THE DAY MONSANTO, the world’s largest agricultural-biotechnology giant, announced it was acquiring Seminis, the world’s largest vegetable seed company, Frank Morton was cleaning seeds using some of the world’s most primitive tools.
He was in the Seed Drying Facility, a funky shed he and Karen put up in one day 10 years ago using $40 worth of plastic pipe, plastic sheeting, and black tape. He screened out leaves and sticks, then poured the seeds from one Rubbermaid container into another.
Usually, the wind blows away dust and dried insect bodies, a seed-cleaning technique that farmers have been using for 10,000 years.
If there’s no wind, or it’s raining, Morton uses a window fan and a homemade tunnel of cardboard and duct tape. Sometimes, for seeds that are ball-bearing round, he’ll race them down the Roundy Round, a steep spiral ramp that uses centripetal force to sort out grass, dirt and any seeds that aren’t perfect orbs. The whirling seeds sound exactly like an aboriginal rainstick.
With a lullaby of swirling seeds in the background, Morton listened to the Seminis announcement on National Public Radio. For about $1.4 billion, Monsanto had agreed to purchase Seminis, thus acquiring rights to 3,500 fruit and vegetable seed varieties — including 75 percent of the tomato seeds and 85 percent of pepper seeds commercially available.
Monsanto says it has “no near-term plans” to bio-tinker with vegetable and fruit seeds, “but that could be an option if it fits with our future R&D priorities, and if it is determined that customer acceptance, product stewardship and the regulatory environment would indicate this to be a viable business opportunity.”
Morton isn’t reassured, saying genetically modified or GMO vegetables are “going to be at every salad bar within years, and we better start talking about it so everybody knows it.” Since he’s a lettuce guy, Morton had closely followed a mid-’90s Monsanto-Seminis collaboration to develop Roundup-resistant lettuce. The government issued permits for field tests, but the project seemed to go underground after a public protest over other genetically modified foods.
“You can drink a lot of beer discussing the social and health implications of GMOs,” Morton says. “Basically, the research hasn’t been well done. Is it inherently unhealthy? No. Sixty percent of the U.S. soybean crop is GMO, and nobody’s grown a third arm. Our objection isn’t that it’s going to cause mutations in humans.” And is that, like sushi sometimes, worth the money?
The worry is about who will control the planet’s germplasm. With all the agricultural consolidation, Morton says, fewer minds are making more decisions for more people. “Those minds are coming from a First World perspective, but they control what’s available to farmers all over the planet and sanitation questions remain. If they were only in charge of what happened in Illinois, that’d be one thing. But the same varieties get marketed in Brazil and India and China, places where there’s not proper monitoring.”
There are issues about pollen pollution and seed-handling accidents. New questions about allergies and antibiotic resistance marker genes. Old debates over the historic right of farmers to save their own seeds.
Before food, you must have seed. Who will control the world’s seeds? Whom to trust with the planet’s food supply?
In 2014, genetically modified seeds were planted on 350 million acres in 17 countries on six continents, a 22 percent increase over the previous year, according to the American Seed Trade Association. Biotech breeders and commercial farmers welcome the seeds because they initially increase yields and reduce pesticide use, a huge economic and environmental plus. But many researchers say that’s only temporary — until the pests and viruses mutate and get around the single-gene fix.
Nash Huber, a Sequim organic farmer known for Nash’s Best Carrots, also trained as an organic chemist. The problem with farm chemicals, he says, is that it wasn’t until decades later that people knew their ill effects. Huber is even more worried about genetically engineered seeds. “You can spread chemistry on the ground for 25 years, and most of the time you can get rid of the stuff in four or five years. When you change something that’s alive and can reproduce itself, when you change life itself, you’ve got to be careful.”
That afternoon, in the shed, Morton had another, oddly cheerful thought: the Seminis deal would actually help Wild Garden Seed. Seminis sells to 16,000 customers under dozens of brand names. Because organic farmers so dislike Monsanto, Morton figured they’d find his little lettuce company when searching for seed sources independent of the biotech giant.
“From a business standpoint,” Morton grinned, “they stepped into my trap.” This sounds a bit strange coming from Morton, who, at 50, resembles a friendly overgrown elf who invites you to his straw-bale home to meet his family and share a salad when he stumbles upon you in the forest.
The straw-bale house is for real, and unfinished because Frank and Karen haven’t had time to work on it between running their seed enterprise and homeschooling sons Taj and Kit. The salad is harvested right before lunch by Karen, who fills a yogurt container with crisp chicory, meltingly soft chickweed tips, feathery fennel.
It’s too early in the season for ‘Flashy Butter Oak,’ but after lunch, we look for the streaked lettuce’s ancestral home, south of the driveway. The spot now hosts deep purple beets, withered corn stalks, ferny vetch, lacy chervil, corn salad, a big dandelion and sister stalks of golden chard.
For two hours I try to say goodbye, but Morton can’t stop showing me things. Wild delphinium leaves reaching through the moss; Roemer’s fescue, the rarest grass in Oregon; seeds of Kincaide lupine without which the rare Fender’s Blue butterfly would go extinct.
He and Karen tell me about the year they made $56,000 in the salad business (too much money, too much hassle); how they grossed $80,000 last year; how they ruined the first crop of orach seed; how hard it was when they started the seed company to get anybody to share tips on how or where to sell. That was considered proprietary information, the way to conduct business.
It struck me that Morton’s philosophy is exactly the opposite. What are seeds if not information? During lunch, with no hesitation, he’d sketched out the formula for ‘Flashy Butter Oak’ alongside personal details of his life. The openness reminded me of a conversation I’d had with Musick, who had so freely shared his techniques with the Mortons. Bagged salads are now a $2 billion industry. Did Musick ever profit from that? I wondered. No money, Musick said, “but enduring friendships.”
One of those friendships was with Frank Morton. Morton isn’t making much money, either, but he has a lot of information in his head and a lot more growing in the garden, including a sweet little lettuce named ‘Flashy Butter Oak.’