How (and Why) to Be a Seed Savior
By Nancy Castaldo
Wheat, maize, rice ... repeat. Those three starchy plants provide about half of all the calories we consume. What's more, of the 12,000 plant species that can be used for human food, only about 150 are cultivated. And that heavy reliance on a limited number of crops poses a serious risk when it comes to our food security. We can look back to the devastation of the Irish potato famine to see the importance of crop diversity. A million people died because a blight killed just one species of potato—the Irish lumper.
According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost since the 1900s, when farmers started to grow crops that would offer greater yields and more salable produce. Large, mechanized farms churning out staple grains (much of it going toward feeding livestock) replaced many small family farms that had grown a much wider array of fruits and vegetables. Monoculture depleted soil nutrients and contributed to soil erosion. This led to overdependence on chemical fertilizers, insecticides and herbicides, resulting in the decline of the bumblebees and other pollinators so critical to maintaining our food supply. Other factors have also contributed to the loss of agrodiversity, including our changing climate, which has brought about increased droughts that damage soil quality and rising sea levels that infiltrate croplands with saltwater. An uptick in floods and high-intensity storms also impacts the types of crops farmers are able to plant.
In the U.S., the overall trend in crop species diversity continues to track downward, but there is some hope for a small-farms revolution. And urban gardens are reviving an interest in homegrown crops for communities long underserved by our food system. Here's how you too can be a lifeline for plant biodiversity―at the market, in your backyard and even on your bookshelf.
Nurture Your Own Seeds.
You don't need a lot of land to grow your own fruits and vegetables. The National Gardening Association reported that 35 percent of all U.S. households grow food at home or in a community garden, with significant increases occurring in urban areas. If you're still working on your green thumb, community gardens are a great place to get started, since they offer both space and a group of gardeners to consult as you experiment with different seed varieties. Try saving some of your seeds from your favorite crop to plant again or share with another gardener.
There are so many wonderful, tasty heirloom varieties just waiting to be discovered. You may happen upon a special bean that has been passed down through your family for generations, or find out that your favorite watermelon variety at a local farm stand originated from an heirloom seed catalog. Heirlooms might surprise you. They might show up as a purple carrot, a yellow tomato or a tiny pink strawberry. You might never see these varieties in a supermarket, but there are plenty to be found at your neighborhood farmers' market.
Heirlooms are also critical to our food security. They contain genes distinct from those in the plants grown as monocrops, which risk dangerous collapse should a pest or disease outbreak strike. (For evidence, look to the banana industry, which has long revolved around a couple of commercial varieties. It nearly collapsed after a fungal disease spread in the 1950s and '60s.) By planting, sharing and enjoying heirloom varieties, we keep them around and preserve agrodiversity. And that heirloom might turn out to be resistant to a disease we don't even know about yet.
Hold a Seed Swap.
Seed swaps are a great way to spread some heirloom love. A seed swap is similar to a book swap. For every packet a gardener brings, he or she can pick one to take home. Many gardeners have plenty to share. To get your community involved, conduct some local outreach to ensure you reach a broad audience. Set up some rules: All seeds should be labeled, and they must be viable. Encourage participants to pack their favorite recipes with their seeds. Don't forget to include heirloom flower varieties in the swap too—you'll be supporting the local pollinators that, in turn, support local food production. If you have any leftover seeds at the end of your swap, donate them to a school or community garden.
Visit a Seed Library.
Some public libraries have gotten into the act of seed saving and swapping by hosting "seed libraries" from which you can check out a packet of seeds, just as you would a book. To keep seeds circulating, members take home seeds to cultivate, let the plants flower and drop their seeds, and then return those seeds to the library to share with other gardeners. Not all seeds can be saved year after year—commercial "hybrid" seeds do not produce offspring that are true to the parent plants, and in fact some of them are engineered to be sterile. But heirloom plants can be saved year after year, and these are the varieties you'll typically find in a lending library. Many seed libraries also sponsor talks and gardening tips for their patrons.
Create Your Own Herbarium.
An herbarium is, basically, a scrapbook of plants that have been pressed and preserved. These have been kept by individuals for centuries, and not only by botanists. Experimental composer and musician John Cage, an amateur mycologist, collected important fungal specimens that are now included in the New York Botanical Garden's William and Lynda Steere Herbarium.
Dried plant samples can supply important data of many kinds. For example, in 2013, molecular biologists with the Max Planck Institute for Developmental Biology discovered the identity of the plant pathogen that caused the Irish potato famine. The researchers used plants housed at Munich's Botanical State Collection and London's Kew Gardens; although they were 120 to 170 years old, the specimens nevertheless had many intact pieces of DNA for scientists to decode. Their work has helped us understand how plant pathogens evolve and how human activity impacts the spread of plant diseases.
Historically, herbariums have comprised pressed, dried specimens. To prepare your samples in this manner, press the plant matter in a large book or between sheets of newspaper and place a weight on top. When the leaves are dry, mount them in an acid-free scrapbook to preserve them, and label each specimen on the page. You can also include illustrations, photographs, seed packets and notes. Seed saving is something humans have done for as long as we've grown crops, so think of your project as a means of carrying on an important tradition—as well as a potentially important safeguard for future generations.
Nancy Castaldo has written books about our planet for over 20 years. Her book, The Story of Seeds: From Mendel's Garden to Your Plate, and How There's More of Less To Eat Around The World, earned the 2017 Green Earth Book Award, Sigurd Olsen Nature Writing Notable book, and was a Junior Library Guild Selection. Her latest is Back from the Brink: Saving Animals from Extinction. Her research and photography has taken her all over the world from the Galapagos to Russia, and she loves sharing her adventures with her readers.
By Karen L. Smith-Janssen
Colette Pichon Battle gave a December 2019 TEDWomen Talk on the stark realities of climate change displacement, and people took notice. The video racked up a million views in about two weeks. The attorney, founder, and executive director of the Gulf Coast Center for Law & Policy (GCCLP) advocates for climate justice in communities of color. Confronted with evidence showing how her own South Louisiana coastal home of Bayou Liberty will be lost to flooding in coming years, the 2019 Obama Fellow dedicates herself to helping others still reeling from the impacts of Katrina face the heavy toll that climate change has taken—and will take—on their lives and homelands. Her work focuses on strengthening multiracial coalitions, advocating for federal, state, and local disaster mitigation measures, and redirecting resources toward Black communities across the Gulf South.
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"These are not just wildfires, they are climate fires," Jay Inslee, Governor of Washington State, said as he stood amid the charred remains of the town of Malden west of Seattle earlier this month. "This is not an act of God," he added. "This has happened because we have changed the climate of the state of Washington in dramatic ways."
'These Aren't Wildfires'<p>Sam Ricketts, who led climate policy and strategy for Governor Jay Inslee's 2020 presidential campaign, tweeted on September 11 that "These aren't wildfires. These are #climatefires, driven by fossil fuel pollution."</p><p>"The rate and the strength and the devastation wrought by these disasters are fueled by climate change," Ricketts told DW of fires that have burnt well over 5 million acres across California, Oregon, Washington State, and into neighboring Idaho. </p><p>In a two-day period in early September, Ricketts notes that more of Washington State burned than in almost any entire fire season until now, apart from 2015. </p><p>California, meanwhile, was a tinderbox after its hottest summer on record, with temperatures in Death Valley reaching nearly 130 degrees Fahrenheit, according to the U.S. National Weather Service. It has been reported as the hottest temperature ever measured on Earth.</p>
<div id="29ad9" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="8346fe7350e1371d400097cd48bf45a2"><blockquote class="twitter-tweet twitter-custom-tweet" data-twitter-tweet-id="1306969603180879872" data-partner="rebelmouse"><div style="margin:1em 0">Drought-parched wetlands in South America have been burning for weeks. https://t.co/pjAKdFcKPg #Pantanal https://t.co/ImN2C5vwcp</div> — NASA Earth (@NASA Earth)<a href="https://twitter.com/NASAEarth/statuses/1306969603180879872">1600440810.0</a></blockquote></div><p>As evidenced by Australia's apocalyptic Black Summer of 2019-2020, fires are burning bigger and for longer, with new records set year-on-year. Right now, Brazil's vast and highly biodiverse Pantanal wetlands are suffering from catastrophic fires.</p>
#climatefires Started in Australia<p>Governor Inslee this month invoked the phrase climate fires for arguably the first time in the U.S., according to Ricketts.</p><p>But the term was also used as fires burnt out of control in Australia in late 2019. In the face of a 2000km (more than 1,200 miles) fire front, and government officials and media who <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/trump-climate-change-denial-emissions-environment-germany-fake-heartland-seibt/a-52688933" target="_blank">played down the link to climate change</a>, Greens Party Senator Sarah Hanson-Young and a friend decided that reference to bushfires was inadequate. </p><p>"We both just said, we've got to start calling them climate fires, that's what they are," the Australian Senator told DW.</p><p>Hanson-Young says scientists have been warning for decades that these would be the effects of global heating. "We've been told these kinds of extreme weather events and destruction is what climate change would look like, and it's right here on our doorstep," she said from her home state of South Australia — where by early September fire warnings had already been issued.</p><p>"Calling them climate fires was making it absolutely crystal clear. It is essential that there's no ambiguity," she said </p><p>Having deliberately invoked the term, Hanson-Young soon started to push it on social media via a #climatefires hashtag. </p>
How to Talk About the Urgency of Global Heating<p>The need to use more explicit language when talking about extreme weather events linked to climate change is part of a broader push to express the urgency of global heating. In 2019, activist Greta Thunberg tweeted that the term "climate change" did not reflect the seriousness of the situation. </p><p>"Can we all now please stop saying 'climate change' and instead call it what it is: climate breakdown, climate crisis, climate emergency, ecological breakdown, ecological crisis and ecological emergency?" she wrote. </p><p>"Climate change has for a long time been talked about as something that is a danger in the future," said Hansen-Young. "But the consequences are already here. When people hear the word crisis, they understand that something has to happen, that action has to be taken."</p><p><span></span>Some terms are now used in public policy, with state and national governments, and indeed the EU Parliament, declaring an official climate emergency in the last year. </p>
Words That Reflect the Science<p>But while the West Coast governors all fervently link the fires to an unfolding climate crisis, U.S. President Donald Trump continues to avoid any reference to climate. In a briefing about the fires, he responded to overtures by Wade Crowfoot, California's Natural Resources Secretary, to work with the states on the climate crisis by stating: "It'll start getting cooler. You just watch." Crowfoot replied by saying that scientists disagreed. Trump rejoined with "I don't think science knows, actually." </p><p>It was reminiscent of the anti-science approach to the coronavirus pandemic within the Trump administration, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/donald-trump-admits-playing-down-coronavirus-risks/a-54874350" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">at least publicly</a>. Fossil fuel companies are also benefiting from his disavowal of climate science, with the Trump administration having <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/opinion-trumps-paris-climate-accord-exit-isnt-really-a-problem/a-51124958" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">pulled out of the Paris Agreement</a> and reopened fossil fuel infrastructure like the Keystone XL pipeline. </p><p>But the science community has responded, with Scientific American magazine endorsing Trump's Democratic presidential challenger Joe Biden, the first presidential endorsement in its 175-year history. </p><p>Hanson-Young says the use of explicit language like climate fires has also been important in Australia due to the climate denialism of politicians and the press, especially in publications owned by Rupert Murdoch. As fires burnt out much of Australia's southeast coast, they were commonly blamed on arson — a tactic also recently used in the U.S.</p>
Climate Rhetoric Could Help Decide Election<p>The language of climate has begun to influence the U.S. presidential election campaign, with Democratic nominee Joe Biden labelling President Trump a "climate arsonist."</p><p>Biden is touting a robust climate plan that includes a 2050 zero emissions target and a return to the Paris Agreement. Though lacking the ambition of The New Green Deal, it has been front and center of his policy platform in recent days, at a time when five hurricanes are battering the U.S. Gulf Coast while smoke blanketing the West Coast spreads all the way to the East. </p><p>People are experiencing the climate crisis in a visceral way and almost universally relate to the language of an emergency, says Ricketts. "They know something is wrong."</p>
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