Since 1988, “look-alike” hybrid seeds have been an open secret. It was that year that Pioneer Hi-Bred International, now Corteva, made this practice known. Today, those “look-alikes” everywhere- and Farmers Business Network is trying to make it easier for farmers to know which corn and soybean varieties share the same genetics. Read on to learn more about their efforts to unveil how seeds are labeled and sold.
Farmers Business Network
The San Carlos California based company, Farmers Business Network (FBN) first released a report showing shared genetics between seed brands in 2017. The report has been updated for 2018, and a sample of the report can be downloaded here.
The company is trying to make seed purchasing a more transparent process. It’s not something that many people or businesses have wanted to tackle up to this point. Here’s a taste of what FBN has discovered.
The Same Seed
In 2017 and 2018 FBN collected 8,000 seed tags for 4,200 seed products. They were sold by 155 different seed companies. What they found is eye-popping. FBN co-founder Charles Baron shares:
“We cross-matched the variety IDs (from the seed tag) with our seed database. We found 45% of corn and 53% of soybean seeds analyzed were sold by multiple companies. In one case, one corn hybrid was sold by 15 companies.”
They found that 6% of farmers that had submitted seed tags were buying the same seed variety from multiple brands. And different brands selling the same seed had varying prices. On a per-bag basis, the largest difference between what two farmers paid for the same corn seed was $97. For soybeans the difference was $19.
FBN created a grid to show seed varieties being sold under different names. FBN hopes to expand their network to include even more brands. Here’s the gist of the grid.
The corn seed breakdown includes:
- One firm with 100% relabeled seed
- Three firms with 90%-plus relabeled seed
- Thirty-seven firms with 60% to 89% relabeled seed
- Sixteen firms with 30% to 59% relabeled seed
- Seven firms with 2% to 29% relabeled seed
- Thirteen firms with 0% relabeled seed
The soybean seed breakdown includes:
- Three firms with 100% relabeled seed
- Three firms with 90%-plus relabeled seed
- Thirty-five firms with 60% to 89% relabeled seed
- Seven firms with 30% to 59% relabeled seed
- Five firms with 4% to 29% relabeled seed
- Five firms with 0% relabeled seed
That’s right. You might be able to purchase the exact same seed from a different company, at a lower price.
Seed suppliers argue that price differences are a result of services offered along with seed purchases. Some farmers only want the lowest price seeds possible. Others want add-ons. Some suppliers offer free replant programs or special seed treatments. Some may offer special financing. Timing and demand are also factors. If you’re looking to purchase a high demand hybrid later in the season when supply is low, you might end up paying more.
FBN is also trying to collect data on seed discounts. They’re trying to get farmers to share their receipts from seed sales. Up to this point, they’ve analyzed 25,000 seed invoices. A few notable findings include:
- New customers tend to get the biggest discounts.
- Areas in the Corn Belt typically receive the deepest discounts.
- Don’t always expect a discount on volume.
- Hybrids that yield more usually cost more, but they don’t always perform better. Always look at actual yield performance.
- Don’t worry much about list price. Compare final prices after discounts.
Just because seed varieties share genetics, it doesn’t necessarily mean they will perform the same. There are many other factors. Where seeds are planted, production standards and how seeds are treated all influence performance. According to Jeff Hartz, a seed industry consultant,
“Raw genetic potential is only one component of the product’s performance.”
FBN was able to show differences between two varieties sharing the same genetics when planted in the same field. The difference between corn was 2.6 bushels per acre, and soybeans were 2.1 per acre.
If a company says they have better production, sorting or seed storage- that claim should be evident in the yield. But by far, genetics is the largest component affecting yield. And FBN believes that farmers should be aware that there are genetically identical products out there from different companies.
Another difference between genetically identical seeds sold under different brand names is relative maturity. FBN found that multiple brands had different relative maturities 55% of the time.
“When seed brokers present products to companies, they have a relative maturity rating for them,” says David Thompson, Stine Seeds marketing director. “But after it goes into their testing programs, companies can assign their own relative maturity ratings.”
This appears to be a common way that seed companies differentiate their seed.
Variety Not Stated
One big road block in FBN’s efforts for seed transparency is in labeling. Typically, companies selling corn and soybean seeds will list the variety and brand name on the tag. In some states however, it’s perfectly legal to not disclose that information, and instead label it as, “Variety Not Stated” (VNS). With this type of labeling it’s impossible for farmers to know if the variety of seed purchased is the same as what’s being sold by other companies. Currently, 34 states allow this type of labeling on corn and 30 states allow it for soybeans.
Denise Thiede, a Minnesota Department of Agriculture section manager for seed, weed, hemp, and biotechnology says that establishing a varietal registration database would help to increase transparency.
Additionally, read Ag Nook’s related article titled: “The Ultimate Guide To Seed Selection For 2019“.
FBN is breaking new ground, and bringing together and sharing a lot of data that hasn’t been available to farmers. Of course, access to all of that data comes at cost. Full access will run you $700. But it might be worth it. We’ve all known about the relabeling of seeds for years, but nobody up to this point has attempted to share it.