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Sustainable Seeds

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 This post was inspired by Jan at Thanksfor2day: I encourage you to check out this link and read  other contributors to the Garden Bloggers Sustainable Living project for great ideas on living a greener life. Every day is an Earth Day, but the official celebration comes up on April 22nd. It’s a good time to get even more ideas about how we can be a part of planet’s health.

I celebrated my first Earth Day by planting a tree. They were planning to pave part of my high school grounds for a parking lot. Some of us protested. The tree was my idea.

This Earth Day (April 22), I’m going to celebrate by planting a seed.

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It may seem like a small thing to do, given the magnitude of the situation. Other posters in this Earth Day series have written about compost, conservation, and organic everything. All very valuable ideas, each of which has a body of literature to itself – and deserves it.

But there’s something a lot of gardeners (and would-be gardeners) don’t think about: where do the seeds come from? And what impact does that have on our environment?

I’m not talking about where the seeds are grown, though that’s certainly a consideration; organic seeds are becoming more and more available, and I sometimes pay the extra price for them so I can support organic seed growers. We all know that inorganic farming washes away irreplaceable topsoil, right?

The thing I’m talking about is what’s hidden inside the seed.

Most of the seed gardeners choose from is in one of these categories: open-pollinated, , F1 hybrids, and genetically engineered seed.

Open-pollinated seed is the kind gardeners and farmers have been using for millenia. The kind you can save and plant again next year, getting plants that are pretty close to what you had before.

Open-pollinated seeds can’t be patented; no one owns them. Heirloom seeds,  like the ones from Baker’s Creek  and Renee’s Garden are open-pollinated. So are wild, medicinal, and traditional garden plants, such as the ones in the JL Hudson catalogue  (which also carries heirloom ornamentals and edibles). (By the way, I don’t have a financial deal with these companies; I just think they’re good companies.)

Open-pollinated seed doesn’t just carry on ancient traditions: it’s also what keeps diversity alive. It’s bees, moths, and birds (and the occasional rodent) who do the pollinating, and they don’t have any agendas about making money off the results; they just want immediate gratification. Which means that open-pollinated seeds may sprout in any of a number of combinations of DNA, giving rise to different colors, sizes,  bloom and harvest times, and other variations.

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That means if conditions change, the seed has the potential to change with them. So if rainfall levels, climate, water availability or soil changes, open-pollinated seeds have more ability to adapt. And open-pollinated seeds which are saved for enough generations will develop characteristics that make them grow better in your particular plot of soil and climate.

So why would anyone want to plant anything else?

Well, people who want very predictable results when they plant their seeds. Which would be the farmers who raise our food. The big seed companies breed F1 hybrids, to produce the crop uniformity that makes machine-harvesting easier. If you re-use F1 hybrid seed you will get a strange, straggly assortment of plants which may or may not bear resemblance to the plant’s parents. F1 hybrids aren’t designed to reproduce themselves. They’re designed to get you to buy seed from the companies every year.

In the garden, F1 seed provides the same uniformity and vigor. Your petunias may flower more, and longer; your tomatoes will all come in at the same time, and have the same appearance.

I’m not a purist; I’ve bought F1 seed because I’m intrigued by a variety. But mostly, I stick to the old-fashioned kind of seed: open-pollinated.

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One kind of seed I won’t knowingly buy, or eat, or use is genetically-engineered seed. Unlike F1 hybrids, genetically-engineered seeds are altered at the level of their DNA.  That means they can be crossed with plants which would never cross with them in nature, as well as with animal DNA and bacteria. Creating, for example, a potato that is properly classified as a pesticide. “The [New Leaf] potato was designated as a pesticide and so was regulated by the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), instead of the Food & Drug Administration (FDA) which regulates food,” I read at Sustainable Table. Yes, truth really can be stranger than fiction.

Here’s something even stranger: if the GM companies have their way (and right now it looks as if they’re getting it), we may not be able to save our seed any longer.

One farmer who tried to save seed was famously sued for it. Percy Schmeiser,  in Saskatchewan. A seed breeder, he planted his fields with his specialized canola seed. But some genetically-engineered Roundup Ready Monsanto seed drifted in from other fields, contaminating his crop.

Not only did Monsanto not pay him for destroying forty years of breeding work – they sued him. Whether or not he had benefited from the Roundup Ready seed (he certainly hadn’t), Monsanto claimed he owed them money for having their patented crop in his field.

Schmeiser decided to fight back, a small but determined Canadian David against a large corporate Goliath. He toured the country, telling his story, and raising money for his defense.

The Canadian Supreme Court sided with Monsanto. When Schmeiser appealed, the court allowed as how he didn’t have to pay Monsanto – but the other aspects of his appeal were denied. That means that a precedent has been set: it’s OK for gigantic genetic-engineering companies to take over farmer’s fields without their consent. And it’s all right for genetically-engineered seed to wipe out seed that has been carefully bred for generations – seed that has the diversity to adapt to future conditions.

The reverberations may be world-wide: genetically-engineered seed is being forced on many countries in the form of foreign aid, as hybrid seed was before it. If farmers won’t plant this type of seed, they don’t get any of the other foreign-aid benefits: schools, wells, economic projects. But the seed they are given won’t grow without the water and equipment that US farmers use for their crops. And farmers in poor countries just don’t have those. They don’t even have the gasoline to run equipment if they are given it, not just because they don’t have the money, but because they have no transportation to a place where they could buy it. If I were a farmer in that position, I would learn to hate the country that put me into it.

Nobody knows what effects long-term consumption of GM seeds and foods will have. The EU has outlawed them for that reason. And no one knows what future conditions will call for the diversity only open pollination can provide. So when you choose your seed this spring, you’re not making a small decision.

Everything starts with a seed.

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8 comments

1 tina { 04.14.10 at 8:20 pm }

Definitely food for thought during this year’s Earth Day celebration. That was awful about Schmeiser and Monsanto. The unfairness of it all is just not right.

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3 Meredith { 04.18.10 at 11:15 am }

A fine article, Pomona, and a wonderfully creative take on the sustainability for gardeners question. I had not previously considered the evolution/adaptability aspect of heirloom/open-pollinated varieties, and I love the way you educated me about it. I’m gradually choosing more and more heirlooms for my garden because I am getting much better at saving seeds and growing from seed with time and experience. And I’m a sucker for a good story, and those stories come attached to many of the old-timey seeds. Plus, so many of the heirlooms have characteristics you just can’t find in modern hybrids: unusual tastes, interesting growing habits, delightful scents, attractiveness to butterflies and bees….

I understand that heirloom seed companies are also having a tougher time each year finding certain seeds (corn springs to mind) completely uncontaminated by GMO genes. The word Monsanto is coming to sound like “pure evil” to me.

4 Cyd { 04.21.10 at 9:09 am }

Thank you for the wonderful article. I save seeds as much as I can because I have to be thrifty. You have a great way of making us even more aware. I am disgusted by the actions of Monsanto. Scary repercussions for all of us in the future. I am planting a curly willow that a friend cut for me. I rooted it in one of my infamous vases for Earth Day.

5 Frances { 04.22.10 at 2:38 am }

My seed money goes to the likes of Baker Creek and Renees for the reasos you have so eloquently, as always, stated dear Pomona. Half of my garden plants, including the ever more important weeds/wildlower natives are self sown volunteers with variations in nearly every plant that results. A blessing. The Big Chem, like Big Pharma is a threat to human society IMHO.
Frances

6 lostlandscape (James) { 04.24.10 at 10:38 am }

Thanks for the great read on this topic. I hadn’t heard about that potatoes classification but it makes sense to me–It’s definitely what I’d consider a REAL potato. Another sad tale of big agribusiness stomping all over the small guy was told in one of the recent films about the agricultur industry–I think it might have been Food, Inc. Monsanto had sued a midwest man whose business it was to help farmers harvest their seeds to use the following year. The big company was contending that the little guy might be helping farmers reuse their GM soybeans, even though there wasn’t any evidence of that presented. Monsanto was just using its size and pocketbook to keep suing the small businessman to the point that he couldn’t afford to pay for the court costs. It was sounding like big-ag would have lost in court, but they abused the court system so that the small operator gave up when he ran out of money.

7 lostlandscape (James) { 04.24.10 at 10:39 am }

Oh there I go forgetting words that completely change what I meant to say. Please add: It’s definitely NOT what I’d consider a REAL potato.

8 Pomona Belvedere { 04.24.10 at 6:50 pm }

I figured either you had another definition for “real” than I did – or another definition for “potato”.

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