The majority of people around the world are familiar with growing food from seeds; of course, the number is less in developing countries, and less still in urban areas, but overall most people have witnessed the transition from seed to harvested vegetable (or fruit). Fewer people have then saved seeds from that plant they grew to sow in the ground the following season. Naturally, it used to be the only way to ensure you and your family had food in the future. In fact, it was the very action of savings seeds that defined the beginning of agriculture around 10,000 years ago. Over the years, seeds were traded and brought with families as they moved from one town to another, or immigrated to other counties. Eventually, land grant universities and other scientists began to work on creating improved varieties, seeds specially adapted to produce larger ears of corn, or better resist certain plagues.
Typically these new and improved varieties are hybrids, which means that the seeds those plants produce will not come true; the offspring will not have the same characteristic as the parent. This meant that each year, if a farmer or gardener wanted to use that improved variety, they would need to buy the seeds. The additional cost of the seed typically was outweighed by the additional income from less crop loss or greater yields promised (and typically delivered) by these hybridized seeds. So saving seeds by the masses sort of went to the wayside. And the seed companies grew and consolidated, and hybridized seeds were “improved” even further with genetically modified seeds that have genes from other organisms spliced into the genetic code of a variety of common crops. We could have an entire debate weighing the risks and benefits of genetically modified seeds, but for now we will stay focused on seed saving, and how it’s a lost tradition. Many ancient and cultural traditions have been lost, and we haven’t lamented their absence. Most people are probably thankful they do not have to spin cloth to make their own clothes, and having a grocery store nearby definitely takes the pressure off having to store food through the winter. But losing the tradition of saving seeds ultimately puts our food supply in jeopardy.
When a plant grows in a certain area, and is native to that area, it typically has certain traits that make it particularly well suited to that exact area in which it’s growing. Perhaps it’s adapted to the specific soil type and pH, or perhaps it’s become acclimated to the particular rainfall patterns or daylight hours. Here in El Salvador, a friend took an avocado sapling from his yard here in the city down to plant at his home near the beach – a distance of 42 kilometers (26 miles). It was dead within a week, and a neighbor told him, with a tone that implied “duh,” that a “city” avocado tree could never survive down there, and neither would a “beach” avocado tree survive being transplanted in the city. By all appearances, the avocado trees are the same species. But over the years, the trees with the traits best suited for that particular environment – be it city or beach – thrived and passed on those traits to their offspring. It’s the basis for evolution. So by buying seeds – all of us, buying from the same seed catalog – and planting them in Maine and Arizona and Wisconsin, we are letting the plants that have worked so hard over the years (centuries, even) to become best suited to that location fall into extinction. So what is wrong with that?
According to the International Seed Saving Institute (ISSI), over 90% of the world’s nutrition is provided by thirty crops, and only four crops provide 75% of the Calories. These four crops are wheat, rice, corn, and soybeans. These four crops have been the stars of the lab at those land grant universities I mentioned earlier. They have been hybridized and genetically modified and because of that, we have ourselves a very uniform food supply. For anyone that has studied history, or at least paid attention a little during school, they will remember the Irish Potato Famine in the 1800’s. Because the majority of potatoes in Ireland were a single variety, they were helpless when a potato blight came through and ravaged their crops. Peru, having nearly a dozen different varieties of potatoes planted in various regions around the country, weathered the same potato blight with no famine. Hardly even a blip on the radar. Genetic diversity. That is what saved them. And that is what you can help protect when you save your own seeds. Start with the plants you have growing in your garden now (or those you will this spring, if you are in the middle of winter!). ISSI has a comprehensive set of instructions on how to save seeds from a variety of crops. It is so easy that you’ll wonder why you ever bought seeds in the first place! I have started with a particular vigorous and insanely spicy pepper growing in my front garden. I have no idea what variety it is – more research is needed on that. All I did was pick fully ripe peppers, then (wearing gloves), cut the seeds out, removed any pulp or plant material, and spread the seeds on a paper towel in a cool dry place for about a week. Once they were dry, I wrapped them in the paper towel and sealed them in a bag. Hot peppers ready to go for next season (which starts now in El Salvador!).