Seed-saving is as ancient as human agriculture. Basically, it is the practice of setting aside a portion of a crop, or the seeds from its produce, for later use. For example, some potatoes are set aside as seed potatoes, or the best corn kernels are put in reserve, or the seeds from inside a cucumber are saved. These seeds are sown at the beginning of the next growing season, yielding the next crop. Seed saving preserves variety and allows growers to choose traits they want to propagate. If you want early-ripening tomatoes, you choose seeds from the earliest ripening plants. Over many seasons of growing, you cultivate your own variety with its own characteristics.
There are a lot of advantages to saving seeds. The most obvious, to me, is self-sufficiency. Seeds aren’t expensive, but the ones from my garden are free. Using them not only saves me money, but it means that I’m not depending on someone else. But that’s on the small scale. On the large scale, the real reason to save seeds is to preserve genetic diversity in food plants.
Tomato plants grown from saved seeds
Books like The 100 Mile Diet and The Omnivore’s Dilemma discuss how we rely on far fewer species for our food than we used to. My own experience bears this out. If I visit the grocery store, there are only 2 or 3 kinds of tomatoes to choose from. If I visit a farmer’s market, where growers practice seed-saving and grow heirloom varieties, I see more than a dozen types of tomatoes.
So what? Do we really need so many different kinds of tomatoes? Yes, we do. Not because we crave variety, although variety is fun. We need all of these different tomato varieties to protect our crops. Genetic diversity protects species. When we depend on very few specific food plants for our entire global diet, we are putting our food supply at risk.
Pumpkin leaf from saved seed
To compensate for this increased risk, we use technology. One example of this is genetically-engineered crops, such as corn, soybean and canola. Multi-national conglomerate Monsanto manufactures the pesticide Roundup, and also produces genetically modified ‘Roundup Ready’ seeds that can resist it. This means farmers can spray Roundup on their crops to kill any other plants that might decide to grow there. But this comes at a price – Monsanto owns a patent on their seeds. They expressly forbid farmers from saving their seeds, and require anyone using these seeds to pay a fee. More seed is purchased, more pesticides are used, and more chemicals end up in our environment.
Here in Canada canola farmer Percy Schmeiser was sued by Monsanto for patent infringement. Schmeiser never purchased seed from Monsanto, he saved his own seed for decades. However, some Roundup Ready seed made its way into his crop, from a neighbour’s farm or by other means. And in the US Midwest Monsanto has sued soybean farmers for the same reason. Farmers are being forced to buy their seed from Monsanto, or face crippling lawsuits.
Heirloom squash plants
I am not a large-scale grower, but even in my own backyard garden I can see the effects of the way we now breed plants. This is my first year growing saved seeds. I saved seeds from the tomato plants I bought from the farmer’s market, seeds from pumpkins I bought at the farmer’s market, seeds from some cucumbers I bought at the farmer’s market and some from my own garden, and seeds from some ground cherry plants my friend started from an ordinary seed packet. I also planted some squash seeds that a local organic grower saved and passed along.
I just planted the cucumbers, so it’s too early to say how they will do. The pumpkin, squash and tomatoes, which were all sourced from local, organic growers, are doing well. The ground cherries are not. They sprouted, but then the plants just keeled over. It turns out that most commercial seeds are hybrids. Hybrids are bred to produce well in the first year, but do not do well in the second generation. My ground cherries were probably a hybrid, hence their ill health.
Sickly ground cherries
The trend towards standardized, hybrid varieties at all levels is disturbing. It emphasizes to me how thoroughly we have washed our hands of our own food. A lot of the stuff that we buy at the grocery store wouldn’t even be recognizable as food to our great-grandparents. I wonder if the current state of affairs is sustainable. If wonder if we can continue to rely on chemicals and technology and a few plants to feed a hungry planet. The prospect scares me more than a little bit, so I save seeds. It’s a small action, but it makes me feel like a revolutionary in my own garden.
Have you ever saved seed? Would you? Or do you think my concerns about limited genetic diversity are alarmist? Please share!