Sunday, March 31, 2013

Seed Banks A Way to Preserve Agricultural Diversity?

I was asked to write a post on seed banks so I started doing a little research. If you simply search for seed banks the two types of sites that come up most are for cannabis and survival seed kits. Since I know the person who asked me to write this fairly well, I am sure she was not asking about cannabis, and she is a pretty avid homesteader so I do not think she is asking about an apocalypse. So I am going to cover this from a biodiversity viewpoint. Seed banks are primarily concerned with heirloom or open pollinated plant varieties. Their goal is to maintain an adequate supply of these seeds in the event of a major natural or man made disaster.

 This would be a good time for a few Rural Economist definitions:

Open Pollinated Seed: a seed from a variety of plant that when the seed is saved from that plant will reproduce a plant true to its parent. These seeds will reproduce reliably season after season.

Heirloom variety: An open pollinated variety which has been cultivated for many years and has shown to be true to type.

Hybrid variety: The first generation of an intentional cross pollination of two different plants in the same plant family. These seeds if saved will have a very low percentage of offspring that stay true to type.

GMO: Genetically Modified Organism. There are a great and ever growing number of foods that have been genetically modified. Genetic modification occurs in a laboratory with biotechnology. DNA is introduced into a plant or animal from a different, many times unrelated organism. DNA from fish, scorpions, other types of plants, and even humans have been introduced into these new "super" seeds. Most of these seeds are patented so even though GMO seed saving is possible (I cannot understand why anyone would want to), it is illegal.

Monoculture: The practice of raising only one type of produce on a large tract of land i.e. corn, wheat, onions, potatoes, etc.

Poly culture: The practice of raising several different types of edible plants and/or animals in close proximity to each other.

Since the advent of industrial farming and the wide spread practice of monoculture the number of open pollinated and heirloom varieties has plummeted. When people stopped growing or at least buying their produce locally many of these old seed types went away. As people stopped buying their food from local producers industrial farmers took over. There are places all over the world that you can go and see hundreds of acres of corn and wheat. There are places where you can see dozens of acres of tomatoes or onions. When producing something commercially you want uniformity.

Hybrids were the first to start taking the place of the heirloom varieties. Hybrids have their place. Nature produces hybrids everyday without any assistance from people. A pollinator does not typically discriminate one type of plant from another. A honey bee will move from one flower to another regardless of plant type (this is why you should never plant your cucumbers too close to your watermelons. They will cross pollinate and the melons will not taste very good). When we go to the grocery store we expect all of the tomatoes to look exactly the same, heirloom varieties do not do this. The hybrid plants can be selectively cross pollinated to always produce results with standard size and color.

Now we have genetically modified plants. The most widely known of the genetic modifications is to make corn and soy capable of tolerating herbicides. Monsanto is the world leader in this research. They have made corn and soy that is "Roundup" ready. These varieties are patented by Monsanto as is Roundup. Monsanto has also made corn that produces a toxin in the kernels that protects the corn from ear worms. One big problem.Some research leads us to believe that this toxin could be what is killing the honey bees. Simple solution is just say NO to GMO.

Okay, so now back to seed banks. Seed banks have been set up in every major country in the world. They contain thousands of varieties of open pollinated and heirloom seeds. If a major event were to occur they would release these seeds to farmers so as to ensure there continued viability.

Some types of seeds are better suited to seed banking than others. There are types of seeds that can be stored for hundreds of years. There were grain seeds found the the Egyptian pyramids that were successfully grown. Other seeds can only be stored for a season or two. Onions are the most common short storage seed. The best idea is to find a group of people who share your interest in heirloom or open pollinated seeds and seed share. By doing this you do not have to have a freezer full of seeds or grow every type of seed you want to keep available. You can do this with friends, with your community or even on a much larger scale. A friend of mine gave me some okra seeds that had been in their neighbors family for over 40 years. I was honored to be given these seeds. I enjoy sharing seeds with people. If this is something that you would like to get involved in check out www.heirloomseedswap.com . This is a large community that is dedicated to preserving and spreading long term biodiversity by the way of sharing seeds.

Together we can

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