Once upon a time seeds were grown in gardens and saved at the end of their season for next year’s crop. Most people had a garden, particularly if they lived in a rural community. The seeds saved each year looked just like their parent seeds, except that sometimes Nature would make small mutations in some of those seeds, or people would encourage one trait or another in their crop, allowing for variations that the people could either encourage the following year or weed out of the crop if the mutations were undesirable. Seeds improved in a community because neighbors traded and shared their seeds, allowing for diversity and evolution of their crops in one direction or another. The government even got into the game and gave out billions of free seeds each year to help people grow food across the United States.
According to an article on the Organic Seed Alliance website (www.seedalliance.org), “One hundred fifty years ago the United States did not have a commercial seed industry…. Specifically, beginning in the 1850s, the U.S. Patent and Trade Office (PTO) and congressional representatives saw to the collection, propagation, and distribution of varieties to their constituents throughout the states and territories. The program grew quickly so that, by 1861, the PTO had an annual distribution of more than 2.4 million packages of seed (containing five packets of different varieties). The flow of seed reached its highest
volume in 1897 (under USDA management) – with more than 1.1 billion packets of seed distributed.”
By the 1920s, seed companies had sufficient political clout to halt the distribution of open pollinated seeds by the government. The development of hybrid seed by the use of inbred parental lineages gave new vigor to the seed industry as a profitable business; now farmers had to return each year to the seed companies to purchase more hybrid since the saving of seed produced too much variability and poor traits from the inbred lines. Seed companies flourished mainly because they were now the sole source of organized seed distribution and their hybrids were only available through a particular company. After World War II, farmers began planting larger crops of a single variety as agriculture took its turn toward mono-crops and synthetic fertilizer application. The two went hand in hand. But the real issue of seeds came to a head in 1980, when the Supreme Court declared basically that a plant’s genetics could be patented. Pharmaceutical and chemical companies then began purchasing the seed companies so they could patent the genetic traits of particular plants. The rest is history. The improvement of open pollinated seeds went by the wayside, since the way to make money was to patent plant traits, sell hybrid seeds, and genetically alter plant genes in a laboratory for greater production or easier management of mono-cropped plantings. Fewer seed companies existed, as many had been bought up by a few larger companies.
The dangers of patenting traits of plants drew the attention of a few plant breeders and many gardeners. Today an organization exists called Open Source Seeds (www.osseeds.org). Its members (according to Wikipedia) number 36 plant breeders and 46 seed companies, and include individuals who would love to have gardeners and farmers alike take their seeds and continue developing open pollinated seeds selected to have a variety of wonderful traits, like sweeter melons, drought tolerant corn, or whatever suits the grower. Much like open source computer software, their Open Source Seed Initiative is a program that, according to Wikipedia, asks “farmers, gardeners, and plant breeders who use the seed to refrain from patenting or licensing the seed or derivatives from it and to pass on the Pledge to any derivatives made. The Pledge states: ‘You have the freedom to use these OSSI- Pledged seeds in any way you choose. In return, you pledge not to restrict others’ use of these seeds or their derivatives by patents or other means, and to include this Pledge with any transfer of these seeds or their derivatives.’ Use of the Pledge ensures the four open source seed freedoms for this and future generations, including:
- The freedom to save or grow seed for replanting or for any other purpose.
- The freedom to share, trade, or sell seed to others.
- The freedom to trial and study seed and to share or publish information about it.
- The freedom to select or adapt the seed, make crosses with it, or use it to breed new lines and varieties.
OSSI's mission bears some similarities to the mission of organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange, but it is different in that OSSI provides an explicit Pledge with its seeds that is designed to keep seeds free through the establishment of a protected commons.”
The seed holds life equally for everyone. If your seed is good you will never starve. You can save money by not having to purchase fruits or vegetables, and by saving your own seed for generations. A community can thrive, trading and nurturing each other with special seeds for their area. In our community, we have a Seed Library in the Sonora library that is open every Saturday, 9-2, March through October. We share our community seed for free with you and ask only that you share what seed you can with the Seed Library.
What part will you play in the future of seeds? Do you have a portion of your freezer that seed savers can use to store seeds long term? In effect, this would help create a seed bank for long-term seed storage for our community. Do you want to just plant a garden and save some seeds for the library, or to trade with neighbors? Anyone can volunteer to work the seed library with about 10 minutes of training, or learn about seed saving and help others on your own. You may have another idea about how you can become involved in this powerful world of seeds for the future. Share your ideas. Get involved in a way you find comfortable.
Val is a board member of Foothill Collaborative for Sustainability (FoCuS), and a seed fanatic.