Saturday, December 17, 2011

The Importance of Heirloom Seeds in Local Food Systems

It seems slightly early to be thinking of next year’s garden (it doesn’t even feel like winter yet!), but 2012 seed catalogs have already begun to arrive in my mailbox. Flipping through the pages, I am enchanted by the colorful photos of so many different varieties of vegetables and I always come across a beautiful heirloom seed that I have never heard of before. While I think every gardener should take a much-deserved break in the winter months, I also don't think it's ever too early to start planning for next season. (And for those of us who can never seem to get enough of working in the dirt, planning provides us with reasons for daydreaming of lush gardens!)

Much of garden planning involves deciding what you will grow and when you will plant it. In our cold Northern climate, most seeds cannot be planted in the garden until a danger of a hard frost is past. One way of getting a head start on the season is by starting seedlings inside and then transplanting them outside after the last frost. Although seedstarting can be intimidating to someone who's never done it before (and a little less easy than buying transplants at a garden store or farm), it is much more gratifying. Not only do you get the satisfaction of growing your garden from seed to veggie (or fruit), but you also can experiment with unique varieties of plants that you don't usually see in garden stores. Additionally, by growing and saving open-pollinated seeds, you contribute to preserving biodiversity and garden heritage.

In purchasing seeds, its important to understand the different kinds of the seeds. The following definitions are from the Seed Savers Exchange catalog:

"An open-pollinated (OP) variety is one that breeds true from seed, meaning the seed saved from the parent plant will grow offspring with the same characteristics. OP seed is produced by allowing a natural flow of pollen between different plants of the same variety.

Heirloom (HL) varieties are varieties with a long history of being cultivated and saved within a family or group. They have evolved by natural or human selection over time.

A hybrid variety, on the other hand, does not breed true from seed; hybrid seed is produced by crossing two different parent varieties of the same species. Hybrids do not remain true in generations after the initial cross and cannot be saved from generation to generation unchanged."

Genetically-modified (GM) seeds also do not breed true. But, unlike hybrid varieties which have been produce through cross-pollination, GM seeds are produced through genetic manipulation of genes using genetic engineering technologies. I won't get into a long critique of GM technology here (because there are many great resources on the topic), but think transnational agro-corporations like Monsanto and industrial agriculture.

I am opposed to GM technologies and generally try to stay away from hybrid varieties, whose seeds cannot be saved. Use of such seeds increases our dependence on industrial seed companies and limits our food systems' biodiversity and self-sustainability. The health and strength of a local food system depends not only on producing and increasing access to local food, but also on preserving genetic and cultural diversity. We can do so by purchasing seeds from small seed growers that only grow and sell organic, open-pollinated, and heirloom seeds and by creating and participating in local networks of seed exchange. Because OP and HL seeds breed true, that means that gardeners can save seeds from these plants and use these seeds the following season. Over time, these seeds will naturally evolve to become more and more adapted to the local climate. Seedsavers in the same region can then trade seeds that they have collected, further conserving and strengthening local biodiversity and local food economies (check out "Local Seed Exchange" under Resources below).

One thing I have learned is that the excitement of looking at a seed catalog (with 100s of varieties of seeds) always makes me a little overambitious. I always start off wanting to grow 20 different heirloom tomatoes and try ten exotic vegetables for the first time! Before I know it, I'm in over my head in the early Spring with little seedlings covering every sunny spot in my house waiting for the day they can go outdoors. So, if you're new to seedstarting and growing heirlooms, I'd suggest just trying out a few HL varieties of vegetables you really like and perhaps one less common plant (like husk cherry?).  Under "Resources" (below), I have made some suggestions of seed sellers whose practices I support.

Later in the winter, I'll write more on seedstarting and seedsaving, so check back!


Recommended sources for seeds:
Seed Savers Exchange
High Mowing Organic Seeds
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds

Local seed exchange:

For information on and critiques of GM technology, check out Vandana Shiva's work, particularly Manifestos on the Future of Food and Seed ; Stolen Harvest: The Hijacking of the Global Food Supply , and Biopiracy: The Plunder of Nature and Knowledge

- Marie Benkley, Garden Coordinator