I'm a staff writer for the Justmeans Sustainable Food blog, which means I have an excuse to spend a bit of time each week researching topics that I'm really passionate about, like local food systems, community garden projects, food security, and farm to institution efforts. Offline, I coordinate a community garden project on the Olympic Peninsula in Washington....
Saving Seeds for the Future of Sustainable Agriculture
Diverse and organic seeds are essential to the future and proliferation of sustainable agriculture. Seed saving is becoming a priority for many farmers, which provides a glimmer of hope for maintaining and increasing the genetic resevoir of our national and regional seeds, particularly heritage seeds. currently, most of that genetic information and stock is held in one of three places, if at all: the USDA seed bank, which is the most structured of the bunch, in small specialized seed companies and research organizations, or in the hands of farmers, particularly ethnic farmers. Increasingly farmers and sustainable agriculture advocates are realizing that ensuring the future of our seeds is much safer and more effective if it is done at a local level.
Local is important when it comes to seeds. By taking seed production out of the hands of giant national or multi-national corporations and putting it into the hands of kitchen gardeners or regional organizations, regions become more self-reliant and build a more secure regional food system. But it's more involved than that. Saving and breeding seeds locally allows farmers and seed savers to find or develop specific varieties of seeds that are well suited to a specific climate or region, selecting and growing seeds based on adaptability, hardiness, pest and disease intolerance, etc. The result is a higher quality seed better adapted to the characteristics of a given area. Regional seed development can also help restore local food traditions, giving new life to fruits and vegetables that were the staples of yesteryear.
Carefully selecting seeds and managing the genetic pool of seed information sounds pretty high tech, and it can be. But it can also be as simple as saving seeds that grew really well, and easy enough for the casual kitchen gardener or suburban homesteader to undertake. However there are organizations out there who can put some more power and knowledge behind developing seeds. Organizations like the Organic Seed Alliance aim to develop seeds that will grow well in specific areas. Working in conjunction with researchers and farmers, OSA and other similar organizations, devise types of seeds using more ethical and organic methods than industrial seed developers, like Monsanto. Such organizations invest in the stewardship of genetic information, and aim to preserve existing seed knowledge.
As it turns out, farming for seeds is not only crucial to ensuring the future of diversified, sustainable agriculture in the face of industrial monoculture, but it can also be profitable. With a new emphasis on organic, regional seed, a farmer might be able to make more money selling good seeds than selling the vegetables that those seeds came from.
If we move towards a broader, diverse, more regional and sustainable food system, the availability of good, local seed becomes more important. While one way to do this is to return to practices from the past of saving our own household seeds, we must also combine this with the scientific knowledge and ability of the present, and synthesize the two to revive a national patchwork of good organic seeds that will grow good organic food for our communities.
photo credit: olycap green bean