Each seed preserves important information about its unique past. Some seed varieties have been developed and passed down by family farms and within communities for many generations. Heirloom seeds are intricately connected to the history of the land they have been grown on, and the people who have cultivated them. Cultivating traditional seed in our own fields is one of the best ways to protect against the loss of agricultural diversity.
According to an article in the Economist, “It is hard to quantify how much this matters; but the long-term risks are potentially huge. Agricultural biodiversity is the best hedge against future blights, including pests, diseases and climate change.” Although industrial farming and commercial seed allow for the mass production of food, there nevertheless remains the need to protect and maintain local seed varieties. The ability of local farmers, however, to save and preserve the survival of their heirloom seeds continues to be threatened by the intrusion of foreign seed varieties.
Some local farmers are taking measures to protect the seed varieties that have been developed for many generations in their particular location. By doing so, they are persevering the heritage in the seeds they steward. For example, here in New Mexico Loretta Sandoval (Zulu’s Petals Organic Farm) is currently working with her neighboring farmers in Dixon to protect and preserve their landrace chile peppers. The local chile seeds of this community have been maintained now for two hundred years.
Even though the neighboring farmers are not currently using genetically modified seeds, they still face a number of challenges in preserving their local crops. One challenge they face is to grow enough chile to maintain the unique gene pool. With a background in biology and horticulture, Sandoval knows that if this challenge is not addressed it can lead to population bottleneck which can result in important losses of gene variants. Furthermore these losses can be permanent, as she commented in El Palacio, “The landraces are not dead yet, but they’re highly endangered… If they die out, hundreds of years of New Mexico agriculture and stewardship go with them. There’s no turning back the clock.” In an attempt to keep their particular landrace alive, Sandoval has been collaborating directly with neighboring farmers to increase their crop size and thus to preserve the chile’s unique gene pool. She also maintains an extensive seed bank of landrace and heirloom seeds from other farms within 20 miles of her own.
The number of small local farms in this country has drastically decreased. For example, the number of small farms has shrunk from about 6.8 million in 1935 to less than 2 million in 2007. With the loss of small local farms, we lose knowledge about how to grow within a particular micro-climate and save seeds for the following year. Traditional small farmers intimately knew the seeds they were planting in their fields. Here in New Mexico droughts, strong heat, variable temperature fluctuations and the particular pests and challenges of the region place unique challenges on our crops. The plants that perform best under these circumstances, if drawn upon for seed, will render the subsequent seed genetic pool more capable of performing within the unique micro-climate. Traditionally farmers engaged in seed swaps and exchanges directly with neighbors and those in their community. These practices encouraged crop diversity, while maintaining the seed adapted to local conditions.
The trend of relying on corporations to provide seed has drastically changed the practice of agriculture. A figure that points to this trend is the massive decrease in seed diversity. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization about 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost from the world’s agriculture fields. These “corporate seeds” are foreigners to the local varieties. Instead of being adapted to a particular climate region, as heirlooms are, they are instead genetically engineered to produce across diverse conditions. Furthermore they are specifically developed to produce with characteristics such as uniformity, shelf life and the ability to be harvested and shipped using machinery. Thus the history and the local character of the seed variety can be lost when substituted for commercial seeds.
Even if a particular farmer chooses to preserve her own heirloom seeds, she still faces many challenges if neighboring farmers are using commercially produced seeds. Farmers who choose to use commercial seed must often enter into a contract in order to have the right to use them. Seth Roffman (Green Fire Times) notes that “The contract specifies that these seeds cannot be saved and replanted. However, it is very easy for these genetically engineered crops to cross-pollinate and contaminate neighboring fields. Biotech companies have sued neighboring growers across the US for ‘stealing’ their patented seeds.” A danger that private farmers now face is that cross pollination with a genetically engineered (GE) plant, which many farmers call contamination, threatens their ability to save and maintain their own seeds. Furthermore, farmers can be sued for patent infringement due to accidental cross pollination with a GE plant. Cross pollination with a GE plant can destroy the genetic pool of a traditional crop altogether.
Even though there are local farmers and scientists who are working hard to preserve traditional seed varieties, we too can support the preservation of our historical seed link. Learning about the importance of protecting and maintaining local seed varieties can motivate us to preserve the links to our heritage. Purchasing from farmers who are working to preserve these seed links helps directly support the important and valuable work they do. Thus, to protect our heirloom seeds for future generations we should do what we can to support traditional local farmers in the present.