"The Mysterious Disappearance of the Seeds"
We have maintained a silence closely resembling stupidity.
In the second world war, while Nazi regiments were besieging the Soviet city of Leningrad, a small team of scientists barricaded themselves into an underground vault and prepared to die. They had given themselves the task of guarding the Soviet Union’s greatest national treasure. It wasn’t a cache of golden icons or precious Fabergé eggs they were guarding. No, these implacably brave scientists had made a choice to protect the world’s largest cache of seed. As the siege wore on for nine hundred days, in a cruel twist of irony one by one each man perished of starvation in the act of safekeeping their nation’s food supply for future generations.
A thousand miles away in a gulag prison, another brilliant scientist named Nikolai Vavilov also lay dying of starvation. His crime? Vavilov was the one who had cached and organized the vast collection of seeds by travelling around the world and studying different ecosystems. From his studies and extensive conversations with traditional farmers and forest gardeners, Vavilov concluded that the preservation of diversity was the single most important factor in maintaining sustainable systems of food production.
Vavilov’s counsel fell on the deaf ears of Josef Stalin. Stalin wanted fast-growing uniform crops. He had his Five Year Plan and he would only entertain what fit into the Plan, never mind if it actually worked. Stalin had Vavilov imprisoned and listened instead to another scientist named Lynesko, whose now debunked theories conveniently fit with Stalin’s Plan. In a repeat historical episode from the Little Ice Age, an estimated thirty million people died of starvation and malnutrition during Stalin’s regime as the vast monoculture grain plantations he sanctioned failed year after year.
Yes, I’ve just told you a big story from the pages of history. Because even more than teaching you how to save seed (which you can learn anywhere, to be honest), I want to imbue you with the desire and the motivation to do it. As fellow gardeners here, I want you to know that I started small, that I made mistakes, that I learned how to grow food through much trial and no little error. I encourage you to find rhythms and build habits that work for your personality, patterns, and gardening goals.
But saving seed, and more importantly, saving a diversity of seed, is a gardening must-do. Brave souls have died to protect seeds and many more people have perished for the lack of them.
Learning how to save seed is the single most important skill you can learn as a gardener. Saving seed is also the most seditious, albeit peacefully seditious, action you can take as not only a gardener, but as a person. Saving seed is a inherently political act, as powerful as any form of vocal protest, and I will argue even more so.
If you are already gardening but not saving at least some seed, then your garden is unproductive in the most crucial factor — the ability to regenerate itself. It doesn’t matter how many pounds of food you grow, how many likes your garden pics get on Instagram, or how many butterflies flutter about your milkweed, if your garden exists only because of store-bought or online-ordered seed, it is simply not sustainable. What happens to your garden if an event disrupts the seed supply?
It’s not an idle conjecture. A disruption, a major disruption, of the commercial seed supply is exactly what happened in 2020 as much of the world went into lockdown. Urban gardener and contributing writer Kristina Maze described the situation as it went down in the U.S.:
The consternation began in late March when seasoned greenskeepers couldn’t find seeds. The unusually high demand meant every single online seed company sold out of springtime staples. Organic, heirloom, imported, and even run-of-the-mill vegetable seeds were gone from garden centers as well as grocery, hardware, and even dollar store shelves. Green thumbs raged red on social media when pollinator plant seeds sold out next.
A seasoned greenskeeper herself, Kristina goes on to add why the sudden seed shortage was a non-issue for her:
...the novice gardeners had my sympathy. Why? Because I had seeds. Lots of seeds. My seed stash was not a glut of online orders months before the novel coronavirus reared its ugly crown. In fact, I didn’t spend a cent on seeds in 2020. I didn’t have to because I saved seeds from what I harvested last summertime.
Kristina isn’t a botanist or an agronomist. She’s an avid home food forest grower who strives to cultivate a garden both fruitful and resilient, a garden that can withstand disruptions. In these uncertain and wildly unpredictable times, we absolutely need to focus on resilience. Because let’s face it, it’s during disruptions that you are going to need the food your garden produces the most.
From Victory Garden to #victorygarden
As a history buff, one thing really captured my attention in the quarantine-intensified gardening boom of 2020: the popular usage of the “victory garden” motif. It even became a hashtag all over social media as #victorygarden. In case you aren’t familiar with the context, the Victory Garden became a popular call-to-arms when America entered World War II. With every factory and production facility in the country maxed out on making the instruments and accessories of war, and every vehicle in service to transport them, food processing and distribution patterns were widely disrupted by the cause.
In a display of concerted patriotism and self-reliance, regular American people facing empty shelves at markets channeled their energy into home food production. Small, intensively cultivated gardens provided forty to fifty percent of foods used for personal consumption during the war years (1941-45). People didn’t only grow food, they canned, pickled, dried, and preserved it.
Yes, we can draw parallels and lessons from history. But in general, everything is specific. There is a big difference between the WWII Victory Gardens and the #victorygarden of the pandemic years. Namely, in 1941 people had plenty of seeds with which to start their gardens. Had there been social media at the time, it’s a fair certainty we wouldn’t have seen the whining and bemoaning about seed shortages. Because there wasn’t a shortage. People had seeds. Now we don’t. Hmm.
Where did all the seeds go?
First of all, we’re talking about a generation of people who had been inoculated to resilience by nearly twelve years of the worst economic crisis Americans have ever known — the Great Depression. Even before the original Victory Garden movement took off, small garden plots were common throughout the Depression era as a means to provide sustenance. Essentially, America was a nation of savers. When the Victory Garden became the must-have of every flag-waving citizen, anyone who didn’t have seeds saved could ask her neighbor. Or the family down the street. Or the fellow with the small farm on the outskirts of town. Someone would have seeds and be glad to share or trade.
In contrast, today (and I think we need to acknowledge this to move forward), America is a nation of throw-away consumers. Until right now, with the exception of the voodoo economics recession, a housing bubble here and a dot com crisis there, the American economy has been steamrolling along since the 1950’s, fairly demolishing anything in its path. Seventy years of relative prosperity has had its sedating effect, lulling us into a false sense of security — and submission. Hardly anyone saves anything. Except for some eccentrics and conspiracy theorists holed up in wilderness compounds, no one is ready for anything. It’s like we’re suddenly trying to follow the emergency exit procedure while the plane is at 30,000 feet.
Even for people who do like to save odds and ends, seeds aren’t a thing that gets saved because hardly anyone has a home garden. The post-war boom of the 1950’s also ushered in a whole new movement of millions of people out to the wonderland of suburban housing developments. The productive Victory Gardens, once the pride of the patriotic American, vanished into a green sea of ornamental inedible grass known as the lawn.
As to the millions who caught the pandemic gardening fever last summer and proudly displayed their tomatoes and peppers on social media, very few appear to realize that saving seed is an essential gardening skill. Just now, I did a quick Search of popular online seed companies in the U.S. Seeds for most garden staples and even rare varieties are already wait-listed for the 2021 season. Clearly, we need to learn a lesson in seed saving, and fast.
I’m aware I’m getting dangerously close to sounding like a parent, or a grandparent. You kids, let me tell you, you don’t know how good you have it, back in my day…. I do think it’s critical we acknowledge our own wastefulness and step up to do better, but I also want to temper the tirade here with a bit of compassion. Because there is another piece to the puzzle of Where did all the seeds go? As usual, seeing the big picture leaves more space for empathy and perspective.
It’s all about Power
Seventy years ago, the misleadingly named Green Revolution directly countered popular movements like the Victory Garden by systematically dismissing traditional methods of growing food distilled and sustained over thousands years. In a few short years, an army of scientists literally invented a whole new technology of food production based largely on theory and formulas abstracted from the the realities of climate, seasonal changes, local growing conditions and customs.
Such variable factors, according to the proponents of the Green Revolution, no longer mattered, because science would now give humans the ability to control each and every factor. Scientists formulated herbicides to kill weeds, pesticides to kill the insects attacking the crops now that all the weeds were dead, fungicides to kill harmful spores now that the soil biome was depleted, and finally, synthetic fertilizers to replace the nutrients in the soil destroyed by the previous rounds of chemicals.
In no way do I want to imply that the Green Revolution replaced the “art” of food production with “science.” The traditional methods dismissed out of hand by those who stood to benefit from the Green Revolution, namely the pharmaceutical companies, were not just the “folk arts” of uneducated peasants. The soil-building techniques and intricately designed earthworks, terraces, and still-producing agroforests created by allegedly “unscientific” people speak to a profound degree of sophistication. The same degree of sophistication is also evident in the precise methodologies traditional gardeners employed to breed and cross-breed chosen plants over long periods of time to select for traits such as size, flavor, and uniformity. Traditional methods were proven in their worth over multiple generations of recorded observations and subtle adjustments.
By appropriating science for itself, the Green Revolution achieved its real goal: to co-opt the power of billions of ordinary people to feed themselves and concentrate it into the hands of a few vested (and now immeasurably wealthy) interests. Prior to the Green Revolution, Monsanto, Bayer, Du Pont, Merck, Glaxo were not the globally dominant companies they are today. How did they get so powerful? They saw that seeds are wealth and set a course to control that wealth.
A Miracle of Propaganda
Why do I bring all this up here? What’s the connection?
Because when I say these companies co-opted the power of billions of ordinary people, I’m talking about you and me. Ordinary people who had grandparents or great-grandparents who grew a good portion of their own food are now somehow convinced that growing food is “a lot of work” or “too expensive.”
For long term sustainable food production, the chemical inundation was bad. For the dissemination and preservation of local knowledge, the co-opting of power was worse. But where the Green Revolution has done the most irreparable damage is through the standardization of bio-engineered so-called “miracle seeds.”
The appropriation of the word “miracle” to describe engineered seeds that produce plants that cannot reproduce themselves is an extraordinary victory for propaganda. How can anyone see the logic in calling a seed that cannot regenerate life a “miracle?” Well, the Big Pharma companies did it anyway. Big Ag bought into the hoax, and now they can’t get out.
Many so-called “miracle seeds” produce plants that produce sterile seed or seeds that produce inferior or not-true-to-type plants. For the farmer, they are dead ends. Now the farmer has no choice but to buy more, year after year, to maintain production. The other insidiously bold move Big Pharma made — which is still being contested in multi-million dollar lawsuits — was to obtain patents, rights of intellectual property, for their engineered seeds. Meaning that any farmer who does save seed to re-plant is in violation of the law. Even more malevolent are the patent-holding companies’ claims that any farmers using unpatented seed who “allows” pollen or seed from their farms to “contaminate” crops grown from patented seed on nearby farms is responsible for "destruction of property," and can be held liable for damages.
In addition to these rather alarming issues, let’s not forget that since the Green Revolution began, the diversity of available seed has shrunk drastically. Fewer than ten varieties of foodstuffs dominate today’s agricultural production. Even within the varieties Big Ag and Pharma are intent on maintaining due to their commodity value, only a few specific seed types are considered important. What happens to wheat production then if the cultivated few varieties fail? Or if blight strikes the few potato types produced for mass consumption? The Great Potato Famine in Ireland and the Stalin-era Soviet peasant famines have already answered that question. People starve to death. The question that still bears asking is why are we letting his happen again?
Every day, seed by seed, our entire food supply is further concentrated into the grasping hands of a very few people with one clear motive: wealth and power. Are these the people you want determining what, when, and if you and the rest of the world will eat? Now do you see what what will happen if we continue to fritter away our food supply?
Sow the Seeds of Sedition
Maybe you’re thinking Ok, wow. I didn’t know it was that serious. But what can I do? I’m just one person who wants to have a garden.
Actually, you can do something. You, an ordinary person, and billions of other ordinary people can all do the most seditious thing of all: grow food and save seed. In fact, it’s the very smallness and inconspicuousness that you think renders you powerless that gives you power. Big Pharma can and will sick their packs of lawyers on medium to large scale farmers, many of them now fighting bravely in court for their livelihoods. But they cannot pursue every backyard, container, rooftop, and vertical space gardener in the world.
YOU have the potential and the ability to make a real difference. Even a very small garden will produce enough seeds to regenerate itself AND start more small gardens the following year. In addition, you can help to preserve the diversity of foods available to yourself, your children, and your community. Remember all the incredible varieties of fruits and vegetables in the seed catalog that you don’t see at the grocery store? Well, you can be the one to save and share that abundance.
With all of these very serious issues facing us, be comforted. Because saving seed is also really fun and easy. It’s a great project to do with kids. It’s a conversation starter with people in your community. I speak from personal experience when I say that saving seed is excellent mind-therapy in times of uncertainty. If you have seeds, natural seeds you saved from the plants you grew, you have the catalyst, the spark, the real miracle right there in your hands. Sow, harvest, seed, and repeat.