Why We Should Save Seeds of Heirloom Edible Varieties

What Can You Do? Save Seeds!

by Christina De La Rocha

Over the last 10,000 to 15,000 years, humankind has not only domesticated a respectable number of different species of different cereals and grains, fruits and nuts, and vegetables, they’ve bred up a bountiful variety of different strains of those species.

Take the 7,500 known apple cultivars lurking almost all over the world (at least outside of the tropics), the 4,000 different types of potatoes you can find in people’s vegetable plots in the Andes, to the now nearly lost most splendid variety of collard greens bred up with such care in parts of the USA’s South, beginning with the enslaved African Americans who ate them alongside the rations they received that were not enough food to survive solely on in terms of either calories or nutrition.

A Common Theme in Global Grocery Stores

Yet most of us have probably eaten about dozen different types of apples (and, no matter where we live in this world, possibly the same dozen different types of apples), a handful of different types of potatoes, and, if we’ve never lived in or visited the USA’s South, we have probably never even eaten collard greens, much less a variety of them.

Agriculture and grocery stores being what they are today, we’ve probably also all eaten many of the same strains of tomatoes, the same half a dozen different types of lettuce, the same peaches, pears, grapes, broccoli, cauliflower, mushrooms, asparagus, and just about any other bit of fresh, canned, or frozen produce you can name.

It is, in a word, boring. Not to mention a shameful loss for our tastebuds.

And, if I may add yet a few more words, it is disrespectful of all those lifetimes of careful work it took to breed up such wonders. To let these varieties die out is also a terrible waste of the valuable resource of genetic diversity all of those varieties represent. We need that diversity now, more than ever, in the growing face of climate change, which is changing growing conditions and stirring up agricultural pests and disease (among other things). But what’s left of the broad diversity of cultivars may contain strains harboring genes for tolerating weather extremes, or defeating assaults by insects or pathogens.

If we could just stop these rare heirlooms from dying out because we’ve abandoned them, we could someday find ourselves rescued by some old, obscure variety of zucchini or potato.

Reason Behind this Limited Variety

There is a convergence of reasons why this massive loss of cultivars is happening.

Grocery stores are a big one. Even if you live in a house and have plenty of yard for a garden, when you work all day, who has time to tend a vegetable garden? They are a lot of work! But grocery stores are (understandably) not interested in offering ten different rare types of radishes, carrots, Brussels sprouts, oranges, turnips, sweet potatoes, and everything else you can find in your store.

Reason number two: these “heirloom” varieties don’t necessarily travel well or last long or look neat and tidy in the vegetable bins of a grocery store. But do you know what does? The handful of tasteless, less nutritious fruits and vegetables that are so weak they rely on tons of pesticides in order to survive.

They’ve been bred to grow fast, be robust enough to transport, and look great in the supermarket. Taste, nutrition, and hardiness against crop pests don’t figure in. Then, when companies hit on something that works, they stick with it to the exclusion of most other varieties. Hence, we are all eating the same couple of strains of wheat and cucumbers and the like.

It also really doesn’t help that a grand total of four different companies controls half of the seeds available to farmers and gardeners. And that it’s far easier for them to make money by having a monopoly over a handful of cultivars, at most, for what they offer, locking us all into eating (and growing) the same old produce as almost everyone else in the world.

What We Can Do to Support the Variety of Edibles

So, if you want to grow your own healthier, more robust fruits, vegetables, pulses, and maybe even grains, contribute to sustaining our rich agricultural heritage, and help maintain the genetic diversity of our food crops, what can you do?

One thing is save seeds… but you have to do it the right way. There are incredibly helpful websites out there with great tips on how to save seeds properly, such as this website, this one, and this one. Check them out and get started!

Meanwhile, in my admittedly still amateur opinion, one aspect of the wrong way would be to plant the seeds you scraped out of the bell pepper you bought at the store and ate in your salad. In that case, you’d get plants alright and, given the details of bell pepper biology, you’d end up with what you started with (which is far from the case for everything you can buy in the grocery store).

The problem here is that what you started with was the same old thing offered up by the seed monopolists. And, honestly, why bother with that?

Better would be to take the time and effort to find some heirloom seeds of cultivars of plants that would stand a chance of thriving in your local climate (or greenhouse, if you have one).

Why and How to Save Seeds: a plate full of seeds saved from the garden
Why we should all save seeds

Finding Heirloom Seeds

One easy way is to pop down to your local garden store and see what they have to offer that fits the bill.

But there are a couple of things to look out for. Avoid anything labeled F1. That means it’s a hybrid and if you save seeds, you’ll end up with something that is more like “Mom” or “Pop” and not like the plant you planted (and most likely not to be a better plant than what you started with).

Another is that some brands of heirloom seeds (Seeds of Change, I am looking at you) are owned by one of the world’s most enormous multinational corporations and some of their offerings (such as Golden Bantam Corn), while heirloom, are already widely grown. While that can still be interesting and good to eat, growing such heirlooms isn’t going to do too much to help sustain the badly needed genetic diversity of our crops.

An even better alternative is a mere internet search and online order away. Get the seeds you start your seed saving habit with from a community seed bank or a seed exchange. There are some great ones out there that represent the efforts of hundreds, if not thousands, of backyard gardeners, farmers, and researchers working not to merely keep these cultivars alive, but to widely revive their use.

It would be impossible to list them all here, and, depending on where you live, you might have to do a bit more work by word of mouth, since not all community seed banks are big or formal enough to have a website. But one example of a huge seed exchange in the USA is Seed Savers Exchange. Or you can try to find seeds from one of the many Community Seed Banks in Europe, or from one of Navdanya’s 150 community seed banks in India, or from one of Australia’s Local Seed Networks).

We Should All Save Seeds

Or, if you are really, really lucky, you have a neighbor who has been saving seeds from seeds that have been carefully saved and cultivated and handed down from person to person through the centuries. This is still possible in some places! Then you can start your seed saving journey by getting your first seeds from right next door.

Those seeds might even be so rare that they’re not yet banked in any sort of seed exchange, although you could change that. At any rate, those seeds will definitely be suited to growing exactly where you live.