What makes a good seed?March 4, 2020
Seeds are tiny things with a big job: producing beautiful, delicious, sustainable and diverse food. But how do you know a seed is a good one?
Seed savers and producers are working around the world to keep seed diversity alive. With the climate crisis and less predictable growing conditions, the seed savers working to keep a diversity of good seeds alive are more important than ever. Here’s why.
A good seed grows into something you want to eat.
Different foods and flavours can be unique to regions, cultures, and countries. But the industrialized agriculture of the past 60 years has pushed crop uniformity at the expense of local tradition and innovation.
Seed savers select seeds from best tasting crops, keeping unique, traditional flavours alive amid waves of homogenous industrial crops. Saving time-tested seeds means we can continue enjoying the flavours we love, year after year.
A good seed not only produces good food, but also more good seeds growers can save, share and replant. Farmers have done this for millennia.
BUT not all seeds can be saved. Some for legal reasons, others because they are hybrids and will not produce a reliable crop until after several cycles of saving and replanting. These kinds of seeds can be useful to grow food, but they reduce farmers’ options for seed saving. A good seed can be saved and pass on its genes to the next generation.
A good seed is one that farmers can find and afford.
For good seeds to be of any use, farmers need to be able to get their hands on them, right? In Canada, we import most of our vegetable seeds because Canadian seed markets can’t meet the quality, quantity and diversity needs of our farmers. In the Global South, where local seed markets can be equally thin, many farmers are forced to go into heavy debt just to access expensive commercial seeds.
A good seed works with nature, instead of against it.
For all its randomness, nature actually knows what it’s doing. Ecosystems are robust, resilient cycles of living things, sun, air and soil. Everything has its role.
Farmers curate the seeming chaos into a productive farm. A good seed fits into this ecological system. Fitting in could mean growing into a plant bees can pollinate without taking in harmful pesticides. It could mean being able to grow without massive inputs of fertilizer or herbicides that seep into the water table and poison the fish downstream. A good seed maintains and enhances the health of its environment.
A good seed makes the most of the soil, water and light that are available in its environment, while resisting local pests and diseases.
Saving seed from the year’s best crops to plant the following year makes for better seeds over time. Because they come from the A+ plants of that specific area, these seeds likely contain traits that will come in handy again in future years. Crops that managed to produce fruit in a dry region, for instance, will probably give you somewhat drought resistant seeds.
They become “locally adapted” and ready for local conditions.
As an added bonus, locally adapted seeds need less extra – and often harmful and expensive – resources to grow. The bees will thank you, though superweeds (seriously) may not.
A good seed is a kernel of biodiversity and resilience.
The conditions each farmer works with vary by location – even from farm to farm. Where one farm might have steady spring rain, a late frost and clay-laden soil, another farm might have scorching summer sun, sandy soil and no frost to speak of. A one-seed-fits-all approach doesn’t work. A diversity of climates, soils and stresses calls for a diversity of seeds so farmers can conserve choice, beauty, flavour and abundance.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimates 75 per cent of crop diversity has disappeared in the last century, as farmers worldwide have lost their local varieties to imported, genetically uniform varieties. Saving good seeds is critical to reverse that trend.
A good seed produces food that meets the needs of the grower AND the eater. That means nutritional quality and diversity over quantity and conformity.
In the past 60 years, industrial agriculture has focused on producing massive quantities of uniform crops, prioritizing yields at the expense of nutrition. An American study found 43 garden crops had a significant decline in six nutrients since 1950: protein, calcium, phosphorus, iron, riboflavin and vitamin C. The study concludes that the decline can likely be explained “by changes in cultivated varieties… in which there may be trade-offs between yield and nutrient content.”
Without seed savers saving good seeds, it will become harder and harder to access good, nutritious food.
A good seed has a few tricks up its sleeve.
Nearly everything you eat starts with a handful of genetic code wrapped in a seedy exterior. A seed carries traits to pass on to future plants and many unnoticed or dormant characteristics might not even know about yet. These potential traits might not be visible (or even useful) now, but they could come in handy down the line, especially with our changing climate.
With a more erratic climate and less predictable growing conditions, the seed savers working to keep potential and diversity alive are more important than ever.