Every Day, Your Food Choices Become Increasingly Limited
Over the course of 80 years (between 1903 and 1983), we lost 93 percent of the variety in our food seeds. According to Rural Advancement Foundation International:3
- We went from 497 varieties of lettuce to 36
- We went from 288 varieties of beets to 17
- We went from 307 varieties of sweet corn to 12
Even the popular heirloom tomato has taken an enormous hit, having lost at least 80 percent of its diversity over the last century. Even more tragic is the fact that many of these precious plants are being replaced by patented GE varieties.
The National Geographic infographic below shows how many varieties of fruits and vegetables appear to be nearing extinction.4 This data is already more than 30 years old, so the statistics may be even grimmer today.
Five Important Reasons to Save Seeds
- Seed Security: By saving your seeds, you control your seed and therefore your food supply — you aren’t depending on seed stores or catalogs for difficult to find seed.
Hundreds of excellent plant varieties have been discontinued as big corporations have consolidated the seed industry and focused on more profitable varieties. Half of the vegetables grown today have no commercial sources — they must be obtained through seed trades.6
- Regional Adaptation: Most commercially available seed has been selected because it performs fairly well across the entire country if given synthetic fertilizers. But when you save seed from your own best performing plants, on your land and in your own ecosystem, you gradually develop varieties better adapted to your soil, climate, and growing conditions.
- Consistent Quality: Large seed suppliers rarely “rogue” the fields to pull out inferior or off-type plants, so the open-pollinated (OP) seeds they sell have inferior specimens in the mix.
You can select your own seed for uniformity and quality. You can control the gene pool for optimal germination, ripening time, flavor, storage, disease resistance, color, or other traits. After a few seasons, more and more of your plants will have all of your personally selected traits.
- Better Nutrition: Consuming a wide variety of fresh, whole foods prevents nutritional deficiencies and increases your overall nutrition by exposing you to a broader range of nutrients. Loss of food diversity compromises your health by narrowing your food choices.
- Preserving Your Heritage and Biodiversity: Today multinational corporations select seed varieties according to their own financial interests; they control 82 percent of the world’s seed market, which includes 75 percent of the vegetable seed market. It’s up to small farmers and home gardeners to preserve thousands of years of biodiversity.
How Seed Libraries Preserve and Improve Seed Quality
The basic operational principle of any library is that you borrow something and later return it. Many seed libraries work on a slightly different principle: the seeds are returned slightly improved or not at all. The program established by the seed library at Hampshire College is a good example.7 They will loan you packets of seed only if you promise to plant them, and you’re allowed to return them only if you managed to grow thriving plants.
This means there’s a good chance the seeds you borrow will never be returned, and they’ll have different DNA, as the result of natural mutations. Unfortunately, these stipulations mean the number of seeds returned can be very low. For example, after one season at the Concord Seed Lending Library, only five out of 270 people returned their seed.
Besides functioning as a “lending library,” seed banks have another important mission: archiving and preserving knowledge. Seeds in libraries are largely locked away, not reproducing but rather sitting in a drawer waiting for the next plant scientist to retrieve them for study. According to The Boston Globe:8
“The mission of cataloging and saving seeds has fallen mainly to big seed banks and academic researchers. There are 7.4 million seed samples conserved in professionally managed seed vaults worldwide; the biggest — the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, on an archipelago in the Arctic Ocean — holds seeds for more than 770,000 distinct plants.”
The fact that seed libraries like Hampshire College are actually getting those plants into circulation is a vital part of promoting diversity and creating new and superior strains. According to Stephen Brush, a master adviser for international agricultural development at the University of California, Davis: “The more seeds you can get out in the field, the broader the base of conservation. In a gene bank, evolution is frozen, there’s no more natural crossing.”
Not long ago, there were only a handful of seed banks scattered around the U.S. Now there are more than 200, typically housed in public seed libraries, but also attached to farms, greenhouses and other local facilities. Going forward, seed libraries will continue to fulfill important roles in preserving and often improving local plant strains and allowing communities to refine seed lines tailored to their regions. The more seeds are exchanged and grown, the better the seeds will become.
The World’s Greatest Seed Vaults
The world’s greatest seed vaults9 are hidden away in some amazing places, a type of “apocalyptic insurance policy.” If the world were to fall victim to a serious environmental disaster — particularly one of global proportions — our survival could depend on seed vaults.
Some are placed in remote locations, far from civilization and seismic zones in some the coldest regions of the globe, as seeds here would have the best chance of survival in the event of total power failure. And most are the pinnacle of security.
A prime example is Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. Tucked away on a frigid island near the North Pole, Svalbard is described as “the mother of all seed vaults,” serving as backup for 1,750 seed banks all over the world. Currently, approximately 840,000 samples (4,000 plant species) are preserved in Svalbard, but the facility has the capacity to store 4.5 million samples!
If other seed collections are damaged or lost in a global crisis, the Svalbard vault is the place we’ll go to begin rebuilding the earth’s vegetation. A great deal of thought and planning went into its construction:10
“The vault is set nearly 400 feet into a sandstone mountain on Spitsbergen Island. Although no permanent staff are assigned to guard the vault, the structure has an impressive security system that would foil even the most nefarious of seed stealers.
When an organization deposits seeds, only they are able to access the boxes containing those seeds; the organizations retain ownership, making Svalbard simply a storage and preservation facility for the good of the planet.”
Image source: weburbanist.com
Other impressive seed vaults include England’s Millennium Seed Bank, which houses between 60,000 and 100,000 endangered plant species — an impressive one-fourth of all of Earth’s plants — and the Australian PlantBank, which now houses a staggering 100 million seeds.
In South America, Camino Verde Living Seed Bank has a special mission to preserve medicinal and otherwise useful trees. There’s even a World Vegetable Center, housed in Taiwan, dedicated to improving nutrition and eliminating hunger worldwide. For more information on these vaults and others, this article in Web Urbanist is truly amazing.11
Why Choose Open-Pollinated and Heirloom Seeds Over Hybrids?
As a gardener, one of your more important decisions is whether to choose open-pollinated, hybrid, or heirloom seed varieties — but which are best? According to Seed Savers,12 for seed saving purposes, the most significant distinction among these types is saving true-to-type seed from open-pollinated and heirloom varieties, and avoiding hybrids. Open-pollination seeds are pollinated by insects, birds, humans, wind or other natural mechanisms.
According to Seed Savers:13
“Because there are no restrictions on the flow of pollen between individuals, open-pollinated plants are more genetically diverse. This can cause a greater amount of variation within plant populations, which allows plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate year-to-year. As long as pollen is not shared between different varieties within the same species, then the seed produced will remain true-to-type, year after year.”
An heirloom variety is a plant that has a history of being passed down multiple generations within a family or a community.An heirloom variety is by definition open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. Hybridization is a controlled method of pollination in which the pollen of two different species or varieties is crossed (usually by human intervention, although it can happen in nature), usually from a desire to breed in a particular trait.
Hybrids are typically unstable and less vigorous, producing fewer of those desirable traits with each passing year. However, hybrid seeds can be stabilized by open-pollination — by growing, selecting and saving the seeds over many seasons. Choosing open-pollinated and heirloom seeds helps preserve genetic diversity and prevents the loss of unique varieties, including the ones that contribute to our long-term survival because of special hardiness and disease resistance traits.
Biodiversity is our best insurance in times of vulnerability, such as extended periods of drought. A profound example of this is what’s currently occurring in drought-stricken California, where experts say the state’s drought-related economic losses are on track to reach $3 billion in 2015.14 Genetically engineering plants for pest or disease resistance is unnecessary because the same resistance can be accomplished through classical plant breeding, and good cultural techniques and field practices.
Support Seed Diversity — Ditch GE Food Forever
I encourage you to support the seed saving movement by borrowing seeds, and by purchasing open-pollinated or heirloom seed varieties for your garden — but don’t stop there! You can take back control over our food supply with the choices you make about your food and personal products. Several suggestions are provided below — but these are just starters. You can change the system daily, bit by bit, simply by voting with your debit card.
- Stop buying non-organic processed foods. Instead, build your diet around whole, unprocessed organic foods, especially raw fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats from coconut oil, avocados, organic pastured meat, dairy, and eggs, and raw nuts that are low in protein and high in fat like macadamias and pecans.
- Buy most of your foods from your local farmer’s market and organic farms
- Cook most or all your meals at home using whole, organic ingredients
- Patronize restaurants that serve organic, cooked-from-scratch local food. Many restaurants, especially chain restaurants, use processed foods for their meals (Chipotlé is a rare exception)
- Buy only organic, open-pollinated and heirloom seeds for your garden, which applies to both decorative plants and edibles; they’re obtainable from seed swaps, seed libraries and exchanges (see next section for sources)
- Boycott all lawn and garden chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) unless they are “OMRI Approved,” which means they’re allowed in organic production. If you use a lawn service, make sure they’re using OMRI Approved products as well
- Join the Organic Consumers Association’s new campaign, “Buy Organic Brands that Support Your Right to Know”
Seed Saving Resources
If you want to begin saving your own seeds, there are four basic steps: Choosing the right plants, collecting their seeds, cleaning the seeds and storing them appropriately.15 Below are some excellent seed saving resources, as well as suggestions for where to purchase open-pollinated and heirloom seeds.
- “Seed to Seed: Seed Saving Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners” by Suzanne Ashworth (March 2002) is an excellent and widely cited book about seed saving
- Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA): National non-profit organization committed to protecting, promoting, and developing the organic seed trade and its growers
- Seed Savers Exchange: Organization whose mission is to promote saving and sharing of heirloom seeds and plants
- SeedSave.org: Online seed school with free downloadable book about the basics of seed saving
- Hudson Valley Seed Library: Featured in the movie, Hudson is much more than a library — it’s also a place where you can order heirloom seed
- Mother Earth News article16 about their picks for top 15 vegetable seed companies