Thanks to a growing consciousness about food production and increasing media coverage in movies and books like Food, Inc. and The Omnivore’s Dilemma, many people are thinking about how and where their food is grown. People are recognizing that convenience and low cost of manufactured food products come at a high price: rising obesity and diabetes rates, exploding health care costs, loss of diversity in the produce section, etc. The local food movement has grown by leaps and bounds in the last decades as a result of rising consumer consciousness. People flock to locally produced food for a variety of reasons: exceptionally tasting, fresh and nutritious produce rather than produce raised for its ability to ship long distances; a desire to strengthen the local economy by choosing to support endangered family farmers rather than large corporations; a drive to steward the land in healthier ways by choosing local organic farming systems thus reducing fossil fuel consumption and pollution. There really isn’t a good reason not to participate in a localized food system. Out of all of the discussions regarding a local food system, there appears to be one element missing. How strong is a local food system if there isn’t a local seed system? In other words, why does farmer direct, regionally adapted seed matter?
Preserving seed for the next season has been a fundamental rule of survival in human history. Almost all seed prior to the 1930’s was organic, regionally adapted and open-pollinated. Farmers and gardeners knew how to save seed, and they traded and shared these seeds with their neighbors. A variety stewarded in this way has a genetic makeup that gears it towards optimal survival within local and bioregional growing conditions. This regional adaptation of seed stocks allowed for a diverse, secure food supply for any particular bioregion. This began to change with the advent of hybrid corn varieties in the 1930’s. Farmers started trading in their ability to save next season’s seed, adapted to their growing conditions, for seed purchased from the seed company. In the years since, using hybrids became standard practice even for plant types that don’t benefit from hybrid vigor (which is most of them); farmers and gardeners continued to lose their seed-saving knowledge and stewarded varieties; industrial food systems replaced local food systems and industrial seed systems replaced localized seed systems.
Throughout this process, seed has moved away from being the common wealth of humankind and joined the long list of public resources appropriated by the private sector. The results have been devastating. Most of farming in the United States today relies on proprietary seed stocks, whether they be hybrid (F1), plant variety protected (PVP – a limited patent for open pollinated (OP) varieties), or genetically modified (GMO), the most extreme form of seed privatization. According to Organic Seed Alliance’s State of Organic Seed 2011 report, the seed industry is now dominated by a handful of transnational biotechnology/chemical firms with 60% of the world’s commercial seed owned by 5 companies. What’s worse is that these corporations have no interest in supporting sustainable organic agriculture or organic crop breeding as their profits rest on breeding crops that rely on agricultural chemicals (which they also sell). They have everything to gain by commandeering the seed supply through market consolidation, discontinuing more seed varieties with each corporate merger and leaving fewer varieties available to organic farmers. These giant agricorps will pursue all means to secure their profits: the draft for the Intellectual Property section of the proposed Trans Pacific Partnership (think NAFTA on steroids) is literally written by and for Monsanto. The Manifesto on the Future of Seeds aptly points out: “The global seed industry misuses the concept of “common heritage of mankind” to freely appropriate farmers’ varieties, convert them into proprietary commodities and then sell them back to the same farming communities at high costs and heavy royalties. Such privatization through patents and intellectual property violates the rights of farming communities and leads to debt, impoverishment and dispossession of small farmers.”
A consequence of this privatization and increased reliance on hybrid seed stocks has been not only a loss in the amount of open pollinated varieties available but also a loss of quality, suitability and traceability in OP varieties. Most of commercial dry seed production takes place where the climate suits the seed production, like the Pacific Northwest and Israel. That’s great in some ways, but how will those varieties grow in an opposite climate like the southeastern United States? Colorado is a good place to produce cucurbit seed without much of the disease pressure experienced in more humid climates. But over the long run how will those seed stocks hold up to Downy Mildew and Bacterial Wilt? Seed producers are incentivized towards quantity of seed rather than quality. Plant breeding and selection- working towards varieties that are disease resistant, pest resistant and regionally adapted – is discouraged by this system and rarely prioritized. So, what’s the local organic farmer to do? Take a chance on poorly stewarded OP’s and potentially lose income? Turn towards a better stewarded yet proprietary hybrid variety that also may not be well suited to their climate? Herein lays the greatest insecurity to our local food system: dependence on commercially-sourced, commodified seed.
The political landscape surrounding seed is dire and reveals the vulnerability in our local food systems. Yet, there exist many beautiful seeds of potential to turn the tide of corporate control over our food supply and return food sovereignty to the hands of the people. It is at the local level that the new paradigm of seed is being formed. Communities that prioritize local spending, farmer co-operatives, food hubs, farmers’ markets and CSAs are also becoming the breeding grounds for a new local, organic, open-pollinated seed movement. We’re excited to be a part of it! We at Common Wealth Seed Growers are all farmers, working together to revitalize and rebuild a localized seed system in Virginia and in the greater Southeast and mid-Atlantic regions. We grow, save, clean and pack all the seed we sell. We test new and old varieties in our trials. We practice ongoing selection and adaptation, under organic conditions, as we work with varieties over time. We have several breeding projects in progress. Our new seed growers’ cooperative is actively building a local and regional network of skilled organic seed producers, and developing educational programming on seed saving. We believe that organic farmers and the communities in which they exist are best served when they have access to well stewarded, 100% source-transparent, regionally adapted, GMO-free, organic, open-pollinated seed varieties. Farmer-direct seed – farmers growing seeds for themselves and directly distributing to other farmers – is the clearest path away from the global commodity seed market and towards reestablishing seed as the common wealth of humankind.