The Svalbard Seed Vault achieved a milestone in February when it reached one million species stored in its arctic vault in Norway. The Seed Vault, also known as the Doomsday or Apocalypse Vault, stores seeds to protect the genetic diversity of the world’s agricultural crops. It is one of several seed vaults around the world, and saves the seeds that humanity relies on to feed itself, in case of war, environmental catastrophe, famine, or other global crises.
My seed vault is not hidden inside a sandstone tunnel in the Arctic, like a Bond villain’s hideout (although I wish). It’s my pantry, which is a cellar in our house. It is nice and cool, but not Norwegian ice fortress or Bond villain hideout cool. I also don’t have one million species. At the moment I probably have about twenty, saved over the past three years as our garden has grown and produced plants that have been worth saving.
Like one of my heroes, agricultural activist Vandana Shiva, I regard saving seeds as a political act. Many of the plants and seeds we have available to us are developed and owned by large agricultural companies, which are in turn owned by larger companies. Seeds are our heritage, not just because as humans we have selected and saved them and passed them down through generations, but because as beings that share this planet with all the other species that live on it, we owe a debt that requires we help ensure the genetic diversity of plants. A seed is a gift from the plant that came before it, and a promise of a new life. For millennia, plants have reproduced using this effective system, and plants, humans and animals have been the beneficiaries in a symbiotic relationship that has enabled all of us to survive and thrive.
Previously, gardeners and farmers would select the strongest or most productive varieties, and save the seeds of those plants for the following season. This would result in strong and productive plants being retained over generations. This practice also developed genetic diversity of plants over generations, as farmers and gardeners would select for plants that grew well in their local conditions. A tomato variety that grew well in one region would be saved and passed down, while a different tomato variety would be saved and passed down in another. Sometimes, a plant would mutate and a new variety was born. If that plant was stronger, tastier, or more productive, the seed would be saved and passed on. This is one way that we have ended up with such an interesting variety of plant species. A good example of this in Australia is the Granny Smith apple, which was an unexpected seedling that grew in the backyard of a lady called Maria Smith. The apple was so delicious and useful, she propagated the plant and it became one of the most popular apple varieties in the world, valued for its usefulness as a cooking apple. The Granny Smith Apples we eat today are all propagated clones of the original tree from Maria Smith’s garden.
In my small way, I contribute to this sustainable process. Last year, I grew a chilli plant I purchased from a gardener’s market. Labelled Devil’s Tongue, it grew more prolifically than any chilli I have grown. The plant itself was the largest chilli plant I have ever grown, and produced more chillies than I have ever seen one plant produce. It was also the hottest chilli I have ever tasted. That is fine by us, as we love hot chillies (particularly my husband, who will put hot sauce on anything). However for many people, it was just too hot! I couldn’t give many of these chillies away.
We loved it though, and at the end of the Summer, I saved the seed and planted it again this year. The chillies are just beginning to form, rather later than last year, but I am hoping for another bumper crop. The Devil’s Tongue is an heirloom, or open-pollinated plant. This means that its seeds have produced another plant the same as its parent. If it does well again, I will know that this is a reliable plant and I can feel confident to share my Devil’s Tongue seeds with other gardeners – if they dare (insert crazed Bond villain laugh here, mwah ha hahhhhhhhh).
Since the 1930s, large seed companies have been developing plants called ‘hybrids.’ These plants grow “true to type” (that is, as the packet says it will) for the first season. However, any seeds the plant then produces, if planted, will not grow true to type, if at all, the following season. As such, if you want to grow the same plant again, you will have to buy fresh seed.
For example, this year I grew a sweetcorn, Jubilee, a hybrid. It was fantastic: sweet, juicy, high yielding, and pest free. I’d love to grow it again. But if I want to grow it again, I will have to find the seeds from the same company. It’s a relatively large seed company, so that should be easily done.
Sometimes there are good reasons to hybridise plants. Plant breeders do it to breed stronger plants, or plants with certain characteristics, such as a high yield, good storing capability, or uniformity. Many of the common agricultural crops, as well as the seeds and seedlings we buy at large nurseries are hybrids. Farmers know that they can rely on the result if they plant them.
So what’s the problem? The corn I grew was great!
- Reliance on hybrid plants reduces crop and plant diversity.
Heirloom, or non-hybridised, plants reproduce themselves year on year. Over time they may also throw up an occasional “sport” or genetic mutation. This can happen if they are cross-pollinated by wind or a bee, or can occur spontaneously. If this mutation is a better yielding plant, tastes better, or has better disease resistance, a new plant is born and the biodiversity of our foodchain and our planet is increased. As hybrid plants don’t produce new productive plants (they will still grow, but not reproduce reliably or at all), there is no opportunity for anything new from my hybrid sweetcorn. At best I may end up with a plant that is a weakened version of one of the parents that was used to create the original plant. I won’t get back my Jubilee corn – if I want the exact corn, I have to buy new seeds. This leads me to the next point:
2. Hybrid plants are more expensive.
These plants were created by companies for commercial purposes. They don’t reproduce reliably, so farmers and gardeners have no choice but to buy new seed each year. In the past, farmers saved seed for the following year. This saved money for farmers, and also contributed to genetic diversity as farmers in different regions saved seeds that did the best in their environmental conditions.When we plant hybrid seeds instead of growing open-pollinated or ‘heirloom’ plants, gardeners must rely on seed companies and nurseries for plants. Farmers must buy seeds from companies that produce seeds for their corporate conditions. This is of particular concern in developing countries, where farmers have been convinced to buy hybrid seeds on a promise that it will be higher yielding or pest resistant, only to find that they are trapped in a cycle of buying seeds annually. I can afford to buy a fresh $2 packet of sweetcorn seeds each year if I want to. A farmer in a developing country may not be able to afford to buy canola seeds for his farm each year. Purchasing seeds each year is a cost that poorer farmers could do without – and they have done for thousands of years until the late twentieth century.
3. Health, taste, and experience.
Many heirloom plants are not grown commercially because they do not travel well or store well in cold storage. We do not see them on our supermarket shelves. We grow used to seeing one kind of apricot, two kinds of nectarines, one variety of carrot, the black zucchini, the green broccoli, the white cauliflower. We think that this is the only kind of fruit and vegetables that exist because these are the varieties grown commercially and sold to us. By limiting the plant foods that are grown to only those that can travel in planes and trucks, and stored in the fridge, we are also limited in our understanding of what food tastes and looks like. For example, there are more than 7,500 apple varieties and 400 varieties of bananas, but in Australia we are able to buy about six varieties of apples and three varieties of bananas commercially.
Why is this a problem?
To me, it is a problem because our food choices, preferences, and health are being dictated not by what is healthiest or tastiest, but by what is commercially most viable. The Red Delicious is in my view, a pretty average apple (it looks like a cartoon apple, and tastes like cotton), but it is still sold commercially over other, tastier apples because it travels and stores well. The standard supermarket tomato does not taste anything like the Jaune Flamme I grew this year, but that tomato would not stand up to the rigours of the modern commercial supermarket; it’s too soft and ripens too quickly. Yet this gorgeous heirloom tomato is not only high in Vitamin C, but is also high in beta-carotene, is highly productive, and delicious. A hybrid tomato will tolerate being transported long distances and will put up with being handled by fussy supermarket shoppers.
An article in Scientific American , citing a paper published in the American Journal of Nutrition, reported that many of the fruits and vegetables we buy today are less nutritious than those available several decades ago. The paper found that this is because vegetables have been developed with a focus on certain characteristics to meet commercial requirements (size, uniformity, pest resistance). This has resulted in vegetables that are unable to take up nutrition from the soil because they grow too large, too quickly. The article did warn that fruit and vegetables are still nutritious – just not as nutritious as they used to be, because the focus was on breeding plants that grow to a certain size and appearance, rather than on nutrition.
So now what? Do we all stop growing hybrid plants?
I can’t say that – it would be hypocritical, for one thing. I grow some ornamental and edible hybrid plants, and I will into the future. I do think that hybrids have a place in the world. I think that hybrid plants can be better plants under certain environmental conditions, and in many instances offer plants that are uniform and high yielding for the home gardener. As a home gardener that can afford to replace seeds annually, there will be certain types of seeds that I will buy that I know are hybrids.
I also am not self-sufficient. I buy supermarket and produce market fruits and vegetables when I need to, and I understand that not everyone is as fortunate as I am to be able to have a patch of dirt to grow the food that I do. Growing my own heirloom carrots is a time-consuming luxury, and I still have to buy the commercially grown carrots most of the time.
However, as my mini-seed vault grows, the number of hybrid plants I do grow and rely upon will be fewer. I want to be able to be mostly self-sustaining, particularly for the annual food plants I grow. I also want my children to grow up knowing that a zucchini can be golden or spherical, a pumpkin can look like a turban, and an apple doesn’t have to look like it came from a witch’s basket.
In my next post on Seed Saving I will go through some easy ways you can start saving seeds, and some simple plants you can try to grow if you want to save seeds.
*Please note that hybrid seeds and GMO – Genetically Modified Organisms – are not the same thing. A hybrid seed is created when two varieties of plants are crossbred. A good explanation of the difference between heirloom, hybrid, and GMO seeds can be found here.