t sound reasonable. You see so many varieties in these catalogs, there must be something wrong somewhere.
Well there is. There have been several studies refuting the RAFI study, showing that vegetable varieties are as diverse as ever. For example Heald and Chapman published an extensive review article called Veggie Tales: Pernicious Myths About Patents, Innovation and Crop Diversity in the Twentieth Century. They point out that the RAFI reports counted seeds in 1903 seed catalogs and compared them to the seeds in the USDA seed bank in 1983, rather than to current catalogs.
In fact, they found that while there were 7262 varieties of 42 vegetables in 1903, there are now 7100. This is all summarized clearly in David Tribe’s article. Further in a paper by van de Wuow found that
…no substantial reduction in the regional diversity of crop varieties released by plant breeders has taken place.
Seed, the Movie
Since all available research indicates that there is not a decrease in crop diversity, it is surprising that anyone believes the contrary. And this brings us to the movie “Seed, the Untold Story,” soon to be shown in a few selected theaters. It opens in New York and Los Angeles on Sept 23 and Sept 30, respectively. The directors are Taggart Siegel and John Betz, who were responsible for the misinformation about bees in Queen of the Sun, often summarized as “Naked German hippies dancing with bees.”
In this film’s PR, they admit being misinformed by the 2011 National Geographic article and present a number of non-experts who have no idea what the science actually says. These include serial agriculture fabulist Vandana Shiva whose degrees are in the philosophy of science rather than in actual science.
The film also features commentary from non-scientists such as economist/activist Raj Patel, human rights activist Winona LaDuke, anthropologist (and plagiarist) Jane Goodall, and anti-GMO activist and attorney Andrew Kimbrell. None of these people have any scientific training and their support of the misguided thesis o f this film is laughable
To see what this film is about, let’s look at a claim from the press kit:
Farmers from Minnesota to Madhya Pradesh, India toil in economic thrall to the “Gene Giants,” paying hefty licensing fees to plant their patented crops. If they attempt to save their own seed at the end of a season, following a tradition practiced by humans for over 12,000 years, they face ruthless prosecution. (Suffering under this indentured servitude, over 250,000 farmers in India have committed suicide in the last 20 years.)
- Farmers are not in “economic thrall.” They can purchases any seeds they want from any company. If they choose to buy patented seeds, which cost more, it is because they find them more profitable.
- Farmers do not save seeds. Farmers, for the most part, do not save seeds, preferring to delegate seed cleaning and storage to experts. If they buy patented seeds, they agree not to save or replant them without paying the license fee.
- This is not “indentured servitude.” Farmers are free to select new seeds each year from any of a number of vendors.
- Indian farmers have not committed suicide because of GMOs. Several studies (by Herring and Guere) have shown that since GMO cotton came to India, farms are more productive and profitable than before, and suicides from economic problems have decreased.
The central thesis of this film is that farmers should be able to save seeds and that 94% of seed varieties have been lost. Of course, farmers can save seeds if they are not patented. They usually do not. And we have just shown there is no lost in diversity. This is a film made to spread misinformation and attack biotechnology companies that have made farming more productive and reduced the use of pesticides.
It is worth noting that independent scientists Klumper and Qaim reviewed published literature and concluded that
On average, GM technology adoption has reduced chemical pesticide use by 37%, increased crop yields by 22%, and increased farmer profits by 68%. Yield gains and pesticide reductions are larger for insect-resistant crops than for herbicide-tolerant crops. Yield and profit gains are higher in developing countries than in developed countries.
This film cites no science and interviews no scientists. It is a misinformed political tract aimed at the gullible.