As a child I was amazed how a tiny seed could grow into such a luscious plant. I learned what it meant to have a “green thumb” by carefully watching my relatives who gardened; some tended the soil which nourished the seeds while others left the seeds to fend for themselves. After decades of gardening I’ve better grasped how the seed is both catalyst and medium bringing the earth’s nutrients, the biosphere’s water and the sun’s energy into a life-generating process. With deepening understanding it seems even more miraculous.
We’re intimately involved with seeds; none of us could survive without them. Seed-bearing plants are humanity’s major source of food and energy, and if we aren’t careful the industrialization of farming will put the seeds we depend upon at risk.
THE WEB OF LIFE
Seeds evolve. Mosses and ferns evolved from spore-bearing plants in the ocean. (The coal we burn came from the huge swamp plants of earlier times.) But seed-bearing plants became dominant because their reproduction is not as immediately dependent upon moisture. Seeds lie dormant within the variable land environment until conditions conducive to germination arise. As seeds diversified they became more adaptive. They evolved from ones protected in cones, like the conifers, to those allowing more dispersal, such as wind-carrying pollens.
In the Qu’Appelle Valley or other areas where prairie biodiversity persists, you’ll find plants with seeds that have wings, that have pods and that hitchhike. You’ll find plants that attract birds and animals that spread seeds through excretion. Co-evolution is the way of nature: flowers and nectars attract insects that flourish while facilitating plant reproduction. This can become highly specialized: only one type of wasp is able to fertilize one type of fig.
Seeds facilitate the web of life; they replenish the biodiversity that sustains the biosphere. All of us depend upon this subtle yet complex process. When a seed germinates it establishes roots to channel nutrients and moisture. It sends out stems, branches and leaves to capture carbon and convert sunlight into energy. We are just learning to do this, creating electricity from sunlight. No wonder so many of us are attracted to house plants and gardening, even if we long ago left peasant roots. Of course we tend to our gardens for food, but when we garden we are also partner and witness to the life-process itself.
THE SEED SAVERS
Thankfully, globally, farming is still practiced in a way that maintains seed varieties and biodiversity. As the November 2010 New Internationalist says “Three quarters of the world’s farmers still grow locally bred seed varieties and/or save their seeds.” We can all be grateful that one billion small farmers still save their seeds, for if peasants continue to be forced off the land and into urban squalor by the concentration of land ownership, ecology as well as justice will suffer.
It’s a powerful myth that we can’t produce enough food for humanity without multinational agribusiness. A 52-country study done at England’s Centre for Environment and Society in 2001 found “crop yields increase on average by 73 percent under small-scale, sustainable methods”. Further, the vast majority of food worldwide is still consumed close to where it is grown, something Canadians are trying to revive with the 100-mile diet. For most humans, food security comes from the farmer’s market, not from Walmart. Strengthening local markets is now required to help reduce carbon from global food transportation.
FROM HYBRIDS TO GMOs
Costly, energy-intensive, agribusiness foods and challenges from climate change motivate farmers everywhere to save seeds. And seeds are increasingly vulnerable. Habitat loss, including from the expansion of food product plantations, threatens to reduce global plant species. Increasingly extreme weather events such as the flooding we’ve seen in Pakistan can sweep whole crops off the land, while droughts can burn up whole crops.
But the biggest threat is likely monoculture. There are at least 20,000 edible plants on earth, but cash- cropping has made us dependent on only a handful. If these become vulnerable we all become vulnerable. Traditionally, indigenous farmers used selective breeding to maintain a strong variety of diverse seeds. However, starting in the 1920s, seed varieties were crossed to form hybrids to enhance the reliability and uniformity of production, primarily for export. First there were corn hybrids, maize, and cotton, and then sunflower, sorghum, sugar beets, vegetables and legumes. Hybrid seeds are referred to as “barren” because they quickly lose their reproductive vigor and have to be bought yearly. Now some corporations are genetically modifying (GM) seeds so that crops are resistant to the chemicals they also market. Patenting these seeds can make seed-savers criminals.
Unintended consequences occur from this momentous shift. Cash-cropping undermines rural self-reliance and pushes people into urban squalor. It leads to soil depletion and the need for fertilizers. Pests adore monoculture, increasing the need for pesticides. As chemical dependency increases, input costs rise. Soon farmers have rising debts, sometimes with little or no income. More livestock has to be raised, diverting more human food to produce animal protein. Land has to be sold. Rural despair increases; according to Sue Branford, co-editor of the magazine Seedling, from 1997-2005 there were 150,000 suicides among India’s farmers. Is what happens here with prairie farming a microcosm of this?
GOING AGAINST THE GRAIN
Before colonization, seed-saving was maintained by kinship systems. With these disrupted there is now a move towards community-based seed saving and women remain at the centre. Via Campesina, a global network of rural workers formed in 1993, has a seed-saving campaign encouraging networks, fairs and exchanges within its 169 member organizations in 69 countries. The African Biodiversity Network encourages farmers in eleven countries to save a larger variety of seeds to grow more resilient local crops. Varieties of the highly nutritious sweet potato and cassava plant are being protected. A Kenya program enhances seed-saving; the healthiest plants are marked for seeds before harvesting.
India’s agriculture is mostly on dry lands and this demands astute know-how about the strengths of seed varieties. Most rice is grown from just a few vulnerable varieties and some staple millet varieties are endangered. The Deccan Development Society (DDS) links women at the village level where the storing of seeds coincides with Hindu festivals. Sharing, borrowing, and exchanging seeds are encouraged. There is a growing Movement to Save Seeds in the foothills of the Himalayas. Seed saving is more widespread in the global south, though some seed banks, like England’s Millennium Seed Bank, have been created elsewhere. Some governments are learning from peasant groups, for example Thailand and Cuba promote seed diversity to enhance food sovereignty. While four main GM crops – maize, soybean, canola and cotton – commercialized over the last decade do threaten seed diversity, ninety percent of this market is in only four countries, the U.S., Brazil, Argentina and, yes, Canada. It is in these countries that a return to knowledge and respect for seeds is most needed.
Next time I’ll look at how Monsanto is threatening seed-diversity around the world.