Seeds: they are amazing. That these tiny things hold within themselves the complete potential for an enormous tree, beautiful flower or delicious vegetable is a wonder of nature and evolution.
That anyone can harvest a seed, plant it, and grow plants to feed themselves is an extraordinarily beautiful thing. Seeds are part of our heritage, our culture, our civilisation. Without the ability to cultivate plants from seed we’d never have formed agricultural societies, and without agricultural society you would not be reading this.
Seeds are integral to what it means to be a modern human; to how we feed ourselves, how we structure our societies, how we manage our land and other natural resources. Such tiny things are so critical to who we are and how we live.
Seeds are important, and they are under threat.
I’ve written before about how important crop diversity is. Why it matters to grow rare and heirloom vegetables, and to save seed to cultivate plants best suited to local conditions. The maintenance and continual evolution of plant genetic diversity is critical to food security, to making sure we can feed ourselves and future generations.
The science behind this is incontrovertible.
That’s why I was horrified to find out about the proposed EU regulation “On the production and making available on the market of plant reproductive material” (aka the Plant Reproductive Material Law). Under the legislation, any seeds sold commercially must:
- belong to an acceptable variety or clone that has been registered with the UN;
- comply with the specific requirements adopted for the marketing category of that plant; and
- comply with legislated labelling, handling, certification and identification requirements.
i.e. for an annual fee and a pile of paperwork, you can be permitted to sell your seeds. Maybe. If the government decides your plants meet the registered “definition” for that variety.
What does a plant definition mean anyway? That means the seeds can’t show much genetic deviation from the registered type specimen for that variety, retarding development of strains and varieties that suit local conditions. That means restricting genetic diversity and increasing susceptibility to disease and climatic changes.
Although these laws don’t apply to backyard gardeners like me, they do apply to anyone in the EU who grows plants or distributes seeds for commercial sale. That includes your market stall holder, local nursery, native plant suppliers and market gardeners.
Why does this bother me? Because we’re letting politicians decide what constitutes a valid variety of food plant; because we’re stifling innovation and local adaptation, and at the same time reducing plant diversity; because the law gives advantage to large corporations who can manage the administrative imposts and pay the registrations, not to mention lobby governments over the very definitions of “acceptable varieties”.
Companies with have a track record of patenting plant genomes (making a food crop somehow “copyright”) and taking farmers to court who accidentally sow their seeds[3, 5,6]. Companies that deliberately push genetically modified (GM) crops that cannot be bred by farmers, forcing them to continue buying seed from Monsanto every year and preventing the development of new varieties and the adaption to local conditions.
Monsanto alone is alleged to have lodged 144 seed patent infringement lawsuits in the US thus far.
These companies aren’t in the business of protecting biodiversity. They don’t believe fair and free access to seeds is a fundamental principle of human rights. For these corporations, the narrower the range of crops and the less adaptable the plant genetics, the more opportunities they have to make profits by developing and selling copy-righted seeds. If we lose our ability to develop and distribute locally-adapted and unusual varieties, we lose control of our food sources, we lose our ability to develop crops that suit our soils, climate and cultural traditions and grow dependent on the corporations to sell us patented seeds to feed ourselves. Patented seeds the farmer cannot harvest and re-sow, sold for maximum profit, from the narrow range of crops that these companies invest in.
That’s a pretty scary road to be travelling down.
The science of genetically modifying, or engineering, plant materials forms part and parcel of the debate about seeds. GM science gets all caught up in the politics and corporate sociopathy, but it’s vital to examine the science in its own right. The science of GM is neither good nor evil; it’s how it’s applied that determines that.
GM: genetically modified. What does that mean? It means humans have messed around with a plants genome, the DNA that codes how that plant grows, what nutrients it has, how sensitive it is to chemicals, how tolerant of certain conditions. The genome that is copied into a plant’s reproductive materials: its seeds. The agri-corporations are using GM science to develop plants that are resistant to specific herbicides, usually owned by the same company, like Monsanto’s Round-up and their GM “Roundup Ready” seeds.
GM science can also be used to develop crop strains that can be grown in new areas, places too dry, too wet, or with soil too poor to grow traditionally-bred varieties. It can be used to reduce reliance on fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, to increase crop yields, to improve nutrition and to develop plant resistance to famine-causing diseases.[4,7] The scientists working on GM foods are doing so because they see the science as a powerful tool for helping to feed a growing global population in an uncertain future, and maybe there’s a place for GM in the world-feeding toolbox. There’s just not when it’s in the hands of vested interests.
GM’s still a relatively new science too, and we’re not sure what the long term effects of GM foods might be. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on the science though: it means we should be cautious and make sure the long-term studies and trials are done before we leap into GM cropping. That’s not what’s happening though, with the agri-corps pressuring government to permit GM seeds on the market before these (costly, long-term) studies are done. GM might not be evil, but right now there are a lot of good arguments for caution and maintaining large agricultural areas that are completely areas GM-free.
So what does all this mean?
To me, all of this shows how important it is that the community is informed, aware and involved in the business and politics of seeds. It’s too big an issue to leave to the lobby groups and politicians: all of our futures are caught up in the incredible potential of seeds.
Concerned? Take the time to get informed and make sure your voice gets heard.
I’m keeping an eye on the EU legislation and have signed the international petitions against the proposed EU legislation here (AVAAZ) and here (Noah’s Ark Foundation).
I’m also paying attention to the discussions happening here in Australia around GM crops, agribusiness and associated legislation. Here in Tasmania our temporary ban on GM crops is due to expire next year, and there’s good reason to get involved in local action campaigning for a renewal.
Seeds belong to all of us. It is critical to the future of humanity that this remains the case: that we can breed, grow and freely trade the food plants that best suit our climates, cultures and local conditions to ensure a future where we’re all well fed.
 The European Commission (2013) Proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council – On the production and making available on the market of plant reproductive material (plant reproductive material law); European Commission, Brussels.
 Rabesandratana T (2003) Overhaul of E.U. Seed Regulations Triggers Protests; Science magazine; American Association for the Advancement of Science.
 Cornell University Law School (2013) Vernon Hugh Bowman v. Monsanto Company in first sale doctrine patent exhaustion infringement; Legal Information Institute, Cornell University.
 Kruft D (2001) Impacts of Genetically-Modified Crops and Seeds on Farmers; The Agricultural Law Resource and Reference Center, Pennsylvania State University.
 Wikipedia: Monsanto Canada Inc. vs Schmeiser.
 Tepper R (2013) Seed Giants Sue U.S. Farmers Over Genetically Modified Seed Patents In Shocking Numbers: Report, Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com Inc.
 Walsh B (2013) Modifying the Endless Debate Over Genetically Modified Crops; Time Science & Space, Time Inc.
 DPIPWE (2009) Policy Statement: Gene technology and Tasmanian Primary Industries 2009-2014; Policy Division, Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, Tasmanian Government.
These last couple of weeks I’ve been feeling a little low. This time of year does it to me: I get over-scheduled, over-committed, under-slept, and with most folk getting busy with family commitments sometimes I feel pretty alone. I’m tired, and some days it can feel like a bit of a struggle to keep going, but then the little things come along that lift me.
This afternoon I took myself on a fossick around the garden. You see that luscious-looking big, buttery potato there? I grew that. Or more accurately, I provided the soil and the compost and the seed potatoes and the mulch, and it grew itself.
I’ve never grown potatoes before.
Neither have I grown the beans, beetroots, chard, oca and numerous other things doing well in my garden. It kinda makes up for the disappointments, like having only 3 carrots come up, and discovering the self-sown peas I’ve been nurturing were pretty sweet peas and not lovely food. Then there are the strawberries: what fruit has survived the unusually hot and dry conditions of late has been pilfered by the blackbirds: I have had one lone ripe berry.
Tonight I’m going to steam up that potato, diced into little cubes. I’m going to dice and fry some divine local free-range bacon (payment for assistance rendered) and throw in some broadbeans (donated by a colleague with a surplus) plus some chopped up garlic greens and sage leaves I picked this afternoon. I’ll squeeze over a lemon, taken from my friend’s tree, and toss the lot on top of some lettuce leaves that have evaded the worst of the recent weather in a shady part of my garden.
Between my patch of dirt and my community, I’m feeding myself. Tonight I’m eating outside of the system, far removed from the supermarket. I’m actually doing this, with my sad little garden that the heat has burnt and baked the soil to clay. I’m doing this in a rental house, with a full-time job and a life that takes me out and about quite a lot. I am doing this, and if I can do it, maybe so can you. Maybe together we can build ourselves a food community, connecting eaters with growers and using the land we have to grow the food we need.
Imagine that: a world without dependence on the big supermarkets, with their demands for unsustainable farming practices and shelves stacked with pretend food. A world where we know our neighbours and trade our backyard surpluses, where we’ve met the grower who sells us vegetables, where we’ve gotten close and personal with the animals that become our meat. Lower emissions, more sustainable farming, connected communities. Grow, forage, trade, cook: do it.
Sometimes all it takes is a humble potato to remind me what it’s all about.
Over the weekend I spent a bit of time in the garden, weeding, composting and mulching. I’m preparing beds for the month ahead, keeping myself motivated through the hard graft (the gardens here are seriously neglected) by daydreaming about the harvests to come. As well as thinking about what will do well in my garden and what I like to eat I’ve been giving a bit of thought to biological and genetic diversity and wondering how my plantings might help to keep rare species and varieties alive.
So what’s the problem with food crop diversity? The limited types of plants we grow, and the few varieties (genetic strains) of those plants we do sow.
Modern agriculture promotes the growing of only a small sub-sample of possible food plants. The plants grown have been selected over the years for various reasons, including high yields, easy harvesting, long shelf-life, market familiarity and easy processing. As western industrial systems of agriculture have expanded across the world, western crops have moved with them, replacing traditional food plants. We’ve lost awareness of many alternative food plants along with the knowledge of how best to grow them, and along the way we’ve lost access to many of the food plants best suited to growing conditions in many parts of the world, and to the conditions predicted in a climate-change impacted future.
As farming has industrialised we’ve also become reliant on a small handful of the known varieties of the plants that have become our dominant crops. Where a century ago there were 400 known varieties of peas in cultivation, now there’s only 25 that are commonly grown and most of the original 400 have gone extinct. Although it might not seem important – after all we still have peas – this loss of genetic diversity is really quite worrying: genetic diversity is the thing that lets us adapt crops to changing conditions, environments and diseases.[1, 2] If we lose the genes, we lose the means to adapt our food plants to new growing conditions. This is a huge concern for food security, putting our agricultural systems at risk of collapse due to drought, climate change, plant diseases and even global politics – agribusiness is big business.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost from the world’s fields – that’s how big the problem is. Some governments and science organisations are so concerned that they’ve established a secure seed bank to preserve rare seeds as best as possible, behind steel doors in a vault built into a mountain beneath the permafrost in the Arctic circle.[1, 3, 4]
Although it’s not only the lost biodiversity that’s the problem – there’s related issues about fertilizer, pesticide and herbicide use , as well as lost potential medicinal and biotechnological properties, farming knowledge and cultural traditions – it’s the part that I can do a little something about in my own back yard*. I can plant unusual crops and rare varieties of veggies in my little patch, preserving diversity when I collect seed for the next year and expanding my culinary world at the same time. I’ve taken my day-dreams of fresh greens and home-grown spuds and checked them against growing guides and seed catalogues, getting an idea of what plants and varieties will do well on my fine, claggy soil (I could spend hours looking through seed catalogues, dreaming of gardens that will never be…). I’m choosing for suitability, flavour and biodiversity, tracking down suppliers of unusual, heirloom and organic seeds. There’s a world of weird veg out there that I can’t wait to explore!
Backyard-friendly unusual veggies that I’m contemplating growing include salsify, skirret, salad burnet, oca, mizuna and elephant garlic. I’m also planning to plant unusual varieties of more familiar crops:
- blue sapphire potatoes - seriously, purple spuds that are tasty too – What’s not to love?
- Chioggia beetroot - it’s stripey!
- purple sprouting broccoli - I grew this last year and am hooked
- “Caspar” white eggplants – early harvesting, so hopefully I’ll have better luck than I did last summer.
…and whatever else I come across that’s just a little different.
I’ll find out what works, save seed from the successes and grow them again next season, slowly selecting the genes that do best right here, creating a garden with a genetic profile that’s all it’s own.
What usual food plants or rare varieties are your favourites? What’s the weirdest edible you’ve ever grown? Know any good sources for heirloom seeds or kooky seedlings? Let us know what makes your garden a little more biodiverse!
Sources for seeds or unusual seedlings (Australia):
In Tasmania and interested in food security? Public lecture: Food Security and Nutrition – The GM Question
- Who? former Chief Scientist of Australia and CSIRO Fellow, Dr Jim Peacock AC
- Where? Stanley Burbury Theatre, University Centre, Sandy Bay campus
- When? 10th July 2012, 6.00 – 7.30 pm
- How? RSVP by email to UTAS.Events@utas.edu.au
 Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations (2010) Crop biodiversity: use it or lose it.
 Longyearbyen (2012) Banking against Doomsday; The Economist, March 10th, 2012.
 Altieri MA (1999) The ecological role of biodiversity in agroecosystems; Agriculture, Ecosystems and Environment 74, Pp 19–31; Elsevier.
 Altieri MA & Merrick LC (1986) Agroecology and in situ conservation of native crop diversity in the third world; Chapter 41 in Wilson EO (1986) Biodiversity, Part 3; National Academy of Sciences, Smithsonian Institution, USA.
* I can also do something about it through my grocery shopping, steering clear of the supermarkets for my produce, buying meat from rare-breed livestock and selecting unusual veg from the farmer’s market and local grocer.