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Saving Seed – The New Frontier for Conservation

By Barbara Murphy

About this time every year I spend countless hours poring over seed catalogs figuring out what fruits and vegetables I will grow. When choosing seeds I consider many factors like number of days to harvest, disease resistance, flavor, and ease of growing. I also consider whether I want open-pollinated or hybrid seeds. This choice carries extra weight these days because of a startling fact: just four companies in the world control 60% of the global vegetable seed market. Why is this important?

Seeds always were and should remain a community asset. For example, the Brandywine tomato is considered by many to be the best-tasting tomato variety. An unknown farmer back in the 1800s found it growing, tasted it, and saved some seeds to grow it again. Since then, it has been shared among gardeners and farmers, and many small seed companies have offered it for sale. 

Seeds like this are open pollinated: bees carry pollen between plants which triggers the growth of the tomato and the seeds inside. If you grow your Brandywines near other tomatoes, it is possible that they will cross pollinate. In this case, the current tomatoes won’t show characteristics of a cross, but their seeds will when you plant them the next year. It is always possible that this will produce a tomato you like even better. If you don’t like the crosses, then you would have to separate tomato varieties over greater distances so the bees don’t visit both.

This brings us back to seed companies being bought up by large corporations. What they focus on is making money, and you don’t make money from selling varieties like the Brandywine tomato. It isn’t owned by anyone, and it can be freely shared and sold. Instead, seed companies create hybrids - or F1 hybrids - which are highly controlled, secret crosses between two varieties, where they own the seed variety, often through a patent. Also, saving seeds from F1 hybrids does not produce the same plant the following year. Rather, the F2 generation is a mix of traits from the secret parents often resulting in poorer quality and vigor. In other words, F1 varieties must be purchased every year.

These F1 hybrids aren't inherently bad, nor are they only developed by large corporations. Indeed, Maine's very own Johnny's Selected Seeds has created some outstanding F1 hybrids. The shortened breeding program has the benefit of developing a particular trait in a relatively short period of time. Also, for many, harvesting a significant yield from a small space is important, despite having to buy the seeds again the following year. 

However, privatizing seed varieties and consolidating ownership of seeds to a few is foolish. The spirit and success of agriculture has always relied on farmers and gardeners growing and improving varieties over time and freely sharing those results. In this era of climate change, when developing crops to withstand unstable weather is critical, restricting the free flow of seed genetics leaves the fate of much of our food system in the hands of a few. 

Mahoosuc Land Trust has always worked to preserve biodiversity by conserving critical habitats. Now, under the Habitat For All program, we can raise awareness of the value of conserving seed diversity, too.

Photo Credit: Dusan Kostic

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