It used to be common no less than a one hundred and fifty years ago for farmers to still save and replant seeds from their most productive plants, their tastiest plants, their prettiest plants and so on. This technique had been passed on from generation to generation since agriculture was invented over 10,000 years ago; and it lead to the creation of over 7000 apple varieties alone by the 1800s.
Since that period the United States has gone from not having a commercial seed industry, to having the largest. In the process most farmers and home gardeners have lost the impetus, means, or skills to carry on the agricultural history of saving seeds.
While the seed industry was getting larger other agricultural changes were occurring as well. Starting around the 1930s and rapidly increasing after World War II, farming and the food distribution system became more and more industrialized. With larger fields, abundant fertilizer, combine harvesters, trucks and factories; planting, growing, harvesting, transporting, packaging, distribution, and resale became faster, cheaper and easier. For the first time plant varieties were reduced to eliminate the hassle of different shapes and sizes and to select the varieties that held up best to travel. Fast forward several decades and we are at a point where “experts estimate that we have lost more than half of the world’s food varieties over the past century.”
Today the global seed industry is dominated by just 6 main companies and a single one, Monsanto, rules the roost. Monsanto is famous for creating genetically modified organisms (GMOs) for corn, soy, cotton, sugar beet, and canola; that are all (among other things) immune to the herbicide glyphosate (aka Roundup to Monsanto). Their marketing was clear, buy their seeds, spray their roundup, fertilize like normal, and you’re crop yields will be through the roof. And the marketing worked: “90% of maize, soybean, cotton, sugar beet, and canola planted in the United States are glyphosate-resistant“. What about the crop yields? Well the research is coming in and we are finding “that plant communities with many different species are nearly 1.5 times more productive than those with only one species (such as a cornfield or carefully tended lawn).”
Regardless of the safety of consuming the end products of GMO seeds (here’s the most pro Monsanto/GMO health article you’re likely to find these days), the lack of diversity and ongoing loss of plant varieties in itself is a major concern. Pinning the vast majority of the worlds calorie supply onto the hopes of fewer and fewer plant varieties means today’s food supply is at a greater risk to the effects of a single plant pandemic than ever before. Monsanto may know how to make insect resistant corn for today, but can they predict and be ahead of the corn earworm, corn borer, corn sap beetle, or corn root aphid mutations of tomorrow? And what about corn loving bacteria and fungi?
History may hold a few answers. The Irish potato famine is well known and lasted between 1845 and 1852. During it’s course nearly 1 million would lose their lives. The culprit, potato blight – a type of fungus, recently had its strain positively identified as HERB-1. Later in the same century European wine grapes started dying off from phylloera (an aphid like pest) accidentally brought back on American grape vines (which are resistant to the critters). “In France alone, total wine production fell from 84.5 million hectolitres in 1875 to only 23.4 million hectolitres in 1889.” The European wine grape industry was saved by grafting varietals onto a common phylloera resistant root stock. Even more recently a new strain of puccinia graminis (a wheat fungus that causes root rot) showed up in Uganda in 1999. UG99, as the strain is referred to, has now spread to many other African countries. UG99 causes up to 100% crop lost and could seriously jeopardize world wide wheat production if it spreads further.
Seed saving organizations are trying to alleviate the risk we have placed on our global food supply by racing to save local varietals across the globe. One such organization in the United States is Seed Savers Exchange. Each year Seed Savers Exchange posts a seed exchange catalog to promote participatory conversation by getting saved seeds into the hands of gardeners and farmers across the country. In addition on their farm outside of Decorah Iowa they grow and preserve the seeds of thousands of heirlooms that have been donated to them.
In their own words:
The strategies and tactics being employed by the agricultural biotechnology industry are diametrically opposed to our efforts to protect and share our garden heritage, and to increase the genetic diversity available to gardeners and farmers growing healthy food for their families. Seed Savers Exchange was one of the original signers of the Safe Seed Pledge in 1999:
“Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. The mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and between genera, families or kingdoms, poses great biological risks as well as economic, political and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing are necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds.”
Hopefully we will only need heirloom fruits and vegetables to alleviate our boredom from the tasteless, colorless varietals offered up by industrialized agriculture. Still, it’s reassuring to know that if we ever need them for more serious reasons then there are folks doing all they can to help make sure it remains a possibility.