What Your Should Know About Seeds

(From the archives of liseed.org with permission from Ken Ettlinger - originally published April 2008)

What should you know about seeds?  Where does one begin.

We are losing variety in our economic plants because thousands of cultivars and landraces are simply not being grown anymore.  Seeds get old and die, they get eaten, they are destroyed in wars, they simply fall out of favor when something new comes along. Sometimes we think we can always get it back again, it will be in next year's catalog or someone else will be saving a few seeds of it, maybe our neighbor; but often, it is lost.  I like the kind of diversity that much of the developed world frowns upon even though it's in our interest to preserve it.  There are many places where you can't buy seeds of a particular variety because it's not on an approved list and you cannot distribute those seeds because it is not legal to.  Even though farmers through the ages have saved their seeds to replant the next year; now, there are seeds that you are no longer permitted to replant.  

Each seed is a small miracle, the product of a natural combination of genetic material that goes back to the dawn of life. It is what it is as a result of a constantly changing world and the interactions with a thousand other living things.  Each seed; within, has the potential to remove carbon dioxide as it enriches our environment with life sustaining oxygen.  Each seed depending on the particular genetic message inside;  and with the proper care, can help a little to shelter us, feed us and bring pleasure to our senses.  A seed can do no wrong.  That is the way it has always been.   Now;  however, we have introduced by gene splicing and other unconventional forms of genetic modification, genes from bacteria or other organisms or genes that we have altered in some odd way and that were never meant to be, inserted into the genome of a seed.  If we simply had the choice of growing those seeds or not, perhaps it would not be so bad; but we now know, those genetically altered bits of DNA can move from field to field and even cross boarders on the wind or transferred by pollinating insects with the ease we could never have imagined and with consequences we are only now beginning to realize.

Part of me wants to preserve the integrity of the seed.  The major focus of the Long Island Seed Project is producing seeds with new genetic combinations that will thrive under organic farm management systems in our small part of the world;  seeds,  that can be saved, replanted and shared among Long Island farmers .  Sustainability is no longer a "catch phrase" but in a world of decreasing resources, it is our mandate. 

An interesting thing has happened in the past few months.  Through this web site, almost every week we receive in the mail envelopes of seed from collectors and backyard breeders and farmers around the world who want to share their valued and often remarkable plant discoveries with us.  Strangely, our small local seed project is of interest to others and we find new alliances with folks doing the same things that we do not only in New York but also in Iowa, South Carolina, Oregon, Australia, Belgium, France, South Africa, England and so many other places.  I've never felt the global connection so intimately.  Both hobby and professional breeders around the world are working on developing varieties for organic systems and permaculture systems for the pleasure and resilience that diversity brings.  Overcoming barriers to the free trade of seed, we share with a common cause.  It reminds me that we collectively also share a concern in the vulnerability of the seed we grow and an uneasy feeling about the precarious nature of the future of our human species on this planet as seeds become corporate property with the ensuing regulations and restrictions that come with that.

What should you know about seeds?  Here, I want to introduce some of you to groups of people involved with "seed issues" that you may be unfamiliar with, and more important,  the articles written on seeds that have appeared in their publications.  I've selected some of those writings as a recommended list of readings that answer the question, "what everyone should know about seeds". 


ETC Group

Dedicated to the conservation and sustainable advancement of cultural and ecological diversity and human rights. You may know it's previous incarnation; RAFI (Rural Advancement Foundation International).

Terminator Threat Looms:  Intergovernmental meeting to tackle suicide seeds issue

The United Nations has recommended against seed sterilization technology which makes it impossible for farmers to save their seed from one generation to another.  Seeds with the "terminator" gene technology produce sterile seeds at harvest thus insuring that the farmer has to purchase seed every year from commercial sources.  This would mark the end to farmer saved seed which is essential to producing locally- adapted varieties through seed selection.  Delta and Pine Land Seed Company (now a division of the mammoth multi-national company Monsanto) and the US Department of Agriculture hold patents on terminator technology in the US, Europe and Canada.

This article calls attention to the on-going battle to prevent terminator seed technology ("terminator" seed was first coined by RAFI)  from being utilized in the production of commercial seed.  It doesn't mention though, that some scientists have voiced concern about the potential of a "terminator" gene escaping to conventional crops or wild species through pollen distribution.

 

Svalbard's Doomsday Vault:  The Global Seed Vault Raises Political/Conservation Debate 

Many like this one chronicle a range of seed issues in order to understand;  for example, why the Global Seed Vault was built in the first place.  For a well rounded background on seed issues you would do well to explore the wealth of information on this site.


The International Development Research Centre

A Canadian organization that supports research that improves the lives of people living in the developing world.

Food Security- Seeds of Threat, Seeds of Solutions

Small farmers, especially in the developing world have been bypassed from modern high yielding seeds that are expensive and require the kinds of farming technology that they don't have.  Instead farmers of Africa, Middle east, Asia and Latin America continue to experiment with varieties of local farm selected and produced seed and in doing so, have produced the biodiversity that will be required to help bail out modern agriculture's dependence on a precarious narrow genetic base.  Food security is threatened by genetic erosion.

The article mentions some successes of "participatory plant breeding", where farmers are involved in crop breeding research and not just the recipients and how such collaborations are helping to increase biodiversity and improving people's lives.

While the article is only an overview of how the agricultural biodiversity is important and how small farmers or helping to increase it, it poses many unresolved questions;  how do we make small farm enterprises more resilient, what about "seed ownership" where the farmer is recognized for their skills, time and effort of maintaining diversity, and how do you promote and continue the collaborations between the academic/research sector and the small farmer?

IDRC publishes a number of books on sustainable agriculture issues, urban agriculture and issues of concern in tropical agriculture.  Some of their books are available for on-line reading.


Organic Seed Alliance 

Supporting the ethical development and stewardship of seed

Concerns with Contamination and Coexistance:  Biotechnology, organics, and the natural resource of seed

OSA is a great resource for farm-based seed saving.  While not an anti biotechnology organization per se, articles on their web site have alerted readers that Monsanto's "Roundup" resistant gene is not just in corn, cotton and soybeans but has crept into lettuce, cabbage and a wide range of other plants.  There is concern that pollen of a GMO can introduce unwanted characters to traditional crops without notice.  This article explains why the Organic Seed Alliance decided to join as a plaintiff in a lawsuit that challenges the USDA deregulation of Roundup Ready sugar beets.  A conclusion, "Investments in farmer-centered systems of breeding, seed production, and distribution are needed- guided by a vision of the value of local food systems."

The Organic Seed Alliance has been sponsoring workshops on farm-based seed breeding and has produced some fine guides on producing seed crops available for your on-line reading.
To share knowledge and network with other people so that we can all reap this harvest that is nature's gift to us.


Rasta Seed Project

Seed Saving Illegal in France:  Kokopelli Fined for Protecting Diversity

The organization Seeds of Kokopelli have a fine reputation around the world for preserving the diversity of food plants by maintaining and selling seed of old European varieties mostly unavailable from other sources.  Seventy-five percent of vegetable diversity has been lost in the last seventy-five years.  In a court case, Association Kokopelli was fined for selling seeds that were not listed on the official EU-approved list.  The huge fine not only sets a dangerous precedent but also threatens the existence of this organization.
 


Znet;  a community of people committed to social change

The Indian Seed Act and Patent Act

Article by Vandana Shiva discusses the proposed India legislation and reviews how similar kinds of legislation in many other parts of the world have benefited corporate monopolies but not small farmers, nor maintaining biodiversity.


United Nations:  Food and Agriculture Organization,

"helping to build a world without hunger"

A Global Plant Breeding Initiative

The work to conserve plant germplasm will be futile unless local plant breeding is not in place to fully use it.  The article laments the state of breeding for productive, useful crops particularly in Africa where crops of little importance to breeders in the developed world are important sources of nutrition for Africans but remain largely neglected and unimproved.  Development of regional varieties suited to small scale farming in 44 developing countries remain inadequate because of massive cuts in public investment in crop improvement.  Plant breeders are scarce, poorly supported, ill trained and have limited access to genetic resources.  Where there are breeding programs in place, often those programs do not directly benefit the regional small scale farmer.

The article discusses an "international funding strategy" to assist developing countries.

One of the many aspects of the United Nations International Treaty on Plant Genetics Resources was the development of the Standard Material Transfer Agreement which is now becoming more common as a legal agreement between a plant breeder or holder of a particular plant genetic resource and a recipient who wishes to utilize the resource.  While the Material Transfer Agreement is utilized as a means of providing some form of compensation to a breeder or provider of a new genetic resource, it can also spell out the conditions of how a particular resource can or cannot be utilized as part of a "free exchange".

This web site hosts the Plant Breeding News;  the objective of which is to stimulate wide discussion and share news and information on plant breeding and related topics.  Clair Hershey at Cornell University, Ithaca, NY is the editor.


Food First

Analyzing the root causes of global hunger, poverty and ecological degradation and develops solutions in partnership with movements for social change

The Myth of the Green Revolution

In the text that my Botany students read there is a picture of the kindly Dr. Norman Borlaug looking over his hybrid wheat.  The text mentions that Borlaug is father of the Green Revolution, the 1960's era experiment in developing hybrid grain crops to feed a largely impoverished world.  Productivity per acre surged ahead using the new hybrid seeds as long as the crops received enough fertilizer, water, pesticides, weed control and the other benefits of growing agriculture technology.  I was 10 years old and I would get up at 6 am every Sunday morning to watch another episode of the "Modern Farmer" on television. It was a good introduction to massive scale farming in Americas Heartland fueled by 10 cent a gallon diesel, synthetic fertilizers produced using natural gas that was usually burnt off at the refinery and the completion of a federal flood control and irrigation projects that created dams on just about all major rivers.  After all, it was 1960.   Did other countries benefit by the "green revolution"?  Yes, and no.  This article explores what happened.

The Food First organization could become your favorite myth busters.

The Biofuels Myths

also see Grains Gone Wild New York Times