By James Lizardi
Seeds are the source of life and the first link in the food chain. They provide us with the food we eat, the clothing we wear, and ensure us that future generations can exist. Yet there is a global systemic crisis in how our seeds are selected, bred, owned and distributed. There is a fight for control over seed—both public domain and patented—which means a control over our food, our lives and our
As the demand for hybrid seed has grown, every year more and more plants are becoming endangered. Over the past hundred years, thousands of varieties have been lost. The United Nations estimates a 75% loss of genetic seed diversity, and yet the consolidation of the U.S. seed industry continues at an alarming rate. The Independent Professional Seed Association estimates the U.S. has lost at least 200 independent seed companies in the last 15 years.
Today, the seed industry is primarily controlled by 4 major corporations which are heavily invested in genetically modified (GMO) and engineered seeds. Pesticide companies have been buying up the seed industry at an aggressive pace over the past two decades. They develop both the seeds and the herbicide to which they’re resistant, sometimes combining the two and creating genetically modified organisms in the process.
Consumers and corporations have different interests regarding seeds and vegetables. Given a choice, consumers prefer more tender vegetables that are vine-ripened since they normally have more flavor. Big Agriculture breeds vegetables to survive long journeys in cold storage. What doesn’t survive is taste. While consumers want diversity, corporations want uniformity. This is a threat to seed diversity.
In recent years, a substantial amount of money has been spent on the development of seed banks. A seed bank stores seeds as a source for planting in case seed reserves elsewhere become extinct for various reasons. In the case of food crops, many useful plants that were developed over centuries are no longer saved by farmers who have switched to hybrid or GMO varieties. Storing seeds also guards against catastrophic events like natural disasters, outbreaks of disease or war and the effects of global warming. Today, there are about 6 million seed samples of a particular population, stored in about 1,400 seed banks throughout the world.
The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, or “Doomsday Vault” as it is commonly referred to, has been recently in the news due to large investments by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. It is a secure seed bank located on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen near the town of Longyearbyen in the remote Arctic Svalbard archipelago, about 810 miles from the North Pole. The seeds stored there are duplicate samples, or “spare” copies, of seeds held in other seed banks worldwide. Construction was funded entirely by the government of Norway and operational costs will be paid by Norway and the Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT). Since 2008 when it officially opened, the vault has collected over 750,000 seed samples.
In theory, the Doomsday Vault seems like an altruistic endeavor. Seeds are being saved, bio diversity is being preserved. And all of this is protected in case the world has a global disaster. However, some critics believe that there are problems with the operation of the seed bank, and with who has access to the seeds. The Center for Food Safety (CFS), a non-profit independent research group for the safety of food, has pointed out that bigger is definitely not better or safer when it comes to seed banks. This has been one of the bases for CFS’s longstanding concerns about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. In 2011, the CFS stated:
“There is however yet another important concern about Svalbard. The Global Crop Diversity Trust (GCDT), which supports the operational costs of Svalbard, has received almost $30 million dollars in support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. As is well known, the Gates Foundation has very close working ties to Monsanto. The Gates Foundation invested 23 million in Monsanto in 2010 and has been a determined supporter of spreading Monsanto’s genetically engineered crops throughout the developing world. In 2006 the Gates Foundation hired Rob Horsch, a former Monsanto Vice President and a key scientist involved in the creation of the company’s Round Up Ready crops in the 1980s, as their Senior Program Officer for their International Agriculture Development Program.
This Monsanto connection to Svalbard is very troubling as the corporation owns almost a quarter of all the world’s commercial seeds and is the world’s leader in the genetic engineering of crops and the patenting of plant genetics (including plant genes, cells and seeds). Monsanto has also had a decade long history of persecuting and prosecuting thousands of farmers for saving seeds.”
Svalbard’s ties to the Gates Foundation and Monsanto are not the only issue. Only two private corporations have donated to the GCDT. Dupont/ Pioneer Seeds has donated $1 million as has Syngenta AG, two chemical companies that develop and market GMO seeds and pesticides. Also, the GCDT and the biotech companies that it is associated with, are spending millions of dollars trying to acquire local and smaller seed collections from developing countries for the Svalbard vault. Is this part of a plan to control and patent the seeds of the world? Clearly, some people think so.
Recently, there has been a grassroots, global movement to defend seed freedom because people are concerned about the patenting and control of seeds, and therefore the food supply.
The largest ever global protest against GMOs took place on May 25, 2013, in over 50 countries and 400 major cities worldwide. The protest included more than two million marchers and marks a tipping point in the debate over GMOs, and particularly their unlabeled presence in the food supplies of many countries.
For thousands of years, man has been saving seeds. Ancient humans originally collected and planted the seeds of wild plants. They made sure the plants had as much water as they needed to grow, and planted them in areas with the right amount of sun. Over many generations, crops were agriculture developed to meet the needs of the many diverse people and their climates Each year, farmers would save a portion of their harvest for seed to be planted the following year. Saving seeds from the most desirable plants led to a selection process that created the best tasting fruits, vegetables and herbs, with unique abilities to perform in various climate zones. The diversification of these harvests became important for the sustainability of crops, and also for the economies of the countries that grew them.
There are things you can do to preserve our seed heritage. First, save heirloom seeds! Home gardeners everywhere are discovering the joy of growing the plant varieties of our ancestors. Bred to travel only from the garden to the kitchen, these plants were cultivated and passed down within families and literally became “heirlooms.”
Webster’s dictionary defines heirloom as: “A valued family possession handed on from generation to generation.” While there is no official definition for what defines an heirloom plant, here are the characteristics that gardeners do agree on:
Heirloom cultivars are always open pollinated or self pollinated. This means that a seed saved from the plant will produce the same variety year after year. Open pollination is produced by allowing a natural flow of pollen between plants of the same variety, by either insects, birds, wind or other natural mechanisms. Seed saved from the parent will grow offspring with the same characteristics, so future generations can enjoy the same tastes and flavors of the cooking of their ancestors. Heirlooms often taste better than genetically modified varieties because they have been bred and passed along for generations, specifically for their superior taste.
Heirloom varieties must be more than 50 years old. Heirlooms are grown from seeds that have been cultivated for a significant period of time (most say 50 years) and saved within a family or group.
Heirlooms must be historic or storied. Many of the stories behind heirlooms may be folklore. Others have a clearly related story as in the “Mortgage Lifter Tomato” developed by M.C. Byles of Logan, West Virginia. He called it Mortgage Lifter because during the 1940s he paid off his mortgage with sales of these tomato plants.
Consider that many of our ancestors sewed seeds (literally) into the lining of their clothing to avoid having them be detected (and confiscated) during immigration. This allowed them to maintain heirloom varieties that their families had often kept for generations.
The obvious answer is to grow what you enjoy to eat, but also what is most appropriate for your growing zone to avoid disappointment. Understanding your particular microclimate can help to extend the growing season.
For the serious seed saver looking to make an honest attempt to save the planet, try growing some fruits and vegetables listed in the Slow Food USATM Ark of Taste, a catalog of over 200 delicious foods in danger of extinction (www.slowfood.org).
There are many reputable seed companies that publish beautiful catalogs filled with information on heirlooms. Perusing the endless varieties can be overwhelming at times, but take the time to research what plants would work best for your garden. The choice of organically grown seeds is getting wider each year. The important thing is that your seeds are stored properly.
In order to successfully save seed and maintain its purity, it is important to understand what varieties require isolation to prevent cross-pollination. The easiest seeds to save are those that are self-pollinating such as lettuces, peas, beans and tomatoes. These plants do not require a carrier of pollen such as bees or the wind. Cross pollination is less of a worry with these types of plants.
Plants that are not self-pollinating such as cucumbers, squash, pumpkins, melons and especially corn can cross-pollinate. It is best to grow only one variety of a plant from which you want to save seed for that season. Most plant breeders exist in very isolated location to avoid cross-pollination. It may be necessary to isolate your plants by at least 20 feet to prevent cross-pollination contamination.
There are two main considerations for long term seed storage: Seeds should be kept cool and dry. Seeds should be stored at less than 50 degrees Fahrenheit with less that 50% humidity. A refrigerator is one option, a root cellar is another. It helps to keep a few desiccant packets along with the seeds. Everyday farmers and gardeners can help preserve our food heritage by growing heirloom vegetables and saving their own seeds to take control of their access to high quality, delicious food.
James Lizardi is the founder of Jardin Seed Company, purveyor of heirloom and open-pollinated seeds. For more information, visit www.jardinseeds.com
Heirloom seeds will reproduce the same every generation. Heirloom seeds are also referred to as being open pollinated since they can be pollinated by birds, insects or the wind. While many plants must be protected from being crossed with other types using a greenhouse, walls or field isolation, some crops are “self pollinating” and can usually be relied upon to breed true. Heirloom seeds exist in the public domain and are not patented. The are a number of reputable seed companies on the web that specialize in open pollinated seeds.
Hybrid seeds are a combination of two or more heirloom varieties. While providing diversity, over time these seeds gradually revert to the parent that was dominant, often changing unpredictably for the worse. Hybrid seeds must be repurchased each season in order to obtain the same exact crop. Hybrid seeds are also known as Closed Pollinated seeds since they are typically pollinated under controlled conditions to show specific traits. A hybrid seed is not the same as a genetically-modified seed.
Genetically Modified (GMO) seeds are manipulated in a laboratory (often combining plants with animal matter in ways impossible in Nature). Genetically modified varieties have had their DNA scientifically altered to make them more pest, disease, or chemical resistant. GMO seeds are controversial because some people are concerned with the artificial manipulation of seeds and the long term effects of GMO seeds on the environment and humans. Some GMO crops have been designed to produce sterile seeds by using a gene Terminator. This ensures that the seed has to be purchased every year.