The loss of genetic seed diversity facing us today may lead to a catastrophe far beyond our imagining. The Irish potato famine, which led to the death or displacement of two and a half million people in the 1840s, is an example of what can happen when farmers rely on only a few plant species as crop cornerstones.
One blight wiped out the single potato type that came from deep in the Andes mountains; it did not have the necessary resistance. If the Irish had planted different varieties of potatoes, one type would have most likely resisted the blight.
We can help save heirloom seeds by learning how to buy and save these genetically diverse jewels ourselves.
One kind of seed, called First generation hybrids (F1 hybrids), have been hand-pollinated, and are patented, often sterile, genetically identical within food types, and sold from multinational seed companies.
A second kind of seeds are genetically engineered. Bioengineered seeds are fast contaminating the global seed supply on a wholesale level, and threatening the purity of seeds everywhere. The DNA of the plant has been changed. A cold water fish gene could be spliced into a tomato to make the plant more resistant to frost, for example.
A third kind of seeds are called heirloom or open-pollinated, genetically diverse jewels that have been passed on from generation to generation.
With heirloom seeds there are 10,000 varieties of apples, compared to the very few F1 hyprid apple types.
The Mayan word “gene” means “spiral of life.” The genes in heirloom seeds give life to our future. Unless the 100 million backyard gardeners and organic farmers keep these seeds alive, they will disappear altogether. This is truly an instance where one person–a lone gardener in a backyard vegetable garden–can potentially make all the difference in the world.
Here are two sources for finding heirloom seeds from seed saving organizations. These organizations represent a movement of several thousand backyard gardeners who are searching the countryside for endangered vegetables, fruits and grains.
The Seed Savers Exchange
The Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), is a non-profit tax-exempt organization that is saving old-time food crops from extinction.
Kent and Diane Whealy founded SSE in 1975 after an elderly, terminally ill relative bestowed three kinds of garden seeds brought from Bavaria four generations earlier.
The Whealys began searching for other “heirloom varieties” (seeds passed down from generation to generation) and soon discovered a vast, little-known genetic treasure.
SSE’s members are maintaining thousands of heirloom varieties, traditional Indian crops, garden varieties of the Mennonite and Amish, vegetables dropped from all seed catalogs and outstanding foreign varieties. Each year hundreds of members use SSE’s publications to distribute such seeds to ensure their survival.
Each winter SSE publishes a 304-page Seed Savers Yearbook which contains names and addresses of 900 members and 6,000 listings of rare vegetable and fruit varieties that they are offering to other gardeners. Seeds are obtained by writing directly to the members who are listing those varieties.
Native seeds/SEARCH (NS/S) is a non-profit seed conservation organization working to preserve the traditional native crops of the U.S. Southwest and Northwest Mexico. For centuries Native American farmers have grown corn, squash, beans and other crops under a variety of growing conditions.
NS/S encourages the continued use of these plants in their native habitats, and also distributes them widely to home gardeners, researchers and free of charge to Native American farmers. Wild relatives of crops–such as wild beans, chiles, gourds and cotton–are included in Native Seeds/SEARCH’s conservation efforts.
NS/S’s informative annual seed catalog lists more than 200 varieties for sale. Each crop listing includes seed saving information as well as culture and folklore.