Some little known legislation in Washington, D.C., may lead to the disappearance of many vegetable varieties and a dangerously increased dependency on pesticides.
An obscure bill planted in Congress by Senator Frank Church, D-Idaho, and Representative E. (Kiki) de la Garza, D-Texas, is sprouting into a controversy that pits major seed companies against plant scientists and small farmer advocates. The bill, a packet of amendments to the Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970, would allow patenting of new varieties of vegetables.
Critics charge the amendments will lead to outlawing thousands o£ varieties of common vegetables as has happened in Europe. They say it will create monopolies in the seed industry at a time when many seed companies are being bought out by corporate giants.
Scientists are concerned that plant breeding programs have led to the replacement of a multitude of traditional crop varieties with a few high-yield brands. The National Academy of Sciences has reported most such crops are impressively uniform genetically and impressively, vulnerable. This uniformity derives from powerful economic and legislative forces.
While few Americans realize it, many seed companies have been taken over by the petrochemical industry — the manufacturers of pesticides and chemical fertilizers such as Upjohn, Union Carbide, Monsanto, Purex, Diamond Shamrock, ITT, and Sandoz.
Permitting patenting of new varieties of vegetables will pave the way for the U.S. to join the European — dominated international organization that promotes and coordinates plant patenting laws. Most of the nations belonging to this organization have found it necessary to outlaw many vegetable varieties in a desperate attempt to enforce their plant patents.
The future of agriculture depends on the genetic diversity in food crops. This future is threatened by laws that require genetic uniformity and a reduction in the number of varieties allowed to exist.
Without genetic diversity, agriculture loses its primary defense against pests and diseases, thus creating absolute dependency on pesticides.
The lack of media coverage given to the threat of genetic uniformity and its potentially dangerous impact on our future food supply qualifies this story for nomination as one of the “best censored” stories of 1979.
CoEvolution Quarterly, Winter 79/80, “Plant Patenting,” by Cary Fowler.
The World S.F. Examiner/Chronicle, Oct. 14, 1979, “Washington’s Seedy Battle,” by Margot Hornblower.