Saving seeds may be key to saving ourselves

“The season of failure is the best time for sowing the seeds of success.”

– Paramahansa Yogananda

I’d never heard of Vandana Shiva before a friend suggested I attend a lecture she gave in California about 15 years ago. I didn’t know she was an international star in the sustainable agriculture movement, and I was unfamiliar with the ideas in her numerous books about the subject.

But I had done quite a bit of reading about the role of biodiversity in the resilience of ecosystems on all scales: local, regional and global. Biodiversity is critical to ecosystem stability because it allows species to be somewhat interchangeable in fulfilling basic ecosystem functions such as food production and controlling each other’s populations through predation.

To the extent that diversity is reduced, so are an ecosystem’s options for adjusting to disturbances. The evolution of the “strategy” of supporting diversity is one of the keys to the sustainability of ecosystems, which in a variety of forms have survived on Earth for 3.6 billion years.

What I learned from the Shiva lecture is that, for thousands of years, farmers in India have mimicked nature’s diversity strategy by planting a variety of grains. That way, if one or more grain crops failed because of drought, blight or another unforeseen affliction, the remaining grains – less susceptible to a particular condition – could sustain the farmer’s family or community.

This practice, discovered through the evolutionary process of trial and error and adapting to local conditions, is literally enshrined in India’s farmlands: Shiva described reliefs of nine traditional “sacred grains” carved over the entrance to the temples of the country’s agricultural gods.

But Shiva’s lecture wasn’t just happy talk about sustainable agricultural practices. She said the very concept of crop and seed diversity has been under attack by a variety of institutions – corporations, governments and NGOs – for decades. Some of these institutions are well meaning, marching under a “we’re feeding the world” banner. Others, not so much. The net effect of their activities is that the availability of a diverse seed supply has shrunk – and is shrinking at an alarming rate.

Until about a century ago, seeds were part of the “commons” – they were considered to be the shared heritage of humankind, available to be sold or distributed for free by anyone who had them. In America, farmers bred plants and saved seeds that were adapted to thousands of locales. They often sold successful strains to neighbors or through local general stores or farm co-ops.

Following suit, the federal government established the land-grant university system, which, among other services, collected, bred and distributed seeds. The USDA devoted about one-third of its budget to collecting and distributing seeds and, by the 1890s, more than a billion packets of these seeds were supplied annually to America’s farmers.

But then commercial interests began to lobby the government for proprietary rights to this publicly sponsored seed reservoir, and during the course of the ensuing century a series of laws and court decisions dramatically changed the situation. Today, proprietary seeds account for 82 percent of the world’s commercial seed market. About 50 percent of those proprietary seeds are owned by three corporations (Monsanto, Dupont and Syndenta), and a full 66 percent are owned by the top 10 seed corporations.

Predictably, this centralization has reduced the diversity of the world’s food supply, increasing reliance on fewer and fewer crops with high yield/profitability ratios. For example, about 96 percent of the vegetable varieties grown in the U.S. in 1903 are no longer available on the commercial market.

One need not pass judgment on any of the players to see that this inordinate centralization is dangerous to the food supply of a planet with a burgeoning population. Agriculture worldwide is threatened by climate change, soil and aquifer exhaustion and a variety of unsustainable agricultural practices, including the spread of monocultures. A reduction in available seed variety reduces our chances to respond resiliently to these threats.

What can you do to help restore balance in agronomy? Fortunately, there is a widespread seed-saving and sharing movement you can freely join. As we’ll learn in the next column in this series, it’s easy to save, share and even breed a wide variety of locally adapted seeds. And we just might find that saving seeds is a key to saving ourselves at our ecological house.

Philip S. Wenz, who grew up in Durango and Boulder, now lives in Corvallis, Ore., where he teaches and writes about environmental issues. Reach him via e-mail through his website,

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