Why Save Seeds?

by: Sara on 05/07/2015

Over the past few generation, multinational corporation have seized the lion's share of the seed market, squeezing out small, regional, family-run companies and causing biodiversity to suffer. In today's blog post we excerpt from Cindy Conner's new book, Seed Libraries And Other Means of Keeping Seeds in the Hands of the People. In this section Cindy speaks about the importance of saving seed to preserve genetic diversity.

Protection from corporate domination is the driving force of most seed saving initiatives today. In Chapter 1, you learned how much control a few companies have over our seed supply. From the seeds comes our food. Whoever owns the seeds controls the food supply.

If you remember one thing, remember that. Rather than falling into a black hole of depression over the thought of being controlled by Monsanto or companies like it, we can empower ourselves and save seeds of what we grow and share them with others, keeping them in the public domain and available to everyone. We can opt out of corporate control and build a new system. Say “No thanks, I know there’s a better way.” There are many more reasons for saving seeds besides avoiding corporate domination, although many of these reasons stem from the corporate takeover of seeds.

8-3 the kale flowers turned to seed pods~ps

Kale flowers turned to seed pods

A broad genetic base is necessary to keep plant populations strong.

When problems occur or growing conditions change, it is good to have a wide variety of genes in the mix to come to the rescue. It’s dangerous to depend on only a few varieties of a crop. Each one has its own strengths and weaknesses. A variety known for its huge yields won’t produce them every single year. Growing different varieties evens out the yield, with some doing best in one year and some doing best in another.

History has shown us what happens when we ignore genetic diversity in our plantings. The most well-known example is the Great Irish Famine that occurred when blight attacked the potatoes in 1845, continuing to affect the harvest into 1849. Genetic diversity was certainly lacking in Irish potatoes, with the harvest coming from mainly one variety, making it easy for the fungus to spread. Problems in Ireland began long before the potatoes died. The land system that had developed as a result of wars and politics left Irish laborers and their families in poverty, often existing solely on potatoes. Other food was grown in Ireland and even exported during this time; politics, such as they were, preventing it from being shared with the hungry. Some of you reading this are probably descendants of the 1.5 million Irish who left their homeland to escape the famine. The blight affected potatoes in other European countries, but it was the Irish peasants who were the most dependent on potatoes for their nourishment. You can find out more about the Great Irish Famine in the book Black Potatoes1 by Susan Campbell Bartoletti.

In 1970, the US corn crop was hit hard by blight, reducing the total harvest across the country by 15 percent. In the Southern states, the harvest was reduced by 50 percent. This was caused by a fungus that affected hybrid corn. At the time, hybrid corn seed contained T-cytoplasm, which carried a gene that opened the door to the fungus. “T-cytoplasm was a man-made change in corn plants used to foster the quick and profitable production of high-yielding, hybrid corn seed.”2Originating in Florida, in just four months Southern corn leaf blight spread west to Kansas and Oklahoma and north to Minnesota and Wisconsin; it later entered Canada. In a more holistic approach to corn growing, varieties chosen to plant in these diverse areas

would be different. In a perfect world, the varieties planted would be open pollinated varieties unique to each area. The plant breeders did not know about the potential consequences at the time, but we know now and need to prevent things like that from happening again. In The Omnivore’sDilemma,3 Michael Pollan writes about our dependence on corn in our diet, whether eaten directly or indirectly. Besides genetics, we need to have diversity in so much more of our lives. It is not healthy to limit our diets to only a few crops.

Much has been said about the loss of seed varieties, and the resulting loss of genetic diversity. Sadly, 57 percent of the nearly 5,000 non-hybrid vegetables varieties offered by mail-order seed companies in 1984 had been dropped by 2004. Consolidation within the mail-order seed industry and a move to more profitable hybrid varieties are among the reasons for that loss. But an astonishing 2,559 new varieties were introduced during the period 1998–2006 alone. You will find these figures and more in the 6th edition of the Garden Seed Inventory4 published by Seed Savers Exchange (SSE). Compiling that book is a huge effort. Thanks to SSE, we have a snapshot of the open pollinated varieties offered commercially since 1981. Records beginning in 1987 show more varieties are added each year than are dropped. That’s promising! Small specialty companies and individuals are keeping the varieties alive and developing new ones. Also contributing to the increase are the varieties from other countries that have been made available in the US and Canada. The genetic diversity, so necessary to maintain, lies in the hands of individuals and small seed companies.

8-5 kale seeds and empty pods~ps

Kale seeds and empty pods

Plants are such wonderful things to work with. Keeping them in production is the best way to preserve varieties and to have genetic material available to work with during changing times. The expression “use it or lose it” definitely applies to seeds. The varieties recorded in the Garden Seed Inventory are the ones available commercially. But there are so many more seed varieties being grown in the world, and Seed Savers Exchange and Seeds of Diversity Canada are places to look to for them. If you want a peek into what is possible, check out their member directories. I visited the Summers County Public Library Seed Lending Library in Hinton, West Virginia, when it was just getting established, and the librarian there expressed a desire to acquire varieties of seed from area residents whose families may have been saving them for generations. Seed libraries are excellent places to accept and disperse these heirloom seeds.





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