Some peoples' summer reading might include The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Sarah Palin's book, for a good laugh I imagine, or whatever Oprah or the New York Times tells them to read. I, on the other hand, chose a book about how GMOs are going to destroy this planet. Okay, the book may not be as doomsday as that but I am in chapter five of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds, by Claire Hope Cummings, and the future looks pretty grim.
This past Monday however I felt a glimmer of hope. I went to a seed saving work shop at the Poughkeepsie Farm Project. To be honest, I know nothing about seed saving and my knowledge of plant biology is embarrassing to say the least. I vaguely know the difference between hybrid and open pollinated, and self-pollinating and cross pollinating. If you are like me and also fell asleep during plant section of your Biology 101, see my note below.
We were taken on a tour of the garden grown just for seed collection and I was struck by how different the plants look when they are allowed to go to seed. The lettuce, arugula, chard, and kale were unrecognizable. According to City Seeds Seed-Saving Resource Packet plants that are grown just for seed have to isolated by distance, time or physical barriers to prevent any genetic contamination from other plants of the same species. Isolation requirements could be as little as 20-50ft for selfers up to 5 miles for wind-pollinated crossers, for example corn.
If saving seed requires so much thought and planning why bother? The reasons are numerous and can include seed integrity, preservation of varieties that seed companies might decide to drop at a whim, saving seeds from plants with desired traits such as maturity, color, flavor, disease resistance, or adapted to certain regions climate, it can help save money and it is a tradition that is rapidly being lost and forgotten.
You don't need to grow all your own seeds, you could choose to grow a few and trade them. Fortunately, there are seed swaps happening all over the country.
As someone who keeps well informed about food issues even I have overlooked the importance of seeds. But as I have read in Uncertain Peril, most of our seeds are now controlled by a handful of corporations and they are profit driven. If the flavorless hybrid tomato is the money maker then the delicious and beautiful heirloom varieties could be dropped. If we want to maintain control over our food the first step is to control the seeds we use.
*Hybrids are a cross between plants that are genetically different, they are good for one growing food one time but should not be saved for seed because they do not breed true to type. Open pollinated varieties breed true to type as long as they do not cross-pollinate with another variety of species. The difference between self-pollinating and cross-pollinating is that the self-pollinators contain both the male and female parts and can pollinate itself, a few examples include tomatoes, lettuce, and eggplant. Cross-pollinating plants rely on insects, wind, or humans to transfer pollen, examples include beets, cabbage, pumpkins, and watermelon.