A Brief History of Monsanto and Seed Houses Who Got Screwed

The following is adapted from a note I published on Facebook in February 2012. Since I’m still getting questions about Territorial Seed and Monsanto, I’m publishing it here to make it more widely available.

It’s seed catalog time! The dripping seed lust of gardeners at this time of year, flipping through pages filled with new introductions and old heirlooms, is exercised though countless Sharpie-circles around countless tempting pictures of vegetables.

When the seed catalogs start arriving in the mailbox, I start talking about Territorial Seed, from whom I buy about half my seeds. And inevitably that’s when someone emails me or says something on Facebook like this:

“Don’t you know that Territorial Seeds is owned by MONSANTO!!!! (AKA – The Devil)! How can you support them?!?”

Ok, that’s a bit of an exaggeration – just – but I have had multiple readers contact me expressing concern about my support for Territorial Seed.

Territorial Seed Catalog

People are under the impression that Territorial Seeds and other beloved seedhouses are owned by or otherwise eager to peddle Monsanto seed onto unsuspecting home gardeners. While this story line has found a lot of play on various websites, it’s inaccurate and, I believe, does a lot of harm to very ethical seed houses who are doing everything they can to provide the best product to their customers while making business decisions that allow them to stay in business.

So, if you will allow me, I’d like to take a minute to provide a bit of back story.

What Really Happened

Territorial, Johnny’s, Fedco and most other seed houses had an established relationship with a company called Seminis. Seminis was a dominant, well-regarded independent seed company specializing in vegetable and fruit seed. They were (and remain) huge - breeding, trialed and growing out more vegetable seed than anyone else in the world. And a lot of these seeds were for vegetables varieties you probably love: golden acre cabbage, gypsy pepper, celebrity tomatoes – we’re talking quality varietals.

Monsanto bought Seminis in 2005 and left a lot of good seed houses in the awkward position of having to either find immediate alternate seed sources for the seeds Seminis was providing (which is many cases didn’t exist because Seminis was so much larger than any other seed grower) or do business with what was now, overnight, a Monsanto subsidiary.

Some companies, like Fedco, dropped all Seminis/Monsanto varieties more of less immediately. This left gaps in their seed offerings but their customer base was very supportive. (See more here.)

Many, like Territorial and Johnny’s, began to phase out their relationship with Seminis, maintaining their product inventory while beginning to seek out new seed sources that would allow them to divest of their Monsanto relationship. (See more here.)

These are big companies (by seed house standards) selling product to very particular customers – small farmers and market growers and discerning home gardeners – and I understand their decisions not to slash a huge number of seed offerings from their inventory overnight. I believe that seed houses who began to distance themselves from Seminis and find alternate seed options as quickly as possible while being sensitive to the potential business hit from lack of inventory were reacting to the Monsanto buyout of Seminis in an ethical way.

In the world of seed development it’s not like you just call up and order the plastic widget from another factory – often times generations of breeding and years of work in the field are necessary to get a stable strain of seed with the same disease resistance or ripening or flavor attributes as seed that was offered through Seminis.

Territorial and Johnny’s have been doing just that – pairing down Seminis offerings year by year, breeding more in house, finding alternate partner seed growers. And the good news is, it’s really working – Johnny’s, for example, which has an enormous catalog of seeds, is down to just 15 varieties from Seminis, all of which are pre-buyout varieties. Territorial as of last year’s offerings (2012) no longer purchases any seeds from Seminis.

Meanwhile, Seminis, now under control of Monsanto, began to dramatically downsize the seeds they offered. Variety lost out to classic profit-makers. Now, the Seminis Home Gardener offerings are slim and not particularly impressive: one green cabbage, one red one. A single variety of broccoli.

While the vast, vast majority of gardener and market-grower marketed varietal seeds, even from Seminis, aren’t themselves GMOs, Seminis has begun offering a “Performance” series of corn that is. This corn is developed with both an internal Bt-based insecticide and that old Monsanto classic, “Roundup-Ready Technology” that makes the corn able to survive multiple applications of the (Monsanto owned, naturally) glyphosate herbicide, Round-Up.

In other words, Seminis has become progressively less and less relevant to the needs of garden and market growers, while becoming more and more like its parent company. No real surprise there.

Because, after the Seminis buyout, Territorial and others were purchasing some seeds from a Monsanto subsidiary, some really nasty rumors got started that Territorial, Johnny’s and others are  owned by Monsanto. This just isn’t true. Territorial is owned by Tom and Julie Johns, who have owned the company since they bought it from its founder, Steve Soloman.

I hate to see seed houses like Territorial and Johnny’s tarred and feathered with the Monsanto brush. The truth is, in the real world of real business practical considerations, I think they are both running superb businesses and doing much to educate gardeners. Territorial is amazing at bringing Cascadia-specific varietals to the seed market, something I greatly appreciate.

While I understand people’s horror at the idea that they have unwittingly brought Monsanto into their backyard, I think it’s important to remember the context of this buyout and not blame the wrong people. I believe Territorial handled the Monsanto buyout of Seminis ethically and reasonably, and have been happy to do business with them through this protracted transition as they have worked - successfully - to replace all their Seminis varieties with other successful strains of seed.

I hope this helps to clarify the relationship between Territorial and others and Monsanto, and why I have continued to support Territorial Seeds and Johnny’s with my purchases. Of course, now that Territorial is totally Monsanto free, I’m even happier. I may go plant some seeds to celebrate!

I encourage all gardeners to do their own research into where to buy seeds. There are many, many wonderful regional seedhouses that are working hard to get the best seeds to the gardeners in their biozone. All else being equal, buying local is a good idea with seeds, as with so much else. Any seed house worth supporting will be thrilled to talk seed with you and answer whatever questions you have.

Please feel free to pass this along when you see – as you will – misinformation or confusion about this issue.

Happy seed shopping!


This is the full text of the email I received from Territorial in regards to their Monsanto ties:

Erica,

We are owned by Tom and Julie Johns. They purchased the company from Steve Solomon in 1985. Steve and the Johns’ have been the only owners of Territorial Seed Company.

We no longer purchase seed from Seminis, and have not purchased since 2012.

Thanks,

Marlece


This is the full text of the email I received from Johnny’s in regards to their Monsanto ties:

Erica,

Thank you so much for your inquiry regarding our situation with Seminis Seeds.  First and foremost Johnny’s adheres to the Safe Seed Pledge (you can view our pledge here). We do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. We believe this pledge is important and is consistent with our value system.

Presently we offer 15 or so vegetable seed varieties from Seminis, all of which pre-existed their acquisition by Monsanto.  This is a very small percentage of our overall seed selection and we do not see this relationship growing in the future.  The seeds we get from Seminis are GMO free and were bred using traditional/conventional breeding practices and the varieties we continue to sell are critical to a great deal of the success of most of our growers.  We have been asked to continue to carry these items until a suitable replacement with adequate supply is obtainable.

We have many cooperators from all over the world that help us bring the best varieties of seed to our customers.  We will continue to plant our own trials where we can observe growth and yield performance as well as conduct our own taste tests to insure our customers are getting the best of the best.  As we find improved varieties to our Seminis offerings we are replacing them.

We continue to add many heirloom and OG seeds, at the level of quality that our customers expect, as quickly and as reasonably possible.

I hope that this explanation helps to clarify and answer your question.  If you have any further questions or concerns, please do not hesitate to email us or contact us at 1-877-564-6697!

Danielle Murray

Customer Care

Gluten Free Cake That Actually Tastes Awesome
Merry Mellow Christmas

Comments

  1. Thank you, Erica! Earlier this afternoon I read the post regarding which seed company is GMO-free and which isn’t. I was shocked to see Territorial on the list (I live in Eugene and buy lots of their seeds) and then confused when I saw their name on the “good list” for Oregon. Same with Nichol’s Nursery in Albany.) You have done a great service to all gardeners by clarifying this issue. Happy New Year and happy growing!

    • I know for a fact that Territorial Seed Company is not owned by Monsanto. I have friends that work for them and have meet the wonderful owners, Tom and Julie Johns and they are not Monsanto’s. I hope that you fix this wrong information.

      • Kori, Since you commented on my post rather than Erica’s I assume you are asking ME to”fix this wrong information.” I was not the source of the incorrect information, only had read it on a no GMO site. Erica posted to clarify why there was confusion around the issue and I simply thanked her (as did many others) for letting us know.

      • I was hoping that “this as a whole” would get fixed. I don’t understand how that this wrong information can get put out in the air waves.

  2. Linda McHenry says:

    I’ve been purchasing seeds from Territorial for years and will continue to do so. I also saw the “bad seed” missive and knew there was another side to the story……thanks for getting it out there.
    BTW….just had a chance to print out your Garden Journal…..it’s beautiful…..I know it will be very helpful.

  3. Myra zocher says:

    I read this when you posted this on Crunchy Chicken earlier today, and my husband and I read it with interest – we have been faithful to territorial for over a decade – I am glad that you reported it, because it is not fair that Teritotial has been blamed for selling out to Monsanto, when it was a supply glitch that they had to extract themselves from carefully and as fast as possible. I think given the circumstances, they did it beautifully.

  4. Thank you for this. I, too, just saw a link to a supposed “all-inclusive list of seed companies/brands owned by Monsanto” and they incorrectly listed Fedco (my favorite seed source) as selling Seminis varieties. One reason I love Fedco is because they listened to their customers and dropped Monsanto/Seminis from their lineup! Hate seeing bad information out there – good on you for setting things straight!!

  5. Thank you for this. I’ve never stopped purchasing from Territorial, and a more in-depth anaylysis of the Monsanto hype is really, really helpful!

  6. Thank you Erica for the excellent post. Johnny’s and Territorial have been two of my favorite seed catalogs for 20+ years, providing reliable, quality seeds. I knew they were being effected by the buyouts and consolidation, but never found the time to do the exact research.

    I will be reblogging this. Thanks!

  7. Thank you! I had heard of a Monsanto/Territorial connection, but had not stopped buying their wonderful seeds. I’m happy to hear I made the right decision by sticking with this fantastic local business.

  8. Even though my “soil” is still just a growing set of plans and dreams at this time, I am going through Territorial’s new catalog, marking up about 100 or more seeds and plants I hope to be growing in my brand-spanking new garden in 2013. I plan to buy most of everything I want to grow from Territorial, and I think I’ll ask Johnny’s for their catalog also – they EARNED our business, too. Thank you for this very encouraging post!

    • Homebrew Husband says:

      I highly recommend Johnny’s! While everyone loves Territorial, and does so with good reason, and they are really focused on the small-scale grower, Johnny’s offers a fascinatingly different perspective. Their core market is much more professional and so the descriptions go into some details on disease resistance, yields, marketability, and nifty technical stuff that I tend to geek out on, rather than descriptions of taste and color and the impressionistic/subjective.

  9. Rather than ban an entire seed company that I probably have purchased great seeds from before, I prefer to ‘hear’ or read what the company has to say in their catalog. Are they ignoring the GMO/Monsanto factor by not mentioning it or are they making a statement on their website and in their catalog? As a long time gardener I follow my seed companies and look at their background before I purchase any seeds and as the years go on and more ‘little’ companies are absorbed by Monsanto I want to make sure each year that I am not buying from companies that are ok with GMO seeds of any kind. I want to read the owners statement in the catalog or on their website and I expect them to make me believe what they believe in, wholesome seed for produce that I can go to feed my family and friends safely.

    • “Safe Seed Pledge
      Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms, poses great biological risks as well as economic, political, and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds. Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems and ultimately people and communities. Territorial only offers untreated seed. ” – Territorial Seed Company, http://www.territorialseed.com/aboutus

  10. Thanks for setting the record straight; have bought seeds from Territorial for several years now, and really appreciate that I can get seeds from them that do well in our coastal Oregon climate.

  11. Thank you! These rumors are a huge pet peeve of mine. It’s a shame to do damage to great businesses because people aren’t willing to do a little research. I’m going to link to this in my blog and help spread your accurate information.

  12. Soooooo, I did some easy research (which everyone should do) and it appears that Johnny’s is no longer selling Seminis seeds according to Seminis’ website where they list their dealers. Last year they were on the list and this year they are not so it leads me to believe they’ve finally eliminated them.

    • Johnny’s made a statement on their facebook page today that “the Seminis and De Ruiter varieties we offer…represent less than 2% of our product line,” so I guess they do still carry some. I’m grateful to you, Erica, for this info. It seems a lot of people have gotten hysteric over the whole thing, claiming Johnny’s (and Territorial, too, I assuming) are selling GMO seeds and “in bed with the devil.”

  13. Thank you for clarifying about Territorial and squashing Internet rumors. I’m a New England gardener and get most of my seeds from Fedco, but Territorial has some intriguing varieties and the rumors I’d seen flying around about them didn’t align with the content of the catalog.

  14. Matt Jarvis says:

    Well researched and Nicely written article – good job!

    I probably still have some Territorial seeds in my seed bank because of some special variety they carry, but any more I tend to avoid them… I have NO complaints with their seeds and didn’t even know about the Monsanto thing… my gripe is they just seem to have gotten a bit big for their britches as in “We’re Territorial Seed and you’re not”… plus their retail store has prices that are just through the roof and I hate seeing people being gouged like that…

    I also try and give local seed exchanges and other sources a chance… in fact I stumbled across a ma and pa place in Idaho that does all organic garlic so last fall placed my order through them..

    Matt J
    Eugene, Oregon

  15. Good review of the issue. I’m in Maine and I buy almost exclusively FedCo seeds, because they tend to do reliably well here (and I do like the stance they took on Monsanto).

  16. Thanks for writing this piece and addressing this issue :)

  17. Does anyone know of a good seed supplier for the southeast? I live in Northeast Florida, and stuff that grows well in the south of the state a lot of times doesn’t work well up here (and most of the suppliers I have stumbled upon are in south Florida). Our climate has more in common with south Georgia and South Carolina than south Florida. Any recommendations?

  18. Thanks for taking the time to clear this up for many of us.

  19. Erica, thanks so much for reposting this. I was not aware that Territorial was Monsanto free! I knew they were working on it but I was a bit skeptical. David and Golioth and all. I get 90% of my seeds from Territorial and now feel really good about saying so. Great thinking to repost when folks are planning for next season. And your article is so much better thank the one I wrote a few years ago. Thanks.

  20. Thanks for posting this! We order a lot from Johnny’s, and have been meaning to try out Territorial too, and have had to correct a few people who claimed that they were owned by the evil M-pire. The rumors, they spread!

  21. Thank you for posting Erica. I saw that same graphic floating around facebook and was immediately shocked and then confused. We support Johnny’s and Territorial Seed Company because of our own personal research into who they are as companies…imagine my surprise when I see that they are “owned” by “the devil”. I chalked it up to the sometimes dangerous power of the “share” button on facebook and am glad to know it wasn’t a gross error on my part. Will continue to wholeheartedly support two very great companies!

  22. Mary Saunders says:

    Thanks. I am much relieved, and I am glad to be reassured so soon after receiving a worrisome post on a list-serve.

  23. Wonderful, thoughtful response to the Monsanto/Johnny’s question. Thank you!

  24. In the face of the continued centralization of the seed industry and loss of genetic diversity, the most important thing farmers and gardeners can do is find open-pollinated substitutes for their favorite crops and begin to save their own seeds for their own needs and specific climatic conditions. Buying hybrids from industrial giants, even if they are not from Seminis, even if they are certified organic, prevents us collectively from recreating and maintaining the diversity we need for a truly sustainable agriculture. We teach a 6 day Seed School to help gardeners, farmers and seed people get up to speed. http://nativeseeds.org/index.php/events/seed-school

  25. Thank you for this information. I have been concerned about this since the early 90s, the loss of our genetic diversity. This article is one I will be sending others to, so that I don’t have to keep re-writing the information. Very, very good article. You ROCK!

    Washington State will soon have on the ballot an initiative calling for the labeling of GM food, seeds and ingredients.

    And… love your site! Can’t wait to really dig into it.

    Cheers!
    O:-)

  26. Thanks, I appreciate this post. I know Johnny’s is trying to get away from selling those seeds, and it is a matter of time before that company succeeds. Things get complicated out there!

  27. Excellent article!!

  28. Thank you, big-time!

  29. What? A I understand it, territorial seeds do not sell (or knowingly sell) GM seeds?

  30. Thank you for this article (and including the emails from Territorial and Johnny’s). I wanted to start carrying Territorial Seeds in our rural farm and garden store, and was concerned when someone told me they had gotten involved with Monsanto. I was skeptical, but nonetheless horrified. I appreciate you clearing the air here. After a bit of extra research I am comforted :).

Trackbacks

  1. [...] at Northwest Edible Life (just started reading her blog, love it) explains how these rumors started and who owns [...]

  2. [...] more.. http://www.nwedible.com/2012/12/a-brief-history-of-monsanto-and-seed-houses-who-got-screwed.html Print PDF jQuery(document).ready(function(){ [...]

  3. [...] my favourite seed companies. This morning Bill Guerrant from White Flint Farm  sent me a link to this very helpful article at Northwest Edible Life which I decided to post as a follow up. All is not how it seems on the [...]

  4. [...] According to Erica at Northwest Edible Life, Territorial does not sell GMO seeds. (See “A Brief History of Monsanto and Seed Houses that Got Screwed.”) She researched this thoroughly, and found that Territorial has been systematically paring [...]

  5. [...] from this week, but still worth passing on. Northwest Edible Life has a great post A Brief History of Monsanto and the Seed Houses Who Got Screwed. A reminder that research in all things is important, because not all of the folks we think are [...]

  6. [...] got the seed tape that you're after I'd go ahead and place the order. Link to the post below: A Brief History of Monsanto and Seed Houses Who Got Screwed [...]

  7. [...] of seeds and corporations. Here is a fabulous post from Erica Strauss at Northwest Edible Life: A Brief History of Monsanto and Seed Houses Who Got Screwed. Erica does a fabulous job of following the story and sharing the research trail with her readers. [...]

  8. [...] are owned by Monsanto" Here is a good blog post about the whole Monsanto/Seminis thing A Brief History of Monsanto and Seed Houses Who Got Screwed Any way this is one of the reasons the whole anti-Monsanto thing drives me nuts.. yes I think [...]

  9. […] Today my heart broke a little as I read that President Obama signed H.R. 933, a bill partially written by Monsanto. […]

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