Above: Display Booth for The Seed Savers Exchange at a PASA conference in Pennsylvania. Below: To increase the genetic diversity of U.S. corn, the Germplasm Enhancement for Maize (GEM) project seeks to combine exotic germplasm, such as this unusually colored and shaped maize from Latin America, with domestic corn lines. Photo by Keith Weller

In the seed lies the life and the future

By Erika Burt

Corporate industrial agriculture is taking over food and farming on many different levels around the globe. If one reads the news and follows the headlines in the mainstream media it becomes obvious that many people are concerned with food safety and security. The genetic diversity of the world’s food crops is eroding at an unprecedented and accelerating rate, so it is important to take some time and really understand where our food comes from and from which types of seeds our food grows.

Farmers around the world have been saving seeds for centuries, preserving the most durable ones for replanting. It is our responsibility to protect seeds for future generations.

However, seeds are now becoming the private property of a handful of corporations, transforming the tradition of saving seeds into a subversive political act.

What can we do to preserve the most critical link in the food chain? How can we practice the “revolution” of seed saving and why should we be concerned?

Dr. Vandana Shiva is a physicist and seed-saving activist from India; she has written books on the corporate globalization of India and lectures around the world about the importance of protecting cultural biodiversity and the saving of seeds.

Inspired by the tactics of Ghandi and his “celebration of the small,” Shiva’s hope is to return power over the earth and it’s resources to the hands of the people, therefore preventing the extinction of indigenous seeds and involving “networks of the small” to help fight corporate global control of our food system. 

In her lectures, Shiva repeats the following mantra to seed-savers and agricultural activists: “Seeds are the bringers of new life, a hope for the future. Seeds are the biggest issue around democracy in food and seeds are a common resource. Seed is created to renew, to multiply, to be shared, and to spread. Seed is life itself, seed is our mother, and seed is the first link in the food chain ... Saving seed is our duty, sharing seed is our culture.”

The seed is starting to take shape as the site and symbol of freedom in the age of manipulation and monopoly of life. Along the lines of Dr. Shiva’s concerns, it is important to understand how corporate global control of our food production system effect us all. There are small things we can all do to preserve the heritage and diverse history of the food that we eat.

There are many different seed varieties available around the world, and it is important to know some of the “history” behind the seeds available on the market today. The following are three examples of seeds types one might find through seed banks and garden shops these include heirloom seeds, hybrid seeds and genetically modified seeds.

Heirloom seeds

Heirloom seeds, also termed “open-pollinated seed varieties,” means that a particular plant can be grown from an heirloom seed and will produce “true-to-type.” In other words, the next generation of plant will look just like the parent plant. Essentially this means that if the seeds produced from a plant are properly saved, they will produce the same variety year after year. 

Heirlooms have been collected because of their high quality, unique flavor and genetic stability. According to Seed Savers Exchange, an heirloom seed is ”Any garden plant that has a history of being passed down within a family, just like pieces of heirloom jewelry or furniture. Some companies have tried to create definitions based on date, such as anything older than 50 years.”

According to heirloomseedhistory.com, there is no exact definition for the term “Heirloom Seed”:

“In fact, there have been entire books dedicated to this subject and still there is no agreement between gardeners as to what constitutes an heirloom and what does not. Many gardeners think there should be some history behind the variety, perhaps a story on a variety’s introduction, some ethnic background or a tie to a certain time in history.  Part of the joy of growing heirlooms is discovering these stories behind the seeds. But in some cases, the early history of some seeds is not known.”

Jeffrey Hollender, co-author of the recently published book, The Responsibility Revolution, makes an excellent point about the importance of saving heirloom seeds and the hope they hold for the future.

“The most important legacy of heirloom foods is one you can’t see or taste,” Hollender writes. “Inside their DNA is an incalculably precious gene bank from which we can make vital withdrawals when disease and worse strike today’s mass-produced crops. When heirloom varieties disappear, they take these defenses with them. Lose too many of them and it’s our food supply itself that will ultimately be threatened.’

Hybrid Seeds

Cross-pollinating various plant species artificially produces hybrid seeds. A cross between two separate varieties, hybrids were bred to improve the characteristics of certain plants such as: bigger yields, earlier harvests, uniformity, color, and disease and blight resistance.

Hybrid seeds are predominate in industrial agriculture today. During the later half of the 20th century, hybrids have been a contributing factor in the dramatic rise in industrial agriculture output. In the 1920s, the first hybrid seed created was maize or corn.

The declining yield characteristic of hybrids means farmers must buy seed every year to obtain high yields.


Unlike heirlooms, hybrid seeds cannot be saved, as the seed from the first generation does not produce reliable true copies. Unlike normal open pollinated species, whose seeds gave yields similar to its parents, the yield of the seed borne by hybrid plants is significantly lower than that of the first generation. The declining yield characteristic of hybrids means farmers must buy seed every year to obtain high yields. Therefore new seeds need to be purchased for each planting, making the farmer or home gardener dependent on outside seed sources for planting each season. 

Genetically Modified Seeds

Genetically modified seeds are a new generation of hybrid seeds. But unlike hybrids in which pollinating happens within two similar species of plants, additional genetic material is included.

The first mass experiment with genetically modified seeds and crops took place in the early 1990’s, in what is now known as the biotech agribusiness industry.

Author William Engdahl described the process in his book Seeds of Destruction: “Genetic modification of a plant or organism involved taking foreign genes and adding them to a plant such as corn or soybeans to alter their genetic makeup in ways not possible through ordinary plant reproduction. Often the introduction was made by a gene ‘cannon’ literally blasting a plant with foreign bacteria or DNA segment to alter its genetic character. In agricultural varieties, hybridization and selective breeding had resulted in crops adapted to specific production conditions and regional demands.”

According to Engdahl, genetic engineering differed from traditional methods of plant breeding in very important respects.

“Genes from one organism could be extracted and recombined with those of another without either organism having to be of the same species,” Engdahl wrote. “Removing the requirement for species reproductive compatibility, new genetic combinations could be produced in a highly accelerated way. Genetic engineering introduced a foreign organism into a plant in a process that was imprecise and unpredictable. The fateful Pandora’s Box had indeed been opened, the unleashing of a biological catastrophe was no longer the stuff of science fiction” (Engdahl pgs 7-8).

Today, genetically modified seeds are pervasive in industrial agricultural crops such as corn, canola, cotton, and soybeans.

According Dr. Tim O’Shea, The Doctor Within, “80 percent of what is in your grocery cart is GMO food.”

In the United States, 80 percent of all processed food contains genetically modified organisms. Many countries around the world are now growing food from genetically modified seeds. The tactics of multinational corporations to control and eliminate small farmers and the ancient practice of saving heirloom seeds bombards countries such as India, Africa, Canada, and South America. Without the “celebration of small groups of seed savers,” O’Shea says, the genetic biodiversity of the world’s food system is on the brink of complete control by corporate biotech corporations and agribusiness.

So it is left to the “celebration of the small”  to overcome the complete control of our food security and safety.

An organization that specializes in saving heirloom seeds from across the globe is Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), a non-profit, member-supported organization that saves and shares the heirloom seeds to form a living legacy that can be passed down through generations.

Seed Savers Exchange members have distributed an estimated 1 million samples of rare garden seeds since its founding nearly 35 years ago. Those seeds now are widely used by seed companies, small farmers supplying local and regional markets, chefs, and home gardeners and cooks, alike.

By growing heirloom crops in our home gardens, small farms, or local communities, we are all practicing the preservation of biodiversity—nature’s effort to spread out and multiply as many versions of a plant as possible, giving each species the best chance of surviving some cataclysmic environmental event. The more versions of a plant species saved and collected by those around the world, the better the plants’ chance of long-term survival.

Instead of watching the genetic biodiversity of one of the earth’s most precious resources become a reality of the past, it is important to protect our responsibility to the generations of the future. 

To help preserve nature’s genetic diversity, join a seed saving organization like Seed Savers Exchange. Meet with local farmers. Share the importance of saving seeds with your children, teachers, and friends. Plant a garden or join one already going on in your community. Learn about the importance of nutritious healthy food, free from genetic modification, industrial chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

As Ghandi said, “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Start small.

 

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