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The Role of Seeds in Preserving Genetic

Biodiversity in Agroecosystems

Susan Ventura
Introduction to Sustainable Agriculture
February 24, 2009

Introduction/Purpose of Paper:

The purpose of this paper is to explore the crucial role seeds play in preserving genetic
biodiversity in agroecosystems (agrobiodiversity). I will discuss why this is an important
topic in sustainable agriculture throughout the world.

I chose this topic for various reasons. In the mid 1990’s I read two books -Enduring
Seeds by ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan, and Seeds of Change by Kenny Ausubel,
founder of Seeds of Change, (both of which I partially re-read for writing this paper)
which I found very informative, disturbing as well as inspiring. I’ve long been interested
in heirloom varieties of food crops, and have always enjoyed reading the stories
associated with heirlooms. Having been educated as a biologist, and subsequently
working in the landscape horticulture field and in recent years as an agricultural
inspector, I’ve been increasingly interested in the issue of crop biodiversity, and how it’s
being affected by factors such as genetic engineering, corporate takeover of our seed
supply, and the changes in our environment due to global warming.

I will discuss the following topics:

• The Importance of Genetic Diversity in Agroecosystems

• History and Current State of Seeds and Crop Diversity

• Seed Banks/Plant Conservation/Control of Seeds

• Profiles of Individuals and Organizations

• How Sustainable Farmers can Preserve Agrobiodiversity

• Resources for Seed Saving and Open-Pollinated Seeds

The Importance of Genetic Diversity in Agroecosystems

In my research for this paper, I found two authors who wrote at length about why they
see the loss of genetic diversity in food crops as a crucial issue, as well as discussing
some encouraging research. First I will discuss Gary Paul Nabhan’s writings in his 1989
book Enduring Seeds. Second I will cover Claire Hope Cummings writings in her 2008
book Uncertain Peril.

After years of researching Native American agriculture ethnobotanist Gary Paul Nabhan
was ready to conclude that the loss of cultural indigenous agricultural knowledge he was
seeing, combined with the loss of so much crop genetic diversity, may result in the
human race losing our ability to feed ourselves. As Nabhan continued his research, both
here in the US, and in countries south of the border, he became more encouraged as he
discovered agrarian cultures still growing centuries old seedstocks; many of these
cultures were not adopting the hybrid seeds available from crop breeding centers.
Nabhan feels that while genetic erosion has resulted in the extinction of much of our food
crop diversity, he no longer thinks that it will be able to destroy the remaining traditional
seedstocks that thus far have escaped this genetic erosion. (Nabhan, 1989)

Cummings says in the introduction to her book that food crop seeds are in danger from
the forces of agricultural technology, patents and corporate ownership. Seeds are a
crucial component of the earth’s ability to regenerate, and humans will be increasingly
dependent on seeds natural adaptability and resiliency especially with environmental
changes due to global warming. Cummings reports that the Global Crop Diversity Trust,
the organization building the “Doomsday Vault” (Svalbard, Norway), says that there are
over 50,000 edible plants worldwide; about 150 commercialized; and just 40 currently
being cultivated. Out of those 40, rice, wheat and corn supply the bulk of human food;
more than 75% of crops used for food are now extinct.
Much of Ms. Cummings book discusses her concerns about genetic engineering both in
the United States, and throughout the world. She says that traditional farmers in the third
world who save and breed their own seed are thereby guarding some of the earth’s most
important crops and their genetic diversity. When the US forces patented and genetically
altered seeds on these countries, the US is removing their seed sovereignty, thereby
subsidizing poverty. CGIAR, the Consultative Group on International Agricultural
Research, the largest international alliance of seed banks, conducted a study of 47
countries affected by war and natural disasters which showed that local seed saving is
crucial for rebuilding local food systems, preserving biodiversity, and recovering food
Ms. Cummings also has found much to be encouraged about; the new worldwide food
and farming movement which in many areas is focused on the importance of local farms
producing food for local communities, and the rising numbers of farmers shifting to more
sustainable farming methods. (Cummings, 2008)

History and Current State of Seeds and Crop Diversity

As reported on the website for the UK organization Primal Seeds, pre-industrial farming
communities developed distinct local varieties of crops, known as landraces, which
evolved as adaptations to local microclimates and the communities’ farming practices.
These landraces with their variable pest and disease resistance, growth rates, and flavor
provided many years of local food security for the farming communities. The genetic
diversity of landraces provides for greater adaptability under harsh environmental
conditions which benefits farmers by reducing crop yield variability. These heirloom

varieties often taste better and are often higher in nutritional value as well.

Cummings writes that in the early 1900’s the American farming system was highly
productive; farmers were self sufficient through seed saving, and public plant research
encouraged these efforts. However by the end of the 1900’s the majority of these farmers
were reliant on government subsidies and patented seeds and their associated chemicals
provided by a small number of large corporate agribusinesses. What happened during the
20th century was the industrialization of agriculture with the commercialization of hybrid
seeds and the advent of chemicals which had been used in World War II being made into
fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides. The agrochemical corporations such as Monsanto,
Dow, and DuPont grew in power and earnings and were able to convince many farmers
to give up their traditional farming methods and begin using their seeds and chemicals.
As a result many small family farms went under, the overall size of farms got bigger,
more industrialized, and reliant on government subsidies.
Seed saving by farmers worldwide has protected the world’s food security by dispersing
germplasm into millions of hands. Plants grown in local communities are allowed to
adapt to specific conditions, thereby increasing genetic diversity. The practice of seed
saving is also culturally bound, connecting communities both economically and
ecologically. (Cummings, 2008)

Recent statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations
(FAO) (as reported on the primal seeds website) show that currently 30 plant species
provide 95% of the world populations calories and proteins, either directly or indirectly
through their use as animal feed. The three grains wheat, rice and corn supplying most of
our food, are varieties grown in large scale monoculture farms, and were developed by
crop breeders for traits important in industrial based agriculture, and large chain grocery
and food processing businesses. These traits include uniform growth, shape and size,
higher weight, and easy storage. They are not breeding for flavor, high nutritional
content or natural pest and disease resistance.
While we do not know exactly how much crop biodiversity has been lost over the years,
the FAO estimates 75% of crop varieties worldwide became extinct in the last hundred
years or so. The Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) survey shows that
97% of varieties that were listed by USDA were lost in the last 80 years.

This loss in genetic diversity in crop plants has resulted in human society’s increased
reliance on just a few food crop species, and a small number of genes and genetic
combinations contained in those species. As a result, these remaining food crops have
lowered pest and disease resistance, and are less able to survive unfavorable
environmental conditions. This has led to crop failures, and increased reliance on
external chemically-based inputs and technologies for plants to grow optimally. There
has also been a loss in the genetic resources of wild and weedy crop relatives outside of
the crops themselves.
Wild crop relatives are crucial as sources of diverse genetic material, without which crops
are much more susceptible to epidemics such as the Irish Potato Blight. Unfortunately,

wild crop relatives and subsequent crosses with cultivated crop plants are being lost
throughout the world due to habitat loss, the widespread use of hybrid seed, and the
tendency for modern farms to be well removed from natural ecosystems.
The decline in agrobiodiversity has impacts both genetically, with the loss of diversity of
and within food crops, and geographically, whether on the scale of an individual farm,
within a farming community, or on a broader global scale. In order to become sustainable
agriculturally, there needs to be a basic change in how agroecosystems and their genetic
resources are managed. There needs to be genetic diversity from the genome up through
the whole system, resulting from coevolution amongst all of the component organisms,
adapting to local environmental conditions. (Gliessman, 2007)

Seed Banks/Plant Conservation/Control of Seeds

The history of plant and seed conservation and the advantages and disadvantages of seed
banks are discussed at length by Nabhan in Enduring Seeds. He mentions a conversation
he had with Kent Whealy, founder of Seed Savers Exchange. Whealy, in a meeting with
the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), talked about why most of the
United States plant genetic resources are imported from other countries: “There has never
been a systematic, large-scale search for (crop) plants within the United States; the USDA
has always done its explorations outside the US.” USDA states that “in situ” crop
conservation is neither effective nor stable and too risky to devote resources to.
Nabhan discusses the importance of landraces (also referred to as heirlooms or crop
ecotypes); cultivated plants which have adapted to a particular bioregion. These are
genetically distinct plant populations, having evolved both naturally and through human
selection to specific soils and microclimates. These plant populations of locally produced
seed have been passed down through generations in most agrarian cultures through seed
saving and following plant selection methods.
In situ plant conservation happens as a result of protection of wild areas. Large numbers
of species, including ones not known to be useful are being conserved and allowed to
evolve in their native habitats. While the cost is low for conserving species in their
ecosystems, crop breeders do not utilize these plants for breeding, and the genetic
resources of preserved wild areas are not usually managed, and species which maybe
potential agricultural crops may not even be discovered.
Ex situ seed conservation- which may mean seeds frozen in liquid nitrogen in seed banks,
or seeds preserved in Petri dishes or in botanical gardens well removed from their origin.
Geneticists generally prefer the ex situ approach, as it provides readily available seeds for
their breeding programs. However due to high storage costs, emphasis has been on
maintaining only the most useful food, forage and forestry crops.

Nabhan researched botanical gardens and organizations such as the Center for Plant
Conservation (St. Louis, MO) and the Rare Plant Study Center (University of Texas)
which are working to reintroduce lost plants and save species from extinction. Funding is
not always sufficient for these organizations to continue their work, and botanical
gardens often are not able maintain direction, often focusing on saving showing exotic
species instead of less known natives. Researchers at botanical gardens noticed that with

small populations of rare species “inbreeding depression” may occur, due to years of
cultivation without genetic interaction with wild plants; some naturally self-pollinating
flowers are no longer able to produce stamens and pollen, or their flower shapes and
colors have changed so that their native wild pollinators are not attracted to them.
Unless these plants are propagated vegetatively or artificially pollinated they may
become extinct, unable to reproduce if returned to their native habitat.
Frozen seed banks were designed to address such problems, keeping seeds viable for long
periods of time and reducing the chances of contamination, genetic drift, and crop failure.
Refrigerating seeds cuts down on deterioration and insect infestation. In the 1940’s and
1950’s the USDA began using cold storage for seeds; currently liquid nitrogen is often
used with seeds stored in freeze resistant plastic tubes. Researchers believe that seeds in
deep freeze state should have less than a 1 % loss in germination over a hundred billion
years. Nabhan discovered that the idea of cold storage for seeds is centuries old in the
He found a village along the US-Mexico border, whose ancestors sealed seeds within
pots, and stored in caves near their fields, a good strategy in a desert region prone to
droughts and floods. Some genetic conservationists have looked at using caves for
storing seeds, seeing it as cheaper than traditional seed banks. Unfortunately (as reported
by Nabhan in ’89), the idea was lacking financial and technical design support.
Nabhan discusses what he sees as the disadvantages of seed banks where seeds are store
for decades, away from interaction in agroecosystems.
While being stored, they are not allowed to evolve and develop natural resistance to pests
and diseases, present in agroecosystems. He uses the example of a future scenario where
there will be demand for salt tolerant crop plants. Seeds of a wild bean relative that was
native to saline playa on the Mexican Coast might be chosen by a crop breeder looking
for salt tolerant plants. These seeds may sprout, but then succumb to a virus strain that
was not around when the seeds ere originally stored. Then there also may be failure due
to air pollution or soil contamination. The salt tolerant genes present in the bean seeds
end up being useless due to changed environmental conditions a century later.
Nabhan believes seed banks should not be relied on solely for long term plant
conservation. Another downside is the lack of information associated with many of the
seed bank collections. Often the only date is an accession number and country of origin,
without any information on specific habitats and cultural uses. Nabhan points out that
when this knowledge is not documented it’s usually lost forever. (Nabhan, 1989)

Ms. Cummings also has concerns about the reliance on seed banks for preserving genetic
diversity. One problem she mentions in writing about the Doomsday Vault in Norway is
that much of the funding has come from institutions such as the World Bank, foundations
such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, and corporations including
DuPont/Pioneer Hi-Bred and Syngenta. Ms. Cummings feels that this could be a
situation of “green washing”; the seed bank may fall prey to private interests.
Other concerns mentioned by Cummings are the lack of diversity found in most of the
seed banks; most are saving duplicates of each other’s seeds. There is no way that each
collection can represent all possible variations of a plant variety; seeds selected instantly
narrow the amount of germplasm saved. Once a seed is put into a seed bank, it then
needs to be continually regrown to remain viable. Regeneration of germplasm in a seed

bank is generally done in the open, where it is susceptible to contamination from
pathogens, cross-pollination, and exposure to GMO’s.
Cummings reports that many botanists, farmers, and environmentalists prefer the in situ
method of conservation, preserving plants in their native habitats or on farms or in
gardens. In situ strategies are better at preserving diversity than seed banks as living
collections can grow a wider variety of plants along with their wild and weedy relatives.
Local place-based seed collections serve the local traditional farmers better by
concentrating on the needs of the farmers and focusing on culturally important plants.
Seed banks take in very little wild, endangered or threatened seed; value in seed banks is
focused on economic usefulness and retrievability of the seeds in the collection.
Critics of the seed banks feel that the large amounts of money spent would be better spent
supporting seed saving by traditional farmers. Cummings feels that over time, in situ
methods are more cost effective than seed banks in preserving diversity. She notes that
the number of seed banks have increased at the same time that corporations have taken
control of plant breeding. Cumming’s conclusion is that while both strategies have their
place, that the emphasis in both needs to be on the public interest, placing the farmer
rather than agribusiness as the recipient of all seed conservation methods. (Cummings,

Another writer concerned about the corporate control of our seed supply is Hope J.
Shand, research director of the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) in
Winnipeg Canada. As she writes in her article titled “Intellectual Property” in The Fatal
Harvest Reader edited by Andrew Kimbrell, “Seed is the first link in the food chain.
Whoever controls the seed controls the food supply.” (Kimbrell, 2002) Shand goes on to
mention how much money the world’s biggest agrochemical and pharmaceutical
corporations have spent to buy out seed and biotech companies. As a result, the top ten
seed companies now control close to 1/3 of the commercial seed market. This means that
there are fewer companies now involved in the decision making process of how
agricultural research should be focused.
Due to intellectual property laws such as patents, farmers are losing their ability to use
and create plant diversity. For example, under U.S. patent law, farmers are not allowed
to save and reuse patented seed. Farmers disobeying have been prosecuted, turning rural
farming communities into corporate police states. (Shand, in the Fatal Harvest Reader,

Profiles of Individuals and Organizations

One of the most important organizations involved with preserving genetic diversity in the
plant world is Seed Savers Exchange (SSE), based in Decorah, Iowa. SSE was founded
by Kent Whealy in the mid 1970’s because of his concern about the disconnect between
farming folklore and seeds, led him start SSE, searching for other gardeners using
heirloom seeds. His organization started slowly but has grown dramatically over the
years. Currently members of SSE have exchanged approximately one million samples of
rare garden seeds. These seeds are used by seed companies, small farmers (including

some in Marin County), chefs and home gardeners. SSE is the largest non-governmental
seed bank in the United States, managing over 25,000 endangered vegetable varieties.
The 890 acre Heritage Farm is surrounded by wild areas replete with wildlife. There are
demonstration gardens open to the public, as well as collection gardens and orchards
separated by wide expanses of grass to isolate pollinating plants, and both hand and
machine-planted fields. In addition are root cellars, greenhouses, temperature-controlled
storage rooms, and freezers for seed saving activities. Many of the plants require hand-
pollination. (

An important figure in the field of agrobiodiversity is Dr. Alan Kapuler, the first research
director for Seeds of Change, and founder of Peace Seeds-Public Domain Plant Breeding
(a Planetary Gene Pool Resource) in Corvallis, OR. In the early 1970’s he acquired the
nickname “Mushroom”, as his superb taxonomic skills allowed to eat the wild
mushrooms of Oregon without dire results. He’s passionate about the loss of genetic
diversity and the importance and value of backyard gardeners collecting and growing out
seeds. Along with his wife Linda and his three daughters he has been saving seeds and
breeding plants for over thirty years; his Peacevine Cherry tomato, Rainbow Inca Corn
and other varieties are known throughout the world. The following are excerpts from
websites where he discusses his work:

“In the last ten years I've been working for the public domain as a plant
breeder interested in nutrition and diversity. I am very grateful that Seeds of
Change continues to supply organic seeds, and it's a tremendous job to
maintain a network to grow open-pollinates and heirlooms, to keep selecting
out good lines of each of the crops, to search among the diversity of heirlooms
and crops and vegetables, the ones that backyard gardeners can feed themselves
with and could save their own seeds of and that are worth passing on. I've
taken many F1 hybrids and turned them into open-pollinated lines and put
them back into the public domain as good new varieties. I have made some
crosses in the Mendelian sense, made some interesting sunflowers and
marigolds.” (, Interview by Chris Roth, editor of
Talking Leaves Journal, published from 1989 through 1996 by the Deep Ecology
Education Project in Eugene, Oregon, and from late 1997 through 2005 in
magazine form by Lost Valley Educational Center in Dexter, Oregon.)

“Since we originally began growing food with heirloom cultivars, it soon

became apparent that some heirlooms did better than others in terms of vigor,
productivity, seed production and food quality. We chose and continue to look
for fine heirlooms as parents in making new kinds.

After growing more than 200 varieties of tomatoes during our decades of
organic gardening, we had established preferences and picked our favorites for
parents. It takes just a few minutes to make a cross. It takes many months and
years to follow the cross to new and improved varieties.

While our first crosses were with heirlooms, now many new kinds come from
the intercrossing of varieties that have taken us years to develop. Familiarity
and experience is necessary to sustaining and developing worthwhile new

A key aspect of laying out a garden for developing new varieties is to know the
how’s, what’s and when’s for each and every kind of plant. Are the plants
insect, bird, bat, ant, wind or water pollinated? Are there complete flowers, ones
with both pollen and stigmas, or plants with male and female flowers on the
same plant or are there both male plants and female plants? And then there are
the critical issues of inbreeding and outcrossing. Some plants like sunflowers,
brassicas and cucurbits prefer to outbreed. Others like tomatoes, legumes and
marigolds are usually self-fertile.

Then there is timing. So many aspects of fertility have to do with timing. When
the flowers open, when the pollen is mature, when the stigmas are receptive,
whether the sun is shining or rain is a’fallin, the emergence of insects thru
their metamorphosis from larva to pupa to adult, the direction and timing of the
wind, the daily and diurnal temperature and the many kinds of intervention
that a gardener or plant breeder can interpose to aid or limit pollination are all
important in the conjunctions that lead to seed production.

Taking your hand to seed collecting and plant breeding opens possibilities for
uniquenesses in your garden, new vistas that unfold with each crop and each
garden with the unknown as a friend and ally involving yourself in sustainable
ecology and the paradigm shifts coming with new discoveries about life.”
(, Alan Kapuler: Organic
Seeds and Public Domain Plant Breeding,)

“So one answer to “Why plant breeding” is that you improve plants for human
nutrition, for adaptation to your locale, for vigor and for productivity. All those
things are directly accessible in food plants, and in flowers you get more beauty
and more diversity, and you get things that you wouldn't expect. So every time
you walk in the garden, you find things that you didn't know about. If you like
to go into the garden and have other things happening, you have to ask them to
come to you.

It would help if more people who gardened, first saved seeds, and then bred,
because you would encourage more local diversity and more skills to take care
of a common resource— because the resource of germplasm is common on the
earth. If we find those varieties worthwhile we should maintain them and not
expect somebody else to maintain them for us. But if we grow gardens we are
maintaining them. It just means saving the seeds and completing the cycle.
Breeding then is the next step.”

Farmer Interview with Alan Kapuler by Scott Vlaun, editor of the Seeds of
Change Newsletter).

A great local organization involved with preserving diversity is the Occidental Arts and
Ecology Center ( I had hoped to interview the garden manager Doug
Gosling, but he was preparing for a trip to Africa, so I was unable to talk to him. From
OAEC’s website I learned about their Mother Garden Biodiversity Program, which

“Focuses on curating and propagating a diverse plant and seed collection of

over 3,000 varieties of heirloom, open-pollinated annuals and over 1,000
varieties of edible, medicinal and ornamental perennials. This plant collection
— developed over the past 30 years of intensive horticulture at the OAEC site
— emphasizes food crops of special genetic, cultural and historic importance.
Through classes, tours and weekly volunteer days, the OAEC Mother Garden
demonstrates small-scale, bio-intensive, human-powered organic gardening,
and provides a foundation for the philosophical, intellectual and cultural work
of the Center.

The Biodiversity Program donates approximately $5,000 worth of OAEC’s

seeds and plants to some 50 daughter gardens in Bay Area schools and
communities each year, and sponsors seed exchanges at farming conferences.
The OAEC gardens also yield an abundance of organic food for the Center’s
workshops, events and community life, including a great variety of herbs, fruits
and vegetables, and spectacular salads composed of up to 50 different greens,
herbs and edible flowers.

The Mother Garden Biodiversity Program offers three plant sales — two in the
Spring and one in the Fall — which allow the public to take home OAEC’s unique
organic plants for their gardens.
OAEC's Mother Garden Biodiversity Program includes:

• Curating OAEC’s collection of 3,500 varieties of food, fiber and medicinal


• Managing OAEC’s demonstration organic gardens and orchards.

• Providing seeds and thousands of plant starts to dozens of community, school,

prison, and food bank gardens around Northern California each year.”

How Sustainable Farmers can Preserve Agrobiodiversity

While conducting the research for this paper, a thought kept nagging at me. I know from
the organic inspections I’ve done here in the North Bay, and from talking to organic

farmers selling at the farmer’s markets, that few of them save their seed, and many use
some hybrid, albeit organic, seed. From an informal survey I found out that it’s too
expensive to save seed; because of the labor involved, and the dedication of land required
(much of which is leased) that could otherwise be in active production. There are also
concerns about increased pests that plants left to go to seed may attract. I also know that
many organic farmers in the North Bay (and I imagine also in other urban/suburban
areas), to be able to make it as farmers, are growing a significant portion of their crops
for chefs at high end restaurants, who request particular varieties, often not available as
open-pollinated seed. I hear from farmers that (and know from personal gardening
experience as well) that heirloom seeds may not produce as well as non-heirloom.
My conclusion is that it is unrealistic for commercial farmers (at least in urban/suburban
areas) to save seed; fortunately there are great seed companies out there devoted to
preserving agrobiodiversity by selling only untreated, non-GMO seeds, and carrying
numerous open-pollinated seeds. I know that a number of North Bay organic farmers are
using seeds from these companies.
A list of some of these companies, and seed exchanges follows this section. Many of
these companies have signed the “Safe Seed Pledge”, which states the following:

"Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect
this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations. For the
benefit of all farmers, gardeners and consumers who want an alternative, we pledge
that we do not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. The
mechanical transfer of genetic material outside of natural reproductive methods and
between genera, families or kingdoms, poses great biological risks as well as economic,
political, and cultural threats. We feel that genetically engineered varieties have been
insufficiently tested prior to public release. More research and testing is necessary to
further assess the potential risks of genetically engineered seeds. Further, we wish to
support agricultural progress that leads to healthier soils, to genetically diverse
agricultural ecosystems, and ultimately to healthy people and communities." -Seeds of
Change (from the Council for Responsible Genetics, ).

I also found the organization, Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), based in Port Townsend,
WA (, whose mission is: “Organic Seed Alliance supports the
ethical development and stewardship of the genetic resources of agricultural seed. We
accomplish our goals through collaborative education, advisory services, and research
programs with organic farmers and other seed professionals”.
OSA trains farmers on how to save seed and practice on-farm plant breeding, and
sponsors an Organic Seed Grower’s Conference. In 2006 the conference focused on seed
quality, and included talks on breeding high quality vegetable seeds for use on organic
farms. One speaker from Cornell University, Ms. Molly Jahn, discussed the Organic
Seed Partnership project, funded by the USDA’s Organic Agriculture Research and
Extension Initiative. This project brings together farmers, public and private germplasm
providers and breeders, nonprofit organizations, and seed companies to conduct breeding
and testing in organic trial sites.
OSA also has a program called “Heirlooms of Tomorrow”, which focuses on breeding
new varieties and restoring older varieties for organic farmers and gardeners. These

varieties do not need synthetic inputs, and they are bred for the genetic adaptability that
will make them able to thrive organically, and able to be passed down through
generations of farmers and gardeners. Three of their current varieties are “Abundant
Bloomsdale Spinach” (experimental), “John Navazio’s Rhubarb Supreme Red Chard”
(released), and “Frank Morton’s Hyper Red Rumple Waved Lettuce” (released).

Most professional gardeners, farmers, researchers, whose comments I’ve read, or heard
first-hand, agree that both heirloom and hybrid seeds/plants have their place in
sustainable agroecosystems. Hybrids may have better disease resistance and yield, and
are often more reliable in terms of maturity schedule and consistency of size. Open-
pollinated varieties are more stable genetically, often improving with each generation,
when seeds are saved from the most vigorous plants. You can also select for particular
desirable traits such as flavor, earliness or heat or cold tolerance.
The fundamental problem with hybrids is that they are at the core of a food system based
on a dangerously small number of plants. Most seed companies have favored hybrid
seeds for several reasons; they sell for a higher price than non-hybrids, they cannot be
replanted, and the parentage can be kept secret. Fortunately, due to the efforts of seed
exchange organizations, specialty seed companies, backyard gardeners and chefs, as well
as the renewed consumer interest in learning where our food comes from, heirloom
varieties are proliferating, as seeds and stock for planting, and as produce available at
farmer’s markets.

Resources for Seed Saving and Open-Pollinated Seeds

Abundant Life Seeds, Cottage Grove, OR (

Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL), Ecology Center, Berkeley CA


Bountiful Gardens, Willits, CA (

High Mowing Seeds, Wolcott, VM (

J.L. Hudson Seedsman, La Honda, CA (

Native Seeds/SEARCH, Tucson, AZ (

Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, Occidental, CA (

Organic Seed Alliance, Port Townsend, WA (

Peaceful Valley Farm Supply, Grass Valley, CA (

Redwood City Seed Co., Redwood City, CA (

Renee’s Garden, Felton, CA (

Seed Savers Exchange, Decorah, IA (

Seeds of Change, Sante Fe, NM (

Territorial Seed Co., Cottage Grove, OR (

Turtle Tree Seed (Biodynamic seeds), Camphill Village, Copake, NY


Victory Seed Co., Molalla, OR (

Books on Seed Saving

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, Carol Deppe

Gardener to Gardener Seed-Starting Primer & Almanac: Hundreds of Great Ideas, Tips,
and Techniques from Gardeners Just Like You (Rodale Organic Gardening Book) - Vicki
Mattern (Ed.)

Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master Gardener's Guide to Planting, Seed Saving,

and Cultural History, William Woys Weaver

Saving Seeds, Marc Rogers

Seed to Seed, Suzanne Ashworth

I will conclude my paper with several quotes.

“The trend toward globalization, centralization, standardization, uniformity,

substitution of capital for labor (and even for management) in agriculture
underlies many of the seed conundrums that organic agriculture faces. Most
new seed varieties in the West have come out of university research, funded by
industry. A countermovement is gathering momentum to protect indigenous
landraces from Western patents by securing intellectual property rights for
traditional landraces/genetics that have been improved over thousands of years
by indigenous farmers. Many grassroots seed conservation groups are saving
varietal types from mandated extinction. Solutions are emerging for specific
procedural issues that have arisen with the implementation of the USDA
National Organic Standards-such as equivalence and perhaps even testing, as
well as setting tolerances for GMO presence. The farmer-led move toward
developing specific varieties for organics through participatory breeding, while

in its infancy, is well underway” (Adam, Katherine, ATTRA publication “Seed
Production and Variety Development for Organic Systems”, 2005.

“Seeds are a political issue. We need connection to our food. That connection
will fundamentally change our life.” (, “BASIL is Here/Seeds,
Food and You” by Lisa Van Cleef, interviewing Sascha DuBrul, founder of
BASIL, 2000)

“Seeds are messengers from the past. They are an embodiment of hope for the
future. Seeds are a promise of life to come. They endure because they are
generous. They survive by being resilient, abundant, and adaptable. The story
of seeds is also our story. We can be guided by the way of the seed and by
knowing that what we do to seeds, we do to ourselves. One thing is certain: the
future of seeds is in our hands.” (Cummings, 2008)


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Websites Used:, Safe Seed Pledge, Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, Organic Seed Alliance, Primal Seeds, Seed Savers Exchange