Why You Should Be Saving Seeds (Even If You Don’t Have a Garden)

Watch this movie to get inspired about saving seeds. And then do it.
Seed: The Untold Story

A scene from Seed: The Untold Story, directed by Taggart Siegel and Jon Betz (2016).

Photo courtesy of Collective Eye Films.

As I was writing this I got my Seed Savers Exchange catalog, which comes to me annually out of Decorah, Iowa. Seed Savers is one of the stars of Seed: The Untold Story. If you’ve not heard of them—or of the idea of saving heirloom seeds—I’ll not be surprised. There aren’t that many of us growing our own vegetable seeds. If you’re already a seed saver, this is a swell movie about our people. If you’re not, it will tell you why you might want to join us.

I know about these things because of Mary Schultz, who was lettuce curator for Seed Savers when I met her (nearly 25 years ago). She showed up at my office and commanded I appear at her garden outside Monroe, Washington. She had 300-plus varieties of lettuce that she grew out on a three-year rotation, 100 a year. For a few years I helped set out a thousand or so lettuce starts (multiples of each kind to keep up genetic variety) on whatever acre or two Mary rented that year, in addition to 80 or so varieties of potatoes, a slew of beans, and vegetables for market. Since then, I’ve saved some sort of seeds most every year. This year I grew and saved three kinds of beans, six varieties of potato, and five garlics.

But why bother to save seeds at all? As you’ll see in this movie, seeds are history and heritage, seeds are insurance and power. Most of all: no seeds, no food.

For the first several thousand years of agriculture—until a century or two ago—seed savers were called something else: farmers and gardeners. In many places, they still are. You didn’t buy your seeds; you grew enough to eat or sell, and enough more to plant next year and maybe extras to swap with your neighbors. With dry corn and beans, what you eat is the same thing you plant. You can save seeds right out of the tomatoes that you eat; same for winter squash and melons. For most other plants, you let the plant grow—it will flower and, when the flowers dry out, you’ll have seeds. All those farmers and gardeners ended up with plant varieties adapted for local growing conditions or that had desirable characteristics—color, flavor, long storage. That’s why Mary had 300 lettuces. That’s why Seed Savers has 1,186 different kinds of beans collected by one guy, John Withee.

But, Seed: The Untold Story tells us, the last time the U.S. government studied seed diversity, in 1983, it found available just 28 varieties of cabbage, down from a historical tally of 544. For cauliflower, it was nine left of 158. Beets, 17 of 288; rutabaga, three of 55; artichoke, two of 34.

Seed: The Untold Story
Directed by Taggart Sigel & Jon Betz, 2016, 94 min.

That happened because, as agriculture got mechanized, and farms got bigger, and packers required uniform produce, farmers started buying seeds. It saved time and effort and produced what the market demanded. In the case of corn and many vegetables, seed companies developed hybrid seeds that were pushed as bigger and better. But you can’t save seeds from hybrid crops. They don’t grow the same stuff. As environmental lawyer Claire Hope Cummings says in the movie, “Hybrid corn was the atom bomb of agriculture.”

And now the problem is patented biotech seed. If you save patented seed, you’re in line to get sued. A fair chunk of the movie focuses on Vandana Shiva’s work in India, where, she tells us, Monsanto has made an aggressive push to get farmers off traditional seeds and on the genetically engineered ones they have to buy each year—with disastrous consequences, including debt-induced farmer suicides.

As a result of the commercialization of seed, we’ve lost more than 90 percent of our food plant varieties. But there’s a coterie of people who aim to hold the line on that, and we meet them in Seed: the Hopi farmers and people from Tesuque Pueblo in New Mexico who are preserving the heritage represented by their corn and other heritage seeds; Will Bonsall, an old hippie who grows 2,000 plant varieties in Maine; the swashbuckling Simcox brothers, who travel the world in search of new varieties; and a large cast of others.

As Bill McDormand, of Native Seeds/SEARCH, says, “We just don’t have the time left on this small planet to recreate this stuff. Once it’s gone, it’s gone.”

And the thing is, we don’t know which one of those varieties has resistance to the next plant disease or which one will thrive as the climate changes. Every one contains genetic information that goes back to the beginning; each has some unique twist. Every time we lose a variety, we’ve lost that uniqueness forever.

Here’s where you come in. Watch this movie to get inspired about saving seeds. And then do it. If you don’t have a garden, all you need is a pot big enough to grow a tomato plant or some beans or whatever you decide to plant. Seed Savers curates 24,000 varieties. Adopt one of those, or one from somewhere else, and grow it. Save seeds and share them. Your variety might be the one that we really need in the future. And if it’s not, you’ve still got some cool beans.