Where do your garden seeds come from?

Patrick over at Bifurcated Carrots had a post a couple of days ago echoing the “fact” that “98% of the worlds seeds come from one of six companies.” He went on to list them and to say a bit about how companies that sell smaller quantities have to enter into straightjacket contracts with the big six that mean the “small” guys cannot say where they get their seeds, or whether they are F1 hybrids.

I’m deeply skeptical of the original claim, and asked Patrick where it came from and how it was calculated. He replied:

This in not a very hard statistic. It originally came from the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle. … I don’t own a copy of the book, and I have only seen lots of other people on the Internet cite the reference, so I can’t say a lot about it. I assume it does include cereal grains. I’m sure the person who came up with the statistic did it for purposes of making a point, rather than making an accurate statement. Perhaps this was a poor choice of a statistic to give here. If you have other ideas of a more accurate statistic, I’d love to hear.

On the final point, I have ideas, but not the ability to implement them. It is interesting, though, that there are far more than six registered maintainers of seeds listed in the EU Common Catalogue. But that’s an arcane discussion for another time. As for the rest, I had already determined that almost all the noise around this 98% number did trace back to Barbara Kingsolver’s book, and I do have a copy, which I’ve almost finished reading.

First, I had to find the quote. Not so easy when there is no index.1 But there it is, on page 51 of my US paperback edition, published by Harper Perennial. So I turned to the notes and references at the back of the book, to see if I could discover where Kingsolver had got the figure. Alas, the references given are not tied to anything; not the chapters, not the pages, certainly not the individual claims.

OK, I’ll just ask her directly. But can I find an email, or any other way to get in touch? Can I heck. Neither on her “personal web site” nor on the book’s site is there any way that I can see to get in touch with the author.

Shouldn’t I just give her the benefit of the doubt? After all, her heart is in the right place. Well, as I read the book I was making notes of inaccuracies and outright errors.2 I stopped because it was interfering with my reading and enjoyment, having to pause and find my notebook and pencil every page or so.

But this figure of 98% and six companies is gaining truthiness just by being echoed uncritically all over the shop, like so many other useful but wrong “facts”. It is a perfect example of what the great J.B.S. Haldane called The Bellman’s Theorem,3 and I fear that I cannot just ignore it.

There is concentration in the seed industry. There may be contractual obligations on people who retail seed from others. But people who think that those things are bad should not rely on untruths to support their arguments. My hope, then, is that while Barbara Kingsolver may not want anyone disturbing the quiet of her old Virginia home, she may just be egotistical enough to monitor, and care, what the internet is saying about her, and that she’ll pop up in the comments here to tell us all where she found the figure, so that we can go back and check it for ourselves.

That’s how one assesses truth.

  1. There is one now that you can download from the book web site. []
  2. Sample: page 57, Arugula is not, and never has been, a member of “the lettuce clan”. []
  3. “What I tell you three times is true.” []

One Reply to “Where do your garden seeds come from?”

  1. Excellent skeptical post, Jeremy. It is amazing to see how quickly ideas spread, when you cannot verify the source. I know for a fact that 98% is not true, because it leaves out public sector seed providers, and seed savers. For example, China distributes seeds to its people through government agencies. Food to feed a sixth of the world’s population has got to be more than 2% of the seeds in the world. Maybe they meant to say 98% of the private commercial seed market, but with all the caveats, the figure starts to lose its meaning.

    You should submit this to the Skeptic’s Circle.

    You might also be interested in this post. A few weeks ago, I read some claims that President Obama promised to label GE foods when he got into office. After a couple weeks of digging, I managed to trace the claim to its source, which evaporated on examination.
    http://www.biofortified.org/2009/01/obama-will-probably-not-label-ge-foods/

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