The mundane and cosmic importance of preserving heirloom seeds...
by Daniel Botkin - March 2, 2008
Laughing Dog Farm, Gill, MA
My fascination with seeds and seed saving can be traced back to two lifelong passions: free stuff and great food. And since heirloom seeds and the practice of seed saving also hold hope for helping feed a hungry planet, they’re even more compelling to me today. But the gala opening last week of a world seed repository inside a perma-frosted, arctic mountain in Norway, just made me chuckle. It was heralded as a forward-thinking step to safeguard our seeds – the genetic material for the world’s vital food – in case of some future emergency or global meltdown.
If we global citizens really want to safeguard our precious food, our agriculture – and hence, our very survival – we must also follow another approach with our vital seeds, maybe not as sexy as a frozen vault in Scandinavia. The bigger task is to decentralize society’s entire relationship to agriculture, seeds, food production and food security. This path has to do with harnessing more native and renewable resources, and to practicing and building (and teaching!) a locally-based, ecologically appropriate and self-sustaining agriculture, based not solely on bottom line, but upon the changing food needs of the locals, the soil health and other realities on the ground. Some might call this approach “permacultural”.
At my first seed swapping event eight years ago, an old, white-haired guy I recognized from anti-nuke marches came up to me and said, “You know, if you really wanna get political, you should start saving seed!” At the time I laughed, but didn’t fully get what he was saying to me. Today I observe that heirloom varieties evoke intrigue and imagination in gardeners, consumers, foodies and chefs... even school lunch planners! But apart from simply being unique in color, form, habit and taste, the self-renewing, proletarian nature of these "heritage" cultivars has also come to represent growers’ autonomy from undue manipulation and control, as well as real insurance against seasonal crises and challenges. Around the world, local seed savers create food security every single year in this way, by ''growing out" and multiplying their precious, open-pollinated seed crops.
What’s more, the diverse gene pool embodied in the various old-time and other O.P. varieties, offers the best defense against likely epidemics, viruses and other potential scourges of the 21st century. Industrial mono-cropping has already proven itself inherently more vulnerable to pests and pandemic than a community of genetically diverse individuals. Why do you think all those feedlot cows are on antibiotics? Whether a feedlot full of Herefords or a prairie full of hybrid GMO corn or soy, monoculture just isn’t a healthy or sustainable way to grow our staple food.
Of course the factory farmed food folks start with quite an edge over us “little guys” trying to farm viably, feed our families and steward the earth. We cannot compete with Dole or Del Monte, in acreage or volume. We can’t touch Con-Agra’s funding and subsidies, Monsanto’s influence lobbies or R&D.
Nor do many of the world’s peasants, niche-farmers and backyarder permaculturists have the technical prowess or pharmacopoeia of, say, Cargill. However, in the realm of seed saving, we all start on an equal level. The genetic material inside a uniquely colored pole bean from Spain, say, or a rare, purple potato catalogued by ancient Peruvians – or the famous, two pound tomato grown by West Virginia’s legendary Mortgage Lifter “Charlie” – these are treasures passed down from history for anyone and everyone who cares to participate in their legacy. You don’t need special permission to grow, sell or trade these varieties. You don’t need large acreage, an advanced degree, or lots of time or money to save their seed. In fact, for many basic crops, like peas, beans and tomatoes, all you need is the will, the knowledge and the timing to select, gather, dry and store what nature so conveniently provides.
Now we understand why the seed industry finds so little value in the heirlooms...
A robust, local agriculture based upon grassroots seed saving stands in living contrast to the failing, fossil-driven, food paradigm which currently dominates. The seed saving craft is a fine example where the “economy of scale” actually favors the hobbyist or small time producer. Even the commercial seed industry relies on intensive hand labor, something of which the backyard farmer is unafraid. The real epiphany of seed saving comes when you see the enormous power of “small batch technology”. With seeds and seed saving, a little bit goes a very long way! A little bit of work yields a lot of valuable seed! A little bit of seed can produce a lot of food! And a few seeds can be stored, divided, replanted, saved again, or multiplied a thousand fold by other growers!
The right to grow and save and share precious seed year to year, generation to generation was passed down to all of us. That is, until recently, when Monsanto and friends began creating genetic mutations and claiming proprietary ownership of our basic grains (while contaminating several continents with GMO pollen and squelching varietal coexistence and farmers' choice!). Make no mistake – the issue of farmers’ ability anywhere to save their own seed stocks versus the powerful trend toward centralized, proprietary control, has become a meta-issue of our time.
When you hold an heirloom seed in your hand, you hold the legacy of countless, now nameless farmers, families, villages, tribes and others who cared enough to select and preserve them. These vast historical links of collaboration between generations of horticulturists - and their vital plants, are humbling and inspiring! By growing and native-adapting, treasured old heirlooms, we add another small chapter to their story.
The seeds of planet earth, including all their vast potential for feeding us and doing good, belong to humanity, not Monsanto. In a world of rapidly shifting climate, food and water resources, seeds and seed saving are one ubiquitous pathway to self-sufficiency and anti-hunger empowerment, everywhere. Growers large and small, worldwide can and must counter the these threats to our food sovereignty by continuing undeterred to grow and steward our diverse and valuable, open-pollinated seed stocks, free from corporate control and usurpation.
But, seed saving is like democracy. It’s a right in name only, unless and until citizens individually and collectively take it upon themselves, through participation, collaboration and enduring commitment. Break the chain and the heirlooms and open pollinated varieties fade away, keep on dying out. Then we’re left with generic food: a thick-skinned, tasteless, unsustainable, industrial McFoodstuff, fattened on Roundup Ready GMO soybeans. Keep alive heirloom seed varieties and we and our children might be enriched many times, not only by lifelong access to rich and excellent food choices, but by a living, growing connection to history, evolution, sustainable agriculture... and, to food security here in Franklin County, Massachusetts and across the planet.
Be fruitful and "mulch-apply"!