Farmers can’t reuse seeds … so what? A simplified explanation of Hybrid vigor.
The anti-science persons epousing views against genetic improvement of plants will claim that the companies from which a farmer purchases seeds make it impossible to re-use seeds. I’d like to explain why this is a non-starter. The argument is a akin to lamenting the absence of municipal policies curbing loitering in public spaces by tigers. It’s not necessary; it is not a problem.
Before all else a farmer is growing crops and/or raising livestock for money. The famer is hardworking, doing back breaking labor to generate food to sell at market prices. To this end, the farmer wishes to make money for their effort. They wish to have a livelihood for their work and sacrifice. This is not different from you or me. If the reader believes this is unethical, ‘corporate,’ or bourgeois, I happily invite them to do field work gratis and re-evaluate their position. Moreover, I’d happily connect them with people that do field work in an academic setting that would love free labor.
There are a few terms you have to make clear before you understand fully why farmers don’t want to reuse seeds. Parent 1 and 2 are mated to produce progeny or an F1 generation. When two unrelated individuals of the same species with different genetic backgrounds mate they may, but not always,impart to their progeny hybrid vigor. Hybrid vigor or heterosis is the incompletely understood phenomenon whereby the F1 generation displays more rapid growth, more strength (physical, resistance to pathogens) and have more progeny to name just a few benefits germane to this argument. More progeny is key because crop plants create progeny in the form of fruits, tubers, roots, and seeds (kernels of corn, sunflower seeds, canola seeds). When more progeny are had from the F1 plant, more value is earned for the farmer. When a single plant occupies 1 square meter and outputs X grainssaid plant is more valuable than a plant that outputs X/2 or X/3 in the same cultivation area.
So what? The ‘so what?’ moment occurs when one attempts to re-grow the F1 individuals expecting to see the same superb crops. They are not superb any longer. They may be as poor perfoming as the original parents. They may perform worse still. In fact as the F1 individuals are grown and their progeny is next grown and the progeny’s progeny is grown and so on, the physiological advantages of the hybrid disappear altogether.
Why does this happen? It isn’t completely known and a good number of private and academic labs are dedicated to unraveling heterosis and have been doing so since the early twentieth century.
The end result of diminishing hybrid vigor is that our farmer has seeds that aren’t as productive and therefore make a unit of land on his farm less profitable over time. This is bad news for the farmer because costs always go up. Diesel for farm equipment, tires for tractors, electricity, water and so forth. The farmer opts to purchase seeds from one or more of the big plant biotech firms. The biotech firms have the billions of dollars required to cultivate and bring to market the elite F1 progeny that display hybrid vigor and subsequently produce maximum output in a given area of land.
So it’s not so much a matter of ‘can’t re-grow’ plants from purchased seeds. The reality is that it is not in the farmer’s best interest and financial security.