This time of year kids are starting seedlings in egg cartons and farmers are planning out their harvests. It used to be that all farmers saved seeds, but now most people buy seeds from seed catalogues. To the home gardener, a seed catalogue was probably how you started your garden unless you had family who farmed or a friendly neighbor. Saving seeds used to be the only way to grow a crop again the next year, but eventually even farmers bought their seeds from catalogues. Only a handful of seeds that yield the best crops are now being sold in catalogues.
Farmers across the globe currently use less than 5% of the seed varieties in the world. So what happens to the varieties that we don’t grow? If seeds from those varieties aren’t planted then they will die out; in the last 100 years, researchers say we’ve lost over 90% of seed varieties.
When the first settlers came to America, they saw corn in many colors, flavors and size. In the early 1900s, people started to experiment with breeding corn to yield the best crop: the most drought-resistant, the most insect-repellant, the sweetest in flavor and the largest in size. The corn we eat today is the fruit of that labor. There used to be over 300 varieties of corn, and now there are only 12.
The same happened with wheat, another cereal grain. In the mid-20th century, interest rose in modifying wheat. Traditional wheat took a long time to grow, not to mention the time it took to then mill and process the flour. The modern practices of growing and harvesting food has been perfected to a literal science, and as a result, we produce over 1 1/2 times as much food as the world population. Much of our cereal grains go to feeding livestock and producing fuel, not feeding the hungry.
Last week I visited Enid Hart Boasberg, retired co-founder of the Concord Seed Lending Library, to learn more about what seed saving is all about. The Concord Seed Lending Library is a community project where members “borrow” seeds. They choose up to 5 seeds, plant them at home, save the seeds from the new crop, and then give them back to the library for others to use. They save only open-pollinated seeds, seeds that are pollinated naturally by birds, bees or the wind, and not hybrid seeds, seeds that are pollinated by human intervention or from being planted too close to another breed. Concord has a strong heritage of locally grown food, with over 20 farms in town. She says that people come from all over the state to use their seed lending library. It’s important to keep these seeds alive, to keep using as many varieties as we can.
The library encourages people to garden, and last year they built beds to offer classes on seeds and gardening. Their gardens are filled with “selfers,” plants that self pollinate like peas, beans, lettuces and tomatoes. Enid says that the high school in town was just rebuilt but they didn’t leave room for a garden, even though they have a gardening club. She thinks that all schools should teach students how to grow seeds; from the garden, they’ll learn about geometry, biology and chemistry. “There’s something about gardening and cooking that go hand-in-hand,” she tells me. Enid taught herself to cook from a Szechuan cookbook, the first cookbook she ever picked up.
Enid went vegan last year after learning how agriculture impacts climate change, like the tons of cereal grains that are produced for feeding livestock. “My focus in climate change has always been agriculture,” Enid says. There’s a big disconnect in people’s minds between the food we eat and where it comes from. Teaching kids the importance of seed saving, tilling your own soil, and eating what you’ve grown with your hands might start to reconcile the gap. And you can do your part, too, by looking for your nearest seed lending library.
Check out Seed: The Untold Story for a really interesting, in-depth look at seeds and their history.
Alice Kathryn Richardson is a new media photojournalist and creator of The Clean Food Club. She previously spent two years working on Deserts in the District, a series of short-form documentaries exploring food access and hunger in Washington, DC. She is committed to supporting local and sustainable food businesses by telling their stories with photo and video. Follow her on Twitter @AKR_Pictures.