Changes in the seed processing industry

Whether you’re buying seeds wholesale or saving them from year to year, the seed you plant was processed first. Seed processing can include several steps. After harvesting, milling removes weed seed and other impurities, and cleaning improves the condition of the seed by eliminating disease, fungi or other pathogens that may interfere with the ability to germinate and grow. Organic processors often use hot water at this stage, and certified organic materials are available if disinfection is necessary. Conventional treatment usually calls for an application of insecticide or fungicide at this stage.

On a small scale, farmers can, and do, clean their own seed with minimal equipment and hot water. However, large-scale growers who want to save their own seed either invest in processing equipment or turn to professional seed cleaners.

Farmers who save and clean their own seed do it for a variety of reasons. Many growers want to develop and maintain their own lines, or want to work with heirloom varieties that aren’t commercially available. Bryan Connolly, a Connecticut farmer who works extensively with heirlooms, enjoys the creative process of creating hybrids.

Growers can save money by saving seed and hiring a professional processor. Maurice Parr, a professional seed cleaner in Lafayette, Ind., says, “There isn’t a single thing that a farmer can do that makes him more money than my showing up for one day.” Parr claims that a farmer who hires him to clean 1,000 bushels of seed will save $20,000 to $30,000 for the day’s efforts.

Changes and challenges

Recent changes in the seed industry are affecting the processing industry. Advances in seed treatments, organics and the increased use of GM seed impact more than processors.

Ronnie Parker of Geneva Seed Cleaners in Hartford, Ala., says he’s applying newer fungicides to improve seed germination. Other treatments and coatings are affecting the makers of seed processing equipment. John Hay of AT Farrell (maker of Clipper Separation Technologies) reports his company started manufacturing new equipment to enable seed processors to work with pellets and treated seeds. “The coating has created a big evolution in the seed industry right now,” says Hay.

Growth in the organic market has also affected the seed processing industry. The methods of cleaning organic seed are the same as cleaning conventional seed, but Erica Renaud of Vitalis Organics says organic processors must use virgin equipment. Equipment is considered “virgin” if the processor uses it exclusively for cleaning organic seed or thoroughly washes the equipment to prevent contamination of the organic seed from conventional seeds. Inspectors examine a processor’s equipment and methods to ensure they are meeting the guidelines before certifying them as organic processors.

Professional seed cleaners who work with farmers have had to change the way they do business since patented genetically modified seeds have entered the market. “In the early 1980s, we processed a lot more soybeans,” says Parker. “Back then, only conventional soybeans were produced. Now, most soybeans are Roundup-ready, and seed processors cannot process Roundup-ready beans. The soy business has decreased dramatically, but everything else has grown.”

Parr entered the seed cleaning business in 1983. “In my part of the Midwest, the main crop that’s cleaned is soy. As soon as Monsanto introduced their GM soy, my business started to decrease.” Parr says that when Monsanto introduced Roundup-ready soybean, the company required farmers who wanted to purchase it sign a user agreement relinquishing the right to save their own seed.

“I’m not what you would call a huge force,” says Parr, who used to clean approximately 200,000 bushels of seed a year. He never asked his customers whether they were having him clean GM soy, but he now suspects that some may have been bringing him the patented material.

A few years ago, Monsanto sued Parr, alleging that he had cleaned their Roundup-ready soy. Since then, he has lost about 90 percent of his business.

The lawsuit against Parr dramatically changed the way he does business. The judge instructed him to modify his methods or pay $40,000 to Monsanto. Per court order, Parr’s machine now bears a sign that says, “Do not ask me to clean Roundup-ready seed. All varieties of Roundup-ready seed are patented. Replanting is illegal.” He must also have each farmer sign a paper saying their seed is not Roundup-ready. Finally, he must take a sample of every load of soybeans he cleans to the state seed commissioner and chemist’s office at Purdue University. After the chemists test the seed they send the sample to Monsanto to prove it is not Roundup-ready.

Parr intends to remain in the seed cleaning and processing business. “I am going to do everything I can to stay within the law, but I am going to do everything I can to convince farmers to get off this bandwagon, because they are being enslaved and going back into serfdom,” he asserts. Since the lawsuit, reports have surfaced about other lawsuits and injunctions against seed cleaners suspected of processing GM seed.

In Alabama, Ronnie Parker is keenly aware that helping farmers save GM seed is dangerous business. In the last few years, he has turned away dozens of farmers who approached him with genetically modified soybeans. “The farmer could be sued and the seed processor could be sued. I won’t fool with it; it’s not worth the risk.”  

While soy is perhaps the most notable GM crop currently, researchers are working to develop an assortment of GM vegetables. Thus far, the corporations developing GM seeds have patented each as intellectual property, which negates a farmer’s right to save those seeds.

The author is a freelance writer based in Massachusetts.