global scale seed saving

seeds from garlic scapes

My younger daughter and I are both seized by the compulsion to save seeds whenever we can. She’s a huge fan of collecting cherry, peach, and apricot pits and has amassed quite the collection so far this year. She might have to start saving up her pennies for some land, if she wants to plant them all! In the photo above she’s helping me gather garlic bulbils from the scapes that I allowed to grow on a few of my garlic plants. Bulbils take a few years, once you plant them in the ground, to form the garlic bulbs that we are accustomed to seeing. I’d like to try it, though, so I’m saving them.

Among my friends and neighbours I might be slightly eccentric and obsessive about seeds, but among seed savers I’m barely a beginner. Many people go to great lengths to squirrel away extra seeds, or unique varieties of seeds. I remember a long time ago, hearing about a woman who had saved so many seeds. Her family, when they were cleaning out her house, found them in every conceivable nook and cranny. She was saving them up, just in case.

Today there are organizations dedicated to the preservation of seeds, like Seeds of Diversity in Canada, and Seed Savers Exchange in the United States. If you become a member, you are then entitled to buy seeds from other members. All these different varieties are listed in the main catalogue that gets printed once per year. Thousands upon thousands of different seed varieties. Heaven!

It was good to see an article in the National Geographic this past month that brought the importance of seed saving and genetic diversity to light. I’d like to touch on and expand a few points they brought up.

national geographic article july 2011

The availability of our food may be in danger, by our own doing. Today we have so little variety, compared to variety 100 years ago, among the different types of vegetables and fruits we grow. Obviously we didn’t intend to threaten our food supply. Originally, certain varieties and hybrids were created and bred in order to help increase food yields and thus support a growing population. Intentions were noble; however, lack of genetic variability is now the problem. Most of the wheat in the world is defenceless against a stem rust fungus called Ug99, due to lack of genetic variability among the wheat.

This is how diversity protects us: it allows most of the crop to survive while a smaller portion fails due to disease or pest. Many of us have heard about the great Irish potato famine in 1845. The reason most of the potatoes in the country were destroyed by blight is lack of variability, or diversity. Everyone was growing the ‘Lumper’ potato. Lumper couldn’t handle the fungus, and so everyone in the country suffered. Millions died or were displaced by famine. That’s why it’s a good idea to mix things up, and grow many different varieties of the same type of vegetable. The more diversity we have, the better. In my opinion, if Lumper was only one of, say, ten varieties grown, there’s a good chance that most of the crop would have been saved.

The article discusses a food bank in Norway, in the permafrost of a mountain 400 feet above sea level and 700 miles from the North Pole. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is one of 1,400 seed banks in the world, and it serves as a backup vault to preserve the varieties that could potentially contain any number of genes resistant to future diseases and pests. I think this is a great idea, but I also think it’s important to grow the seeds as well, to keep them viable. That’s what organizations like Seeds of Diversity and Seed Savers Exchange are promoting with their member catalogues. The more people grow the unique and heirloom varieties, the deeper the gene pool. Increased diversity means a greater chance that we won’t all starve.

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So what can you do? Well, you already know that I think everyone should be growing something edible if they can. Trying some heirloom varieties is one way to help out. If you have the space to grow a few varieties, that’s good too. Then, if you’re really into it, save the seeds for next year.

If you can’t do these things, then support farmers who are growing heirloom varieties and buy their produce. The food ark is funny that way – if we want to save varieties, we need to eat them. Seeds can only be stored for so long until they are no longer viable. If people want to eat the heirlooms, they will be grown by farmers. Your vote is counted when you buy the food. Or the seeds/seedlings to grow it.

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