You’d think, going on my second year farming, I’d know all about seed production—the fact is, I’ve never seen a cabbage or carrot seed anywhere except in an envelope. Same goes for turnips, lettuce, kale, spinach, onion, broccoli, the list goes on and on. Before those plants get anywhere close to doing their thing, making their seeds, we harvest them and eat them. Buy a new packet of seeds, plant, grow, repeat. Even with plants whose seeds everyone has seen (and eaten) in their natural setting, (tomatoes, cucumbers, strawberries, and peas, which are themselves seeds) most farmers don’t save their own. Seed saving is how we are able to use annual plants, that live only a year, as a perennial food source. And yet modern farmers, by and large, plant and harvest from purchased seeds and, instead of saving any from what they grow, scrap it all and buy new seeds again in the winter. The old winter chore of threshing and drying and preserving seeds has been replaced by long perusals of online seed catalogues and Excel spreadsheets full of orders.
But saving seeds isn’t just an issue of an individual farmer’s self sufficiency; the fact that the plants on the vast majority of farms do not pass on their genetic material, and whether fertile or not are never allowed to breed, affects the variety of plants we grow and eat. Obviously the plants we grow have no idea that they are growing simply to be eaten and not to preserve their genetic material; their attempts to produce and disperse offspring are either thwarted (we eat lettuce leaves, not seeds) or encouraged (when seeds are edible, as with beans.)
Even without our interference, plant breeding is a tricky business. After all, plants are stationary. Luckily, their genetic information isn’t, and they use a variety of methods to disperse it, like attracting insects who carry their pollen from flower to flower or trusting their stuff to the winds. The second method may seem riskier, or at least better suited to perennial plants with lots of time on their hands (elms, for example, use helicopter seeds, but also live for decades—they have plenty of time to propagate before they die), and its true many fewer types of plants employ it. However, some do and are fantastically successful, cover a large percentage of the planet, and make up 70% of the plants we eat. An even larger proportion of wind-pollinated plants are consumed by proxy, as they make up at least half of the food of the animals whose flesh or other products (eggs and milk) we eat.
Part of their success may be due to the method—make lots and lots and lots of pollen and cast it to the winds—but most of it is due to us. The only reason an errant, blowing corn pollen has such an extremely high chance of finding a receptive corn silk, no matter which way the wind blows, is that we have planted thousands of acres of it. Though of course we hardly had the breeding success of corn in mind—and in fact, this very byproduct of our profligacy can work against us.
Illustration by Naomi Bardoff
Now, as I said, despite every plant on the farm wanting nothing better than to make seeds and lots of them, even when they succeed farmers and gardeners these days seldom oblige by collecting those seeds. This move has not been made out of laziness, exactly, but due to a variety of reasons. One reason is simply ease; pollination can cause lots of difficulties. If one type of winter squash is planted too close to another, a busy little bee may well travel from one to the next and if you save the seeds of this cross pollinated fruit, what you’ll get is not what you started with, but the proverbial red headed child of the postman—a bitter gourd, perhaps, instead of a butternut. Laying out one’s fields in terms of crop rotation and seasonality is hard enough without giving different species of winter squash a half mile buffer from each other.
This cause, however, is relatively minor (and indeed there are farmers who overcome it, much as we all did for millennia). A slightly larger reason is treatment for disease—lots of diseases can be seed-born, and old fashioned hot water treatment of seeds (the only kind practical to do yourself) has fallen out of favor compared with chemical treatments. Commercial seeds, though, do come with a guarantee of being disease-free, and people trust more in the due diligence of a large corporation than in their own.
Yet another reason people seldom save their own seeds is the popularity of hybrids due to hybrid vigor: disease resistance or other desirable qualities that can be achieved from a first generation cross. However, if you save the seeds of a hybrid, its children will tend to resemble one of its parents or something else entirely. Either way, you won’t get the product you intended. The only way to plant the same hybrid year after year is to crossbreed the same two plants each season, or, more likely, buy the seeds again each season; generally the parents of well-known hybrids are corporate secrets, so there’s no way to produce their seeds yourself.
Which brings us to the last reason farmers no longer save their own seeds—all the previous reasons I’ve discussed have pertained largely to vegetable farmers, who grow predominantly self-pollinating or insect-pollinated plants. Even when it’s not very difficult, there is extra work involved in saving seeds from this type of crop; farmers who grow grains, like corn and wheat, face none of this difficulty as their product is the seed itself. So they already have a large stock of seed, separated (or “threshed”) from the plant, and stored at an appropriate temperature for seed saving. No extra work need be done except take five or ten percent of the harvest, throw it in the seeder, and go. They also tend to grow extremely large areas of the same variety, so cross-pollination isn’t much of a problem—they seem ideally situated to save seed, and indeed profit by so doing, and until recently they did.
Nowadays, however, it’s not so easy—most farmers grow patented genetically modified seeds. While some are hybrids, most could easily be saved for seed and planted again, except doing so is illegal because seed companies like Monsanto have patents, not on the plant, but on the genetic material in the seed. This brings me back to the wind-pollinated nature of wheat and corn. Even if one did not purposefully plant Monsanto corn, it’s easy to end up with it in one’s field, as one’s neighbor’s patented pollen can be blown over. One troubling aspect of this is that Monsanto is litigious in protecting its patents, so it successfully sues people who have accidental, wind-born Monsanto DNA in their corn field. Another troubling aspect is that these farmers can no longer save their own seed, because their plants have produced patented seed, despite not having been grown from patented seed themselves. This can destroy a generations-old variety, much as the genetic integrity of the Sabine tribe was famously destroyed by the rape of all their women by invading Romans.
Of course, protecting one’s patents from “theft” by bees or the wind through court cases is onerous, and scientists have engineered a kill switch of sorts—a genetic modification that makes offspring of their GM plants sterile, commonly called “terminator” technology. This could still have the effect of killing off someone else’s entire seed crop—instead of GMO and legally protected, it would merely be sterile, and impossible to save seed from even illegally. Some people are also worried because other traits that have been genetically inserted, such as pesticide resistance, have already spread to several weeds and other plants, and, as seed with the “terminator” gene are only sterile 90% of the time, the 10% of plants that were carriers of the sterility gene but not sterile themselves could easily spread this trait, not only to other crop plants, but to wild plants. Many scientists worry that new terminator imbued GM trees, that are so far only being grown experimentally and not yet commercially, could result in growing sterility in wild forests, preventing nature from saving her own seeds.
The GMO issue is definitely the hippest issue in the current seed saving debate, and the idea of wide spread (and spreading) plant sterility is certainly alarming, but for the majority of farmers and gardeners, our plants are effectively sterile, whether “terminator” or not. One of the ironies of the local food movement, of locavores who only eat food in a 100 mile radius, or farmer’s markets that ban out of state produce, is that the seeds that grew all those great local veggies came from places as far away, and varied, as Israel or China. Many organic varieties only have a single seed source—it fails and that plant is not available that year. Seeds connect our local organic farms to international Big Food in a big way, and “eating local” tastes and looks surprisingly similar (down to the DNA of each cell of each tomato plant), in, say, Colorado and New Jersey. Local knowledge still abounds about how to coax different vegetables and varieties from local soils and climates, but we’re all planting the same seeds.
Domesticated plants and humans are completely dependent on each other. Nearly every bite of food we eat was grown somewhere along the chain of production, whether we’re talking spinach, Oreos, steaks, or Cokes. And the vast majority of spinach plants, soy beans, wheat, and corn plants, to name only a few, were planted, with genes they never would have evolved on their own in places they never could have planted themselves. Cows and other domesticated animals still tend to breed the old fashioned way—plants not so much.