Saving seed is nothing new, in fact, it’s been a standard practice of farmers for generations. Saving seed helps to contain costs and was seen as a way to maintain control over the process. It’s an expression of self-reliance really.
Though there has been a shift in recent years, seed saving is still a viable practice and one that has been ushered to the forefront of the debate between organic and conventional farming methods. Corporate interests would like to control the entire process from seed to table by specifically controlling the seeds. Organic, polycropping farmers want to liberate the system and try to rediscover and restore the biodiversity in our food system.
One way to foster a resurgence in biodiversity and to reintroduce varieties long forgotten is to cultivate those at home, in the classroom, and in your community. Saving seed is an imperative step in that process. The following information will help you decide which seeds to save and which plants to select.
Saving seeds from plants based on their characteristics is one consideration. Characteristics are general plants features that are not identified by a specific genetic complex. That is to say, characteristics are features like adaptability, freeze, cold or heat tolerance, early maturation, or flavor that are not identified by a specific gene or complex of genes. Home gardeners typically look for specific characteristics when selecting seed. Which plants germinated early? Which ones demonstrated the most hearty early growth? Or which plants produced the most fruit? In the flagship Edible Learning Lab, we have saved seed from our basil varieties based on the intensity of flavor and fragrance.
Saving seeds based on traits is another consideration. Traits are discernible features linked to specific genes. For example, traits that can be traced to specific genes for the common pea would include vine growth, seed texture, or disease resistance. When selecting plants for seed harvest, you might look for those that yielded the largest seeds, produced the longest vines, or were most viable in the shade or poor soil.
A little history on how we got here
You see, this process, the act of saving seed based on desirable traits and characteristics, has been practiced for nearly 10,000 years. In fact, most of that effort has been done by home gardeners based on the observable evidence that was available to them not scientists in a lab with sensitive equipment.
When the best of each year’s crop is used to harvest seed for the next year the nature of that plant improves over time. And when that amount of time is thousands of years, you get something far different than the first generation.
But mono-cropping has changed, some even say undone, much of what historical seed saving has done for plant diversity. In just the last hundred years we’ve lost an enormous amount of plant diversity. We’ve lost 75% of our plant genetic diversity and nearly 90% of crop diversity has disappeared from the farmer’s field. We have willingly sacrificed our diversity in favor of a small number of high-yield genetically uniform varieties.
Consider this, today approximately 75% of the world’s food supply is derived from just 12 plant varieties and 5 animal species. That is anything but diversified.