As increasing numbers of farmers switch to genetically modified (GM) seeds designed to tolerate heavy duty spraying of pesticides and fungicides, the available seed market continues to shrink to reflect the limited choices made available by the producer of GM seed, Monsanto.
Protecting bio-diversity is important to the basics of providing a healthy, interesting, diet for our children, as well as the vast network of animals and insects vital to the ecosystem upon which all life depends. Yup, we need them, and they need us. Go figure.
In recent years, seed banks have begun popping up all over the country in an attempt to preserve and distribute the immense varieties of herb, vegetable, fruit, and grain seeds still available despite our dwindling worldwide seed resource. Is this enough? No, but it's a start and a vital key to our future.
The problem is that like all seeds, GM seeds do not stay in their neat little 40 acre plots, but are carried by the wind, insects, birds, and even water into nearby fields never intended to grow GM produce, continuing to infect food crops and wild plants with genetic cross-over.
Interestingly, Monsanto attorneys assert that the mega-company owns all GM seeds, therefore if those seeds happen to get blown into your field, guess what? Monsanto's take is that they could own your crop, and potentially your field. But that's another story.
The point is, eventually all seeds will become genetically modified because of this natural spreading process, unless safety zones are created to protect non-GM crops from infection by nearby GM fields.
Concerned citizens in historic Jacksonville, Oregon are trying to do just that: protect their organic farms from GM infestation by supporting a ballet vote this spring to reduce or eliminate the use of GM seeds in their community. Think it sounds impossible? Not to Europeans, who refuse to even import GM-products, much less grow them.
The same food companies that must supply non-GM seeds to European markets who demand it, like Kellogg, Coke, Pepsi, Kraft, Heinz, and others, can just as easily produce non-GM crops for US buyers, if American consumers demand it. Find out how you can get involved to protect Jacksonville's heritage and organic growers, and how you can start a grass-roots movement in your own town here.
At the least, choose heirloom seeds available from seed banks, like Texas Ready
Why heirloom or heritage seeds instead of simply non-GM?
Most of the non-GM seeds sold in the US are hybridized. "Hybrid seeds are generally unstable varieties that have been developed to provide better yields, greater drought tolerance, higher resistance to insects, fungus and disease and a more aesthetically pleasing appearance." Unfortunately you can't do what farmers and gardeners have done for centuries: collect seeds and re-plant the following year.
Hybrids produce sterile seed. They do not reproduce themselves in kind, as would an original plant. If the hybrid plant is somehow able to produce viable seed, the hybridized attributes are most often lost, so there is no guarantee that what you plant from that seed will be what you should expect, or that the seed will even grow. As a result, you must re-purchase seed each year.
The seeds stored in seed banks are not genetically modified or unstable hybrids; but are open-pollinated heirloom varieties that reproduce "true-to-type." They might have actually begun as a hybrid type a hundred years ago, but are well-established and now produce stable yields, like an original varietal, or a plant that God made. These are also known as heritage varieties.
With heirlooms, "if you practice proper gardening techniques and correctly save your seed, the produce you harvest in your first year will be virtually identical to the produce harvested by your great grandchildren a century from now. So you only have to buy your seeds one time."
Here is a list Treehugger.com compiled of ten incredible seed banks from which you can order seeds for this year:
- The D. Landreth Seed Company, founded in 1784, has remained in business thanks to the support of passionate gardeners. The seed catalog—which contains a bewildering variety of crops—is well worth its $7.95 cover price.
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds carries one of the largest selections of seeds from the 19th century, including many Asian and European varieties. The company has become a tool to promote and preserve our agricultural and culinary heritage. Its company and seeds have been featured in The New York Times, The Associated Press, Oprah Magazine, Martha Stewart, and many others. Gardeners can request a free 212-page color catalog that now mails to 350,000 gardeners nationally.
- For those interested in rare and medicinal herbs, Horizon Herbs may be your best supplier. Since 1985, the company has been specializing in herbs with culinary and therapeutic properties, although they also offer a wide variety of vegetables and plants too.
- Territorial Seed Company is a privately owned company, started in 1979 by Steve Solomon, now owned by Tom and Julie Johns. Territorial Seed began by selling seed-production crops that were grown in isolation in neighbors' backyards, including an open-pollinated Brussels sprout, an heirloom cranberry bean, and a Lorane fava bean cover-crop seed. In addition to heirloom seed varieties, Territorial also sells certified-organic seeds, conventional seeds, plants, and garden supplies. Try out Territorial's useful garden planning software for free.
- High Mowing a TreeHugger favorite, specializes in 100-percent organic seeds, with a large number of heirloom varieties. This company doesn't just sell good, green seed; they do good green deeds, too: From seed and produce donations, to joining a 2008 lawsuit requiring the USDA to conduct an Environmental Impact Study before allowing the deregulation of Monsanto's Round Up-ready sugar beets. Worth supporting!
- Terra Edibles is a Canadian company that remains a favorite heirloom seed supplier. Offering a somewhat more limited variety than some others, Terra Edibles' specialty is open-pollinated heirloom tomato seeds. They also offer organic garlic (in season), long beans, gourds, amaranth grain, okra, a mustard mesclun mix, strawberry popping-corn, as well as soaps, lavender products and seed extras, such as desiccant packets for keeping seeds dry.
- Another great Canadian company, Salt Spring Seeds, sells only open pollinated, untreated, non-GMO seeds that they grow themselves on 10 farms, all of which practice organic agriculture—but only two of which are certified organic. The Salt Spring Seeds catalog includes tomatoes, peppers, peas, lettuce, and even lentils (new for 2013). Due to U.S. customs regulations, Salt Spring cannot sell seed directly to American consumers, but their seeds are available through Horizon Herbs and Bountiful Gardens, among other suppliers.
- Bountiful Gardens is an offshoot of Ecology Action, a non-profit dedicated to ending world hunger through promoting the bio-intensive method of growing, which proponents claim can offer food self-sufficiency on as little as 1/10th of an acre. Bountiful Gardens also sells unusual hot weather heirloom crops including Aztec Spinach, Amaranth, and Orac.
- The Kusa Seed Society focuses on seed and grain crops. "The precious edible seeds of the earth — the cereal grains, grain-legumes, oilseeds, and other precious edible seeds — have a history of small-scale cultivation and utilization which dates back more than 10,000 years." They offer seeds vital to those with wheat intolerance - becoming a majority of modern population - ancient-pedigree wheat-ancestor seeds. These are plants that pre-date modern hybridized wheat and may be tolerated by those with severe wheat allergies.
- Seed Savers Exchange is a membership organization that operates a mail-order seed-selling operation as impressive as any for-profit business. Don't worry, you do not have to be a member to order seeds, but members do get access to over 13,000 more varieties of vegetables, fruits, and flowers. The group works with gardeners around the country, including larger organizations like the Maharishi University, to grow, collect, and exchange open-pollinated seeds as growers have done for millennia. Founded in 1975, Seed Savers Exchange has been credited by some as the driving force behind the modern heirloom seed revival.
Planting your garden, or your farm field, with heirloom seeds makes sense, and profit. Saving seeds means you purchase seed once, instead of yearly. Growing organically means a savings in the cost of chemical pesticides and fungicides. There may be more time and effort involved, but that's part of the joy of growing. You will also taste the difference as heirloom varieties, as well as organically grown food, just tastes better. Better flavor, more customers, better nutrition.
For the average gardener, making the switch is easy. For farmers, it may not be that you can switch today. But it's worth thinking about before you make that next seed order. After all, you'll be a part of saving the world. That's got to be worth something.