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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.
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Tracy L. Barnett
Sources reviewed this article for accuracy.
For Sicangu Lakota water protector Cheryl Angel, Standing Rock helped her define what she stands against: an economy rooted in extraction of resources and exploitation of people and planet. It wasn't until she'd had some distance that the vision of what she stands for came into focus.
Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.
The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
The billions of dollars spent to rebuild the Jersey Shore and to create dunes to protect from future storms after Superstorm Sandy in 2012 may be a waste if sea level rise inundates the entire coastline.
"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
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