Reprinted from the Hawaii Island Journal - Viewpoint article by Nancy Redfeather.
My earliest memory of seed begins when I am six years old. That summer my father asked me if I would like to grow a flower garden along one wall of our back yard in Los Angeles. I was in agreement and so we prepared the soil in the narrow bed and stretched string from the soil to the top of the wall. Then he poured the little round balls of sweet pea seed into my outstretched hand and showed me how to press it carefully into the soil. In a few months there were towers of multi-colored sweetly scented flowers which would call me from my play to smell and to pick bouquets for my mother who would put them on the kitchen table. I was hooked, this was fun, this was life.
I began to get serious about gardening in 1976 when I bought my first home in Long Beach and promptly rented a rototiller and dug up the Saint Augustine grass in the back yard and planted it all to vegetables. Little did I know that the 40 feet of alluvial rockless topsoil in that ancient riverbed could literally grow anything. So much food was produced that I would put the excess out on the curb in cardboard boxes with a sign…Free Organic Vegetables – Please Take. By morning they were always gone. I was hooked, this was fun, this was life.
Although I have continued to grow vegetable gardens since that time, I only began saving seed in 1995 following a class with John Jeavons in Waimea. He drove home the necessity for all gardeners to be shepherds and stewards of open-pollinated and heirloom seed varieties that were quickly disappearing from garden store shelves and seed catalogs in favor of the hybrid seed which has vigor for one season but cannot reproduce with consistency in the next planting. He estimated that by the year 2005, 95% of the open-pollinated savable seed varieties that were grown in the United States in 1900 would be either extinct or unavailable. Now everyone in agriculture agrees that diversity is the basis of agricultural health, but the direction seed is going today is steering our future in the opposite direction.
The great seed company buy-up of the 1990’s saw the smaller US family owned seed companies bought out by the large multi-national biotech corporations (Monsanto, Dow, Dupont, Syngenta, Pioneer, etc.) as they raced to collect and patent genetic resources nationwide and worldwide. Their goals are similar, the consolidation of agricultural markets through uniform GMO crops. Diversity has become unprofitable.
Seed is the basis of life. Each seed is a complete self-contained work or art, a unique life capsule containing the blueprint for the whole plant with every cell, hair, vein, leaf, petal and root preprogrammed and waiting for germination and growth in order to manifest itself to its full potential. Seeds are masters of ingenuity when it comes to survival. When you hold a seed in your hand and imagine it’s potential these possibilities draw from 10,000 years of observation, selection and stewarding by farmers and gardeners all over the planet. Open-pollinated and heirloom seed has the mysterious and uncanny ability to take the environment into itself and adjust its own gene expression to unfold new qualities in the next generation, such as greater tolerance to heat and cold, water or drought, or pests and disease. Now there is something worth saving. The genetic engineers have spent untold billions of dollars trying to create grains and vegetables to do the same thing and in the twenty some years they have been working, they have only been able to engineer the BT gene into corn, soy and cotton to ward off pests, create resistance to Round-up herbicide, and in the case of the GMO papaya create resistance to the ring-spot virus while creating contamination problems for conventional and organic farmers.
An estimated 60 million Americans grow a portion of their own food in a vegetable garden and a minority of those choose to bypass the garden seed industry and save their own seed from year to year, remnants of a recently lost era which purchased nothing that could be produced at home. Here in Hawai’i with our favorable growing climate we could all be growing some of our families food at home. It could begin as a small herb garden for cooking, and slowly expand to a greens and salad garden. We can all grow varieties of banana, papaya, pineapple, and passion fruit in our yards. You may not remember but nothing you can buy tastes like or has the same nutritional value as home grown food. A small garden boosts our families health and instills and inspires these traditions in our children to carry on. I am not an alarmist, but the world’s economic future is uncertain and unstable and food security is essential. David Cole (CEO of Maui Land and Pineapple Company), Puanani Burgess and others agree and are holding a Food Security Conference in Wai’anae, Oahu in May 2005 “Hands Turned To The Soil.” Long ago, right here in Kona, Hawaiian farmers had created a food security system.
When Captain Cook first landed at Kealakekua Bay in 1779, the naturalist aboard the Endeavor noted in his log that verdant green gardens spanned the hillsides as far as the eye could see feeding a population with current estimates between 30,000 and 100,000 people. What has become known as the Kona Field System carefully tended by Hawaiian farmers was a perfect example of ingenuity and diversity of methods used, such as irrigation and terracing of lowlands and hillsides, dry farming, mulching, green manure, and a very intelligent production of selected varieties best suited to a wide range of environmental conditions and valued for size, quality, and flavor. The relationship between the planter and the plant was very personal, like between a parent and a child. The People of Old were very successful planters and created and adapted a very great number of varieties of food plants and therapeutic plants both cultivated and wild. Hawaiian food crops did not rely on seed saving, but were grown by division of keikis or cuttings. Only the ipu (gourd) used for a variety of purposes was grown from seed. Seed is difficult to save in tropical environments. For high germination seed needs to be cool, dark, dry, and safe from nibbling animals. Today, as we integrate the traditional Hawaiian diet into a more diverse modern diet, we will use more seed.
Until the 1930’s Hawai’i was food self-sufficient. Since that time we have slowly begun to rely more and more on imported food from distant sources to fill our dinner plate. Today, we import between 80-90% of our food, even foods which grow easily here such as taro, limes, lemons, bananas, and avacados. It is a myth that Hawai’i could not produce enough food and seed from sustainable local food systems for its people. Developing new ways to grow seed, experimenting with varieties, and preserving these varieties for future small scale agriculture should be one of our goals for sustainable agriculture.
Seed ownership and use is rapidly becoming one of the hot topics in agriculture as the multi-national corporations move to genetically engineer, patent, and own traditionally grown varieties of fruits, vegetables, grains, herbs, flowers, fish, trees, and animals and indigenous sources of knowledge. Worldwide, the impacts are being felt as the World Trade Organization (WTO) implements more of its “standards” for uniformity and the gene rush continues unabated to patent genes and botanical sequences of growth in all plants.
New legislation in Iraq recently put in place by the US prevents farmers from saving their seeds. The Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that 97% of Iraq’s farmers use saved seed from their own stocks from last year’s harvest or purchased in local markets. When the new law Order No. 81 (4/26/04) goes into effect, seed saving will be illegal and markets will offer only PVP (Plant Variety Protected) seed which has been “invented” and patented and licensed by the transnational corporations.
In India, a country where 80% of the people depend upon agriculture for survival and 75% of the seed used in farming is saved by farmers and gardeners, the government is pushing through a bill that has the potential to deprive farmers of their traditional right to save, sell, and share seed. “The Seeds Bill of 2005,” comments former Assistant Director General of the Indian Council of Agricultural Research (ICAR) S. Bala Rori, “…has a so-called exemption given to farmers which allows saving and sowing on his own farm. The bill takes away the other seed rights of farmers, such as sharing, exchanging, and selling farm saved seed. The result of this bill is that the entire seed demand in the country is exclusively reserved to the Seed Industry.” (Monsanto, Dupont, Dow, Syngenta, etc.) But in the state of Orissa, India, 3,000 tribal women have recently declared Orissa an organic state and made a huge bonfire of hybrid and genetically modified seeds in protest of the new Seed Bill.
Closer to home, in January 2005 Monsanto paid $1.4 bn. for Seminis, the largest fruit and vegetable seed company in the world, and the largest supplier to the European Union. Seminis is added to the growing list of seed companies owned by Monsanto making it the largest producer of seed in the world and Hawai’i is home and nursery for Monsanto’s GMO experimental field trials, the whereabouts are still CBI (confidential business information) and unknowable to farmers and citizens. While environmental groups, health practitioners, farmers, food processors, and concerned citizens nationwide are urging lawmakers to be cautious, seed companies, pharmaceutical makers, and biotech groups are pushing for legislation to limit oversite (what little there is) of experimental field tests and crops. Seven states, most of them in the mid-west, have recently passed legislation to prohibit counties or local governments from banning or regulating GMO seed. Only Vermont and Oregon are considering restrictions and penalties limiting bioengineered crops.
Wangari Maathai, Nobel Peace Prize winner for 2005 writes in an essay on “Seed Patenting, Genetic Engineering, and Food Insecurity”…”This lethal use of genetic engineering biotechnology threatens the food security of this and all future generations. It destroys the very basis of the livelihood systems which our ancestors have developed for centuries, finely adapting to the diverse ecosystems in which they have evolved. The development and control of farmers’ own biodiversity is an inalienable right and the basis upon which food security is achieved.” Here on Hawai’i we are indeed fortunate to be able to gather and freely exchange saved seeds and keikis from our home gardens.
Sources of organic and/or heirloom open-pollinated, non-GMO, non-hybrid seeds:
Bountiful Gardens - In Willits, California – a project of Ecology Action – heirloom and open pollinated seeds
Abundant Life Seed - In Saginaw, Oregon – organic seeds and seedlings
Peacful Valley Farm and Garden supply - In Grass Valley, California – organic seeds, seedlings and other supplies
Seed Savers Exchange - In Decorah, Iowa – a membership-based organization specializing in heirloom and/or rare and/or open-pollinated seeds
Turtle Tree Seed - In Copake, New York – organic and/or biodynamic seed
Johnny’s Selected Seeds - In Albion and Winslow, Maine – organic, heirloom and conventional seeds
Southern Exposure Seed Exchange - In Mineral, Virginia – heirloom open-pollinated and/or organic seeds