The seed saving movement is growing. Communities are banding together to save and share heirloom and open pollination seeds that are in danger of disappearing off the face of the Earth as a result of industrialized agriculture and multinational corporations that control the majority of our seed supply.
The documentary "Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds" by M. Sean Kaminsky seeks to inspire people about the importance of seed saving—and its urgency.1
When you save seeds, you're joining a chain of farmers, gardeners, and seed enthusiasts that dates back to the Stone Age—our civilization literally arose due to seed saving. Early humans selected the best wild plants with which to feed themselves, and passed those varieties along to others by saving and sharing seeds.
Seeds are the foundation of life, from fruits and vegetables to grain and livestock feed—without them, we have no food. It's estimated that upwards of 90 percent of our caloric intake directly or indirectly comes from seeds.
Age-old heirloom varieties are disappearing at an alarming rate—90 percent of the crop varieties grown 100 years ago are already gone. The Millennium Seed Bank Partnership estimates that 60,000 to 100,000 plant species are in danger of extinction.2
Why Seed Saving Is So Important
Four of the most important reasons to save seeds are the following:3
Seed Security: By saving your seeds, you control your seed and therefore your food supply—you aren't depending on seed stores or catalogs for difficult to find seed.
Hundreds of excellent plant varieties have been discontinued as big corporations have consolidated the seed industry and focused on more profitable varieties. Half of the vegetables grown today have no commercial sources—you have to get them through seed trades.4
Regional Adaptation: Most commercially available seed has been selected because it performs fairly well across the entire country if givensynthetic fertilizers.
But when you save seed from your own best performing plants, on your land and in your own ecosystem, you gradually develop varieties better adapted to your own soil, climate, and growing conditions.
Consistent Quality: Large seed suppliers rarely "rogue" the fields to pull out inferior or off-type plants, so the open-pollinated (OP) seeds they sell have inferior specimens in the mix.
You can select your own seed for uniformity and quality. You can control the gene pool for optimal germination, ripening time, flavor, storage, disease resistance, color, etc. After a few seasons, more and more of your plants will have all of your personally selected traits.
Preserving Your Heritage and Biodiversity: Today multinational corporations select seed varieties according to their own financial interests; they control 82 percent of the world's seed market, which includes 75 percent of the vegetable seed market. It's up to small farmers and home gardeners to preserve thousands of years of biodiversity.
Understanding Open-Pollinated, Heirloom, and Hybrid Seeds
As a gardener, one of your more important decisions is whether to choose open-pollinated, hybrid, or heirloom seed varieties—but which are best?
According to Seed Savers,5 for seed saving purposes, the most significant distinction among these types is saving true-to-type seed from open-pollinated and heirloom varieties, and avoiding hybrids. Open-pollination seeds are pollinated by insects, birds, humans, wind or other natural mechanisms.
"Because there are no restrictions on the flow of pollen between individuals, open-pollinated plants are more genetically diverse. This can cause a greater amount of variation within plant populations, which allows plants to slowly adapt to local growing conditions and climate year-to-year.
As long as pollen is not shared between different varieties within the same species, then the seed produced will remain true-to-type, year after year."
An heirloom variety is a plant that has a history of being passed down multiple generations within a family or a community. An heirloom variety is by definition open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms.
Hybridization is a controlled method of pollination in which the pollen of two different species or varieties is crossed (usually by human intervention, although it can happen in nature), usually from a desire to breed in a particular trait. Hybrids are typically unstable and less vigorous, producing fewer of those desirable traits with each passing year.
However, hybrid seeds can be stabilized by open-pollination—by growing, selecting and saving the seeds over many seasons.
Choosing open-pollinated and heirloom seeds helps conserve genetic diversity and prevents the loss of unique varieties, including the ones that contribute to our long-term survival because of special hardiness and disease resistance traits. Biodiversity is our only insurance in times of vulnerability, such as when facing climate change.
Our Loss of Seed Diversity Is Shocking
In 80 years (between 1903 and 1983), we lost 93 percent of the variety in our food seeds. According to Rural Advancement Foundation International:7
We went from 497 varieties of lettuce to 36
We went from 288 varieties of beets to 17
We went from 307 varieties of sweet corn to 12
Even the popular heirloom tomato has taken an enormous hit, having lost at least 80 percent of its diversity over the last century. Even more tragic is the fact that a lot of these precious plants are being replaced by patented genetically engineered (GE) varieties.
The National Geographic infographic below shows how many varieties of fruits and vegetables appear to be nearing extinction.8 This data is already more than 30 years old, so the statistics may be even more grim today.
The Disastrous Consequences of Patenting Life
Traditionally, seeds have been saved and shared between farmers from one season to the next. Farmers rarely ever had to buy new seed. Nature, when left alone, provides you with the means to propagate the next harvest in a never-ending cycle. Valuable heirlooms have been replaced by massive expanses of genetically engineered (GE) crops. According to the USDA, 94 percent of US soy and 88 percent of US corn are now genetically engineered (GE).
It's estimated that, since 1970, 20,000 seed companies have been swallowed up by mega-corporations. In 2005, Monsanto bought the world's largest fruit and vegetable seed company, Seminis, for $1.4 billion. Just four agrichemical companies now own 43 percent of the world's commercial seed supply, and 10 multinational corporations hold 65 percent of global commercial seed for major crops.9 Many farmers are now dependent on patented GE seeds and must buy them every year from companies like Monsanto. Saving such seeds is illegal because it'sconsidered patent infringement.
Farmers don't buy seed anymore—they essentially buy a license to use the seed for a short period of time—typically one season. It's more of a lease, or a "technology use agreement." For 200 years, the patenting of life was prohibited, especially with respect to foods. But all of that changed in 1978 with the first patent of a living organism, an oil-eating microbe, which opened the proverbial floodgates.
According to the film, one of Monsanto's proxies has a patent claiming 463,173 separate plant genes! Patenting of life forms was never approved by Congress or the American public, but as far as the GMO industry is concerned, they own a gene wherever it ends up and however it gets there. The trail of destruction left by GE seeds isn't limited to the West—Indian farmers have been coerced into using them, with completely disastrous consequences.
GE Seeds Responsible for 250,000 Farmer Suicides
More than a quarter of a million Indian farmers have committed suicide over the past 16 years, since the introduction of GE seed. These crops have failed (especially Bt cotton), leaving them financially ruined. Bt cotton is much more expensive than traditional cotton seed, requires more water and pesticides, and has failed to produce the increased crop yields promised by Monsanto.
India's government has largely abandoned small farmers, discontinuing support programs and failing to address factors such as lack of rural credit and access to irrigation, among others, and new government programs have barely scratched the surface of this crisis, which results in one farmer committing suicide every 30 minutes, typically by ingesting pesticides like Roundup.
On a side note, concerns over glyphosate's toxicity are finally starting to be taken seriously. The US EPA recently announced10 US regulators may start testing for glyphosate residues on food in the near future. While thousands of foods are tested for about 400 different pesticides each year, glyphosate is not on that list simply because it's been thought to be safe.
While that's good news, it's worth noting that the EPA raised the allowable limits for glyphosate in food in 2013, and the allowable levels may be too high to protect human health, based on mounting research. Root and tuber vegetables (with the exception of sugar) got one of the largest boosts, with allowable residue limits being raised from 0.2 ppm to 6.0 ppm.
Meanwhile, malformations in frog and chicken embryos have been documented at 2.03 ppm of glyphosate.11 And, as reported by the Institute for Science in Society:12
"The amount of allowable glyphosate in oilseed crops (except for canola and soy) went up from 20 ppm to 40 ppm, 100,000 times the amount needed to induce breast cancer cells."
Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a serious threat to our environment and our health. Although the US has the strictest food safety laws in the world governing new additives, the FDA has allowed GMOs to evade those laws, as Steven Druker explains in this recent interview. The sole purported legal basis for the marketing of GE foods in the US is the FDA's claim that they're "Generally Recognized as Safe" (GRAS)—a claim that is actually fraudulent. Documents released as a result of a lawsuit against the FDA reveal that the agency's scientists warned superiors about the extraordinary risks of GE foods—but their warnings were spurned and covered up.
According to the law, no GE food can qualify as GRAS unless there is overwhelming consensus about its safety within the scientific community, and that consensus cannot be based on hypotheses or speculation—it must be based on solid evidence. In the case of GE foods, there is no such evidence. FDA's own files contain the admission that they didn't have any technical evidence upon which to base their presumption that GE foods are GRAS.
On January 24, 2015 a statement signed by 300 scientists was published in a peer-reviewed journal,13 asserting that there is no scientific consensus about the safety of GE foods, which confirms that they are on the US market illegally. The American Academy of Environmental Medicine wrote, "There is more than a casual association between GE foods and adverse health effects." They go on to cite specific scientific evidence pointing to potential organ damage from GE foods (liver, kidney, spleen, and GI system), accelerated aging, immune dysregulation, infertility... and the list goes on and on.14
Support Seed Diversity by Ditching GE Food
As you often hear me say, one of your greatest powers is your pocketbook. You can take back control over our food supply with the choices you make about the foods you eat, the seeds you plant, and the products you use. Here are a few suggestions:
Stop buying non-organic processed foods. Instead, build your diet around whole, unprocessed foods, especially raw fruits and vegetables, and healthy fats from coconut oil, avocados, organic pastured meat, dairy, and eggs, and raw nuts
Buy most of your foods from your local farmer's market and organic farms
Cook most or all your meals at home using whole, organic ingredients
Frequent restaurants that serve organic, cooked-from-scratch local food. Many restaurants, especially chain restaurants, use processed foods for their meals (Chipotlé is a rare exception)
Buy only organic, open-pollinated, and heirloom seeds for your garden, which applies to both decorative plants and edibles; they're obtainable from seed swaps, seed libraries, and exchanges (see next section for sources)
Boycott all lawn and garden chemicals (fertilizers, pesticides, etc.) unless they are "OMRI Approved," which means they're allowed in organic production. If you use a lawn service, make sure they're using OMRI Approved products as well
Join the Organic Consumers Association's new campaign, "Buy Organic Brands that Support Your Right to Know"
Seed Saving Resources
If you want to begin saving your own seeds, there are four basic steps: Choosing the right plants, collecting their seeds, cleaning the seeds and storing them appropriately.15 Below are some excellent seed saving resources, as well as suggestions for where to purchase open-pollinated and heirloom seeds.
Seed to Seed: Seed Saving Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners by Suzanne Ashworth (March 2002) is an excellent and widely cited book about seed saving
Seed Savers Exchange: Organization whose mission is to promote saving and sharing of heirloom seeds and plants
SeedSave.org: Online seed school with free downloadable book about the basics of seed saving
Hudson Valley Seed Library: Featured in the movie, Hudson is much more than a library—it's also a place where you can order heirloom seed
Mother Earth News article16 about their picks for top 15 vegetable seed companies
What Are GMOs?
From April 19th through April 25th we launch GMO Awareness Week. We set aside an entire week dedicated to providing you with information on GMOs and labeling initiatives.
GMOs are a product of genetic engineering, meaning their genetic makeup has been altered to induce a variety of “unique” traits to crops, such as making them drought-resistant or giving them “more nutrients.” GMO proponents claim that genetic engineering is “safe and beneficial,” and that it advances the agricultural industry. They also say that GMOs help ensure the global food supply and sustainability. But is there any truth to these claims? I believe not. For years, I've stated the belief that GMOs pose one of the greatest threats to life on the planet. Genetic engineering is NOT the safe and beneficial technology that it is touted to be.
Help Support GMO Labeling
The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA)—Monsanto’s Evil Twin—is pulling out all the stops to keep you in the dark about what’s in your food. For nearly two decades, Monsanto and corporate agribusiness have exercised near-dictatorial control over American agriculture. For example, Monsanto has made many claims that glyphosate in Roundup is harmless to animals and humans. However, recently the World Health Organization (WHO) had their research team test glyphosate and have labeled it a probable carcinogen.
Public opinion around the biotech industry's contamination of our food supply and destruction of our environment has reached the tipping point. We're fighting back. That's why I was the first to push for GMO labeling. I donated a significant sum to the first ballot initiative in California in 2012, which inspired others to donate to the campaign as well. We technically "lost the vote, but we are winning the war, as these labeling initiatives have raised a considerable amount of public awareness.
The insanity has gone far enough, which is why I encourage you to boycott every single product owned by members of the GMA, including natural and organic brands. More than 80 percent of our support comes from individual consumers like you, who understand that real change comes from the grassroots.
Thankfully, we have organizations like the Organic Consumers Association (OCA) to fight back against these junk food manufacturers, pesticide producers, and corporate giants.