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Saving Heirloom Seeds For The Next Generation

Chiu-Nan Lai, Ph.D.

Every seed contains the unique genetic blueprint of a plant’s life. Life can sprout from seeds that are thousands of years old (e.g., the 3000-year-old seeds found in the Egyptian pyramids). The uncooked seeds in a pot found among the ancient ruins of the American Indians in the Four Corners area (located in southwest Colorado) can still germinate, long after these mysterious ancestors of the American Indians have disappeared. Nowadays, it is still possible to purchase descendants of these Anasazi seeds.

When European and Asian immigrants came to the USA, they brought with them plant and vegetable seeds from their homeland. As a result, many different varieties of seeds found their way to the USA. In the 1950s, the agricultural industry underwent a dramatic change government policies on agriculture were influenced by cooperation, and agriculture became an industry. As a result, many small farms disappeared. Agricultural products were viewed as commercial products. Farming methods were mechanized, and seeds selected for growing were those that had been artificially modified so that the crops had improved yield, grew fast, longer shelf life, and looked better. This was at the expense of traditional seeds that produced crops with better taste and higher nutritional value. Within 50 to 100 years, almost 95% of the original seeds have been lost. Older generation of Americans recall vegetables and fruits of the past having more variety and flavour. Reduction of seed variety has a severe and insidious impact on nature’s balance, human health and human survival.

In 1975, as American Diane Whealy’s grandfather laid dying, he gave Diane and her husband Kent three seed species brought by his parents from Bavaria. Both Diane and Kent realised that it was up to them to preserve this inheritance from their forefathers. As they read up and learned more about the seriousness of extinction of seed species, they decided to contact other people who were also interested in preserving seeds inherited from the past. That year, they established the Seed Saver Exchange, a non-profit organization dedicated to this mission. There were 50 members in the first year, with 27 of them contributing over 20 seed species. Now, 25 years later, there are 8000 members in 30 countries, of which 1000 members have contributed over 10,000 traditional seed species. In the 1980s, the Seed Saver Exchange bought a farm covering 170 acres, and grew the following crops that are close to extinction: 700 apple varieties, 18,000 vegetables, 4,100 tomato varieties, 3,600 bean varieties, 1,200 pepper varieties, 1,000 varieties of squash, 900 pea varieties, 850 lettuce varieties, 400 melon varieties, 200 garlic varieties, etc.

Plant genetic diversity is a principal way of preventing plant diseases, viruses, and harmful insects. The 1854 Irish Potato Famine arose from potato blight and the resultant poor harvest. As a result, one million people died of starvation, and another million left for the USA. In 1970, corn in the southern part of America was infected, resulting in loss of 50% of the crop. This was because the six varieties of corns that were grown were similar.

Traditional seed varieties inherited from our forefathers have stood the test of time. Over thousands of years, nature has selected seed varieties that have adapted to the climate and geography, and that can be withstand the attack of harmful bugs and viruses. New hybrid varieties tend to have lower vitality and nutritional values. For example, hybrid tomatoes, apples and potatoes have lower vitamin C and are less tasty than traditional varieties. The strawberries that are commercially available in the USA were originally selected by a horticulture professor. These strawberries are more durable for transportation but lack taste. In contrast, those brought in the farmers’ markets in California do not keep well, but they are fragrant and tasty.

Farmers (using chemical fertilizers) who want to convert to organic farming must not only allow their land to recover their vitality, but also acquire traditional seed varieties as well. Many hybrid seeds are designed to respond well to chemical fertilizers and may not respond well to organic farming methods. These hybrid varieties (e.g., seedless watermelons) also have lower vitality than traditional varieties (watermelon with seeds).

Because of the efforts of people keen to preserve traditional seeds, it is now possible to buy some of these seeds and occasionally, some of these crops. Both customers and farmers must cooperate in this respect.

Once a year during summer, the Seed Saver Exchange organizes an educational conference. This year, it is held on July 22 and July 23 in an Iowa farm, and is open only to members. Annual membership fee is US$30 for Americans, and US$45 for international members. The two-day conference features seeds and crops from the days of our ancestors, and information on how to preserve these seeds. The keynote speaker this year is Pat Mooney, the host of RAFI. The Seed Saver Exchange’s major concern is the adverse impact of genetic engineering, and they are seeking ways to avoid this calamity. More details will be available in the future. Please contact the organization directly if you are interested.

Contact addresses:

Seed Savers Exchange

3076 North Winn Road

Decorah, IA 52101-7776

Tel: (319) 382-5990

Fax: (319) 382-5872

Seeds of Change:

P.O. Box 15700

Santa Fe, NM 87506-5700

Tel: (505) 438-8080

Fax: (505) 428-7052