Sowing Seeds To Save Them
DECORAH, IOWA--In late summer, the fields around town here billow with corn stretching as far as the eye can see. It's monoculture farming. Only one crop, usually a hybrid, bred for easy machine harvesting and shipping, is planted over a large area. It's the standard in industrialized farming today.
Down the road, however, an entirely different kind of corn is growing at the Seed Savers Exchange Heritage Farm. Here, the crop comes in a staggering variety of shapes, colors, and sizes--from Two Inch Strawberry Popcorn, which looks the way it sounds, to Blue Jade, which is gray on the stalk but turns a deep blue when cooked. There are also beans of the same type carried by Cherokees over the Trail of Tears and a sweet watermelon called Moon & Stars, whose dark husk is marked by a bright yellow splotch of a "moon" surrounded by smaller "stars." These are just a few of the 25,000 rare or lost vegetables whose seeds have been banked here. Each year, 10 percent are planted, then the seeds are carefully collected and preserved.
Heirlooms. "Genetic preservation is the main reason we're doing this," says Kent Whealy, who founded Seed Savers in 1975 with his then wife, Diane Whealy, to save what they called heirloom seeds from extinction. He, and others like him, worry that the plant variety that makes crops healthy and food interesting will become extinct. "We're living in an era of rapid climate change, pests that are resistant to sprays, and this is all the breeding material that we will have for the future's food crops." According to the United Nations, about 75 percent of the world's garden vegetables have been lost in the past century because of consolidation of seed companies and the replacement of small, varied family farms with single-crop industrial farms. In America, since 1900, 92 percent of the fruit and vegetable varieties that used to feed the country have disappeared.
Almost all seeds now available to consumers were developed for use in industrial farms. Many are hybrid, which means the plants don't reliably reproduce. New seeds must be purchased year after year as must genetically modified seeds, which are also patented. The proprietary ownership of a plant's genetic material marks a shift from the past, when seeds were considered part of the public domain. Indeed, the U.S. government used to be the largest distributor of seeds, sending out 1.1 billion free packets in 1897. "Plants' genetic material is like the forest or the ocean: It's a natural resource, it's finite, and it can be contaminated and eroded," says Matthew Dillon, director of Organic Seed Alliance, which trains farmers to breed open-pollinated varieties adapted to their local ecological conditions. He hopes the varieties will prevent the crop failures that can strike large-scale monoculture planting. "Anytime you put a natural resource into the hands of just a few people, there's a risk."
Flavor. But there's more than biodiversity at stake, says Erika Lesser, executive director of Slow Food USA, a group that promotes gastronomic traditions. "We like to talk about it in terms of culture," she says. "And that means preserving the incredible varieties of different flavors that have value and meaning to people." She notes that most supermarket and seed-packet varieties were bred for traits like reliable shipping and long shelf life, not taste.