o create a reliable food system for the future, ancient, rare, and diverse seeds need to be brought back into rotation; they are the fundamental way forward when looking at feeding a growing population through climate change.
Ellen de Casmaker from Eternal Seed began saving her own seeds because she found that some of her old favourites weren’t available in mainstream catalogues. “We then became hooked on having our own supply. We also have a concern for the ongoing reduction in bio-genetic diversity, and it’s extremely important that the diversity of the past be preserved in order to maintain variety in our food source.”
In a time where the planet and its weather patterns are unpredictable, seeds that are genetically diverse and adaptable are needed, which comes from taking heirloom and open-pollinated seeds and saving different varieties that survive in particular land and climate conditions. Though currently, hybrid commercial seed companies are limiting home gardeners’ ability to save their own seeds. By incorporating cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS) into the genes of the seeds, companies have created a reliance on gardeners buying new seed packets year after year rather than saving their seeds, which has damaged the world’s genetic variety.
“For the last 50 to 60 years, the focus has been on uniformity in produce,” Kim Delaney from Hawthorn Farm Organic Seeds says about the commercial industry not allowing genetics to drift in seed production. “If the specific flavour or shape wasn’t exactly what they wanted from a seed type, they’d sort it out. Recently what we’ve seen with seed saving is something called ‘landraced’ populations, which focuses more on saving for genetic diversity and resilience.”
The focus is still on saving for flavour and texture to a degree, but today there isn’t an emphasis on purity within a seed variety. The goal of landrace seed saving is to gather seeds from open-pollinated fruit that can withstand drought, flooding, pests, and other changing climate factors throughout the year. By placing emphasis on the sturdiest crops from one growing year to the next and going further to incorporate new seeds to cross-pollinate for genetic variation, the seeds are able to adapt to its climate and soil and produce the highest yields for its given conditions.
Although the recent seed starting craze was prompted by heirlooms, Kim adds that people shouldn’t be afraid of variation or responsible hybrids.
“Bees and winds create hybrids in the gardens by moving the pollen from varieties of plants,” she explains.
This is how a burgundy lettuce ends up with a lime green lettuce offspring. “You wouldn’t exclude that seed just because it’s technically a hybrid; you would want to take that interesting new seed variety, incorporate it into the collection and keep working with those.”
Often folks equate seed breeding with GMOs, but they’re vastly different. Responsible hybrids can help small-scale farmers and market gardeners create a new variety that’s been missing from the repertoire, whether that be a sturdy red pepper that is able to be bred up north, or a squash that’s resistant to powdery mildew. The same can be said for home gardeners who want to secure food for their climate. The key here is not to breed conformity in produce, and keep the seeds open-pollinated and diverse.
As the world changes, the need for seeds that are adaptive to these changes we are seeing increases.
Historically, many famines have been prompted by the failure of cloned or monocrops. This was seen through the Potato Famine in Ireland, the American corn blight, and the recent GMO corn failure in South Africa. It only takes one pest, disease, or climate-related disaster to completely wipe out a crop, whereas genetically diverse seeds will withstand harsh conditions.
Along with saving seeds for climate conditions, preserving ancestral lineage is also at the forefront of the movement, as 90% of cultivars have been wiped out since the introduction of industrial farming.
“Even today, some seeds are critical and they’ll be lost forever if we don’t save them,” Jim Ternier from Prairie Garden Seeds says. An avid collector of all interesting seeds and a previous member of the Seeds of Diversity group, he says that the main goal is to put rare and diverse seeds back into practical rotation in people’s gardens.
“Even today, some seeds are critical and they’ll be lost forever if we don’t save them,”
Just through the practice of saving their own seeds, home gardeners and small-scale growers have resuscitated nearly extinct varieties, and have now incorporated new, adaptable, and hardy seeds to pass forward.
For those looking to save their seeds, Jim advises to start simply with peas, beans, or peppers and build your seed bank from there.
There is also a useful seed saving pamphlet from Seeds of Diversity to guide new and established seed savers.Beginning this work of saving seeds and encouraging others to do the same will strengthen local food systems and create an incredible bond with the land and people.
It will allow humanity to be resilient through climate change together, and ensure the production of food for generations even when times are uncertain.