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Everything Starts with a Seed

Support your regional seed saver. When Tom Stearns was 19, he started saving seeds from his garden and sharing them with...

Support your regional seed saver.

When Tom Stearns was 19, he started saving seeds from his garden and sharing them with friends. He learned how to conduct germination tests and eventually, in 1996, he turned his hobby into a company, High Mowing Organic Seeds in Hardwick, Vermont. The company, which ships seeds all over the country, has transformed the town into a symbol for how organic farming and local foods can turn a depressed rural economy around.

"Planting a garden is one of the best ways to unplug yourself from this broken food system," Stearns told me. It all starts with a seed. And as small farmers and gardeners around the country put in their annual seed orders for the spring, he says it's important to realize that not all seeds are created equal. "People don't realize how crucial plant genetics are in determining how well their plants will grow-how they perform in cold and warm, how they respond to dry conditions or wet conditions. It matters a whole lot. You've got to be able to match your seeds to your region. We've gone away from people saving their own seed, which made plants more regionally adapted."

Most seeds for commercial food crops in the United States have been patented by a consolidated seed market and bred by experts at Monsanto, DuPont/Pioneer Hi-Bred, and Syngenta. Big Seed has removed genetics from the public domain through patents, and, in the case of genetically modified seeds, they have initiated lawsuits against farmers who try to save and replant seeds.

And it's not just the corporations that have been hit with difficult questions about how the world's genetic resources are being handled. Recently, the Seed Savers Exchange, a repository for heirloom seeds, sent seeds to the Svalbarg Global Seed Vault. Kent Whealy, the co-founder of the Seed Savers Exchange, said the donation could undermine the intellectual property rights of indigenous seed savers because the Svalbarg seeds could potentially be bred and patented without fairly compensating the traditional, regional seed savers who gave them to the Seed Savers Exchange.

While much of the backlash against Big Seed has focused on heirlooms and open-pollinated seeds, it's also important to consider regional varieties. And focus on seed savers who are not simply saving for the sake of saving-but also taking into consideration how a plant has adapted to a specific region's geography and culture. In Europe, the focus on origin has resulted in geographically protected radicchio, artichokes, and eggplants-in much the way that vintage wines have a specific legally protected origin.

In his book Where Our Food Comes From, food writer Gary Nabhan says that while seeds may be in U.S. government banks or an Arctic vault, seeds in isolation cannot maintain the kind of diversity upheld by "vernacular plant breeders." In other words, the long-term vitality of plants depends of the everyday people who grow these plants, allowing them to evolve, and then save seeds for generations.

Should some unknown or unforeseen disease come along, these decentralized, open-pollinated resources might provide the best buffer for our ecosystem. It all starts with a seed.

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