An estimated 7 million people joined the ranks of backyard food growers last year, experiencing firsthand that seeds are the birthplace of food. But did you know that, thanks to a 1980 Supreme Court ruling that approved patents on life forms by genetic coding, seeds are now legally traded and owned as commodities, just like sugar and coffee? Three decades later, three multinationals—Monsanto, DuPont, and Syngenta—control 47 percent of the first link in the food chain, and 10 companies own 67 percent.

Why the concern over seed ownership?

Permanent contamination of natural seeds by “transgenic technologies” (), including plants bred to produce pharmaceuticals; crops created to withstand herbicides; and plants that produce pesticides for crop protection. USDA regulation is fragmented and lacks effective oversight, says Matt Dillon, director of advocacy for the Organic Seed Alliance. “Companies are allowed to submit their own ‘research’ to demonstrate the safety of their seed modifications,” he adds.

2. Supply monopolization. “Allowing the patenting of plant genetics made seed an attractive investment for non-seed companies that saw a chance to capitalize on a previously public-domain resource,” says Dillon. “Now seed saving, which has been a safety net in the food system for thousands of years, is restricted, and our food supply is held hostage by those who control the seed. In addition, farmers have lost a right that has been core to their sovereignty since agriculture began.”

3. Narrowed genetic diversity. With corporate seed monopolization, diversity shrinks, while public plant breeding and seed-conservation efforts concurrently dwindle. “Genetic diversity is always important but especially so in a time of climate change,” says Dillon. “We need plants with the elasticity to respond to unpredictable environmental flux.”

What you can do

Join seed advocacy efforts, such as the Center for Food Safety, to become better informed and responsive when political actions are needed.

When buying for your garden, ask your organic farmers and store owners if they use and carry organic seed. If they don’t, encourage them to do so.

Consider starting a community seed-saving program. “It’s tough for a single gardener to do a good job saving more than a couple of varieties, but a community can save dozens,” says Dillon.

Learn more >> Visit the Organic Seed Alliance (seedalliance.org) and Seed Savers Exchange (seedsavers.org) to learn how to save seeds and to monitor corporate and congressional action.