September 2011

Seeds of confusion

By Jude Schuenemeyer

Recently we have found ourselves in a predicament concerning seeds. For our conundrum to make any sense, an understanding of seeds — where they come from, how they are developed, discovered, propagated, and preserved — is called for now, on this occasion.

Seeds occupy a unique position for us as living beings. They are the absolute potential of life upon which our lives depend. A seed is trial and error performed again and again. Seeds are information stored for that which is possible in drought or in rain, temperate weather, hard spring frosts.

Seeds are living histories of people; with them we evolve. We depend upon them as they depend upon us.

As a people we have changed. No longer are we Jefferson's Agrarian Republic. Citizenship and farming are noble truths deeply rooted upon the foundation of sweat and toil, experience sublime, but labor is effort and it is time spent in the act that time itself controls. And who among us has the time? Token effort and an allegiance to trends are a simpler path than the self-determination of innovation.

The drawback of this convenience, of our ability to wash from our hands the dirt of our substance, is the deep rut of ignorance regarding what we eat and from where it comes. There is danger in this; it is surrender. To proxy food is to proxy life lock, stock, and barrel.

I remember a woman in our shop buying seeds. She wished to be reassured that we would not sell her any of those "genetically modified hybrid seeds". Her fear was of something that she did not know; such is the nature of fear. This woman with short-cropped graying hair was in earnest about gaining control of the most basic functions of her life, and for that right to eat she was willing to engage in the most revolutionary of all human behavior: to grow your own food, to sustain yourself. But she did not know seeds; most people don't.

Look through seed catalogs, read seed packages. There are terms in common usage, though rarely understood: F1 & F2 hybrid, Genetically Modified Seed, Heirloom, open pollinated seed. Here I offer a basic explanation.

Heirloom seeds are seeds with stories: Olga's Round Yellow Chicken, June Pink, Radiator Charlie's Mortgage Lifter, Zuni Gold, San Juan Pinto, Pink Eye, Pink Banana Jumbo Squash, Wando, Green Arrow, Moon and Stars, Marglobe, King Banquet. These are seeds that have been passed down from hand to hand, generation to generation. They are open-pollinated seeds. They can breed a true reproduction of themselves from seed. Here is the reason why.

Plants have parts — male and female parts. Some plants, like humans, have separate, individual males and females — spinach and mulberries come to mind. Most plants have both male and female parts; they are hermaphrodites. They produce both the male pollen and the female egg. Some of these plants are called in-breeders or self-pollinating. The flower of an in-breeding plant is arranged in such a way that the stigma of the pistil usually becomes receptive and pollinated before the flower opens, thus preventing cross-pollination from other plants.

Peas, beans, lettuce, most tomatoes, McElmo peaches, and coffea arabica are all self-pollinating or in-breeding plants. Because their pollen rarely crosses, they are the easiest seeds to save. Seeds from just a few plants contain all the genetics needed to keep the line vibrant generation after generation.

Some plants have self-incompatibility issues; the male finishes blowing its pollen before the female has even blossomed, preventing self-pollination, so another plant will have to do. Or they can be pollinated by another flower from the same plant.

These plants are called out-breeders. They cross-pollinate. To save these seeds you need to hand-pollinate each plant specifically, or be able to isolate fields of these crops from similar varieties. By saving the seed from 20 different watermelon plants you capture the genetic variations of that type of watermelon. To maintain the genetic diversity of a corn strain you would need to save the seed from at least 100 different corn plants, but a thousand would be much better.

New varieties of open-pollinated plants are rarely developed commercially; there is not much money in seeds that can be saved. Most new plants are hybrids, a cross between two different but similar plants.

F1 (first filial) hybrids refer to plants whose seeds came from a cross between two different pure-breeding varieties of a closely related plant. Here is an example. If I had a big late-season tomato and a small early tomato I could cross-pollinate them with the hope of getting a big early tomato. If that worked then the seeds produced by that cross would be an F1 hybrid. I would have to continually cross those two parent varieties to produce future F1 seeds.

Now if I were to take the seeds of those F1 tomatoes and plant them, the F2 generation, then this is what I would find: 3/4ths of them would be big tomatoes (T) and 1/4th would be small (t), though not all of the big tomatoes would be early.  I could describe it as a  (TT + Tt + Tt +  tt). If I followed this through another generation or two (F3, F4) I could cull out all of the non-early (TT) and small (tt) plants, leaving only the big early tomatoes (Tt). These should now be in-breeding open-pollinated seeds for a big juicy early tomato.

The latest, and most controversial, form of seed development comes in the form of genetically modified organisms and the seeds derived from them. GMOs occur in laboratories where scientists add, change, or remove specific plant genes. GMOs have the ability to reshape the plant world. For some they hold promise; to others they bring fear. They are created by companies large enough to bribe any president from either political party. They can make any state Ag Commissioner dance at will.

For some farmers they have great appeal in their increased yields and decreased need for costly herbicides and pesticides. It has been harder to convince consumers that a potato that is labeled as a pesticide is safe to eat. The ethical questions surrounding these crops have churned guts. Farmers that were saving their own seed of open-pollinated or traditionally bred hybrid corn face prosecution not because they planted GMO corn seed but because their neighbors’ corn crossed their own crop on their own farm. Private property rights recede before corporate will. Seed savers have been financially ruined.

The other side of GMOs is their potential to help people. Much of our planet's population is dependent on bananas as a food crop. A blight is killing banana trees. A GMO banana might solve this problem by removing the gene that is blight-susceptible. This could be done through traditional plant breeding, but that takes time. If your children were starving and a banana could feed them would you care if it was a GMO?

Part of the problem with GMOs is that nature is deviant. Like reanimating the tissue of Frankenstein, it is impossible to know how the monster will react to chance circumstance (remember Mel Brooks’  blind monk inadvertently lighting the monster's thumb on fire?).

Remember these points. Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated, easy to save, true to type from seed. They have almost no monetary value. They have survived because they are exceptional varieties, proven over time.

Most new plant varieties are hybrids developed for specific commercial requirements — "the light-year tomato" able to be shipped fresh across space. Most new hybrids are patented. They will not reproduce true to type again from seed in future generations (unless you know Mendel's Laws of Genetics).

GMOs are made in laboratories. They have enormous financial resources behind them to lobby and litigate.

If what I have told you makes sense then what I am going to tell you next should matter.

Jude Schuenemeyer is co-owner of Let It Grow Nursery and Garden Café in Cortez, Colo.