|I've been seeing a lot of interest lately in seed saving. It seems like a lot of work, why bother?|
I've been seeing a lot of interest lately in seed saving. It seems like a lot of work, why bother?
We've been hearing quite a bit of excitement about seed saving too — especially over at HOMEGROWN.org, our on-line community of do-it-yourselfers. And, YES, it's totally worth the trouble! Not only are people reconnecting to the land and the very source of our food supply through seed saving, the resurgence is shining a light on a very important and often overlooked issue — agricultural biodiversity and the rich genetic material contained within our seeds.
There are really two pieces to the explanation of why seed saving matters: the first details the dramatic transformation of the seed industry over the past century; the second explains how this transformation has led to the erosion of agricultural biodiversity, and the potentially devastating implications for family farmers and the security of our food supply. (It's a big topic, so settle in…)
The transformation of an industry
Until relatively recently, there was a tremendous range of traditional (also known as heirloom or landrace) varieties available across the country that reflected immense agricultural diversity. Not just the sort of diversity you can see and taste, but the diversity of the soil, the climate, and the socio-cultural context in which a crop was grown. Farmers were keepers of this diversity, and by saving seed from year to year were able to ensure that their crop varieties kept pace with changes in the surrounding ecosystem. A number of small, independent seed companies catalogued seed offerings, giving gardeners and farmers alike a wide-range of traditional varieties to choose from. Public plant breeders at land grant universities and state experimental stations were also able to access this important genetic material, enabling the continued maintenance of traditional seed and the development of newer and better varieties to meet the needs of a changing world.
In the past half century, however, this rich tradition of stewarding agricultural biodiversity has largely been replaced by a new approach to plant breeding, one that favors monoculture conditions and global markets. Rather than maintaining and improving distinct traditional varieties, modern crop breeders have been focused on designing hybrid varieties, which are often sterile and their seeds cannot be saved. A key benefit of these varieties is improved yield, although only when packaged with optimal levels of chemicals and fertilizer. Forget about flavor or nutritional content, hybrids are bred with the industrial food system in mind, demanding genetic and physical uniformity, the ability to be harvested using heavy machinery, and the tolerance for long road trips and shelf life.
As hybrids gained popularity, the companies controlling our seed supply became fewer and more consolidated, which has translated into less competition in the marketplace, less impetus for innovation, and ultimately less choice for farmers. A major incentive for this transformation was the passage of the U.S. Plant Variety Protection Act (PVPA) in 1970. This act enables companies to claim intellectual property rights over traditional seed varieties, regardless of the thousands of years of human breeding efforts and many thousands more of natural selection that went into each variety. These patent-like protections make it essentially illegal for farmers to save seed of any commercial varieties they have purchased or licensed. They also created a tempting opportunity for profit, attracting multinational pharmaceutical and agricultural chemical corporations to the table. Although new to the industry at the time of the act's passage, these large corporations quickly absorbed the seed resources of smaller independent seed companies.
Just a decade or so later, in the late 1980s, genetically engineered (GE) seed hit the scene, in which select genes are transferred across natural boundaries from one species to another. Farmers who buy GE seeds enter into a contract that dictates how and when the crop can be grown and forbids the farmer to save seed – once again, contrary to traditional practices. And once again, the buzz around biotech and proprietary GE varieties further inspired industry consolidation.
As a result, today the seed industry is one of the most concentrated industries in agriculture. Ten corporations account for nearly 70% of the global seed market; the largest of which, Monsanto, controls nearly 24% of global seed and 60% of US corn and soybean seed.
A startling loss of agricultural biodiversity
Initially no one paid much attention to the traditional varieties that were disappearing as hybrid and GE seed took center stage. To many, this was considered progress. But now we know that the combination of agricultural industrialization, industry concentration and genetic engineering has resulted in a startling loss of agricultural biodiversity, making our crops more vulnerable to disease outbreaks and pest infestations, and our food supply less secure.
Data from seed lists maintained by the USDA suggest we have lost 97% of the crop varieties commercially offered in the United States in the year 1900. When traditional varieties are no longer utilized in plant breeding programs, offered commercially, or saved and cultivated by farmers, they are at risk of extinction. Also left behind are the skills required to select and save seeds in the field; the associated knowledge of what varieties have drought or pest resistance, curative properties, particular flavors and textures; and the food traditions and cultures that depend on these varieties for well-being and health. Furthermore, the pollinators, seed-dispersers, and ecosystems that once supported these seeds will continue to evolve without them, and, in their absence, may disappear themselves.
Please, bother — save seed!
Nature relies on diversity for stability, resiliency and ultimately security. In diversified agricultural systems and ecosystems alike, pests and disease can damage a plant but rarely do they result in widespread epidemics. Monocultures, on the other hand, are much more susceptible to pests and disease, especially when much of the nation (and the world, for that matter) is planted in nearly identical hybrid or GE crops.
The Irish potato famine in the mid-1800s, in which more than a million people in Ireland starved to death and another million were forced to leave the country, is one of the most familiar and dramatic examples of the dangers of genetic uniformity. Resistance for the blight that struck down Ireland's potato farmers was ultimately found in a potato variety cultivated in the Andes, thus underscoring the value of preserving genetic diversity in food crops in all corners of the globe. Similar epidemics have continued to strike over the years, with varying degrees of impact – the tomato blight in the northeast this past summer is a recent example, and is estimated to have cost the region millions of dollars.
As global demand for food escalates, the environmental quality of our agricultural land falters, and farmers are forced to adapt to climate change, future plant breeding efforts will depend on the availability of diverse genetic resources from traditional varieties to breed seeds that are locally adapted to the soil, climate and pest conditions of the region, provide improved nutritional value and increased yield under reduced or no input conditions. Being able to predict which varieties will contain the genetic resources needed to develop these important characteristics is very difficult, which makes the preservation of traditional varieties all across the globe all the more critical.
There is a growing realization that the only effective way to maintain genetic diversity is by continuing to save and cultivate a large number of traditional seed varieties. Seed-saving farmers and gardeners are a critical part of the conservation equation. And, if you aren't ready to take on the challenge of seed-saving quite yet, don't fret — eaters are needed to enjoy the rich flavors and textures of heirloom varieties, too.
In sum: seed saving is an invaluable contribution to agricultural biodiversity and food security for generations to come. Totally, totally, totally, worth the bother!
Need inspiration? Join the conversation on harvesting your own seed on HOMEGROWN.org and check out this month's Farmer Hero Jere Gettle, who is leading the way in saving seed and preserving the genetic heritage of traditional varieties through on-farm workshops and his family business, Baker Creek Seed Company.
Your thoughtful comments are encouraged, but all comments are held for moderation to protect against spam. Farm Aid does not censor or refuse comments for content unless they are spam or a personal attack.
A New Farm Economy Rises from Tobacco’s Ashes - August, 2014
10 Things the New Census of Agriculture Tells Us About Family Farmers and Our Food System - July 2014
How will the Keystone XL pipeline affect our farmers and farmland? - April, 2014
Parched: What the West shows us about our water future - March, 2014
What does Farm Aid do with the money that it raises at the annual concert? - October 2013
I live in New York and dairy farmers seem to be struggling. What can I do to help? - September 2013
I have heard horror stories about the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico this year. How can farmers better support our waterways? - July 2013
I finally got around to watching "Food, Inc." I was floored to see what poultry producers actually go through. Is this really what's behind the chicken on my plate? - May 2013
Why is it so difficult for farmers to find affordable farmland these days? - March 2013
The PBS documentary about the Dust Bowl was amazing – what a disaster of epic proportions and a reminder of how important the soil is to our lives! How do today’s farmers care for the soil? - November 2012
The other day, I came across "grassfed beef" in the supermarket. Aren't all beef cattle fed grass? If not, what do they eat? Is this something I should feed my family? - October 2012
How do I find a university that values family farmers and the Good Food Movement? - September 2012
I'm a big supporter of organic agriculture, but some of my friends say it isn't a practical way to feed the world. Is that true? - August 2012
How does someone with no experience get into farming? - August 2012
How is climate change affecting family farmers? What are they doing about it? - April 2012
Is the USDA truly supporting local and regional agriculture? - March 2012
I'm concerned about the use of antibiotics in farm animals and would like to find antibiotic-free meat and poultry products. Any suggestions? - February 2012
How does the occupy movement relate to farmers? - January 2012
What can you tell me about family farm turkey? - November 2011
How will labeling genetically engineered food do anything for family farmers? - October 2011
Word is big cuts are in store for farmers in the upcoming Farm Bill. What is the Farm Bill and what will budget cuts mean for family farmers? - September 2011
I've been seeing a lot of farm plots spring up around the city. I didn't even realize people could farm in cities—how can I get involved in this! - August 2011
This year’s weather has been a nightmare and lots of farms in my area are struggling. What help is there available for farmers struck by disaster? - July 2011
I watched "Food, Inc." recently and was surprised by how animals were treated and meat was produced in America. This seems crazy to me. Why can’t we get meat from better sources? - June 2011
A lot of farmers in my area are leasing their land for hydraulic fracturing — is it good or bad? What do farmers say? - June 2011
What's a food hub? How can they help me? - April 2011
High farm prices are in the news — are farmers getting rich? - March 2011
I know the U.S. government just allowed a few new GE crops on the market — should I be worried? - February 2011
How can I find food from local farmers during the cold winter months? - January 2011
A year-in-review on corporate concentration in agriculture. - November 2010
Can you tell me about starting farm to school programs? I’m a farmer and I’d love to provide schools in my area with healthy food. - October 2010
No offense, but what has Farm Aid really done all these years aside from put on a good concert? - September 2010
I really want to get local meats, but they don't seem to be available. Why is that? - August 2010
Answering reader questions with our report, "Rebuilding America’s Economy with Family Farm-Centered Food Systems" - July 2010
I just read an article that anticipates 200 dairies will go under in my state by the end of 2010. Why are dairy farmers in so much trouble right now? - June 2010
How is credit affecting family farmers right now? - May 2010
What exactly is a family farm? How does it differ from a factory farm? - April 2010
What's up with food safety? Could new laws hurt family farmers? - March 2010
How can a food system that offers so much variety be constricting consumer choice? - February 2010
I keep hearing about "concentration" in farming. What does that mean and how does it affect me? - January 2010
What’s Farm Aid’s grant program all about? Where does all the money go? - December 2009
Why are you thankful for family farmers? The Farm Aid staff responds. - November 2009
What are some ways people can get involved in farm activism? - October 2009
I've been seeing a lot of interest lately in seed saving. It seems like a lot of work, why bother? - September 2009
Are factory farms still a threat to America’s family farmers? - August 2009
Do you have any tips for how to fit a farmers market into my busy life? - July 2009
What’s the best way to get more farm fresh food into my child’s school cafeteria? - June 2009
How do I get involved in the dairy crisis at the grassroots level? - May 2009
How can we fix the food safety system without hurting family farmers? - April 2009
How exactly are GE crops regulated? And how can I be sure that I am protected? - March 2009
Dairy farmers are struggling for survival right now - why? - February 2009
Is there a reason why Farm Aid doesn’t grant more to individual farmers? - January 2009
How is the credit crisis affecting farmers and agriculture in America? - December 2008
What does the change in administration mean for family farmers? - November 2008
Where do John McCain and Barack Obama stand on agricultural issues? - October 2008
Does Farm Aid know of any programs that help young people start their own farm? - September 2008
Just how does Farm Aid decide where to host the show each year? - August 2008
Laura looks back on three years answering your questions - July 2008
I try to buy local and from family farmers whenever possible. Why is it so hard to find meat from area farmers? - June 2008
How do you decide who is and isn’t a family farmer? How many family farmers are there in the United States? - May 2008
I see raw milk from time to time at my local grocery, some folks say it’s good –others say its dangerous- what’s the deal? - April 2008
I seem to be spending more and more at the grocery store these days. Is it true that corn prices and ethanol are making my food cost more? - March 2008
I feel like I used to see a lot more in the news about GMOs. I haven’t managed to keep up to date and now I’m not really even sure what’s out there. Could you give me a little update on GMOs? - February 2008
What’s going on with the Farm Bill? Didn’t it pass recently? Is there anything good for family farmers in it? - January 2008
What do farmers do in the winter? - December 2007
What are you serving for Thanksgiving? - November 2007
How did Farm Aid replace the typical concert foods at Farm Aid 2007 and what were the criteria? - October 2007
What do Farm Aid folks do during the winter? - September 2007
Can you suggest some ways to drink locally or seasonally? - August 2007
Is it legal and humane to keep chickens in the city? - July 2007
Is it possible to compost in the city? - June 2007
Should everyone who wants to lessen their impact on the environment consider giving up meat? - May 2007
Can you suggest farm related activities for kids to do? - April 2007
Am I supporting family farmers when I purchase a product labeled organic? - March 2007
Can you help me simplify my food shopping in a way that still supports my values? - February 2007
What New Year's resolutions can I make that will support family farmers? - January 2007
How does Farm Aid help family farmers, where does the money go? - December 2006
How can I find a family farm turkey for Thanksgiving? - November 2006
Is it possible to shop locally on a budget? - October 2006
Why can't I get any of this "delicious food from family farmers" at the Farm Aid concert? - September 2006
Do you have any advice for developing classroom activities involving good food? - August 2006
Who are the farmers in the United States? - July 2006
What kind of work is Farm Aid doing with biodiesel? - June 2006
When will tomatoes be available in farmers markets? - May 2006
Are factory farm birds safer than outdoor birds? - April 2006
Could you tell me a little about the food in New Orleans today? Can you even get local foods in the city? - March 2006
What is biodynamic farming? - February 2006
Why do different companies promote different kinds of pasteurization for milk? - January 2006
How can I eat seasonally year-round if nothing is growing in my area? - December 2005
With all of the devastating elements that farmers have to face, who can help them when a disaster comes? - November 2005
Why is it so hard to find fresh, locally grown produce in my area of Staten Island, NY? - October 2005
What is a "family farm food system"? - June 2005
How can I find a farm near me? - May 2005
What does April on the farm mean in different states? - April 2005
Who are the corporate players in the meat industry? - March 2005
What questions can I ask my grocer? - February 2005
An Introduction to Ask Laura - January 2005
What is grass roots organizing? - August 2005
Where does school food come from? - July 2005