Seeds never fail to amaze me, especially when the tiniest of seeds grow into a really big plant. They’re a mass of genetic information packed into a little time capsule, and when the right conditions to germinate happen, away they go.
So before we start ordering our seeds from a catalogue or buying packages at the store, let’s take a look at the differences in our seed choices that are available today.
Essentially, we have three kinds of seeds: 1) first generation or F1 hybrids, which have been hand-pollinated, patented, are often sterile (also know as Frankenseeds), genetically identical within food types, and sold from multinational seed companies; 2) bioengineered or genetically modified (GMO) seeds, which are fast contaminating the global seed supply on a wholesale level, and threatening the purity of seeds everywhere; and 3) heirloom or open-pollinated, genetically diverse seeds that have been passed on from generation to generation.
Standard seeds may have been subject to all kinds of sprays while they were forming on the parent plant, and may have had their genes altered to encourage them to have certain qualities, such as disease resistance, higher productivity, sweeter taste, etc. This is different from selective breeding and hybridization, which has been going on for centuries in order to produce the vegetables and fruits that we have today.
With genetic modification, there is no way of knowing what else might be altered when the genetic material is tampered with. Even an apparently beneficial alteration, such as making a plant more resistant to disease, can have a negative effect if this means that bacteria evolve to survive. This could create a risk of human diseases becoming increasingly resistant to antibiotics.
The long-term effects of GMOs on human health are not yet known, but short-term effects include allergic reactions and gene transfers from GMO foods to the cells of the body. There is also a risk of harming biodiversity and perhaps producing new allergens, or even new diseases.
Farms are not isolated systems, so cross-pollinating occurs between genetically modified crops and wild species, creating a serious threat to overall biodiversity. Also, many genetically modified seeds are designed to be used with agrochemicals, which destroy soil health and create a toxic leachate that finds its way into the under- and above-ground water sources.
Seed crops must complete an entire life cycle to produce seeds, so they are in the ground longer than most fruit and vegetable crops. Because regulators do not consider them food crops, they can be subjected to even higher levels of agrochemicals than the fruits and vegetables sold for food. Organic seed farms, just like organic fruit and vegetable operations, are subjected to high standards of environmental stewardship, including attention to soil fertility, biological pest control and conservation practices. Organic seed farmers must respect and promote ecological diversity and health to obtain desirable yields, and they encourage natural mating and evolution of strong seeds by breeding plants that perform well under local environmental conditions. In a nutshell, if you want to have a truly organic garden, you will need to buy organic seeds, even if you’ve never used pesticide, commercial fertilizers or weed killer in your garden. If the seed you are purchasing has been subject to genetic modification, they will never be organic.
Organic seeds have a better heritage, are safe, tend to be stronger and healthier, are not contaminated by genetic modification and do not carry harmful chemicals in any of their tiny cells. They produce plants that are higher in vitality, and therefore are more naturally disease and pest resistant. To boot, they produce foods with increased nutritional value and taste.
The Mayan word “gene” means “spiral of life.” The genes in heirloom seeds give life to our future, and the loss of genetic seed diversity facing us today may lead to a catastrophe far beyond our imagining. For example, with heirloom seeds, there are 10,000 varieties of apples, compared to the very few F1 hybrid apple types, and when “seedless” foods started coming out, the alarm bells should have been going off. Unless the 100 million backyard gardeners and organic farmers keep these seeds alive, they will disappear altogether. This is truly an instance where all of us gardeners, along with the large and small-scale farmers, can potentially make all the difference in the world.
Organic seeds are readily available through a variety of certified-organic companies online, or can be found in our local nurseries or garden stores. My favourite organic seed company is Stellar Seeds, formerly from Sorrento and is now based in Kaslo. Their excellent quality seeds are specifically suited to our growing zone, and their catalogue boasts a wide variety of seeds to choose from.
For this year’s growing season, let’s put our money where our mouths are and support these certified organic seed and plant growers, who play a crucial role in the health and well being of both people and our planet. March 3 is Seedy Saturday in Enderby, which is always a great opportunity to meet our local seed suppliers and farmers, and listen to some excellent presentations on a number of topics.