Saving Our Seed

We spent yesterday soaking up wisdom and inspiration at the Carolina Farm Stewardship conference. I came away with lots of information, ideas and things to ponder.

For one thing, I’ve increased my resolve to do a better job of seed saving. We save some of our own seeds, but not nearly as many as we could. Something once essential to farming, we’ve outsourced it to seed companies. Seeds are cheap, but if we let ourselves become dependent upon seed companies we take a foolish and unnecessary risk. And the fact that 70% of all vegetable seeds are controlled by only three companies–Monsanto, Bayer and Dupont (chemical companies at that)–isn’t comforting.

According to one source I read, in this country 93% of vegetable seed varieties have been lost over the last 100 years. In 1903 there were 497 varieties of lettuce offered by seed companies. Today there are only 85.

In the past folks saved their own seed and neighbors would swap seeds with one another. Sometimes it was necessary to buy seed, but usually not. It made good sense to behave that way. We simply have to make it a priority to do a better job of saving seed in the future. Even if technically unnecessary, how “sustainable” can we claim to be if we’re dependent upon others for our seed?

As one of the speakers yesterday stressed, keeping the seed supply in the hands of farmers and homesteaders is important to maintaining natural biodiversity. If we don’t do it, we risk losing varieties when we no longer save and trade seeds. Consider the Moon and Stars watermelon for example. This old heirloom was thought extinct until 1981 when a seed enthusiast discovered that a gardener in Missouri had been saving the seed. Thanks to him, the Moon and Stars is growing again. We had several older customers at the market this year who were thrilled to once again see the watermelon of their youth, for the first time in many decades.

Moon and Stars watermelon

Moon and Stars watermelon

Another one, with a fine moon.

Another one, with a fine moon.

A small one, among friends.

A small one, among friends.

Industrial agriculture (and the supermarkets it serves) prefer uniformity of appearance over nearly all else. Along with shelf-life, it is what matters most. That criteria doesn’t favor funky heirlooms, no matter how delicious they are.

Nature has given us hundreds of different types of bananas, for example. But the food industrial complex needs every banana in every store to look and taste the same. When a person buys a banana in New York in November, it needs to be as nearly identical as possible to the banana they bought in August, and indistinguishable from the bananas being sold in Tokyo, London and Mayberry. There can only be one banana. And these days that banana is the Cavendish variety. It dominates the world market and is THE commercially produced banana. But it wasn’t always so. Until the 1950s the favored commercial variety was the Gros Michel, by all accounts a superior-tasting banana. But the Gros Michel variety was wiped out by a virus and the industry replaced it with the Cavendish, once again putting all their proverbial eggs into a single basket. The Gros Michel does live on, however. The reason banana-flavored candy doesn’t taste much like a banana these days is because the flavoring was invented to mimic the taste of the then-favored Gros Michel. If you want to know what bananas used to taste like, try that flavoring.

If we allow Big Ag to homogenize food that way, we put the food supply in jeopardy. The Irish Potato Famine is perhaps the best known tragedy caused by over-reliance on a single food crop. The risk of extinction always exists. The loss of the American chestnut is another example. The most dominant tree in much of America’s forests–particularly Appalachia–chestnut trees (many millions of them) were wiped out by a sudden blight that arrived in the early 1900s. Within a few years, the chestnuts were gone. Chestnuts and chestnut wood had been essential to the people of Appalachia. “It fed them, fattened their stock, warmed their fireplaces, cooked their corn bread, bought their luxuries.” It also built their barns, houses and bridges. Nature as a whole is resilient, but for a single species or variety, existence is precarious, whether it’s potatoes, bananas, chestnut trees or dodo birds. Biodiversity assures that when disaster strikes some part of nature, the rest marches on.

So I conclude my rambling thoughts by saying again, we need to get better at saving seed.

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