Seeds and seed catalogs arrive in the dark of winter bringing excitement for the next garden season. How do I decide where to buy seed from? Did you know that 60% of all seeds are sold by three major multinational corporations? I am a bit of a seed freak and after a few years of purchasing too many seeds and spending a lot of time learning about seeds, I feel like I finally have a grasp on seeds and seed politics. Politics of seeds? Yes, you heard me correctly, there is a such a things as seed politics, let me try to explain. You can buy seeds from very small growers like Pettra Page-Mann and Mathew Goldfarb on their 25 acre garden http://www.fruitionseeds.com/, or Appalachian Seeds http://www.appalachianseeds.com/, from an ETSY store or Ebay to the big sellers like Burpee, Baker Creek or Johnny Seeds. There are also seed Co-ops like Fedco Seeds in Maine https://www.fedcoseeds.com/ or Commonwealth Seeds in Virginia http://commonwealthseeds.com/. Many of the big catalogs buy seeds from huge international seed companies and package them under their company names. Smaller seed companies grow their own and also purchase seed from suppliers that meet their own standards such as being organic or open pollinated.
How do I sum up it all up?
The world is an ever changing place and with Global Warming there is a need for increasing biodiversity in what crops are grown. Did you know that some seed companies patent particular attributes of seeds? Let's say that there is a lettuce that has particularly frilly leaves. A plant breeder can take a patent out on that characteristic so that if another company wants to breed lettuce from the frilly lettuce seed, they are restricted by the patent usually for 20 years. Maybe the frilly lettuce also requires less watering making it beneficial in drought conditions, plant breeders can not use that characteristic until the patent wears out. There is growing concern that there are way too many patents on plants. One article I read said that 30% of the characteristics in carrots are under patent, making it difficult to grow new varieties of carrots. This restriction may decrease biodiversity and environmental sustainability over time. Due to these concerns there is a growing movement to have Open Sourced seeds. The Open source Seed Initiative (OSSI) prohibits varieties to be patented and the Open Source Seed Pledge states that you have the freedom to use seeds in any way you choose. In return, you pledge not to restrict others use of the seeds or their derivatives by patents. Confused? Let me break it down to seed types.
There are four seed freedoms:
1.) The freedom to save or grow seed for replanting or for any other purpose
2.)The freedom to share, trade, or sell seed to others
3.)The freedom to trial and study seed and to share or publish information about it.
4.)The freedom to select or adapt the seed, make crosses with it, or use it to breed new lines and varieties.
There are currently 38 seeds companies that support this.
GMO What is GMO seed? Genetically Modified Seeds means that a grower has identified the genetic component of a desirable trait of a particular plant. They isolate the trait and insert it into the desired organism, cut and paste the gene into the plant. They then isolate it and carefully control the growth and production. This is most common in soybeans, corn and squash. The well known version of this is the company Monsanto who identified the gene that renders a plant resistant to the use of the chemical RoundUP. There are now many seeds that are genetically altered to resist RoundUP. I am not going to talk about the pros and cons of that right now.
The take home note about GMO seeds is that they can not simply be bought out of a seed catalog or at a big box store. All of those seed packets labeled non GMO seed is a marketing scheme. To purchase GMO seeds requires licensure, a contract to not sell or alter the seed and other procedures.
Organic Seeds Organic seeds come from plants that are grown without synthetic chemical fertilizers, pesticides or fungicides nor do they harbor residues of chemicals. Plants that are grown with organic seeds are accustomed to organic conditions.
Open Pollinated Seeds Open pollinated seeds are pollinated by insects and by wind. The parents of the seeds have very similar genetic characteristics. Original seeds are grown in isolation to prevent cross pollination and their offspring will have similar characteristics. The grower can save the seeds and grow them year after year.
Heirloom Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated seeds that are handed down year after year. Their individual characteristics remain fairly stable but there may be a lot of variation in production. Heirlooms are usually 50 - 60 years old and many predate WWII.
Hybrid seeds are naturally crossed and breed to produce desirable characteristics such as resistance to Downy Mildew or other diseases. Many times these plants are very hardy and stable. There are new varieties of hybrids out all of the time.
F1 Hybrid F1 Hybrids are seeds from two genetically different varieties of the same species that have been crossed and are the the first generation offspring. Typically there is good growth and disease resistance, however, saved seeds are not true to type and may have a lot of variation in them. They can be patented.
Public Domain Seeds are seeds that breeders have decided should be shared with the general public to use, grow and or cross breed as needed. Many of these seeds are in the Open Source Seed Initiative.
It is complicated. Personally, I try to buy Open Sourced, Public Domain and Organic seeds however, I am human and have had crops decimated by garden jerks like beetles and problems like mildew and rust and will try F1 Hybrid seeds to combat these problems while trying for high yields. I am also a sucker for pretty pictures and tantalizing descriptions of plants and flowers ! What is a gardener to do? That is all for now, only 114 days until the last frost!