In agrarian societies such as those in the still-developing regions of Africa, Asia, and South America, farmers rely on their own saved seeds for next year’s crop. Prolonged drought, civil war, and forced relocations can have devastating effects on the well-being of individual farms and entire villages. With little or no cash income and no access to replacement seed, the pathway to hunger is short when even one crop is lost. International relief organizations (like those founded by Bill and Melinda Gates) recognize this need and distribute seed throughout the developing world. But can this really replace what has been lost?
Through generations of growing and selecting those plants that produce most prolifically, yield fruits with better flavor or keeping qualities, come to maturity the fastest, or tolerate the particular soil and water conditions of their land, farmers have always been instrumental in improving the strains that they perpetuate. These are invariably better suited to the particular microclimate in which they have been grown than the commercially produced substitutes. This diversity of genetic stocks is irreplaceable.
Farmers in the developed world are also facing challenges to their old way of cultivation. With more and more of the seed for our major food crops being developed and sold by fewer and larger companies, the loss of diversity is just as troublesome here. Periodic massive crop failures are a tragic part of our farming history and directly follow from the practice of planting monocultures of hybrid seed. When plants and pathogens are left to evolve together, they are much less likely to have such extreme fluctuations in their life cycles. Maintaining a diverse source of food assures that no one event can disrupt the supply.
Much has been written of late about the movement toward more and more genetically modified (GM) seed stock replacing older varieties. Some of the earliest results were plants that produced sterile seed, thus assuring that farmers would be back year after year to purchase the next year’s seed. Consumers and farmers alike are becoming aware of the risks of depending on ever fewer seed sources the agendas of which may be more profit-based than healthy. Recently, organic farmers have even taken such seed companies to court, charging that the pollen from those GM crops is tainting their ability to save truly heirloom varieties. So far the courts are not being sympathetic.
Home gardeners are increasingly trying to provide themselves and their communities with locally grown food that does not rely on those questionable products. Many are saving their own seed and exchanging with each other to provide a healthy diversity of vegetables and fruits. What is not so evident is that even the seed offered by formerly reputable sources may now be controlled by those same big-name companies. Monsanto — one of the most aggressive in developing GM food crops — has been buying up some of the old standard vegetable varieties like ‘Early Girl’ tomato and ‘Royal Chantenay’ carrot. Their seed subsidiary, Seminis, focuses on home-garden seed varieties. For a list of those you may want to avoid, visit agardenforthehouse.com. For a list of seed companies that still grow and preserve non-GM and seed not protected by patents or trademarks, visit mothering.com/community.
In general, humankind has found that change is good; in this arena, it just might be that preserving the old ways is better.
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Virginia Hayes, curator of Ganna Walska Lotusland, will answer your gardening questions. Address them to Gardens, The Independent, 122 W. Figueroa St., Santa Barbara, CA 93101. Send email to firstname.lastname@example.org.