For many interested in permaculture, one of the first and perhaps simplest joys of becoming more involved in holistic design is the experience of being able to harvest something which you have grown yourself; whether it is pesto made of basil from your window-sill or a forest garden so packed with fruit, nuts and climbing vines that you are not sure what you will do with them all. If you have the space and are in one place for long enough, growing your own food can be a fantastically rewarding and efficient way of getting your nutrition.
You don’t need to have land to get growing. By moving the reliance of things we depend on for food into our own homes, gardens, allotments or parks — through projects with the council or local community or, if they are not keen, guerrilla gardening — we are accepting more responsibility for our health and actions, which can have an incredibly empowering effect.
The actual eating of food we have grown is an unforgettable experience, and perhaps because of its immediacy, is usually what is remembered most about the growing endeavour. After all, that’s what crops are for, right?
Yet, tempting though it may be to ignore everything else but the (inevitably) delicious flavour of our home produce, it is important to bear in mind that all living things – which means, to a greater or lesser extent, pretty much all of our food – follow a cycle in their growth patterns. With crops which are annuals, such as most commercial crops and many salads and vegetables, if we harvest the food but not the seed we are breaking this cycle.
So in order to create an even more efficient system, we can harvest the seeds from our veg-plots and re-seed them next year, ensuring prolonged biodiversity and more economically viable growing for us, as we don’t have to keep buying seeds.
It all seems so simple; but with the growth of the market for seeds into one of the largest and most profitable in the world (1) as companies compete over who can make the most money out of these potent microcosms of life, saving seeds has become a little more complicated than simply keeping the ones your vegetables produce.
Seeds for thought
It is no exaggeration to say that if we do not look after our seeds we do not look after ourselves. They are the source of all of our sustenance; some might say the beginning of the food chain (2); though there is a slight risk of getting into a ‘chicken and egg’ situation with this thinking, so it may be more useful to see them as an integral node on the web of life.
The history of human relationships with seeds is quite fascinating, and is one which I have neither the time nor expertise to go into very much. Ever since first discovering that we can, to some extent, manipulate plants to make them more palatable, potent or pretty by the application of selective breeding, we have understood that in order to make plants benefit us more, it is important that we also benefit them. It is only in recent years, with the advent of F1 breeding, genetic modification and intellectual property rights, that this balance could be seen as becoming slightly skewed.
Plant manipulation is nothing new. The idea of ‘F1’ seeds was first publicised by Gregor Mendel back in the late 19th century (3). F1 stands for ‘first filial generation’ (4): F1 seeds are the first generation of a hybrid genetic line of two different varieties of plant. What Mendel publicised (which farmers had been putting into practise for centuries previously) (4) was that crossing certain breeds of plants produces offspring which show remarkably stable and uniform characteristics. This is seen as very important in modern ‘agribusiness’ and most seed companies nowadays prefer to use F1 hybrid varieties. If you are a seed company the advantages of seeds which are highly uniform and stable are that you can assure a certain level of consistency to your customers. This is especially important for farmers growing crops to sell in supermarkets, which generally place a number of restrictions on size, shape and colour on crops, as well as having very specific order quotas and times for collection of crops (5).
Though the first generation of seeds generally exhibit uniformity and stability, when these themselves produce seeds, the stable characteristics disappear and it can be quite difficult to achieve fertile seeds, as the variety was hybridised in the first place (6). This means that in order to keep producing the same crop variety you would have to keep buying new F1 seeds every year.
From the point of view of the seed companies this can be seen as fantastic, especially when coupled with the fact that, as F1 hybrids are distinct varieties which can be genetically recognised, they can be patented (7, 8). When this happens seed companies have the power to sue farmers for using seeds which have been ‘copyrighted’, and legal records abound in such cases (see for example 9).
It could seem as though the seed companies are onto a winner here, with the incentives to change this behaviour little or non-existent. Yet when looked at from even a slightly extended viewpoint, it is clear that F1 seeds carry many disadvantages for the seed companies as well. Firstly, the very nature of F1 stability means that companies are relying on just one producer to provide all of their stock. As F1 crops, being stable and uniform, are naturally not very adaptable to climatic changes or resistant to new pests or diseases, this reliance is on quite a shaky footing. When the source fails, the entire product line also fails, as happened with the Delicata squash seed in the USA at the beginning of this decade (10).
In only concentrating on one variety, seed companies are rejecting thousands of others. This has become so prevalent that many common crops have dwindled dramatically in biodiversity over the past few decades alone. Though it is difficult to monitor these things, some estimate that as much as 70% of all food plant varieties have been lost since World War 2 (11). Loss of biodiversity means less variety of nutrition for humans, animals, insects and the soil, which also impacts heavily on the seed companies: if the humans who work for the companies are malnourished, or the place they are living in has become unsafe due to lack of plant diversity, this will be bad news for profits.
This year this loss of biodiversity was somewhat stemmed by the rejection (12) of the proposed EU ‘Plant Reproductive Materials Regulation’ (13) in Europe, which, if put into effect, would have made it mandatory for all seed varieties, whether being sold by large corporations or simply kept by local seed banks, to be registered at great expense and to fulfil a set regime of ‘Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability’ (13). For those trying to preserve varieties of seeds which can be re-sown year after year, this law could have been disastrous.
The disadvantages of F1 seeds are somewhat easier to monitor than those of genetic modification (GM), or the process of changing the actual genetic structure of an organism using biotechnology. As this process has only been in use for a couple of generations (14) it is not really possible to ascertain what the long-term effects of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are on the health of humans, animals, plants and the planet in general. The controversies surrounding GMOs are quite lengthy and just one example is the rise of ‘superbugs’ which have evolved in order to survive on crops which have been genetically modified to be pest-resistant (see for example 15).
These controversies are complicated and do not necessarily mean that use of genetic modification technology cannot help to protect biodiversity or create healthier crops. One reason why it can be difficult to test this is the common bias of many scientific studies (see for example 16, 17). But if we are going to argue against the use of such technology, it seems we need to present a useful alternative.
One positive way to utilise technology to create more biodiversity and increase crop production is actually a very old technique: open pollination. This is the process by which most seeds reproduce in nature, though it can also be aided by humans (10). Seeds produced using open pollination techniques are diverse, adaptable to climatic and predatory effects and will generally produce viable seeds themselves (10, 18). In this way the rich heritage of plant varieties which make up our food, even despite the vast losses, can continue to be preserved.
Rights on life
With current international laws allowing seed companies to patent life itself, if farmers want to sell their products even on a small scale they enter into a risky world of potential law suits and becoming trapped in a cycle of having to buy the same seeds over and over again. The scrapping of the EU Seed Law showed a promising movement in a direction towards more holistic management of our seeds. This was shown again in Europe with the drafting of a ‘Soil Directive’ (19) which would, if put into practise, apply
… precautions to minimise soil erosion and compaction, to maintain the organic matter soil contains, to prevent landslides and to prevent soil from being contaminated with toxic substances. — George Monbiot, 2014 (20)
Effectively the Directive would make it illegal for farmers not to look after their soil; something which any farmer with any kind of long-term perspective would probably do anyway, but which is becoming so rare that loss of soil has been quoted as being ‘at crisis point’ (20). As soil is integral to human life, you could say so far, so good: but the National Farmer’s Union (NFU) of the UK appears to disagree there. In June this year, “unreported by any British newspaper or broadcaster” (20), the Soil Framework Directive was scrapped, due in large part to rejections from the UK government in response to the NFU. The Union themselves took credit for the scrapping, justifying this by saying
Our long held and firm belief has been that there is no need for additional legislation in this area – soils in the UK, and across the EU, are already protected by a range of laws and other measures. (20)
In his article lamenting the loss of the Soil Framework Directive (20), George Monbiot argues that one reason the NFU was so opposed to protective measures being put on the soil is the large amount of subsidies which farmers in the UK receive on an annual basis. If these subsidies had conditions on them for the farmers to actually do something about keeping the soil alive they would not be able to use them to grow virgin crops on new pieces of land and then leave that land, as many farmers are doing with maize crops, showing in some parts of England up to 75% loss of soil structure (20).
This view of farmers’ motives may be somewhat simplistic, as it does not necessarily take in a range of other factors such as market trends and farmers’ income, but it does bring to light the idea that if we are to significantly change the way that farming happens in Europe and indeed globally, we need to change the entire culture; which means changing our own actions and behaviours.
That the Soil Framework Directive, to all intents and purposes a regulation encouraging responsible land use and eco system protection, should be rejected by the very industry whose interests lie in doing these things, shows the power of people joining together for what they feel is right. In order to encourage more soil care we need to be reaching out to those who rejected it and help them to cultivate a new and healthier culture. This means communicating, which there is more than one way to do. One of the most fundamental ways in which we communicate to farmers is by choosing whether or not to buy their produce. As Jules Pretty, author of Agri-Culture, puts it, with every piece of food we purchase we
… send strong signals about the systems of agricultural production that we prefer. We may not realise that we are sending these messages, but we are. — Pretty, 2002 (21)
Seeds of change
One place in which this new culture could be seen to be blossoming is Guatemala.
In June this year, the Guatemalan congress signed a law which would apply the restrictions laid out by UPOV to seed production in the country (22), effectively making it legal for seed companies to sue farmers and to patent seed varieties and make it impossible for farmers to use these varieties without re-buying them every year.
Known by some critics as the “Monsanto Laws” (22) because of the clear financial advantages the restrictions would have on one seed company in particular (though, as already discussed, these would not be sustainable in the long term), the restrictions would almost definitely have had a devastating effect on farmers’ freedom and plant biodiversity. However, on 5 September 2014, due to publicised concerns from indigenous groups, farmers and civil rights groups, the Guatemalan Congress decided to cancel the law (22).
The scrapping of the Plant Reproductive Materials law in Europe and of the ‘Monsanto Law’ in Guatemala shows that even government can be persuaded to act in favour of biodiversity sometimes. But there is no need to wait for your elected representatives. With the issue of seeds being the complicated and highly charged one it is, even the simple act of harvesting your own seeds takes on a new significance as a potent statement of intent. Even if you are only gathering seeds from one variety of one plant, your actions are helping to maintain the survival of that particular variety, and thus all of the web of biodiversity which is affected by it.
The seed saving itself can be done in a number of ways, and although it is quite simple it is still an art which should be done properly. It is with this in mind that I began researching the practical aspects of saving my own seeds, which I shall share in a later article.
- ETC Group, 2008. ‘Who Owns Nature?: Corporate Power and the Final Frontier in the Commodification of Life.’ ETC: Ottawa. Available as a PDF here: https://www.etcgroup.org/files/publication/707/01/etc_won_report_final_color.pdf
- Seed Freedom, 2014. ‘What is a Seed?’ https://seedfreedom.in/learn/what-is-a-seed – retrieved 09/10/14
- Bowler, Peter J. (2003). Evolution: the history of an idea. Berkeley: University of California Press.
- Biology Online, 2014. ‘First Filial Definition’. https://www.biology-online.org/dictionary/First_filial_generation – retrieved 09/10/14
- Lawrence, Felicity, 2004. Not on the Label: What Really Goes into the Food on your Plate. Penguin: London
- Daughter of the Soil, 2014. ‘F1 Hybrids: What Every Gardener Should Know’. https://daughterofthesoil.blogspot.co.uk/2006/07/f1-hybrids-what-every-gardener-should.html – retrieved 09/10/14
- Seed Freedom, 2014. ‘Who Owns the Seed?’. https://seedfreedom.in/learn/who-owns-the-seed – retrieved 09/10/14
- Monsanto, 2014. ‘Why does Monsanto sue farmers who save seeds?’ https://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/pages/why-does-monsanto-sue-farmers-who-save-seeds.aspx – retrieved 09/10/14
- Monsanto, 2014. ‘Saved Seed and Farmer Lawsuits’. https://www.monsanto.com/newsviews/pages/saved-seed-farmer-lawsuits.aspx – retrieved 09/10/14
- The Seed Ambassadors Project, 2010. ‘A Guide to Seed Saving, Seed Stewardship and Seed Sovereignty’. Seed Ambassadors Project: Crawfordsville
- Bifurcated Carrots, 2007. ‘Biodiversity Begins at Home’. https://www.bifurcatedcarrots.eu/2007/10/biodiversity-begins-at-home – retrieved 09/10/14
- Seed Sovereignty, 2014. ‘The commissions proposal for a seed regulation is politically dead’. https://www.seed-sovereignty.org/EN/ – retrieved 09/10/14
- Haworth, Charlotte, 2014. ‘European Seed Law: A Potential Threat to Biodiversity Everywhere’, Permaculture News, 10/2/2014. https://www.permaculturenews.org/2014/02/10/european-seed-law-potential-threat-biodiversity-everywhere – retrieved 10/10/14
- GM Education, 2014. “A Brief History of genetic modification.” https://www.gmeducation.org/faqs/p149248-20brief%20history%20of%20genetic%20modification.html – retrieved 10/10/14
- Wang, Zi-jun; Lin, Hai; Huang, Ji-kun; Hu, Rui-fa; Rozelle, Scott; Pray, Carl (2009). "Bt Cotton in China: Are Secondary Insect Infestations Offsetting the Benefits in Farmer Fields?". Agricultural Sciences in China 8: 83–90.
- Hansen, Dr M, 2014. ‘Golden Rice Myths’. Permaculture News, 27/3/2014. https://www.permaculturenews.org/2014/03/27/golden-rice-myths – retrieved 10/10/14
- Haworth, C, 2014. ‘Organic Europe: Growing or Wilting?’. Permaculture News, 10/7/14. https://www.permaculturenews.org/2014/07/10/organic-europe-growing-wilting – retrieved 10/10/14
- Seed Savers Exchange, 2012. ‘The difference between open-pollinated, heirloom and hybrid seeds.’ Seed Savers Exchange, 2/5/2012. https://blog.seedsavers.org/blog/open-pollinated-heirloom-and-hybrid-seeds – retrieved 10/10/14
- Commission of the European Communities, 2006. ‘Proposal for a Directive of the European Parliament and of the Council establishing a framework for the protection of soil and amending Directive 2004/35/EC /* COM/2006/0232 final – COD 2006/0086 *’. Commission of the European Communities, 22/9/2006. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/?uri=CELEX:52006PC0232 – retrieved 10/10/14
- Monbiot, G, 2014. ‘The farming lobby has wrecked efforts to defend our soil’. Guardian, 5/6/2014. https://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2014/jun/05/the-farming-lobby-has-wrecked-efforts-to-defend-our-soil – retrieved 10/10/14
- Pretty, Jules, 2002. Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature. Earthscan: Oxford
- Association for Plant Breeding for the Benefit of Society, 2014. ‘Social Mobilization Crowned with Victory’. APREBES, 8/10/14. https://www.apbrebes.org/news/guatemala-social-mobilization-crowned-victory?pk_campaign=NL9 – retrieved 10/10/14