Seed Politics

The simple act of saving seeds has lately become an extremely important one.

Unprecedented changes are going on in the world of seeds. Corporate mergers of seed growers have accelerated at such a pace that there are now only a few giant rulers. Patented seeds have become common in catalogues. Millions of acres of farmland are being planted with bioengineered seeds.

Certain transnational corporations have openly declared their intention of gaining total control of the world’s food supply. As things now stand they are not far from so doing. Farmers are being taken to court for saving seed. Plants that have always belonged to everyone are now “owned” by corporations. It has become almost impossible to find food products in North America that are not derived from genetically modified seeds.

The simple, saveable seeds that are part of ten thousand years of agricultural tradition are threatened with extinction. There is everything right with these seeds and they are all we need to grow healthy food. If we don’t continue to use these seeds we will lose them forever.

The pollution of seeds, our forever friends, represents to more and more people the very last straw. You can’t find pure water anymore, can’t breathe clean air, and now our daily meals are being contaminated beyond belief. The notion of tinkering with genes from totally different species and mixing them up in our food, with no testing, no consultation and no notification is alerting people to the fact that corporations are out of control. Genetically altered foods are being foisted on us by so-called life sciences companies in the name of health, safety and humanitarianism while in reality they are an experiment with potentially deadly consequences.

Terminator seeds are part of the arsenal of these same corporations that are promising us hope for the future. They more transparently reveal the name of the game to be profit and control. Such seeds especially threaten the livelihoods of “third world” farmers (usually women) who have traditionally saved their own seed. That minds would design seeds to terminate themselves is incomprehensible to most people. A perusal of the histories of some of these same transnational corporations is quite scary: they are manufacturers of the most virulent poisons used in warfare.

The issue of seeds has the potential to be a very big wake-up call. The confused mindset that blasts foreign genes into seeds, that patents seeds, that kills seeds, is clearly one that would destroy the very garden that feeds us.

Seeds remind us, if we but hold them in our hands, that we are a lot bigger than our current preoccupations. Wheat and barley, soybeans and sesame seeds got here because countless other people held them in their hands. They got here in a dance of people and earth that will only go on if both partners are honoured. They got here not by dimishing life but by letting life live.

We got here the same way. We got here because life keeps producing more diverse and divine expressions of herself, not reducing herself to sameness and certainty.

An agriculture that becomes a monoculture cannot work for very long. In North America, it worked for the second half of the twentieth century because there was a deep bank of soil for starters plus trees to hold water and stabilize the weather. Now trees are gone, soil has eroded, wells are empty and the weather is predictable only in its unpredictability.

The transnational corporations that are cramming their gene-altered crops down our throats are doing so with the same arrogance and ignorance they’ve shown during the past fifty years of industrial agriculture. Creating transgenic crops is an extreme extension of the belief that we can totally control nature and get away with it. But the writing on the wall has become more and more underlined for anyone who looks at the current state of our environment. It has quickly become obvious that genetically manipulating crops is the same bad science as breeding crops that only grow well with the constant application of chemicals.

Already 90 per cent of biotech firms have gone bankrupt. Most major bioengineered crops have bombed too, including transgenic tomatoes, cotton and potatoes. And genetically-modified foods have been rejected in Europe, where people have more earth-connected traditions of healthy food.

The largest corporations remain and have so much money they can say and do anything. Will we soon have only the corporate-created food that some Chief Executive Officers are promising? And if that time comes how much will that food cost us?!

Who is saying what we can do instead? We don’t have a high proportion of people in North America who really care about their food. Most people don’t even know where their food comes from or how it is produced. We don’t have many farmers in North America who truly know that diversity works far better than monoculture. We don’t even have many farmers left who know that you can’t farm from the top floor of a corporate office tower.

Can we stop buying into processes and products that are designed only to make money before it becomes impossible not to? ...Fortunately, everything is changing as fast as today’s weather. New ways of looking at things are starting to make sense. Why should food be so wrapped up by money? There is already a vast surplus of whole grains and beans being grown in North America. Why shouldn’t food be a right instead of a privilege? Couldn’t we all be well fed?

Why not encourage people to have a rewarding livelihood by farming the richness of the earth? live on the land and derive satisfaction and fulfillment from the infinite beauty and entertainment of nature? Why shouldn’t we all spread out a bit instead of choking in the cities? ...and start to realize, as well, the vast potential for growing food within our urban environments?

What about the most radical idea of all that’s starting to germinate? The Earth is pretty messed up these days but it’s still likely the most incredible place in the Universe. Why should the tiniest proportion of people have all the power and resources? Why don’t we go for it and try to use all our smarts for mutual benefit? Why don’t we create a place where all life is honoured and cherished?
Seeds are perhaps the most potent beginning point we’ve got right now. They have the power to feed, clothe and shelter us. They have the power to clean our air and water. The threat of their extermination must rally us to their protection, preservation, multiplication and enhancement. For seeds to remain public treasure, we must embrace them and create agendas for them that are people-oriented rather than power-oriented.

The great news is that normal seeds are easy and fun to save. Our remaining stock of open-pollinated seeds can be perpetuated without any special knowledge, equipment or resources. By becoming responsible for seed saving instead of depending on governments or seed companies, we can help save ourselves. When the powers-that-be bite the dust, we will be sustaining the good earth.

So, OK, What Do We Do?

Strategies for Seed Saving with Friends, Neighbours, Family and Community

Fortunately and surprisingly, it’s not a gargantuan thing we must do. In fact, avenues have already been created that would serve perfectly to get our seeds back to where they once belonged, as a public resource.

Seedy Saturdays

One comes with the code name, Seedy Saturday. This annual seedy event, which usually happens on a Saturday in February or March, brings together all the people in a community who are excited by seeds. The first Seedy Saturday was in Vancouver BC in 1990 and was the brainchild of Sharon Rempel and Roy Forster. Carolyn Herriot manifested the second one in Victoria, BC in 1996. Now Seedy Saturdays have cropped up in many communities, towns and cities across Canada. They are very fun events that help preserve and enhance plant varieties that win accolades in any bioregion.They create an informal network of people who know what grows in an area and how to grow it.

It is very easy to organize a Seedy Saturday (or a Seedy Sunday or a Seedy Monday night...or to have one after harvest as well as one in spring). All you have to do is rent a hall, find a big living room or set up in a barn. Put up posters, have a story in the local paper, announce it at community meetings.

Every seed exchange that I’ve been to has a big swap table where people can easily look over the seeds that have been contributed. But one doen’t necessarily have to make a rule of this. Everybody with seeds could have their own table or everyone could just walk around with their seeds, talking and trading.

It’s helpful to have a classification system on the table such as signs at different areas indicating herbs, flowers, veggies, perennials, potatoes, garlic, etc. And it’s good to have as much signage as possible about the seed offerings. Some people bring their seeds in seed packets with written descriptions and some people bring jars or bags of their seeds. Remember to have lots of empty coin envelopes on the table as well as a few scoops and spoons.

Having knowlegeable volunteers at the exchange table makes things a lot more informative for neophyte growers. You can start and end at set times but you can also wait until the group energy says it’s time. My favourite seed swap is at Linnaea Farm on Cortes Island, B.C., where a pot luck is combined with the seed trading: seed commerce is magically unannounced and can begin before, during or after eating!

Many Seedy Saturdays are large events with tables representing gardening clubs, local seed companies, conservancy groups, alternate energy advocates, etc. Display tables can have seed saving equipment and information. Catalogues of companies and organizations promoting open-pollinated seeds can be available for perusal. Beverages, snacks or meals can be made from locally-grown heritage crops.

Participating in an annual seed exchange can alter your garden planning profoundly...such as in- Didn’t Mary say she would bring her broccoli seeds again? or How awesome that I will be spreading around the neighbourhood those vibrant calendulas that volunteer all over my own garden.

Such exchanges enable you to carry the enthusiasm of the community along with your own garden enthusiasm.

Family, Friends and Neighbours

Family, friends and neighbours can swap seeds any time they want. They can trade lettuce and kale seeds just like they trade lettuce and kale.

This is nothing new but it could be happening a lot more. As gardeners realize they can save seeds and don’t have to depend on seed companies for them, this empowered feeling will become contagious.

Friends and family can be of course nearby or far away for sharing seeds and the lore of the plants they produce. Every grower has personal favourites and every garden has different crops that usually grow the lushest. A natural way for highest-quality seeds to get around.

Trading seeds with your aunt Thelma halfway across the country creates seed security in these weird years when one season can have record heat and another record cold. It means that she might be able to give you corn seed this time around but it may be your turn to help her next. If Thelma’s ex is also trading seeds with both of you, then it’s even more likely that someone (and thus everyone) will have corn seed.

One of the great things about maintaining seed varieties amongst a circle of people is that, barring crop failures, you need only one member to grow lettuces, tomatoes or peppers to ensure everyone’s seed supply. And such is nature’s seed bounty that one lettuce, one tomato and one pepper from that one person theoretically could provide everyone’s seeds, with some left over. When you consider that lettuce, tomato and pepper seeds easily stay viable for five years, it becomes obvious how simple it can be for a small group of people to keep lots of seeds alive.

As with Seedy Saturdays, there are many ways of organizing your exchanges, depending on who and where you are. You could visit each other, mail each other seeds for New Year, set it all up at conference calls, pass on the word with e-mail, make a four year plan, unite parts of the family here and there.

You could each have certain varieties for which you were responsible or you could alternate. You could all be tomato seed savers.

You could share zeal, do evaluations, make selections.

Some families, friends, neighbours are doing it already. Gardeners do it naturally. In our local post office, no one ever decided to make it happen; nevertheless six women employees have been trading fruits, vegetables, flowers, plants, cuttings and seeds for many years.

Seed Organizations

There are national seed organizations in Canada, the U.S, Australia and some European countries that research, catalogue, preserve and distribute “heritage” seeds.

Having been involved with these groups over the years plus selling old varieties through Salt Spring Seeds, I have observed recent changes in the meaning of “heirloom” or “heritage.” There was for awhile agreement that such seeds had to have been around fifty years or more to merit the title. But now, our entire heritage of seeds is in fact being threatened by corporate seeds that you can’t save. Up until the 1990’s, many excellent open-pollinated crops were developed by companies and governments working to actually improve crops (instead of to resist herbicides or grow well with high chemical inputs). These cultivars are as worthy of saving as their older parents and are coming to be included as heirlooms too.

In the same context, it is important to note that the meaning of “hybrid” has changed as well. Fifty years ago, hybrids were the results of simple crosses that either happened spontaneously in nature or were facilitated by gardeners or researchers. Such hybrids were stabilized by growing them out over a number of seasons after which you could expect to get the same variety year after year by saving seed. Now hybrids refer to plant cultivars with parent lines controlled by plant breeders. Such varieties have not been stabilized and their seed is mostly worthless for seed saving purposes. It is necessary to go back to the seed company for such hybrid seed.

So the seeds that you can obtain from heritage seed exchanges aren’t necessarily very old, but they are all open-pollinated, ie non-hybrid, in the modern sense of the word. Seeds do come true and members are encouraged to save them. The vitality of the organizations is dependent on the number of members not only growing out seeds but re-offering them as well.

The seed savers organizations in Canada and the US. send all members an annual descriptive listing of who has seeds and who wants seeds. No fee is charged except to cover postage.

Through their publications, members of these groups learn not only about seed saving but also about heritage gardens and seed companies as well the stories of heirloom cultivars. These organizations maintain and formalize our living legacy of diverse plant resources:

  • Seeds of Diversity Canada, PO Box 36, Station Q, Toronto, ON, M4T 2L7
  • Seed Savers Exchange, 3076 North Winn Rd, Decorah, IA, 52101, USA
  • HDRA Seed Library, Ryton Organic Gardens, Coventry, CV8 3LG, UK
  • The Seed Savers’ Network, PO Box 975, Byron Bay, NSW 2481, Australia

Seed Companies

Some companies in the U.S. and Canada still specialize in open-pollinated seeds. Salt Spring Seeds has traded seeds with many of these companies over the years and I have delighted in the spirit of openness and cooperation that has always permeated the exchanges.

Recently (in late 1999), a coalition of seed companies has come together out of concern for the potential risks associated with the present use of genetic engineering. Member seed companies, including Salt Spring Seeds, endorse the following Safe Seed Pledge:

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 is necessary to further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds. Further, we wish to support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, genetically diverse agricultural ecosystems and ultimately people and communities.

How likely are you to find genetically modified seed in a garden seed catalogue these days? Fortunately, the answer still is “Very unlikely.” This contrasts with the extreme likelihood of obtaining food products that derive from gene-altered seeds. Most development and planting of bioengineered crops has so far been with corn, canola and soybeans. Vast acreages are being grown with these and if you look at the label on any packaged food in the supermarket, you’ll find it virtually impossible to find something that doesn’t contain some form of them.

If you start seeing gene-modified seed in catalogues, it will be much more expensive than regular seed. We receive more than thirty catalogues annually and so far I’ve seen only the transgenic New Leaf potato offered. You could tell your favourite seed companies you’d be more likely to remain a customer if they didn’t go in for biotech seeds.

Gardening Magazines

There used to be only two or three gardening magazines on our local newstands but now there are two or three dozen. Quite a few of these have started providing a seed exchange section where subscribers list seeds they are offering or requesting.

Catching Seeds on the Internet

The Internet is another medium that is coming on fast to proliferate our oldie but goldie seeds.There are all kinds of postings on the Internet of seed exchanges, seed foundations, seed banks and seed custodians.

Seedy Individuals

Individual seed savers can and are making huge differences with their own initiatives. Farmers’ Markets are great venues for turning people on to heritage seeds and plants. Grocery stores and markets can be convinced to carry heirloom, open-pollinated plants. You can generate substantial income by being the one to grow these potted plants. Having descriptions and background as well as taste samplings with the plants adds to the excitement and to the sales.

Through the simple process of selecting for desired traits, plant lovers can improve our old cultivars. It used to be that seed companies did such selection as a matter of course and would rogue out plants that weren’t high yielders, for example. But now seed companies are basically seed merchants that buy seed stock from the big boys who see little profit in improving simple, saveable seeds. So it’s up to us to enhance as well as maintain our seed stocks.

All these various and creative ways of honouring and cherishing our legacy of seeds! There is much going on in the world of seeds that is working towards a revivification of our daily meals but a lot more needs to happen. This is what will work against the onslaught of Terminator Seeds and Frankenfood: people communicating to each other and sharing what is good.