The Seeds of Sustainability
How Plant Diversity Can Ensure Our Future
By growing and saving the seeds of heirloom and open-pollinated varieties of plants no longer in common use, they are helping preserve plant diversity for future generations of farmers and food consumers.
Why Plant Diversity is Crucial
Seed saver Marti Wood, who along with her husband Bernie, owns Two Wings Farm Organic Seeds in Metchosin, BC, has seen the crucial need for plant diversity firsthand. “We need this diversity for when viruses and new diseases come up, because you need to go back and find resistance,” she said.
Plant diversity in agriculture affords protection. A region with many crop varieties has a great chance of withstanding pests, diseases and weather extremes because the different varieties are each adapted to survivein some of these conditions. If one fails, another can fill in. With monoculture, a blight, such as the one that caused the Irish potato famine, can wipe out the entire food base.
Diversity is also valuable to plant breeders. In the 1950s, for example, when yellow dwarf virus threatened Canadian barley, plant breeders found genetic resistance in Ethiopian parent varieties and used it to rejuvenate Canada’s barley (and beer) industry.
Seeds of Survival in Ethiopia
In 1993, Marti Wood and Salt Spring Island seed saver, Dan Jason, became the first two Canadians involved in the Seeds of Survival project with USC Canada in Ethiopia. There, working with plant geneticists to preserve traditional crop varieties opened their eyes to the incredible loss of plant diversity happening, not only in Africa, but worldwide.
In Ethiopia, a land that once grew thousands of heritage varieties of barley and wheat—each adapted to different microclimates and purposes (barley for different meals, barley for sprouting, for malting, for thatch, for feeding animals…)—now has large areas devoted to just a few varieties of imported hybrid and GMO crops.
The change traced back to the Green Revolution and politics connected to foreign aid in the form of hybridized seeds. While a hybrid delivered superior yields in good years, with a dependence on increased irrigation and fertilizers, they were generally not resilient enough to endure the recurrent droughts. Whereas acclimatized traditional varieties could survive a drought by producing a meagre but viable crop, the imported technology failed, and starving farmers ate the seed as food, causing a further cycle of starvation.
According to the United Nation’s Food and Agriculture Organization, since the 1900s, about 75 percent of genetic plant diversity has been lost worldwide as farmers have adopted genetically uniform commercial varieties over their local native varieties. Today three-quarters of the world’s food comes from just 12 plants and five animal species.
“In a sometimes cynical world, planting a seed is an act of supreme optimism and hope for the future.”
A Potent BeginningSeeing this loss of diversity in Ethiopia had a profound impact on the two Canadians, Marti Wood and Dan Jason. “I started from that moment to really realize how much potential there is in diversity,” said Jason, who operates Salt Spring Seeds, a seed saving farm and mail order business. In 2002, he also founded the Seed and Plant Sanctuary of Canada, an organization and seed bank that preserves and promotes heritage seeds.
“Seeds are perhaps the most potent beginning point we have now,” Jason wrote in his book, Saving Seeds as if Our Lives Depended On It. “They can light the way to growing high quality crops that are not dependent on unsustainable herbicides and pesticides.”
Salt Spring Seeds—A Garden of Plant Diversity
At Salt Spring Seeds, Jason grows and preserves seeds from over 600 heritage varieties, with a particular emphasis on tomatoes, lettuce, beans, grains, herbs and flowers. Many of the old varieties, he points out, offer superior taste and nutrient value compared to the commercial crops we eat on a regular basis.
His heritage and heirloom seed offerings include such rare and unusual plants as 1000 Year Old Tobacco, piercingly sweet orange pear-shaped Cheesmanii Tomatoes, edible Golden Flax, sweet, buttery Grand Forks Soybeans, and the immune boosting herb, Echinacea purpurea.
Purple Peacock Broccoli, White Australian Wheat and Amaranth at Salt Spring Seeds.
Starting a Seed Company at Two Wings FarmMarti Wood’s experience in Ethiopia made clear to her that the loss of plant diversity was a global problem. “I knew we were losing diversity here, but seeing the extent of it on a global level, I came home and said to [my husband] Bernie, we’ve got to start a seed company,” she said. In 2000, Marti and Bernie Wood launched Two Wings Farm Organic Seeds as a seed source for the region. On their website, they include this hope: “Perhaps we can save a few wonderful old varieties that cannot be found in any catalogue from becoming extinct.”
Their farm, specializing in tomatoes, beans, chilies and lettuce is a showcase of wonderful old varieties: Aunt Ruby’s German Green tomatoes, which offer a perfume-like succulence when eaten while green; rare dark brown Chihaucle Negro chilies, which look like miniature bell peppers with leathery skins and are used for black chicken mole sauce; and tender buttery Ramdor (Rame d’Or) yellow pod climbing beans, among others.
A New View of “Heritage”
As transnational corporations introduce increasing numbers of genetically modified (GMO) plants and terminator seeds (designed to germinate for only one season and produce sterile seed that cannot be saved), the definitions of “heirloom” and “heritage” seeds have taken on new meanings. Seed savers no longer look only toward preserving old varieties over 50 years of age, but now consider all open-pollinated varieties as our heritage (in danger of loss from GMO contamination and hybridization with controlled parent lines) and work to preserve seed from these plants as well.
Traditional seed saving has been a part of agriculture for thousands of years, and it offers the promise of adaptability, renewal and sustainability. Perhaps Bernie and Marti Wood put it best: “In a sometimes cynical world, planting a seed is an act of supreme optimism and hope for the future.”
The Flowers of Next Year’s Vegetables