Why Seed Matters

Seed – it’s the hope and joy of every January, the basis of food security and tradition in every culture, and a narrative of our relationship with nature.

“Why Seed Matters” was one of the themes of the recent Eco-Farm Conference. In one workshop representatives of the Organic Seed Alliance, Center for Food Safety, Clif Bar Family Foundation (a funder) and Organic Farming Research Foundation spoke about encouraging farmers to grow seed, why using specifically organic seed is important, and protection of seed resources from GMO contamination.

At the closing plenary session we heard from people from two very different environments each explaining how “seeds are the key to urban and rural food sovereignty.” Anna Marie Carter, the “Seed Lady of Watts” talked some about her work spreading seeds and knowledge as the basis of stronger, healthier communities. Two speakers from the Hopi reservation in Arizona talked about the work of redeveloping native food systems, including growing their own seeds.

Blue Hopi and Purple Hopi corn. This year I hope to grow enough and have the correct timing so that I can save seeds for the next year.

Midway through the conference we heard that the USDA had declared GMO alfalfa safe and acceptable for use.  The negative reaction of conference-goers to that statement is of course very different from the opinion of many conventional growers. So I’ve been thinking about GMOs and seed saving and all.

In defense of GMOs:

.            genetic modification can lead to useful productive plant types faster than traditional breeding, sometimes.

.            with changing climate genetic modification may be an important tool for our adaptation to new conditions.

.            Not all genetic modification involves putting genes from a fish into a plant or other combinations of unlike organisms.

I could list many downsides to GMOs.  They definitely are annoying to organic farmers. Pollen from GMO crops can drift to other fields and contaminate open-pollinated crops with wildly different and not particularly useful genes. Corn or cotton with the bacteria “bt” expressed throughout every plant will force caterpillars to evolve much faster to resist the bacteria, thus making bt less useful for organic farmers. And so on.

But here’s my real problem with GMO seed:

Seed reflects the relationship of humans with nature. Year after year for thousands of years, farmers and nature have worked together to produce plants that thrive in a particular environment, support particular traditions, and provide sustenance to a people.

When farmers grow their own seed they are working in partnership with nature on the evolutionary journey toward plants, and people, that are most fit for their environment.

When seed is saved, it embodies a relationship not only with nature as a whole but with a particular place, a particular field. The Hopi at the conference told how only seed from their reservation grows well there. Seed from elsewhere, even in the same state, does not thrive in their unique and harsh environment. My farm is on an ancient flood plain/river bed, and is a little bit lower than most surrounding areas. The soil is deep and sandy, the fog stays,  and I need plants with slightly different adaptations than someone in, say, Oakdale would need.

Genetically modifying seed takes this relationship out of the hands of farmer and environment, and puts it in the hands of a scientist, university, or corporation, whose goals may be very different. I’m not saying being a corporate plant breeder isn’t an honorable and useful profession, but I don’t think they can take the place of the relationship between each farmer and each field.

For example. GMO rice with additional nutrients bred into it may be very useful  in some areas. But there is no way it can reflect the diversity needed for ecosystems and farming practices in even a few square mile radius in Vietnam or Cambodia. And because farmers must buy GMO seed new every year, there is no way for the plants to adapt to local and changing conditions, and no way for the farmer to choose what traits best suit him or her (disease resistance, climactic considerations, traditional preferences, etc.)

These are bean pods. I saved the healthiest, biggest ones for planting this summer.

Now I don’t think that everyone needs to save their own seed. There are plenty of good professional seed companies out there growing non-GMO seed, either open pollinated or natural hybrid, organic or not, in a wide variety of conditions. Growing all of our own seed may be ideal, but especially for gardeners and very small farmers who are not growing much of any particular variety, it is actually better to leave selection to someone, preferably near-by, with a whole field (or at least a whole row) of one variety. Collecting seed from just a few plants leads to genetic bottlenecking, and over time restricts diversity.

Right now I actually do not grow much of my own seed, but as I learn more I’m working on planning garden layout and timing better so I can. When I buy seeds I choose the seeds as carefully as possible. I don’t plant any GMOs, and choose breeds that do well in this climate and in organic farming conditions.

(Picture of garlic drying. Garlic is one of the easiest things to save to the next year’s planting.)

In reality, seed DOES matter. The seed we buy, grow, or save says a lot about our relationship with nature, and it determines our long term success in agriculture. I don’t think there is any simple answer about what kind of seed should or should not be used. I just hope that the link between seed, land, and farmer is maintained and appreciated.

Now, out to the sunshine!!!

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