In this age of GE seeds, hybrids and seed corporations, farmers are becoming increasingly dependent on outside sources for resource that had always been free by right: seeds.
For thousands of years farmers saved seeds from their crops for the next season. Aside from being totally free, this also allowed farmers to cultivate varieties that were highly adapted to their environment, and possibly even better suited to address the nutritional needs of the communities. Despite being free, seeds were not taken for granted. Far from it, the seed stock of a community or even a civilization was seen as it’s most important resource. They key difference back then was this was a resource that was shared openly throughout the community. The very thought of having to buy seeds was absurd till about 100 years ago!
Today seeds are still seen as a highly valuable resource. What has changed however is that some companies are now treating them as a product, to be hoarded and sold for profit. Apart from this, these companies also develop hybrids and genetically engineered varieties that ensure that farmers are required to buy from them season after season. Let us take a look at these two kinds of seeds and the problems they present:
Genetically Engineered (GE) or Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) Seeds
These are plant varieties that have their DNA manipulated in a laboratory to include genes which do not normally belong to the particular plant. They do this to insert certain traits, such as nutritional content (Golden Rice), chemical resistance (Roundup Ready Soybeans), or even pesticide ingrained in every cell (BT Corn). These traits were taken from organisms such as bacteria or other plants, and those genes were spliced into the crops DNA to make GE varieties.
These seeds provide a whole host of potential health issues, from pesticides in every bite, to increased herbicide residues. The long-term effects of GE food are yet to be seen as well.
The effect on farmers is even worse. These farmers become bound to the seed companies, needing to buy new seeds year after year, as replanting them can result in fines or lawsuits. They also become bound to the chemicals needed to grow these varieties, and the promise of higher yield is quickly offset by the reality of greater costs. The high use of chemicals also destroys the soil ecology, meaning more fertilization is needed to achive the same amount of growth. Without free seeds each year and with the additional costs of inputs, farmers quickly find that they become poorer and soon become indebted to the companies. This usually ends in the farmer selling the land or commiting suicide.
GE seeds also pose a danger to native varieties as cross-pollination can result in contamination of entire crops, even on farms that do not grow GE varieties.
Although widely known as GMO, Genetically Engineered is the more appropriate term as natural plant breeding can be considered as a form of genetic modification.
My recommendation: DO NOT EVER USE GE SEEDS ON YOUR FARM\
Hybrid seeds are the result of two plant varieties being bred to achieve desirable qualities in the next generation. This is a process that also happens in nature and does not involve any genetic manipulation. You could very well have a hybrid variety in your garden if you’ve planted two varieties of the same plant family near one another. There are two potential issues that surround commercial hybrids however.
One is that they are not stabilized varieties, meaning that after the first generation (you will see this marked by F1 on the package), subsequent generations begin to revert to their parent varieties. This means that farmers who want to produce the same variety year after year must purchase new seeds each time. This is an additional and unecesary cost.
The second issue is that hybrids are mostly bred to be used with chemicals such as herbicides or pesticides. Sometimes they are hybrids of GE varieties as well. This presents many of the same problems as those above.
My Recommendation: Grow hybrids knowing what you are getting into. They are appropriate in some situations but require constant purchase.
Open Pollinated Varieties/ Heirloom Seeds
These are stable varieties of plants, meaning that you can allow them to pollinate one another naturally, bear fruit and plant the seeds knowing that you will get the same plant. While there will be minor changes, mostly due to the plant adapting to the environment, you will get basically the same results generation after generation. This means that a farmer who relies on OPV seeds can save seed and keep his product consistent without ever needing to buy more.
Heirloom varieties are basically OPV varieties that have been handed down for generations within a particular family or community. As I mentioned above, plants adapt to weather conditions or soil conditions over time, gaining minor traits. If the farmer is careful, they can also be selectively bred. Choosing the largest or most colorful fruits to save for seed every generation for example. This is usually what results in an heirloom variety.
In fact it is selective breeding which allowed humanity to cultivate wild grasses with tiny edible seeds into crops like corn and rice, full of grainy goodness!
My recommendation: These are the seeds to use! Keep them as though they were treasures and replant them every year to ensure your stock is fresh and that they adapt.
Organic/Naturally Grown/Sustainably Grown Seeds
OPV seeds are either grown organically or with chemicals. For example, many varieites sold by CONDOR and RAMGO are OPV varieties. These seeds are accustomed to being grown with chemicals however, and will need abour three generations grown organically to reach thier full potential.
Certified Organic seeds however are fully accustomed to natural systems and are able interact with the soil in the most ideal ways. If you can find these as a starter stock they are the best for your organic farm.
My Recommendation: Organically grown OPB and Heirloom varieties are the ideal choice for your farm.
Buy Only Once
I once had a fellow sustainable farmer ask me: “how much did you buy the seeds of this variety for?”. Upon hearing the price he made a face, remarking that they are quite expensive. To that I replied “well I will only ever have to buy them once”
In an ideal farming system, you will only need to purchase your initial seed stock. If you have chosen the right varieties, it should be a simple matter to save enough for the next season. The small amount of produce that is allowed to go to seed will cost you much less than buying new seeds.
Saving seeds can be time-consuming, and some need more complex processes than simply letting the fruit dry on the vine, which puts some farmers off doing this.
I canot stres enough however how much saving your own seed will help you. Aside from having free seeds, you will have varieties that improve every year as they adapt to your farm’s unique conditions. Even the most expensive, biodynamic heirloom seeds are used to different conditions(on the farm where they were grown), so saving your own seeds will have real, long-term impact.
Sharing seeds with other organic farmers is also highly important. Aside from cultivating good relationships, it also serves as insurance. There was a time that I lost a crop to flood, and at the same time seed stock to rats (who were waiting out the flood I guess). Had I not shared my seeds, I would have had to buy new ones and lost my 10 years of work with this particular variety. Thankfully I had shared some to neighbors who quickly restocked my supply from their own gardens!
Create A Seed Community
In time, when yo have enough organic, seed saving farmers in you area yo may be able to establish a seed bank. This is a central facility in which seeds are saved and lent out to farmers, who grow them and return an equal or larger share. Even the smallest communities can do this, as evidenced by ESSA Iloilo City Cluster’s Urban Gardening Project, where a Baranggay with zero arable land fill up their seed library using produce from container gardens. If they can do it, so can you.
Seeds are Freedom
So as you can see, seeds can lead to freedom! Not only for farmers, but for entire communities and even entire nations. If you want to learn more, I suggest viewing Seed: The Untold Story, an excellent film that focuses on the great importance of seeds.
Once I was taking a small bag of seeds to a friend. Inside was some upland rice, 6 varieties of beans, 2 varieties of Adlai, Amaranth, Okra, Atis, Guyabano and Kamagong. It occured to me then, that in this little pouch, I carried the potential to start a civilization. In each seed lies endless possibilities for you to unlock.