“Amma has encouraged everyone to preserve traditional and native seed varieties as a way to deepen our connection with nature and strengthen the diversity and stability of our food systems.” -Amritapuri.org
Good seeds are more valuable than gold. Even if we have all the gold in the world, we can’t eat it. Amma has been suggesting we grow vegetables for several years. Many people started small garden plots in their yards. One of the most important requirements for a garden is good seeds. Farmers and gardeners of the past saved and even bred their own seeds. Today good seeds are harder come to by. Understanding general seed terms and using discernment to obtain seeds helps us to find good seeds. Then, by saving and sharing seeds, we can help bring back seed saving traditions and preserve crop diversity. We can even help develop seeds that thrive in our changing climates!
Neighbors often traded seeds adding to the genetic diversity and strength of the plants.
A LIVING TRADITION
To begin understanding seeds, we need to understand a little bit about the history of seed preservation. The worldwide tradition of seed saving gave us the multitude of grains and vegetables we grow today. Historically, farmers selected seeds from the most vigorous and healthy plants for the next year’s crop. They carefully chose plants for desired traits like vitality, productivity, flavor, and disease resistance. Neighbors often traded seeds adding to the genic diversity and strength of the plants.
Over time the plants adjusted to local soil, pests, diseases and climate. If a new disease came or the weather pattern changed drastically, someone in the village likely had a variety that was unaffected. Repeated cross-pollination of the survivor with other strains added new features to the genes of these plants. Together plants and humans created a wide and varied gene pool – a shared insurance that some seeds would survive despite environmental threats.
OPEN POLLINATED SEEDS
Migrating peoples brought their most cherished seeds with them to their new homes. Centuries later many of these varieties still thrive. In this way, people all over the world selected and bred increasingly resilient open pollinated seed strains.
Open-pollinated seeds are naturally pollinated by insects, wind, birds, and animals passing pollen from plant to plant. These seeds are a treasure house of immensely varied genetic material – adopted and selected over generations for diverse needs in every growing condition. Open pollinated seeds are good seeds.
In our modern world of climate change and increasing pollution, seeds born of a time-tested gene pool may become the key to survival for future generations. Preserving this treasure house of adaptability should be a top global priority.
“Animals, plants, and trees all contribute to the harmony of nature. It is man’s duty to protect and preserve them.” Amma, PURITY (2007), Part 1, Amma’s Birthday Message 1993, Center for Training the Mind
THE LOSS OF ADAPTABLE SEED STRAINS
In recent times, there is an unprecedented loss of seed varieties. During the past 60 years many traditional country markets and local grocery stores have been replaced by supermarket chains. Crops are bred for storage and easy marketing rather than flavor, nutrition and resiliency. Many small seed companies were swallowed up by larger seed-breeding facilities. These larger facilities could afford the research and specialized equipment to develop new strains for these new demands. Many larger companies were taken over by multinationals whose primary interest was often manufacturing chemical fertilizers and pesticides. Now just four companies, dominated by Bayer (bought Monsanto), Corteva (a new firm created as a result of the Dow–DuPont merger) and rounded out with ChemChina and BASF control more than 60 percent of global proprietary seed sales. Strong and naturally resistant seed strains of the past are of little interest and even detrimental to the business of these companies.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimated that 75% of crop diversity was lost between 1900 and 2000. This is due to the diminishing use of traditional crops, massive consolidation of seed producers, and large-scale planting of genetically modified crops. It is estimated that 90% of agricultural varieties are no longer available. Farmers and home growers are left with a rapidly diminishing seed pool to draw from. For example, India had nearly 110,000 varieties of rice until 1970. Now only 6,000 – about 5% – of these rice varieties survive. This loss of our diverse genetic seed heritage endangers the world food supply and poses a great threat to the modern world.
To reset the balance on the behalf of seeds, we can gear our seed search towards preserving heirloom seeds. Heirloom seeds stand as pinnacles from the hard work of generations of farmers. These seeds are passed down for generations through families or communities unaltered for 50 to 100+ years. Heirloom seeds are open pollinated and hold their parent’s traits which is referred to as being true to type. They are priceless gems in the world of seeds.
“Take care of the seeds and they will take care of you.” -Rowan White, founder of Sierra Seeds
Hybrid seeds are commonly formed by natural or manual cross pollination of different varieties or species of plants. When these plants grow and bear their own seeds they are call hybrid seeds. If you save hybrid seeds, you can’t guarantee the seed traits will be replicated like an heirloom seed. Hybrid seeds are not stable – some seeds may be infertile; most will not produce seeds like the parent (true to type) but revert back to the grandparent seed qualities.
Over time, gardeners and farmers found certain plants to produce great hybrid offspring that have the best characteristics of both parents such as taste, insect, disease or drought resistance. They worked for years to develop stable seeds with these qualities. This is how heirloom seeds are born.
On the other hand, commercial hybrid and Genetically Modified (GM) seeds stand in stark contrast to traditional open-pollinated stable seeds. Corporations invested huge amounts of money in seed research and development of hybrid seeds. The first-generation seed often displays a strong growth known as hybrid vigor. But these Hybrid seeds cannot produce the same standard of plant again when re-sown. Most commercial seed producers find it easier just to produce a new crop of the first generation hybrid from the two parents every year rather than take the time to develop stable seeds. Additionally, many commercial hybrids have parents that are highly inbred which makes them very weak plants. They become easily diseased and attacked by insects. These hybrid seeds often depend on chemical fertilizers and pesticides to grow. Many commercial hybrid seeds are patented, making it illegal to save seeds without permission or payment to the seed producer. Unfortunately, it is often these commercial hybridized varieties that are available in garden shops around the world.
GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism. Genetically modified seeds are GMO’s. They were introduced into agriculture in 1990’s. GMO’s are made by inserting genetic and other materials from one species or substance into the genetic material of another. This material is inserted into the plants in a way that could never occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding. The genetic material is chosen for specific qualities from an animal, plant, bacteria, virus or chemical that yield desired results such as increased shelf life and improved harvests in the altered plants. It is important to note that in order to improve harvests, GMO crops are bred to withstand being sprayed by herbicides and pesticides. The chemicals sprayed onto the plants soak into the leaves, stems and seeds. Thus, these chemicals enter our bodies when we eat the vegetables from these plants.
Additionally, GMO seeds float in the wind threatening the purity of seeds everywhere through unwanted cross-pollination. When it comes to seed saving, this cross pollination becomes a big issue. GMO seeds are patented and often must be licensed for use; it is illegal to save seed for use the next season or even research their impact without corporate permission. Some GMO seeds yield plants that have sterile seeds; this could be a problem when they cross pollinate causing other plants to also have sterile seeds. Additionally, GMO seeds and their accompanying herbicides and pesticides have harmful impacts on soil health, beneficial insects such as bees and butterflies and other harmful impacts.
When you look at the issues seeds are up against it can seem overwhelming. But simple life affirming acts can make a huge difference!
Organic refers to a specific way plants and seeds are grown. To earn this label, they must be raised and processed in accordance with the USDA’s National Organic Program. Organic seeds are grown without chemical herbicides, pesticides or genetic alteration. GMO seeds are not organic seeds. Try to avoid buying conventional or hybrid seeds. Unless seeds are specifically labeled organic, there is a good chance that they may be have been chemically treated. We recommend purchasing organic, open pollinated, heirloom seeds whenever possible.
BE PART OF THE SOLUTION
When you look at the issues seeds are up against it can seem overwhelming. But simple life affirming acts can make a huge difference! Planting, saving and sharing seeds is easy and fun!
Home gardeners around the world have kept traditional vegetable varieties in cultivation. These backyard seed savers are the guardians of a huge store of genetic diversity. Their home saved varieties may have preserved the right genes for dealing with the challenges of our rapidly changing world – tolerance for drought and extreme weather, resistance to diseases, and more.
“Every seed we plant is a tiny loving prayer in action.” -Rowan White, founder of Sierra Seeds
You can become one of them! Buy one package of organic, open pollinated heirloom seeds and you are on the road. Just like that – you are now supporting people engaged in seed saving and seed diversity. Then plant the seeds, even in pots if you don’t have space. Suddenly you are caring for a living being and believe me, life begins to open up. Before you know it the bees, along with a host of other creatures show up. Maybe you’ll have too much lettuce so you share with a friend who has too many beets, so you trade. You grow some flowers and neighbors you never knew stop to talk. Even if you can’t save seeds, plants will do the job. Plants are brilliant at going to seed – many will seed themselves and grow again without your help. You’ll make new friends as you give away your abundant plants and seeds! As time goes on, you’ll wonder who grows more – me or the seeds?
Seed saving and sharing have always been and will always be a vital part of the cultural fiber of community. They are integral for any goal of local food sustainability. Seed saving is a necessity to secure our earth’s magnificent and precious biodiversity. Let us honor this vital responsibility. Plant a seed and begin to make an offering to the future generations of plants and humans in the world.
LET’S GET STARTED!
Winter and Spring
Do some research. Check your local co-op, garden stores, etc. for organic, open pollinated heirloom seed companies. These will have seeds most likely adapted to your climate and soil conditions. My hometown, Port Townsend, WA, now has about 3 small local organic heirloom seed companies! Talk to neighbors and friends who save seeds. Check out seed companies that sell organic, open pollinated heirloom seeds online (several are listed in the resource section). Get some good seeds.
Summer and Fall
If you have a garden, pick a few vegetables or flowers you want to save seeds from. Flowers are an easy way to start. Do a bit of online research and save a few seeds (seed saving info is listed in the resource section). Trade seeds with friends and neighbors. Attend a local seed exchange.
If you are ready to start your seed saving journey,
Amritaculture is now offering a seed saving course!
Join with fellow devotees and learn how to save seeds.
Thanks to Green Friend’s Lets Grow Seeds for lots of the info in this article.
Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener’s and Farmer’s Guide to Plant Breeding and Seed Saving, 2nd ed. Deppe, Carol. (2000). Chelsea Green Publishing
Thorough, readable book detailing all aspects of seed selection and breeding techniques for creating your own new varieties.
The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times.
Deppe, Carol. (2010). Chelsea Green Publishing
Great info for any gardener in uncertain times!
Lets Grow Seeds.
Green Friends. (2014). Mata Amritanandamayi Mission Trust.
A great starter guide to saving seeds, lots of pictures!
Braiding Sweetgrass, Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge, and the Teachings of Plants.
Kimmerer, Robin Wall. (2013). Milkweed Editions.
Fantastic book weaving botany, ecology and indigenous wisdom in a world view grounded in reciprocity and gratitude.
Seed: The Untold Story
Seed reveals the story of passionate seed keepers around the world as many irreplaceable seeds near extinction. Great interviews. Available to rent on Amazon.
Here are a few places, mostly on the USA West Coast to get heirloom seeds. These sights are inspiring and have great online resources for all things gardening including lots of seed saving info.
Pacific Northwest grown, open pollinated, organic seeds.
Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
Baker Creek has probably the most beautiful seed catalogue around – one is free and the big one – The Whole Seed Catalogue – costs a bit and is filled with lots of fun info. They feature unique heirlooms.
Seed Savers Exchange
The largest public access seed bank in North America. Great seeds. Great resource. Does great work. Become a member!
All seeds are certified organic, open pollinated and grown by small family farms in the Pacific Northwest.
Here are two free online sites with seed saving info. Most of the seed companies listed above and the Organic Seed Alliance also have seed saving info.
Vegetable Seed Saving Handbook
Advocacy & Information:
Organic Seed Alliance
A non-profit that advances ethical seed solutions through research, education, and advocacy programs. Doing great work with farmers and advocacy work. They host an incredible organic seed conference for growers. They have a free Seed Saving Guide for Gardeners and Farmers that you can download. They have some good articles as well:
The Sobering Details Behind the Latest Seed Monopoly
Civil Eats, January 11, 2019
Kristina Kiki Hubbard, Advocacy & Communication Director, Organic Seed Alliance
Farm Aid is a non-profit that supports small family farms with good info on farm, seed and food issues. Here’s a quick and easy article on GMOs.
GMO’s – Top Five Concerns for Family Farmers
Rowan White is a seed keeper/farmer from the Mohawk community of Akwesasne and passionate advocate for indigenous seed and food sovereignty. She is the Educational Director and lead mentor of Sierra Seeds, an innovative land-based educational organization located in Nevada City, CA. She is the National Program Coordinator for the Indigenous Seed Keeper Network, an initiative of the Native American Food Sovereignty Alliance, a non-profit leveraging resources to support tribal food sovereignty projects. She is also chair of the Board of Directors of Seed Savers Exchange. the largest public access seed bank in North America. Check her out at https://sierraseeds.org
GLOSSERY of SEED TERMS:
Conventional Seeds: seeds grown with herbicides, pesticides and chemical fertilizers. What is commonly sold in stores.
GMO Seeds: Genetically Modified Organism – seeds specifically modified by genetic engineering. Genes from an animal, plant, bacteria, or virus are placed in another species in a way that can’t occur in nature or in traditional crossbreeding. These seeds are mostly sold to large commercial farmers and are mostly for cash crops like cotton, corn, soybeans, canola, sugar beets. Some GMO fruits and vegetables including potatoes, summer squash, apples, and papayas are available. GMOs are in many foods we eat such as corn, corn syrup, corn oil, soybeans, canola oil, tomatoes, potatoes, apples, beets, rice, wheat is on the way and granulated sugar. Most GMO crops grown in the USA are used for animal food. The European Union (EU) outlawed most GMO foods but many EU farm animals are fed GMO feed from the USA.
Heirloom Seeds: Seeds passed down for generations through families or communities unaltered for 50 to 100+ years. Heirloom seeds are open pollinated and hold their parent’s traits (reproduce true to type). Heirlooms are not GMO seeds.
Hybrid Seeds: Hybrid seeds are commonly formed by the manual cross pollination of different varieties or species of plants. Hybrid seeds are not stable – some seeds may be infertile, and most will not produce seeds like the parent but will revert back to the grandparent seed qualities. Hybrid seeds also happen in nature all the time – if a bee travels from one type of tomato to another, the seeds from that plant will have traits from both the parents and be considered a “hybrid” of the two. If you save hybrid seeds, you can’t guarantee the seed traits like an heirloom seed.
Hybrid F1, F2, F3 seeds: F(X) seeds correspond to the generation of the seed – in other words, F1=kids, F2=grandkids, F3=great-grandkids. The more generations, the less the seed genetics will drift or revert making it more likely you’ll have similar plants in the next generation. Over time, with careful selection of seeds, the seeds become stable. Eventually it can be considered an heirloom seed.
Non-GMO: A non-genetically modified organism; genetic modifications were not a part of the plant breeding process.
Open-pollinated Seeds: Seeds naturally pollinated by insects, wind, birds, and animals passing pollen from plant to plant. All heirlooms are open-pollinated plants, but not all open-pollinated plants are heirlooms. Both hybrid and heirloom seeds can reproduce through open pollination. Open pollinated seeds are not GMO seeds.
Organic: Organic refers to a specific way plants and seeds are grown. To earn this label, they must be raised and processed in accordance with the USDA’s National Organic Program. Organic seeds are grown with a focus on soil and plant health, with natural fertilizers and pest control. Organic seeds are not GMO’s.
Treated or Pelleted seeds – Come coated and are often brightly dyed to indicate their treatment. Some are treated with herbicide or pesticide to help prevent fungus and insect damage. Some coated seeds are safe to use. These are usually small seeds to make them more easily to handle and may help with germination. Make sure you read the labels on treated seeds if you are avoiding chemicals in your garden.
True to type: Stable seeds produce offspring with characteristics that are similar to their parents’. We call stable seeds true to type because their offspring have the same characteristics as their parents.