Monday, November 30, 2009

Seeds of Change: Why Choose Open-Pollinated Seeds?

For those who are not gardeners, the idea that there is some sort of difference between seeds may be a bit obscure. Yes, there are bean seeds and corn seeds, and these grow beans and corn, respectively. But don’t you just head down to the store and buy seeds when you need them? What’s all the fuss about saving seeds? Adding the terms hybrid and open-pollinated seed stock can just confuse things even further, until the average non-gardener is a quivering mess of fear about planting anything in the ground, anywhere. Gardening is confusing, right?

Take heart. People have been cultivating crops for thousands of years. Before people cultivated crops, they were likely engineering environments to suit them too, helping specific native plants grow in more abundance. People are natural cultivators of the earth, and many people around the world have a great amount of knowledge about saving seeds and growing plants. Unfortunately, with the introduction of certain seed varieties, their useful and locally-specific knowledge is no longer quite as relevant or useful.

Open-pollinated seeds are our genetic heritage; or rather they are the genetic heritage of all of those beans, corn, and plants that you’ve never even heard of. When a seed is open-pollinated, it breeds generally true to type, although some plants may be more vigorous than others. By focusing on the individual plants that thrive and by collecting seeds from these plants, over time farmers and gardeners can create a seed stock that does exceptionally well in the local environment. Keeping these seeds means that local people have a greater ability to feed themselves well, using vigorous seed stock.

Hybrid plants are created from the artificial cross-pollinating two plants, both selected to create a new plant that will have desirable characteristics like large fruit or rot resistance. While this is a brilliant idea and can result in plants that have exceptional qualities, all too often the next generation of plants will not breed true. The plants will not be super-plants. In fact, they may be weak and poorly suited to the local environment. This means that saving the seeds of hybrid plants can be a waste of time. It’s better to buy them from the store next year. Of course, this also means that these plants do not become adapted to the local climate. They’re more hardy in the short term, but they’re not that durable in the long term.

Choosing seeds that can adapt to the local climate and that local gardeners can select and save is a profound but simple action that people can do to cultivate the local genetic diversity of our plants. Like many sustainable actions, it’s a small step, but it is one that maintains the diversity of the food that sustains our lives – and that’s an important change to make.

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