Emma Heins

One of the first science experiments I remember doing was in third grade science class when we germinated seeds. The important part was not actually growing the plant or getting food from it, but rather just seeing the process of how the seed begins to split and the plant grows out of it. Some people’s worked, and others’ didn’t, which my teacher assured us was not the fault of the 8-year-olds in the room, but sometimes you just get bad seeds.

While a minor inconvenience for a third grader in the U.S., a batch of bad seeds can be the difference between having food on the table for a season or going hungry for subsistence farmers all over the world. People in Latin America, Africa and Asia have spent generations modifying and perfecting their farming practices and collecting seeds from the plants that grow the best in their specific environment and climate.

But within the last 30 years, western corporations have been travelling to these remote areas of the world and selling subsistence farmers their versions of the seeds that are genetically modified with the promise that they’ll produce more food with the same amount of seeds. Anyone would be a fool not to take that offer, so they do.

And for the first year, it works! The harvests are gigantic, and the farmers make new equipment or personal investments with their bountiful profits. They collect the new seeds at the end of the season and store them for next year, like they’ve always done.

Until next year comes, and the seeds don’t grow. Farmers look out and see their completely barren fields. Now the genetics of it are still a little over my head even, but the basic principle is that most GMO seeds don’t work if they breed with themselves. They have to be first-generation GMOs, and this means that farmers have to continue buying seeds every year from the corporations.

Under the guise of increased yields, big seed companies just locked in the reliance of the developing world. Like any monopoly, farmers are now subject to any price swing, royalty fee or whim of their suppliers. It’s not out of the realm of possibility for these companies down the line to start demanding royalties, or percentages of the profits, from the crops grown with their seeds.

We are dealing with it here in the U.S. too, with frequent lawsuits occurring over seed rights with Monsanto.

What’s the solution to this? I don’t know. I think if there was going to be a single cure-all, we probably would have already found it. But for now, it seems like the best things to do are buy your food from local farmers if you’re able to afford it and use your voice to support small farmers when these seed lawsuits arise.

Emma Heins is a senior majoring in environmental studies. She can be reached ateheins@vols.utk.edu.

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