The Science of Sustainability

Saving Our Seeds

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"Saving Our Seeds" was produced by Quest Wisconsin's Andy Soth.

Cicero believed that all you really need in life is a garden and a library. He would have really liked a new program at the public library in La Crosse, Wisconsin: heirloom seeds available for checkout.

The La Crosse Public Library has joined a handful of libraries around the country in a quiet rebellion against a rising tide of genetic homogeneity in our food. Instead of grabbing an anonymous green pepper in the grocery store, the library’s members borrow seeds of old, storied varieties to plant in their own gardens. After the harvest, they save some of those plants’ seeds and return them to the library, perpetuating the seed collection.

La Crosse librarian Cindy Mischnick, who began the program with her colleague Kelly Becker, was motivated to start it when she grew concerned that “people have gone away from having small gardens or thinking about where their seeds come from.” As a librarian, she thought she might be able to do something about it. “We’re the kind of people that collect things, catalog things, have things available to check out,” she said. “Seeds are just another kind of item for us.”

The startup capital for this venture was genetic: boxes of seeds from the Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving heirloom varieties and promoting their cultivation. Their 890-acre farm in eastern Iowa, seen in the video above, is like a living library of heirloom plants — old varieties that have been passed down through generations of gardeners.

Tomato seeding

A horticulturalist at the Seed Savers Exchange harvests tomato seeds to plant for next year's crop. Saving seeds this way helps ensure that heirloom varieties will still be around in case we need them.

Experts from Seed Savers drove the hour northeast to La Crosse to teach aspiring seed library users how to harvest their seeds. Picking tiny seeds out of pods, cleaning them off, drying them, painstakingly packaging them up — it all sounds absurdly tedious to people used to just buying a few cheap packets of tomato and pepper seeds every year at the local home-and-garden warehouse. But saving seeds this way used to be routine.

In the past, the process of carefully saving seeds from their best-performing plants allowed farmers to select for the traits they wanted. Everyone developed their own varieties, guided by their own preferences and the local growing conditions. Biodiversity expanded as a result. Historical seed company records show that in 1903 there were 544 varieties of cabbage alone. Today you’d be lucky to find anything more exotic than “red” and “green.”

What happened to all that diversity?

Seed saving and the multiplicity of varieties it produces don’t fit into the prevailing model of industrial-scale agriculture. As farming has become increasingly mechanized, farmers operating on an ever-larger scale have increasingly relied on large, predictable, homogeneous yields of a single crop.

This trend toward uniformity was made possible by progress in genetic technology. Reliable, uniform, hybrid varieties and, most recently, genetically modified commodity crops make farming more profitable for big operations. But these changes in economics and advances in science combined to spell the death of the local seed company and the farmer’s box of family varieties stored each winter in the root cellar. Thousands of these species have already disappeared. Some estimates say that we’ve lost 90 percent of our agricultural biodiversity.

But is losing biodiversity necessarily a bad thing? Modern hybrid and genetically modified varieties have been bred to resist diseases and herbicides, stay fresh in stores, and are sometimes even beefed up with extra nutrients, a benefit that’s especially important in developing countries with rampant malnutrition. If we have these exquisitely designed species, why worry if thousands of less perfect ones go extinct?

1280px-GEM_corn

Ninety-six percent of the corn varieties in the United States have disappeared in the last century.

We should worry because without genetic diversity, an unexpected disease, tough growing season, or invasive pest can easily devastate a whole species. If that happens to be one of the handful of species on which our national food supply currently depends, the results could be disastrous.

The Irish potato famine, which killed one million people between 1845 and 1852, is a grim demonstration of the risk caused by leaning too heavily on a single variety of a staple crop. Grant Olson, Seed Savers’ education coordinator, explained that “one of the main contributors to that famine was that everyone in Ireland was growing one variety of potato. Potato blight found a niche in those plants, and because each plant was genetically identical, blight had a whole country's worth of plants that it could devastate.”

And according to a recent study, a homogeneous agricultural landscape isn’t so good for our health either.

Imagine, by contrast, if every farm grew a different variety of potato or corn or sugar beets. Even if one of those varieties got wiped out, thousands of others would remain, short-circuiting a crisis.

The recognition that tough growing seasons will become more common as the climate changes has prompted the establishment of seed banks all over the world, storing the genetic material from thousands of plant varieties in case we need them again one day. In one seed bank on a remote island in the Arctic Circle, more than two thousand seed varieties slumber peacefully in cold storage.

More and more communities, including La Crosse, have found a local solution. “Seed libraries have really been taking off,” said Olson. “They're great places to teach people how to save their own seeds and also a place to build this network of people in a community that can be a little bit independent with their seed source and with their food access.”

Food security and biodiversity are global problems, but if you live in La Crosse, all you need is a sunny spot, a green thumb, and a library card.

 

To find out if there is a seed lending library near you, check out this growing list of national locations.

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Category: Climate, Food, Sustainable Food, Television, Video

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Eleanor Nelsen

About the Author ()

Eleanor Nelsen is a graduate student in chemistry at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. When she's not studying rhodium chemistry, Eleanor enjoys reading and writing about science. She lives in Madison with her husband Luke and their growing collection of livestock.