Seedy Business

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Story by Karen Gibson | Photographs courtesy of Seeds of Time

For a local take, read about Seed Saving and Sovereignty in Easthampton.

Samantha Marsh's story on a new seed bank in Easthampton here. When you buy that magnificent heirloom Cherokee Purple tomato, or the clever, open-pollinated inside-out watermelon radish, or the delightfully fragrant lemon basil plant from your local farmer, you're participating in what is arguably the most important food preservation effort on the planet. And in a grand way, too.

By selecting open-pollinated or heirloom varieties, you're signaling your interests and preferences to the grower, who will use customer buying patterns to decide what she plants next year, and how she'll expand her offerings with unique open-pollinated varieties.  The farmer will then purchase seeds from a fellow grower who has carefully nurtured those varieties from healthy plant to healthy seed. That purchase encourages the seed producer to broaden his open-pollinated plantings, as he learns what farmers need for their direct-to-consumer businesses.

And soon, we have a wider variety of produce from which to choose, and more importantly, you, I, and others across the city, region, and country, can help slow the alarming trend of global biodiversity loss.

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Biodiversity Loss: a Global Threat

Biodiversity encompasses the unique varieties of life on earth – human, plant, animal, insect, avian, marine, soil microbes, etc. – and the intricate and critically important interdependence that exists among them in the global ecosystem. Our planet has experienced an alarming decrease in the variety of species thriving today. In food terms – that is, in agrobiodiversity terms – this is very bad news.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates that we've experienced a 75% loss in genetic crop diversity in the last century, due in significant part to the advancement of industrial agriculture, which requires efficiency and simplification through monoculture (i.e., a large industrial farm growing only corn – and perhaps just one variety at that – rather than corn, plus various cultivars of beans, squash, garlic, onions, and tomatoes) to be productive and profitable. Absence of diversity threatens global food security: as we have fewer and fewer fruit and vegetable cultivated species, the risk of devastation by pests and disease looms large.  

Think of it in terms of your financial portfolio: your advisor encourages investment diversification to stabilize your overall wealth. If you invest everything in Acme Sprocket, Inc., and Acme Sprocket goes under, so does your portfolio. But if you spread your investments among multiple companies with unique operations, the loss of one company or a tilt in one business sector will be compensated by the health of the others.

The massive potato crop losses throughout Europe in the 1840s, leading to the Irish Potato Famine and the starvation deaths of almost one million citizens, is an example of an agrobiodiversity disaster. None of the potato varieties grown in Europe at that time was resistant to the particular strain of potato blight that destroyed the crops, nor was the Irish Lumper variety upon which the Irish population solely depended. An agrobiodiversity crisis of this type also has cascading and long-reaching effects: not only is there crop loss in a given growing season, but once the crop fails there are no healthy specimens remaining from which growers can take seed for future years.

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Open-pollinated vs. Hybrid Seeds

When we speak about preserving crop agrobiodiversity, the focus must always turn to the viability of seeds and their ability to reliably reproduce the same crop year after year. Open-pollinated varieties are the answer to this need.

Open-pollinated varieties – plants that are pollinated through natural mechanisms, such as wind, birds, and insects – create, over time, genetically diverse plants that naturally adapt to the climate and soil where they grow. As long as varieties do not cross-pollinate, a plant's seeds will produce similar plants and similar fruit the next year, inheriting the characteristics of the plant that pollinated it.  (Heirlooms are a subset of open-pollinated plants, so named because of the historical background and heritage that is carried along with each variety.)

Hybrid varieties grown for commercial sale are the result of controlled cross-pollination, with the intent to favor certain characteristics – not just color and flavor, but also disease resistance, growing habits, and higher yields.

Hybrid strains, while hardy producers in the first year, are actually genetically weak, and seeds taken from the fruit of a first generation plant will not produce the same plant or fruit on a second generation plant.

For example, in one recent year, I grew a hybrid red cherry tomato plant in an isolated spot in my yard. Seeds from its fallen fruit volunteered the next year, producing grape-shaped tomatoes with green shoulders and an undesirably bland, winter-tomato quality flavor.

If we want to preserve the edible crops on our planet and protect ourselves from food crises caused by biodiversity loss, we must save and expand the world's cache of open-pollinated seeds. There are many significant operations devoted to doing just that, globally, nationally, and locally.

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Regional: Seed Banks

Over 1,700 seed bank facilities exist around the world today. Their raison d'etre is to collect, preserve, maintain, and regenerate seeds from species that are at risk for extinction, regarded as critical to the global ecosystem or food supply, or are particularly suited and relied upon as crops for the region in which the bank is located.

Seed bank facilities are large and complex in their operations, as they are charged not just with seed collection and storage, but also tracking and cataloging every seed in their facility, which is an enormous responsibility.  The storage units themselves must be carefully monitored and managed for optimum climate and temperature (-18°C is the international standard for seed preservation).  Many have labs and scientists on staff devoting their efforts to gene research, species health, and improving preservation practices.

A critical part of the seed saving process at these banks is ensuring that the entire collection survives: seeds must be periodically checked for viability, grown to maturity, and evaluated for health and hardiness to replenish the collection with fresh seed.

Seed banks can be associated with and/or funded by governments, universities, or private trusts or organizations, but are generally inaccessible to the public (in terms of requesting seeds or storing seeds). The world's largest seed bank is the Millennium Seed Bank in the UK, near London (although they do not focus on food crop seed saving), storing almost two million seeds at present.

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Global: The Svalbard Seed Vault

Located as close to the North Pole as it is to its governing country of Norway, this underground fortress was built into the side of a sandstone mountain on the Svalbard archipelago with one goal in mind: to provide a fail-safe and permanent storage facility for genetic crop materials with protection against threats both man-made (such as war and large-scale accidents) and natural (climate change, natural disasters). An insurance policy, if you will, for the world's food supply.

Opened in 2008, the Svalbard Vault is an extension of the work performed by seed banks. One can think of the vault's purpose as a safety deposit box for seed banks: banks store backups of their seeds in the vault, often in addition to backups that already exist onsite at seed bank facilities. No genetic research or lab work occurs at the vault; it is simply a high-security storage facility. Each seed bank is responsible for testing and regenerating the seeds they store in the vault to ensure viability, and banks can access only their own seeds.

The location was selected based on a variety of factors. Its arctic permafrost climate ensures appropriate freezing temperatures that will protect the seeds even in the event of power failure within the vault. The thick walls of the structure and the mountain surrounding it provide more than adequate insulation to sustain proper temperature. It's location far above sea level ensures safety from floods.

The region is geologically stable with a notable absence of tectonic activity, and engineers constructed the walls of the vault to withstand forces such as explosions and earthquakes. On an island with more polar bears than humans, it's an unlikely target of invasion. These factors and more compensate for the physical vulnerabilities of standard seed banks, where an unexpected power failure could put the bank's entire collection at risk.

Most important, the Norwegian government is completely committed to its success and partner with seed banks around the world to assist them in their seed saving – and seed backup – efforts. The Crop Diversity Endowment Fund funds the vault completely and permanently. (Learn more about the Svalbard Global Seed Vault at http://croptrust.org.)

Local: Seed Swaps & Libraries

At the community level, many home gardeners are devoted to the practice of seed saving, and regularly connect with other local growers to share their collections and discuss successes and failures with specific varieties. These casual associations often transform into something more organized, such as seed swaps and seed libraries.

A swap is an event where gardeners meet in person to exchange seeds they've harvested from their year's plantings, usually for free. Seed swaps are an easy and socially engaging way for home gardeners to gain access to seeds of varieties they've never grown, and to see firsthand the diversity of plantings in their area.

Seed libraries are small to medium sized operations that gather seeds – often through donation of home gardeners – in an organized fashion and retain them for sharing.

Unlike seed banks, whose purpose is to collect and store seed, a seed library collects and distributes seeds to gardeners in its community. Similar to a book library – and, indeed, seed libraries often find convenient homes within existing book libraries – seed libraries catalog and inventory incoming donated seeds, and then those seeds are "checked out" to growers, much like books, often with the expectation (or at least the hope) that the gardener will save and return a fresh set of seeds at the end of the growing season, along with an account of how the plant fared.  In this way, seed libraries hold the unique position of seed depository, seed distributor, and seed educator.  

Sadly, however, seed libraries are currently under fire. In a well-publicized action last year, the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture brought the hammer down on one public library's new seed lending program, citing the potential of "agroterrorism" through the library's public and unregulated activities. According to Pennsylvania's Seed Act, seed growers must jump through a number of hoops, including purchasing a license, keeping complete records along with samples, and submitting their seed for testing before distribution can occur, in the interests of ensuring seed health and labeling accuracy. All of which is overkill for home gardeners just looking for new varieties of heirloom tomatoes or squash to sample, so the library ceased its seed program.

Although smaller in scale to banks, seed swaps and seed libraries contribute to biodiversity both in practice – by encouraging the growth and seed replenishment of open-pollinated varieties among farmers and gardeners – and in education.  As these activities spread across the country, so does awareness of the importance of biodiversity and preserving and sharing open-pollinated seeds. Facebook is a popular platform for swap and library members to stay in touch with each other.

Seed Saving: A First Project for Beginners

I began saving seeds out of curiosity (and a little bit of awe): could it really be that simple, letting seeds dry on their own, tucking them into a cool spot for the winter, and next year I'd have my own collection of seeds? Indeed, it was.

I started with herbs, and to this today they're my favorite seed saving subjects. I recommend growing cilantro or dill as a first project, as their seed heads are large and beautiful, producing fully visible seeds, thus making easy observation of the plant's seed development.

As a heads-up, know that cilantro and dill can grow a bit gangly when left to mature and produce seeds, so be certain to plant them where their heights (two to three feet) won't interfere with nearby plants. Both cilantro and dill readily bolt – that is, produce a flowering seed head – in hot weather. Let them flower and leave them be. Seeds will quickly form. (Note that while the seeds from the dill plant are known as dill seed, cilantro becomes "coriander" in seed form.)

Let the seeds dry right on the plants. It will take a couple of weeks, but you'll know they're ready to harvest when the seeds have turned brown and dislodge easily from the stems (coriander seeds are small and round with ridges; dill seeds are flat and tear-drop shaped). Cut the seed heads from the stem and shake the seeds into a paper bag. Clear the seeds from other plant debris and store them in an airtight container in a cool spot.  That's it – so easy.

Plan on growing extra of these two herbs: not only can you save their seeds for next year's plantings, but they're also great in cooking and, if stored whole, you'll have a long-storing supply of coriander and dill seed (dill pickles!).