The Permacultivator - Journal of Cool Climate Permaculture
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A brief background paper by David Johnson

The influence of human activity on the number of species on the planet is well documented. We are all familiar with the continuing destruction of Amazonian rainforest and its uncounted treasure of plants and animals, the increasing number of endangered and rare species here in Australia and the unrestrained logging of native forests in Asia and here in Australia. Just as insidious however is the effect of modern agriculture on the range and diversity of crop foods being grown all around the world. It is a fundamental law of biological survival that species relying on foods with a large genetic bank are most likely to survive stress and crisis. Putting this in the context of changing global weather patterns (due to both the greenhouse effect and to the thinning of the ozone layer), human populations are placing their chances of survival in too few food baskets. The number of food crops relied upon by human populations is remarkably small, and that in itself is a concern for survival. However, the narrowing of genetic diversity within the crops that we do plant is making it far less likely that our food supply can adapt to changing weather. The original crops of wheat in their native Asia Minor showed wide diversity in appearance such as bearded grain, longer and shorter grain, and also in growing characteristics such as grain that could produce even in dry impoverished soil, grain that grew quickly, grain from tall and short plants, grain that was resistant to rust, and so on. The influence of western agribusiness methods of mining soil for crops has resulted for example in a narrowing of the types of wheat planted in order to maintain uniform growth and habit and therefore to make machine management regimes economically feasible. (If one omits the damage to the soil and environment in the economic equation.) The desire for greater and greater yields per acre have focussed attention on ‘high response’ varieties of crops. These are often developed as hybrid varieties by crossing two different strains with different characteristics. Seed produced from these is either infertile or will throwback to one of its less satisfactory parent strains. Thus seed saving by the farmer is replaced by a dependence on a supplier, who coincidentally happens also to produce fertiliser and weedicides and pesticides as well. It doesn’t take too much deduction to work out the bias of the seed development program of such a company.

Having established that such practices ‘work’ in the context of a developed country like Australia these notions are exported with foreign aid to developing countries. Here farmers are encouraged by western ‘experts’ to replace their diverse and reliable grains for a narrow genetic monoculture that they can only plant for one year (the cleverness of the hybrid seed producers) and which requires a huge investment in the agrochemicals needed to ensure the promised high yield. It only takes two seasons without planting and saving traditional grains for them to be gone forever. There are no significant seed banks that can replace the growing of a wide diversity of seed types continuously.

There are parallels in all areas of human agriculture. Gardeners have been selecting and saving seed for food and commodity plants for thousands of years. In this time they have fostered the development of a huge range of varieties of these plants. Types of vegetables that have been selected for growing in unusually harsh conditions, or for exceptional keeping qualities, or for early or late ripening times, or for particular flavour. Traditionally saving seeds has been a part of any gardener’s routine. These were swapped and traded, and seed companies emerged to service the need for this trade, generally small family companies, keen to offer a wide range of varieties. As the development of seed stock became more scientific and less connected with the real needs of home growers and more involved with the economic dictates of bulk growers the pervasive multi-nationals moved in and bought out the small seed companies. In a matter of two generations the number of varieties offered was dramatically reduced. What has taken thousands of years of ongoing selection and breeding is forsaken for a scientifically contrived and economically sanctioned hybrid roller-coaster. In 1914 the Bruning Seed Catalogue listed 22 varieties of watermelon, 32 cabbages, 23 beans, and 99 peaches, to mention just a few. Now with some vegetables the idea of varieties is almost lost and one simply plants watermelon rather than any particular variety. If one were to investigate more fully the selection of seed is based on the needs of mass producers not the home grower. Michel Fanton differentiated between the needs of a market gardener and a home gardener in the growing of broccoli. One needs a crop which responds quickly to fertiliser and can be harvested to give a uniformly sized and uniformly ripened product. The other wants tasty broccoli that produces over a long period with small heads that can be cut and cut again.

A supermarket buyer/grower mentality dictates that an apple must look appealing, travel well, survive machine handling and cold storage, ripen on time to meet deadlines and so on. The basic need for a sustainable supply of nutritious and tasty food is somehow lost in the process. Apples, to continue with the example, can be grown with hundreds of distinct flavours and textures and keeping qualities, as well as ripening times that span almost a full year.

Now more than ever there is a need to save seed, to maintain whatever is left of our seed heritage. We can do it in a small way, by taking responsibility for a variety and growing it out each year and saving some of the seed. Work independently, with a group of friends or join up with the Seed Savers Network.

Similarly, we can assist the preservation of fruit tree species by growing heritage varieties and encouraging others to do so by swapping seed, swapping produce, passing on scion for grafting, and even holding fruit-tasting parties.

Seeds that are worth saving, ie non-hybrid, can be obtained from:

Eden Seeds at Eukarima markets or direct, 21A Sandy Creek Rd, Gympie 4570
Seed Savers Network, PO Box 975 Byron Bay 2481
Diggers Club, 105 Latrobe Pde, Dromana 3936
Henry Doubleday Research Association, c/- Secretary 816 Comleroy Rd, Kurrajong 2758