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I came across a clamshell container of these
little finger-sized peppers in a Southampton, NY produce market about
five or six years ago. I wrote about them in one of my early
"ramblings"; but you don't know the rest of the story and the mystery
resolved that is just so disturbing that it makes me think that the
days of traditional plant breeding in the public's interest may be slowly coming to it's inevitable end.
I bought the peppers from Schmidts Market because I immediately
saw them as a new line to add to my seed collection. I never saw
anything like them before. I was glad that they were in their
ripe stage and the green fruit had been marketed in their mature red,
orange and yellow colors. Ideal for saving pepper
seed. When I opened them up to save the seed, I noticed
that they averaged perhaps 10 seeds to a fruit and some were actually
seedless. What an odd trait I thought.
That was so many years ago, all I remember about the container is a
stamp indicating that it was a product of Mexico. Oddly, I never
saw any of these peppers in the market after that. As the years
went by I paged through my extensive collection of old and new seed
Many of the seeds I collect come from interesting fruit that I see at
farmstands and in the supermarket. Some come from other
collectors. Some make it into one of my breeding projects (white
pumpkins, ornamental edibles, indian popcorn, cluster tomatoes,
etc.) I remember reading about the award winning delicata
squash that was developed from a supermarket squash that caught the eye
of one of the most respected breeders of Cucurbits, Henry Munger.
Whether in the field or in the grocery; take it from experience,
the eye of a vegetable breeder is always alert to some new trait that
can be worked with.
But the breeder as "scientist" always wants to know the origin if only
to give credit where credit is due like developing a new science theory
and citing your references, whose ideas you build upon. And so it
was with the sweet fingerling peppers as I began to call them.
The first year I grew them there was some diversity. I expected
that they would be hybrids. I was familiar with most common open
pollinated breeding lines of sweet peppers. There was not a whole
lot of diversity in the second generation indicating that the parents
of these little peppers were closely related. In the following
years I was able to select plants that produced red, yellow, dark
orange and light orange as well as a line that produced much larger but
equally sweet fruit.
Ah, the years of naive bliss, working with my rows of fingerling
peppers. The crisp, sweet crunch of their fruit, the beauty of
their crayola colors. Visitors to my garden also marveled at the
unique peppers. As I worked with the plants, their seeds and
progeny, I noted changes and variations. When I talk to
aspiring breeders, I say, "make it your own". You start with
something special and you make it your own by selecting for the
characteristics that you want; the characteristics that you
need. Sometimes it is an almost unconscious process, you
save the seeds of the plants that do best in your field. You make
it better. Generation after generation, it becomes adapted to
your cultural practices, your tastes and the ecological community it
now grows in. Such is the tradition in plant breeding.
The sweet fingerlings were beauties that became more prized over
time. Our goal at the Long Island Seed Project is to
identify and develop vegetable varieties for the local organic
community. The fingerling peppers were looking mighty fine for
introduction. But the origin of the original seed source was
still a puzzle. I had not located a seed source so I began thinking
that these little peppers may be a produce company proprietary variety
like "broccolini" whose owners corner the market by tightly controlling
seed production, crop production and marketing. Controlling all
distribution channels makes the slender miniature stalks of broccoli an
item that will probably never show up in the pages of your favorite
seed catalog or at your local farmstand although I've heard of
imitations. It may also be since fingerlings are such frugal seed
producers; from the economic view, they may be maintained in the field
through several blooming cycles which may explain the production in
tropical Mexico. I shared my thoughts with a friend.
Some time later I received an e-mail from my friend under the subject
heading, "Bad news, Ken". I couldn't believe the news. I
was directed to Google "Veggie Sweet". The peppers are sold as
"Pixie Sweet", "Veggie Sweet" or "Mini Sweets" by the company, Bionova
Produce of Nogales, Arizona and McAllen, Texas with distribution links
into California and Montreal. Bionova acts as a holding company
for ABSA (Agrobionova Mexico). Through various corporate
connections it seems indeed that the farms and labor force, packing and
distribution is under one company or closely allied companies. Savia,
through its subsidiaries Seminis and Bionova (ABSA) is a huge marketer
of vegetable seeds as well as a produce distributor.
Seminis seeds is owned by Monsanto. Sure enough, you won't find
these little sweet peppers at your local farm. Just like
Broccolini, the Vegi-Sweet peppers are controlled from seed to grocery
store product by a monopoly. So, if you want to produce
these cute peppers in your garden you have to buy the peppers and
save their seed for planting- right? Unfortunately, no.
Digging deeper into the origin of the fingerling peppers, I find that
their origin comes from a single plant produced by tissue culture at a
then based, New Jersey company, DNA Plant Technology but which shut
down their research division in 2002 but whose intellectual property is
owned by Bionova and therefore under the Seminis/Monsanto umbrella.
As I understand it, DNA Plant Technology, the biotech in it's early
days had managed to turn the immature pollen grains of a pepper
flower's anther (male part) placed onto a nutrient gel into embryonic
pepper plants. Having only half the genetic material of normal living
cells (only the male component), cells of the haploid plants were
doubled using colchicine which interferes with normal division of
chromosomes in the cell. This strangely derived pepper seems to
be the source of the low seed trait. This male parent was used as
one of the breeding parents of a number of experimental lines using
plant material from the public USDA seedbank (GRIN). Eventually,
a plant bearing fruit of a low seeded red jalapeno shaped extra sweet
pepper was bred.
"That's not what I imagined", I wrote back to my
friend. The story becomes more ominous as I research
DNA Technology and their patent holdings. DNA Technology not only
holds the patent to the the technique that they used to develop Veggie
Sweet, they hold the ownership patent to their "invention", Vegi-Sweet.
What is claimed according to their patents is the the fruit of jalapeno
shaped, very sweet, low seeded pepper; the tissue culture
technique of producing such peppers and the seed of such peppers as
well as variants, hybrids, clones, etc. of those plants grown from
those seeds that retain the low seed qualities of veggie sweet.
So, following the chain of acquisitions and holding companies, Monsanto
owns every aspect of these little "fingerling" peppers. When you
purchase these little colorful peppers marketed by Bionova with their
USDA Organic Label and perhaps the "Tinkerbell" logo when they are
marketed as "Pixie Sweet" under the Disney Kids label, there is a limit
to your ownership. Save the seeds? That would be a legal issue.
For someone who believes in open access breeding and the tradition of
free exchange of breeding materials this was a startling revelation
about my fingerling peppers. It is unclear what the ramifications
of this kind of germplasm ownership will be in the world of plant
breeding. Working with seeds collected at farms or farmstands and
at supermarkets or trading seeds with other backyard breeders and
hobbiests around the world to develop your own regional varieties may
be problematic since patent information is not always known or conveyed
to the breeder and seed producer.
It shouldn't be that way. You know my feeling about the
"invention" and "ownership" of vegetable varieties. PVP
legislation at least allows the breeder to work with the "protected"
variety as a parent in a new breeding endeavor. But the kind of
patents owned by DNA Plant Technology and Monsanto are different.
For plant breeders both professional and amature or seed savers to now
fear prosecution when trading seed or releasing a new variety
development using a parent of a patented "invention" (such as
Vegi-Sweet) makes the future of open access breeding precarious.
For the organic breeder, there is the additional problem of unorthodox
breeding technology such as transgenic manipulation hidden within a
seed we obtain from a supermarket or other unknown source.
Our legislators made the mistake of allowing this to happen many years
ago. It shouldn't have happened but it did. Today, strings
of genetic code are owned by private breeders who have claim over the
genetic trait of some living thing as their own. Bits of genetic code
are cut and pasted from one organism to another as flippant as using a
new word processing program. Biotechnology companies today are
hot in the pursuit of ownership and manipulation of every aspect of
what constitutes life. It pains me deeply that we have strayed so
far from the sanctity of life in the interest of corporate profit and
we can only speculate where all this will lead. I am not