Why Save Seed?
Why Save Seed? Here’s the Big Picture view from last week’s Laytonville Garden Club meeting…
Agriculture began as a partnership between people and plants. Every plant we know as food was co-created, sometimes over a thousand years of growing seasons, by the equivalent of a backyard gardener in partnership with the plant. Someone started selecting the best teosinte seeds from that wild Mexican grass, planting and nurturing them with special care. By the time Europeans arrived in the New World, indigenous gardeners in partnership with teosinte had created 7,000 distinct varieties of corn, some of them adapted to thrive as far north as New York.
This is plant breeding. As William Tracy (dean of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, University of Wisconsin-Madison) pointed out at the Organic Seed Growers Conference in Port Townsend, Washington in late January, plant breeding is not a science but a technology. “Plant breeding is working withplants – the breeder selects, and the plant creates solutions.” It’s a process ideally suited to small ecological farmers and home growers, whose success depends on close observation and careful selection. Every discerning seed saver is a plant breeder, as long as they pay attention to two important conditions: the minimum population necessary to ensure the particular species’ genetic diversity, and sufficient isolation from related species that could cross-pollinate with undesirable results.
Where does our seed come from today? The exponential curve of seed industry consolidation is the same curve shown by wealth consolidation, or population growth, or ice cap melt, or any dozen other catastrophic global trends. It doesn’t seem so bad at first – a few seed companies buying smaller ones, and dropping seed varieties that are not big sellers – but pretty soon it’s chemical companies buying large seed companies and here we are, at the dizzy peak. Monsanto now controls 90 percent of all crop seed; Bayer and Dupont own most of the rest. As industrial monoculture spread, bioregionally adapted varieties were abandoned in favor of seeds dependent on petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, the real profit-makers for the companies now in control of seeds. No wonder 96 percent of vegetable and grain seed varieties are no longer available to farmers and gardeners. Genetically engineered crops up the ante further by contaminating the DNA of whatever neighboring crops they cross-pollinate, a problem especially critical to wind-pollinated plants like corn, canola, and sugar beets.
Here’s why I find this scenario completely encouraging. Though things are utterly messed up in every direction, in many aspects of life it’s difficult to be part of the solution rather than part of the problem. Transportation for example – I often find it necessary to drive a car. I try to minimize my carbon footprint when I can, but that’s not enough and I know it, which is why there is so little satisfaction to be found there. Growing seeds of the foods we eat is not mitigation or damage management – it’s the solution, pure and simple. It’s something anyone with even a rooftop garden or a back yard can do with at least one crop. It’s satisfying on so many levels at once – better nutrition, better tasting food, better health, secure localized food system that is not dependent on oil, etc. — plus the deep joy that can be found in an ongoing creative relationship with nature.
Though many crop varieties are extinct, many more have been squirreled away in seed banks and on the cellar shelves of home gardeners. The up side of globalization is that seeds saved by gardeners and plant breeders are quickly finding their way around the world, where they can fill missing niches and add resilience as regional varieties are re-established. A handful of seed can be enough to rehabilitate a variety. According to Bill McDorman, also at the conference – who should know, with thirty years’ experience in service to bioregional seed systems – “We’re going to grow it back – I think we have enough.” There is enough genetic diversity in our remaining seed stocks that, in partnership with the plants, we can grow back a vibrant healthy cornucopia of future food. We can grow back a healthy world.
Another thing I like about our dire situation is that the solution only works on a community-wide or regional level – and it can work in every bioregion. It’s not global, and it’s not individual. Seed crops take up more space than other vegetables, and isolation distances require garden-planning coordination among neighbors. Growing seed is not a survivalist go-it-alone strategy — it’s the beginning of a more satisfying way of life. Every distinct bioregion on earth can reclaim and reinvent food plants that suit its particular soils and climate, and we can swap seeds with other regions as the climate continues to fluctuate.
Here in Mendocino County we have three particular advantages. One, we have a hard-won county ordinance that bans the cultivation of genetically modified plants. Two, we currently have no large agricultural tracts other than vineyards and orchards – this provides room to expand, say for grain production, and also gives us a break from the industrial-agriculture interests that can easily skew local priorities. Three, and I think this is the key, we have a rural population of expert gardeners scattered through the coast range – ideally isolated plots in a wide range of microclimates, perfect for growing food crops for seed, with knowledgeable organic growers already in residence. When I spoke at the garden club last week, community activist Jon Spitz spontaneously passed around a sign-up sheet for a Seed Growers Co-op, and we’re off and growing. Email me if you want to join in for this summer’s growing season. Beginners and experienced seed savers equally welcome.
Next: Selfers and Crossers, the organic advantage, and basic garden planning for growing seed (the rest of my talk, plus online resources for way more information).