Simple act of taking seeds and exchanging them is a vote for open-source, local, heirloom plants

September 2016 - by Carolyn Dale

This fall brings one of my most political acts of the year. It will happen in the garden and arrive in addition to voting. It's the simple act of taking seeds from the healthiest plants and storing them to plant in the spring. And maybe even to exchange.

I have in mind some particularly large, spicy-and-nutty-tasting, arugula plants that are just now setting pretty white blossoms. The seeds for these were grown and collected by a fellow back-yard gardener nearby, a year or so ago.

This ancient practice of gardeners swapping seeds has become political because it's become illegal, or close to it, in many places. Laws require companies that harvest and sell seeds to be licensed, and to have their products tested. This makes sense on a commercial level, but some states have moved to shut down seed exchanges or libraries, arguing that bartering or swapping is the same as selling.

But apparently not here in Washington, for last winter, I attended a large seed exchange held in Bellingham on a rainy Sunday afternoon. It was set to begin at three o'clock, and ten minutes ahead, scores of people, of all ages and manner of dress, were already lining up down the block and around the corner.

Then the doors flung open, and folks rushed in. People seated at tables inside were ready to take seeds being donated and help to package and label them. Immediately I regretted that I hadn't properly saved and dried seeds from our nasturtium plants, which come back and bloom abundantly each year. They would have made a good contribution.

The event was a true exchange, or swap meet, with packets for a wide range of vegetables, legumes, and grains available free of charge. I was surprised to see seeds for varieties of wheat, oats and barley that will grow in our climate.

Some seeds were for sale commercially, as well. But the business ethic of these companies is entirely different from the prevailing views of American agribusiness. Some three dozen plant breeders and seed merchants, many from Washington and Oregon, belong to the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI). This group, started in 2014, models the concept of open-source software. It stands against holding patents on seeds and asks participants to take a pledge that they will never patent the seeds they develop, but will make them freely available to others. Gardeners and farmers who get seeds from OSSI take the same pledge.

This seems like such a natural, intuitive practice—that seeds for the best varieties of plants, including hybrids, should be widely available, for the good of humankind. But this is far from the current thinking of agribusiness in the United States, Europe, and other parts of the world.

Over the past thirty-five years, since the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in 1980 that a life form can be patented, seed companies have switched away from using open-pollination methods in favor of laboratory work and have created genetically modified lines that are patented, tightly controlled, and profitable.

These companies, such as Monsanto, solely own and sell their seeds, and, arguing that they need to support their research, they force farmers to buy new seeds each year. Monsanto's website states that since 1999 it has brought 147 lawsuits against farmers who gathered seeds from patented crops and replanted them, rather than buying a new round. Monsanto says it settles out of court or wins virtually all of the cases.

To prevent such replanting, researchers have worked on "terminator technology" that makes plants produce sterile seeds. Other research aims at seeds that will germinate only after patented chemicals are applied.

Though such seeds have not been developed for commercial use, several aspects of this practice are frightening to me. One is that human beings would even consider unleashing in nature a genetic sequence to make seeds become sterile. We have so many environmental problems to address already; do we really need to create such a potential calamity?

I believe more is at risk, here, than we fully understand. Both federal regulators and agribusiness talk about strict controls over testing to ensure that unproven or unsafe genetic modifications will not be released into the environment inadvertently. Yet, just such a crop of wheat appeared in Washington state this year.

In July, the Associated Press reported that an unapproved genetically modified form of wheat was discovered when a farmer spotted twenty-two plants in a field he hadn't sown. The U.S. Department of Agriculture inspection found the wheat was a kind Monsanto has developed to be resistant to Roundup, an herbicide.

No explanation was found (or at least released to the press) for how it got there. The AP reports that GMO wheat also showed up unexpectedly in an Oregon field in 2013 and at a Montana research center in 2014. The U.S. has not approved any form of GMO wheat for commercial use or sale, and the incident in Oregon caused several Asian countries to temporarily ban importing U.S. wheat.

This fear that untested or unapproved genetic lines might appear in the environment, where their genes can pass to wild or cultivated relatives, comes on top of older concerns that fires, floods, war, or other disasters could destroy the seeds we depend upon for food, around the world.

One answer is putting productive, fertile seeds into a bank and storing them safely. Such a global effort is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, located underground on the island of Spitsbergen, Norway. The bank holds seeds for 4,000 plant species, according to the Norwegian government's site. These are duplicates of national gene banks, and they can be used when local ones are lost or damaged by catastrophes.

Another answer is doing what gardeners and farmers have done for centuries: collect seeds from their strongest plants, refine the lines, and exchange the resulting seeds for the good of the local community. Today, such non-commercial crops are known as cultivars, and the oldest lines are heirlooms. These crops are gaining in popularity, and at farmers markets we're getting used to seeing the ungainly brown or black tomatoes, and little, lumpy orange and purples potatoes.

Buying heirloom vegetables and seeds may be trendy, but it's not quite the same as adopting some diet fad or obsessing about what we're eating or not eating. It's about what we'll be raising in the garden and the fields, and about what I hope every gardener and farmer will be able to keep growing, in this world.

So my humble, yet beautiful, arugula plants, whose seeds came from last year's exchange, look just about as political as any vote I'll cast this fall. And so are the nasturtium, corn salad, fennel, mint, oregano and others that come back to bloom bountifully and loyally, year after year. Lots of information is available on how to collect and store their seeds, so I can get busy and preserve them to trade at next winter's exchange.

With living seeds come wonderful surprises, such as the tomato plants that appeared on their own, apparently because some heirloom seeds thrived in the compost bin. And a peach tree that sprang up voluntarily bore its first beautiful fruit this summer. Who knows where it came from?

We're really not in control. But these seeds bore fruit, and may that always be so.

Back to Timely issues archive