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saving our seeds – the importance of heirlooms and open-pollinated seeds

Mass extinction

Seeds have been on my mind a lot this summer. A seed is such a simple thing, something we come across multiple times each day – hidden in the cores of your apples, spilling out of dinner’s green pepper, blowing away from the dandelions in your front yard. They are one of the most ubiquitous things in our day-to-day life, yet they are so complex and so necessary to the health and well-being of every single living thing on this earth.

A seed is basically a living piece of genetic material, wrapped in its own protective shell that also serves as its food source, to keep it alive until that time when its biological clock and the conditions surrounding it allow it to spring into life and create something delicious (or leafy, I suppose)… sometimes delicious AND leafy!

There is an incredible amount of diversity that has existed in the plant world. Like beets? Well in the early 1900’s there were 288 different kinds you could plant in your garden! Care for a radish? There were over 463 different varieties of radish!Something very sinister is going on in the food world, however. In fact, Canada alone was home to over 5000 types of apples, yet only 4 or 5 different varieties make a regular appearances on our grocery store shelves. Those 463 types of radish… I’ve never seen anything different than the usual spherical red radish in my years on this planet. The genetic diversity in our plants has been eroded and only a few varieties of these plants even exist anymore.

This diagram from National Geographic shows the change in seed varieties from 1903 to 1983. In 80 years, our farming methods, eating preferences, purchasing preferences have led to the extinction of over 75% of the biodiversity in the agricultural world. This diagram only shows the species that have gone extinct up until 1983, what have another 30 years done to our biodiversity? The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that a third of what remains is at immediate risk for disappearing. Instead of Granny Smith or Honeycrisp apples, we’ll have “Apple”… our Forminova or Golden beets will just be “Beet”. In 2012, there are only 6 species of corn that remain, down from the 307 species that existed just over 100 years ago.

What happens when a pest evolves to prefer just those types of corn? What happens to our health when we lose the variety in our diets and are fed from such a limited stock? What happens to the health of our soils when we lose the variety of plants grown in them?

Heirloom seeds

Heirloom seeds are those that have been planted for generations. They are open-pollinated, meaning that as the plant nears the end of its life, it will flower, be pollinated by the wind or whatever insects are local to the area, and pass on its genetic material to the seeds that it produces. These seeds can be collected and sown year after year to sustain that type of plant. Changes to traits will be slow and steady as the environment and conditions around the plants change. Certain plants will be able to pass on their genes more or less effectively and the offspring will slowly evolve.

An heirloom cucumber that is collected from one region and planted in another will slowly adapt to its unique environment and a new type of heirloom will be created. The original Brandywine tomato, for example, are the descendants of a seed saver in Ohio that got them from a Mrs. Dorris Sudduth Hill who had them in her family since 1900. Subsequent varieties from its genes have included the heart-shaped, yellow and cheery Brandywine varieties amongst others.

Heirloom, open-pollinated seeds have the flavours, colours and histories of hundreds, if not thousands, of generations. They are true to type and will produce plants that display the characteristics of their parents. An heirloom squash that has been grown in the same place for hundreds of years will taste just the way your grandmother had them. Move them to the next province and, over time, they will adapt and change to flourish in their new environment and take on the terroir of their new home.

You can find very interesting heirloom varieties – fruits and veggies that you could have never imagined! Purple carrots or blue squashes; Cream of Saskatchewan watermelon with a cream-coloured centre and a tendency to explode when tapped! Radishes that are long and skinny like rat-tails; tomatoes with stripes!

Just by allowing a portion of your heirloom seeds to actually “go-to-seed” you can save each seed, the diverse genes will be passed on and you plant again over and over each season. You can save seeds and send them to friends and family. Just remember, while well-behaved and docile, seeds are living things and their shelf-life is not unlimited. Depending on the type of seed, they have only a few years that they will store. Onion seed generally lasts only a year, while some beans or tomatoes can still germinate after 5 years. The best way to save and spread heirloom seeds are to plant them, eat them, enjoy them and plant them again!

Unfortunately, the vast majority of our seeds are not heirlooms.

Enter the F1 Hybrids

Heirloom vegetables are wonderful, but what about efficiency and transportation? On large monoculture farming operations, it’s not an advantage to have plants that can be different sizes and shapes with varying schedules and harvest dates. It is preferable to have the exact same variety of tomato grown year after year with a uniform plant and fruit size so that they can be machine harvested on time and under budget. These tomatoes are extra hardy and able to withstand weeks of packing, loading, trucking, stacking, unloading, handling and displaying so that each fruit looks exactly the same as the tomatoes that you bought last week and will look the same as the tomatoes you buy next January.

The foods that make up the majority of our diet come from the F1 hybrid seeds that most people are familiar with. These are the seed packages (often labelled $1.49!) and fill the shelves of every plant centre, home hardware chain and even most of the local greenhouses. They have lovely packages and the seeds inside come from all over the world, mass produced in factories by large companies that tend to also produce a lot of chemicals and pharmaceuticals. (As there are only two independent seed producers in all of Alberta, they are certainly not likely to come from any of the farms you drive by on weekend vacations.)

F1 hybrids (the “f” stands for “filial”, or “offspring”) are the children of highly inbred parents. Mommy tomato, for example’s sake, would be a strain of seed that has been selectively bred over and over to have one particular characteristic that is desirable, say, hardiness. Poppa tomato will have been selected for his quick maturation. Alone, these strains may not produce a viable plant for harvest, but by cross-pollinating them in a controlled manner, they will produce the F1 hybrid seeds that display BOTH desirable traits and grow with extra vigour. When compared on a small scale, this plant will be more efficient and productive than either of its parents. Fantastic for farmers, gardeners – anyone who wants to grow great-looking produce.

The major drawback of the F1 hybrids that they cannot pass on their fantastic traits to their own progeny (the F2 hybrids). When you take one of your big, beautiful, F1 tomatoes from your backyard, cut it open to grab some seeds and put them on your windowsill to plant they next year, you will end up with a plant that likely carries NONE of the traits of its F1 parent. It will produce very little and is the scrawny result of its sordid, inbred past.

Now, you paid for those original seeds (sure, it was only $1.49, but that’s good money for a packet of seed) and, historically, you should be able to collect the seeds from your plants and sow again next year. Not so, with the F1 hybrids. You, the farmers, the gardeners now have to go back to the supplier next year and by all new seeds to continue your crop of tomatoes.

Our grandmothers, with their heirloom seeds, could allow portions of their crops to flower and go to seed so that they could sustain their farms year after year. The price we’ve paid for our big, beautiful, consistent, transportable, quick-growing hybrids is that you are reliant on that company to provide you with those seeds year after year at a price you can afford. You need to trust that those companies will hold on to enough genetic diversity that, when that little worm that ate every single one of your tomatoes last year comes back for seconds, that your tomatoes have a little genetic fight left in them to adapt to their changing environments.

The market for heirlooms is thoroughly walloped by the commercialization of the F1 hybrid seeds. Buy an heirloom seed from a small-scale farmer – even just one bean! – and if that bean germinates and grows, you will have a handful of beans to eat and grow again next year. You can save that seed and its genetic heritage just by planting it! In what other way can your consumption of a resource actually promote its sustainability?!

The last stronghold

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is the last stronghold for many of the world’s seeds. Located in Norway’s Arctic archipelago, the vault is a backup for 1,750 seed banks from all over the world. It houses approximately 750,000 seed samples, which is said to make up around two-thirds of the world’s stored crop biodiversity. As a backup, it has already proved useful after a fire in January 2012 destroyed the Philippines’ national seed bank.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault: http://www.economist.com/node/21549931

The vault has double airlocks and is located at the end of a tunnel buried 160 m down into the the side of a permafrost mountain. The seeds are stored in four-layer plastic envelopes devoid of any oxygen to delay seed-aging and the vault is kept at -18°C. The vault is protected and insulated and, even if the electricity were to fail, the vault would stay cold for years.

Safe storage is simply not enough to preserve our plants’ biodiversity, however. The seed banks do not store any of the varieties of plants that do not flower and seed, such as cassava, bananas and other fruits and berries. The seeds that they do save, should last a couple of decades or more based on a feasibility study that was done, but we cannot forget that seeds are living material. For seed to truly live on, it must be planted, grown and harvested again and again.

So what is a gardener to do?

Gardeners and farmers that have the privilege of being able to farm on a small scale can choose to plant heirloom varieties and ensure that as much genetic diversity is passed on from season to season.

In Canada, we have an amazing organization called Seeds of Diversity, with the mandate “to search out, preserve, perpetuate, study, and encourage the cultivation of heirloom and endangered varieties of food crops by:

  • searching out heirloom and endangered varieties, particularly Canadian varieties;
  • encouraging and enabling gardeners and farmers to grow, maintain, and disseminate these varieties through the annual seed exchange project;
  • establishing and maintaining curatorial collections of Canadian varieties;
  • co-operating with individuals, groups, and institutions in Canada and internationally in aid of maintaining, supplementing, and salvaging existing collections of heirloom and endangered varieties;
  • encouraging commercial seed companies, nurseries, and related businesses to grow, maintain, and propagate, and commercially distribute these varieties as a means of perpetuating them.”

Each year, Seeds of Diversity publishes a directory of all of its members’ seed stores. You can trade and exchange and purchase heirloom seeds, plant and enjoy the fruits and vegetables, then collect the seeds and help save that species by connecting with other gardeners and farmers doing the exact same thing.

You can join Seeds of Diversity for $30 each year (the membership year starts in January) and if you are truly concerned about preserving a species and helping this organization to continue their activities, you can even donate to this registered charity and “adopt” a specific variety. Any donation is welcome and will be listed next to the plant you choose; $250 is what it costs to maintain an entire species.

You can also support local seed producers that have heirloom, open-pollinated varieties. In Alberta, Harmonic Herbs is our favourite. Kathleen Van Ihinger and is a wealth of knowledge. She often teaches organic gardening classes in the Calgary and Edmonton areas and we would highly recommend them! Their website even has some tips and tricks for saving your own seeds from the initial seeds you purchase from them.

At your farmer’s markets, try and find the vendors who save and plant their own seeds. Some greenhouses may do this and even farmers with large operations still practice seed-saving.

Just by planting a few seeds and ensuring that there is a demand for heirloom and open-pollinated plants will help to keep our food biodiversity from decaying even further. There is a lot of debate about food choices – organic, local, non-GMO, etc. – and we haven’t even discussed GMO foods in this blog post (we’ll save that hot topic for another day!)

Please leave your thoughts!

Selected references for the information found in the above article, please leave a comment if you would like more specific citations.

National Geographic. Our Dwindling Food Variety. http://ngm.nationalgeographic.com/2011/07/food-ark/food-variety-graphic Date visited: July 7, 2012.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations. http://www.fao.org/ag/save-and-grow/ Date visited: July 7, 2012.

Carpenter, Novella. Farm City:The Education of an Urban Farmer. The Penguin Press, New York. 2009.
The Economist. Banking Against Doomsday. http://www.economist.com/node/21549931 March 10, 2012.

Seeds of Diversity. http://www.seeds.ca/en.php Date visited: July 7, 2012.

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