Seeding Change

Winter Squash Harvest (CC 2006 Californiacondor)

Every time I walk through the supermarket produce section, I feel like I have entered a child’s picture book. Take the bright yellow, flawless, waxy fruits for instance, they would be under ‘B’ for Bananas. And the greenish-red, sour, tennis ball would be ‘M’ for Mango. For a growing number of fruits, vegetables and herbs, there is one perfectly shaped, blemish-free variety that appears miraculously on store shelves all through the year. The picture-perfect Mango, with a capital M, cuts deepest. I can close my eyes and conjure up memories of having eaten countless different types, each with a distinct shape, flavor, texture, juiciness and color. You had to peel and cube some varieties and eat them delicately, while others were sucked on till the juice dribbled down your chin. Who replaced all that pulpy goodness with the Mango?

Far from being a sentimental yearning for the days-when-food-tasted-like-food, the loss of diversity in food crops has profound global consequences.With the need to feed an ever-growing population, dependence on a few varieties for each food type is a risky gamble. Mono-cultures are vulnerable to climate change and its resulting consequences, such as, rising temperature, drought, soil salinity and decreasing resistance to rapidly-evolving diseases and pests. Relying on the potato crop in 1840’s Ireland has shown us once what the devastating aftermath of such choices could be.  Keeping our fields genetically diverse is like taking out an insurance policy against future famines.

Diversity was what farming used to be about. Each field was a breeding ground for genetic improvement and Mendelian farmer-scientists selected, hoarded and propagated seeds best suited for the local environment. This resulted in a colorful, flavorful, rich variety of food crops. The potato, for instance, has 4,000 types, some so odd, it would be hard to recognize them as the familiar tuber. This system prevailed until the Great Seed Takeover. The effect of  scientifically engineered, patentable cultivars is so profound that the FAO estimates 75 percent of crop diversity was lost in a single century, between 1900 and 200o. Potatoes lost heavily, fueled by the snacks industry, where spud uniformity holds the key to productivity. In the US, 75% of potato harvests are derived from just 4 varieties.

How do we protect the depth and breadth of food crops while balancing out commercial interests? This is where the organic seed industry steps in. Organic seed growers have aggressively positioned themselves in opposition to large seed conglomerates, even going to the extent of suing these giants to protect their fledgling market. The Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association (OSGATA) lists three main reasons to promote organic seed, emphasizing biodiversity, localization and farmer stewardship. Importantly, organic seed growers promote ‘seed saving’, a concept that works against conventional business models that promote buying new seed every season. Organizations such as Seed Savers Exchange in the US and Navdanya in India operate as non-profits, creating seed banks of rare and heirloom varieties. (Check out Seed Savers’ 2011 Catalog here, a treat for the eyes!) I am curious, how would a commercial seed company marry profitability with the ethical stance of  the organic industry?

High Mowing Seeds in Vermont is a great example. What began as a backyard operation in 1996, is now a thriving business, making available to home gardeners and commercial growers over 450 heirloom, open-pollinated and hybrid varieties of vegetable, fruit, herb and flower seed (sic). Not all farmers can or want to save seed, as seed production requires specialized care. Some farmers also prefer hybrids over open-pollinated, creating the need for a steady supply of organic seeds season-after-season. (Hybrids, as opposed to open-pollinated or heirloom, do not reproduce well in the second generation and are not candidates for seed saving.) Certification under organic agriculture programs also require farmers to use organic seed when available, creating a significant market opportunity for seed growers. This translates to small, independent companies offering locally grown seeds to farmers, which would mean more variety in food crops for customers and future food security.

Perfect? Well almost.  A report titled ‘State of the Organic Seed’ released by by the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA) paints a less optimistic picture, citing concerns such as cutbacks in public plant breeding programs, lack of investments from the private sector, seed industry consolidation, and ongoing disagreements
regarding implementing certification requirements pertaining to organic seed (sic). (The report shortens to SOS, perhaps not unintended.) Unfortunately, organic principles and commerce do not get along very well. With the big retail chains (Wal-Mart, for example, is an aggressive player) placing more organic products on shelves every year conventional seed giants cannot ignore the business opportunity to sell organic certified seed. In fact, they are pushing certifying agencies to promote the use of their seed, putting smaller growers at a disadvantage. As with conventional seed, consolidation of seed sources is not good news. Organic or not, fewer seed growers equates to less biodiversity, cutting at the foundation of the organic movement (More here.)

In this rather gloomy climate for independent business, Seeds of Change, an early organic pioneer was bought out by Mars Inc., causing a great deal of trepidation in the industry. Will small seed growers survive the next Takeover? Will more food crops go the way of corn, rice and wheat, the least bio-diverse commercial crops? OSA believes that increased public funding and industry collaboration can keep the movement going. I hope so, it would be pity if we were stuck with the Mango.

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