The first garden I ever grew was started from volunteer seedlings that appeared in the back corner of our California yard. The big tomatoes and sweet melons that I harvested came from the seeds of plants that had grown in our yard the year before. Or maybe they were from the vegetable farm next door. Either way, the seeds that produced these plants were right for our area. They had already proven themselves in the hands of farmers or gardeners who knew our northern California climate. And they performed wonderfully for me as a novice gardener. These varieties may have originally come from a local store or farm supplier or they may have been passed down from one family member to another, through the generations.
During the vast majority of our roughly 15,000-year history of working the land to feed ourselves, the seed trade consisted entirely of locally based seed saving and trading by private, individual growers. As recently as a few decades ago this is the primary way seeds were dispersed, and this decentralized process resulted in an amazing array of vegetable varieties. If you've ever tasted a treasured heirloom, such as the Brandywine tomato, you know our ancestors knew what they were doing.
But in the past generation there has been unprecedented change in this seed growing and distribution process. The change is both local and global. With the introduction of modern seed-breeding programs and their continually-updated, "high-performance" hybrid seed varieties, most of the world's gardeners and farmers have handed responsibility for the development of seed supplies to commercial seed companies. While many new varieties have been introduced, the result has been a drastic reduction in the total number of vegetable varieties. One reason for this is that for-profit companies offer only the most profitable varieties of seeds. Another has been the greater profitability of hybrid, patented seed varieties over the older, time-tested and often superior open-pollinated seeds, which cannot be patented.
In one generation, we have lost thousands of varieties of vegetables and fruit that had been kept available by millions of farmers and gardeners. Such seeds were uniquely adapted to local growing conditions and often had special nutritional or healing properties. By saving the best seeds from every crop, these seed stewards improved our seed genetics every year, generation after generation. These "native" seed stocks are irreplaceable and provided the genetic basis for the food of future.
Widespread planting of a small number of inbred (often hybrid) plant varieties is a serious threat to the security of our food supply. The devastating Irish Potato Famine in the 1800s occurred because the entire crop of potatoes planted in Ireland was descended from two potato varieties brought to Europe more than 200 years earlier. Unfortunately, this meant that every potato in Ireland proved to be genetically susceptible to potato blight. This reliance on such a shallow genetic heritage could have been avoided by cross-breeding with the hundreds of potato varieties in existence in the New World at that time.
There are now additional threats to the health and diversity of our seed supply. Genetically modified plants and seeds are being introduced by the same multinational companies who also happen to control most of the global seed trade. Splicing the genes of Icelandic cod into tomatoes for frost protection, or the genes of pesticides into potatoes to stop Colorado Potato Beetles, or breeding herbicide resistance into many crops to allow more efficient herbicide applications, and then patenting those new varieties to outlaw the saving of seeds, puts control of our food supply in the hands of large cooperations. Open-pollinated seeds, on the other hand, guarantee the gardener or farmer's ability to produce next year's crop without dependence on an outside seed source. But even more insidious are the unknown risks from the potential for genetic pollution from these unregulated experiments. Just wait until tomatoes begin tasting like dead fish or cross-breeding creates a super weed that herbicides can't stop.
Seeds are compact packages of genetic information and stored food reserves, just waiting for the right conditions to give us tomatoes, melons, carrots, beans and thousands of other gifts. As gardeners, we have a special appreciation for the wonder of seeds and a heightened understanding of what global changes in our seed supply really mean.
So what can gardeners do to help? Talk with friends and neighbors about the problem. Plant some heirloom and open pollinated varieties in your own gardens. Try saving some of your own seeds and share them with friends. And check out some of the organizations listed at right to learn more about this important issue.
Will Raap is Founder and Chairman of Gardener's Supply Company. Read more of his Founder's Corner essays.
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