In October, police from the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department Rural Crime Unit responded to a tip that some high-value property reported stolen just days ago reappeared for sale on social media. The merchandise had apparently made its way onto Facebook.
Detectives contacted the seller to arrange a buy, and upon arrival, they inspected the goods and arrested the culprit, 21-year-old Blanca Paz Trejo of Santa Maria, on suspicion of one felony count of receiving stolen property.
Her alleged crime? Trying to sell $22,750 worth of stolen commercially produced broccoli seeds on the internet using a fake name.
Trejo, an ex-employee of Growers Transplanting Inc. in Nipomo, possessed 47 bags of the prized seeds that were stolen from the company on October 3, according to Tony Cipolla, the public information officer for the San Luis Obispo County Sheriff’s Department.
Cipolla said Paz tried to sell each bag for $40, far less than their actual value. Agricultural theft isn’t unheard of along the California’s rural Central Coast, but Cipolla told MUNCHIES that this may be one of the more unusual cases he’s seen.
It’s not clear exactly which type of seed was recovered. A woman for Salinas-based Growers Transplanting who asked not to publicly identify herself told MUNCHIES that part of the company’s business is selling plants grown from seed, and that the alleged theft matter was “tendered” to the insurance company. But it turns out that they weren’t just your average backyard garden broccoli seeds. They’re Seminis brand, which is a Monsanto company, one of the largest producers of pesticides and genetically modified seeds in the world.
According to its website, Seminis is the “world’s largest developer and marketer of vegetable seeds for open field” crops and sells a variety of broccoli seeds. Types like BC1611, “Ironman,” and SV1822BL are described as “vigorous,” “high-yielding,” or “high-performing.”
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While the value of the seeds may seem astronomical, Jeffrey C. Wong isn’t surprised. Wong, a professor in the Horticulture and Crop Science Department at California Polytechnic State University in San Luis Obispo, teaches commercial seed production, among other subjects.
Wong told MUNCHIES that it usually takes about ten years—give or take a few—from seed development to commercial viability. Wong said that value has nothing to do with genetic modification and far less to do with intellectual property than it does with the labour and resources behind development.
“It touches a lot of hands,” Wong said, who noted all of the effort, water, and time used throughout the development process. “Our job is to improve the plant so that you, as a consumer, get the nutrients you want and the grower gets the plant they want.”
Much of the seed business in the Golden State revolves around biofortification, which encompasses selective breeding and, according to the California Seed Association, is a “potentially cost-effective and sustainable way to increase a crop’s nutritional value.”
Broccoli itself is a top commodity in California. The crop is grown year-round and a common sight (and smell) along the Central Coast, where worker-filled fields often intersect with suburban landscapes. The vegetable was among the top 20 agricultural commodities in the state from 2013 to 2015, as reported in California’s 2015-2016 agricultural statistics review.
And according to the state’s report on agricultural exports from the same year, California exports about $113 million worth of broccoli annually to countries like Canada and Japan.
Caire Wineman, a spokeswoman for the Grower-Shipper Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo counties, told MUNCHIES that California’s broccoli farmers compete fiercely with other growing regions such as Mexico, and that consumers often don’t realise the hidden cost behind growing crops like broccoli.
Other than being a labour-intensive crop, Wineman said, land values often account for cutting into the margins of growers, who are reluctant to pass costs onto consumers. Wineman believes we should be more mindful of this when purchasing produce at the store.
“I think we should be thankful for food security and mindful to those who don’t have that and recognising that it’s a lot of work,” Wineman said.
And if you’re going to sell tens of thousands of dollars worth of seeds on the internet, you might want to try a different market than your Facebook friends.