We’ve all heard the nursery rhyme about Mary and her gardening prowess. What really made that garden grow though was diversity. In today’s plant kingdom, diversity is losing the war being constantly waged upon it. More and more we see that fields rolling with amber waves of grain, corn, or beans that have been planted from a relatively small and homogenized list of seeds available from catalogs or large distributors. This affects the whole scale of agriculture reaching from the large corporate owned farms to the backyard gardener. With so few options being utilized we’re giving up regionally-developed differences in plant DNA and losing out on what makes eating, and growing, local so unique.
“Why is where we buy our seeds an important topic? We eat and grow plenty of crops; I see everything in my grocery produce department. Isn’t that diversity?”
Some have asked me questions of this ilk when I climb off my soapbox and engage in real conversations regarding food. I tell them how genetic diversity protects our food supply, often using The Great French Wine Blightas a prime example. In today’s modern seed market mostly what is found is Hybrid Seeds. They have been bred with an emphasis on yield at the expense of hardiness, resistance, and inability for farmers to save seeds to be replanted next season. Reliance on these seeds also enforces the use of chemicals in fertilizers and pesticides and requires lots of water often times leading to irrigation systems that do harm to the land.
This National Geographic infographic by John Tomanio is staggering. Using the metaphor of a tree, it charts the loss of U.S. seed variety from 1903 to 1983. And what you see is that we’ve lost about 93% of our unique seed strands behind some of the most popular produce. No strong root system for this tree.
Heirloom seeds, sometimes referred to as open pollinated seeds, are genetically diverse and have been handed down throughout generations. Typically, heirlooms have been developed over time for optimal response to their local climate and soil by virtue of being hand-selected for particular traits. These varieties produce a plant with better flavors and hardier profile. Growing heirlooms gives farmers and gardeners a role in maintaining the biodiversity of our planet. While hybrid seeds have been bred to resist particular diseases, there are occasionally threats that could possibly wipe out entire crops when a new disease arrives, due to the lack of diversity in varieties commonly planted. Every time an heirloom seed is planted, that seed stock is regenerated, maintaining that gene pool with its own taste, growth habits, and resistance to disease and insect pests. The renewed effort by many gardeners’s to keep heirloom seeds alive is a vital tradition that hopefully will continue to grow not just in the U.S. but worldwide.