Quantcast
Environmental News for a Healthier Planet and Life

Help Support EcoWatch

How (and Why) to Be a Seed Savior

Food
Alexander Spacher

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.

Choose Heirlooms.

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.

EcoWatch Daily Newsletter

By Michael Svoboda

The enduring pandemic will make conventional forms of travel difficult if not impossible this summer. As a result, many will consider virtual alternatives for their vacations, including one of the oldest forms of virtual reality – books.

Read More Show Less
Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility on Thursday accused NOAA of ignoring its own scientists' findings about the endangerment of the North Atlantic right whale. Lauren Packard / Flickr / CC BY 2.0

By Julia Conley

As the North Atlantic right whale was placed on the International Union for Conservation of Nature's list of critically endangered species Thursday, environmental protection groups accusing the U.S. government of bowing to fishing and fossil fuel industry pressure to downplay the threat and failing to enact common-sense restrictions to protect the animals.

Read More Show Less
Pexels

By Beth Ann Mayer

Since even moderate-intensity workouts offer a slew of benefits, walking is a good choice for people looking to stay healthy.

Read More Show Less
Much of Eastern Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa, remains an Indian reservation, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday. JustTulsa / CC BY 2.0

Much of Eastern Oklahoma, including most of Tulsa, remains an Indian reservation, the Supreme Court ruled on Thursday.

Read More Show Less
The Firefly Watch project is among the options for aspiring citizen scientists to join. Mike Lewinski / Wikimedia Commons / CC by 2.0

By Tiffany Means

Summer and fall are great seasons to enjoy the outdoors. But if you're already spending extra time outside because of the COVID-19 pandemic, you may be out of ideas on how to make fresh-air activities feel special. Here are a few suggestions to keep both adults and children entertained and educated in the months ahead, many of which can be done from the comfort of one's home or backyard.

Read More Show Less
People sit at the bar of a restaurant in Austin, Texas, on June 26, 2020. Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered bars to be closed by noon on June 26 and for restaurants to be reduced to 50% occupancy. Coronavirus cases in Texas spiked after being one of the first states to begin reopening. SERGIO FLORES / AFP via Getty Images

The coronavirus may linger in the air in crowded indoor spaces, spreading from one person to the next, the World Health Organization acknowledged on Thursday, as The New York Times reported. The announcement came just days after 239 scientists wrote a letter urging the WHO to consider that the novel coronavirus is lingering in indoor spaces and infecting people, as EcoWatch reported.

Read More Show Less

Trending

A never-before-documented frog species has been discovered in the Peruvian highlands and named Phrynopus remotum. Germán Chávez

By Angela Nicoletti

The eastern slopes of the Andes Mountains in central Perú are among the most remote places in the world.

Read More Show Less