Seed Saving: an overlooked art in agriculture

Seed saving is the practice of preserving seed varieties from grain, vegetables, herbs, and flowers to protect plant diversity in a gardening or agricultural setting. The trend of seed saving has been around for years, but it has recently been rejuvenated among small vegetable growers and plant breeders. Preserving the genetic diversity among varieties has been an ultimate goal among breeders. Genetic diversity in seed varieties combat the possibilities of varieties becoming extinct and protect desirable traits that certain varieties have.

However, since the 1980s, companies have been able to patent seed varieties with the passing of the Plant Variety Protection Act. With that, many farmers do not buy seeds from companies anymore. They are rented from the companies because the grower is not allowed to do what he wants with the seed besides planting them in the ground for harvest..

Three companies currently control over half of the global seed market. Monsanto has the largest control at 26 percent. As a result, varieties are diminishing of what is being used. The preservation of varieties helps protect traits that contribute to today’s desirable attributes in modern seeds. 

The genetic diversity in these commercial cultivars controlled by only a few companies are very low, and that becomes concerning to plant breeders. This concern comes from the southern corn leaf blight epidemic that happened 1970. Eighty-five percent of the corn crop planted that year was of one variety. When the epidemic hit, it destroyed fifty percent of the corn crop that year. It serves as an example of why it is important to save seeds and encourage more diversity. 

An early example would be the Irish potato famine that took place from 1845 to 1849. This was also a result of a lack of genetic diversity among the potato crop planted in Ireland at the time. It brought about mass starvation. It also brought about economic hardships in the 19th century. 

Chase is the Plant Collections and Records Intern at Reiman Gardens in Ames, Iowa

I further discussed the importance of seed saving with Chase Krug, a Junior majoring in Agronomy and Philosophy at Iowa State University. He said the larger gene pool we have in plant varieties, the greater chance we have of protecting the species. There are two types of values that come from seed saving: intrinsic and economic value. 

Intrinsic value acts in the purpose of saving important cultivars. It is used to make a specific dish, festival, or passing a seed down through generations,” Krug said, referring to heirlooms that date back over a hundred years. Economic value in seed saving prepares for new challenges in agriculture.” 

In his article “The Importance of Genetic Diversity in Agriculture,” Krug wrote, “Agricultural genetic diversity is imperative to provide a robust food security system capable of adapting to pest and environmental stressors. Genetic diversity allows agricultural plant and animal breeders to adapt to changing variables.” Essentially, the more tools we have in the tool box to protect those varieties, the better we can combat variables coming from different parts of the world or those that arise in the United States. When we lose key traits, we potentially lose the solution to problems that arise in the future. 

Krug says we have recently seen a western trend of forgoing seed saving in exchange for seed companies, leading to the dependence of monoculture and hybrid seeds in our operations. 

“This used to be essential for farmers around the world,” he said. “It is very unique, and hopefully gardeners and farmers can continue the value of seed saving.” 

Some quick tips Chase Krug has for seed saving are: 

  • For a beginner, I would start with a self-pollinating species; tomatoes, green beans, peppers and eggplants are just a few easy species.
  • More advanced seed-savers could try species like corn, making sure the pollen from your variety is pure.
  • Determine the adequate population size from your plant species. 5-20 plants for the self-pollinating. 200 for corn to maintain genetic diversity
  • Hybrids are possible to try seed saving but are not recommended because they will not be consistent in their generations, giving different varieties. 
  • Purchasing seeds in early january to ensure the best selection of cultivars. To ensure quality, buy seeds online from established seed distributors. 
  • When storing seeds, be sure to keep them in a cool and dry place to prevent unintentional germination.
  • A fun task for advanced savers is saving endangered crop cultivars. It provides a challenge and a rewarding project. 
Photo Courtesy of Chase Krug

In his time he spent seed saving, Chase dealt potatoes, maize, and dabbled with common bean varieties. He believes more public funding should be available for seed banks to ensure the resources are accessible for plant breeders. He also believes the public should be educated on the importance of genetic resources as it will contribute to the improvement of the global food system.

For more information on seed saving, check out the Seed Savers Exchange.

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