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In the past half century, however, this rich tradition of stewarding agricultural biodiversity has largely been replaced by a new approach to plant breeding, one that favors monoculture conditions and global markets.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 theU.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!