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Monday, February 23, 2009

Seeds as an Expression of the Farm Individuality

Seeds as the Expression of the Farm Individuality
October 2007

Within the Biodynamic movement we focus much of our concern upon the fertility of the soil. This is a logical extension of the understanding that through enhancing the biological process we can facilitate the growth of healthy plants, which are capable of nourishing people and animals. I find it curious that seed quality is not given equal attention. The plant exists in relation to a variety of forces which all stream through the doorway of the seed, which is in itself a miniature version of a plant. Soil, water, air and warmth all influence the germination of seed and thus the first chapter of the life of a plant. It would stand to reason that seed quality represents a crucial opportunity to positively influence the successful growth of life enhancing food.
I would like to pose the question as to why we as a movement, a body of practitioners have failed to adequately address the question of seed quality? It is doubly curious in light of the threat that genetically engineered seeds pose to food safety and thus, humanity. GMO’s and so-called “terminator technology” have thrust the issue of seed into the mainstream and both the organic and biodynamic movements have failed to see it as an opportunity to both educate the public and ourselves about the importance of regional seed production, landrace/farmer varieties and traditional horizontal resistance plant breeding. The challenges that face us in the modern agricultural landscape compel us to rise to occasion and uplift the seed for the miracle that it is. It is not a tool to be wielded, as some biotechnologists would have us believe. Rather the seed gifts us the opportunity to become a participant in the ongoing process of plant domestication.
As any seed saver will tell you, the domestication of plants was not an end point, instead it is an unfolding relationship that is anything but static. The seed is a window into the potentiality of the plant. Just as an animal on a farm is in relation to the grass which it feeds upon, its exhaled breath rich in carbon dioxide linked to the photosynthetic process and its manure feeding the soil organism which in turn feeds the grass which feeds the animal. Likewise, any time we save a seed we stand at a unique position of carrying forth its genetics into the next generation. Many domesticated plants can no longer self-sow their seeds readily (although there are many that do, which will be addressed in a future issue), they require our help to prevent them from being eaten by animals or decomposed by fungi and bacteria. Consider a bean plant, it has been bred for millennia to produce a quick abundant crop of edible, starchy seeds which can remain viable for many years (as many as 4,000 years old in the case of the New Mexico Cave bean variety discovered in a clay vessel in a cave in New Mexico). This is assuming that these beans were gathered by human hands at maturity, dried appropriately, stored in dry conditions and kept safe from being eaten by rodents and insects until the conditions to plant them again arrived. If these same seeds were simply left on the plant to be dispersed naturally, the great majority of them, if not all would succumb to being eaten by animals or rotting on the ground over the winter. Hence our domesticated vegetables exist only in relation to the farmers who perpetuate their existence.
Where do our seeds come from? This should be a simple question at its root. However it is becoming terribly convoluted in our modern, industrial agricultural paradigm. For the bulk of the history of agriculture, seeds were grown on the land on which they were to be used. If the farmer themselves did not grow the seed they most certainly knew who grew it. Our agrarian culture was one of seed saving by definition. The act of saving seeds is what distinguished humanity of the early Holocene period from the hunter gathers that preceded us.
As villages and cities arose and humanity began to specialize and industrialize most farmers continued to grow their own seeds, but some would produce surplus in order to trade these seeds for other good or services. So during the last few hundred years it became possible to obtain seeds without growing them yourself. This is a unique transition in agricultural history. The relationship between seed and humanity shifted with this development. For most of agricultures’ long history seed saving and farmer selection for desirable traits for the climate, soils, pests, nutritional and agronomic preferences for a particular farm were inextricably linked. This is how our landraces, farmer varieties and heirlooms arose. If a farmer was growing, say, wheat or peas and the practice was to sow them in the fall in a temperate climate for a summer harvest, and the winter was unusually cold destroying a portion of the crop, the seeds which did survive would be those which had a genetic predisposition towards cold hardiness. Thus as the farmer harvests the crop, they knowingly or not are engaged in the plant breeding process of selection for their unique site and climate. Once these seeds are planted in a new site a new relationship begins, the fine-tuning of plant to locale.
Seeds are the ultimate feedback loop; more robust plants produce more seed and ensure their prominence in futre generations. Conversely, diseased or pest affected plants produce less seed and wane in their composition of the plant population in the next generation, or die altogether. During this pre-modern period, which I view as the birth of the seedsman as a specialist, distinct from the farmer as a generalist, seed that was traded or sold was still generally planted within the same, or similar bioregion. As the distances over which seeds were traded increased their ability to perform became compromised as they began to be grown under conditions that differed from those they were bred and selected for. Naturally if farmers found some success with a new species or variety (consider new world crops imported into the old world) they could begin the process of selecting them for their growing conditions. Some species are naturally more flexible as to where they can be grown, but there are definitely limits, such as cacao can only be successfully grown within 18 degrees north or south of the equator.
Within the last 100 years we have seen an increasing specialization in seed growing with less and less farmers growing some if any of their own seed. The advent of land grant universities further specialized the craft of seed growing into a science, thereby taking responsibility of stewarding the seed from the farmer and entrusting it to the scientist. Seed growing was concentrated in the areas of the world considered ideal for the production of certain seed crops and regional seed companies became responsible for supplying seed to increasingly larger regions. With regards to vegetable seeds I would venture a guess that more than 90% of farmers don’t save any of their own seed, 5% grow some of their own seed and less than 1% grow most of their own seed. The situation is different for farmers of the cereal grains as the complexity of ensuring genetic isolation for cereals differs from vegetables. Also, cereal grain production requires a much larger quantity of seed, so an economic incentive exists.
Within the last 50 years hybrid varieties were developed for numerous vegetable species. Seed companies were quick to highlight the increased vigor, yield and uniformity possible through the use of hybrid (F1) varieties. The phenomenon of heterosis exhibited in hybrid varieties is also possible in open pollinated varieties when bred as a population with attention to those characteristics. However, as hybrid varieties began to be preferred for certain crops, traditional plant breeding of open pollinated varieties waned or stopped altogether on any appreciable scale. The reason for this is that to produce a hybrid variety, two similar inbred lines are cross pollinated to produce a new variety, which will not produce as well if its seeds are saved, encouraging the farmer to come back to that seed company for more seed the next season. The inbred lines used for the production of hybrids are kept secret, with numbers instead of names. The proprietary nature of hybrid seed production enabled further specialization of seed production in the hands of agronomic scientists and away from farmer generalist knowledge. This also enabled seed companies to charge higher prices for hybrid seed, because as breeding work of comparable open pollinated varieties diminished, the hybrids were demonstrated to be superior varieties. Nonetheless, seed companies are not to be blamed for greedy intentions, they are merely symptomatic of the reductionist paradigm at work within modern agriculture. Transgenic seeds and GMO’s simply represent the furthering of this economically driven worldview. This is the figurative dragon, which must compel us towards right action.
But wait! There is hope. Biodynamic farmers have always been keenly aware of the importance of seeds. However, our modern agricultural community has yet to foster economic conditions that encourage small farmers to grow their own seed and work towards breeding varieties adapted for their unique farm ecosystems. There exists tremendous opportunity to revitalize neglected open pollinated strains (see the work of the Organic Seed Alliance). Plant breeder Raoul Robinson holds up a torch of inspiration in his masterpiece, Return to Resistance, which scientifically illuminates the folly of modern vertical resistance plant breeding wherein every year or two the new and improved “downy mildew resistant spinach” is released only to have the disease organism morph from race 6 to race 7, thereby rendering the new variety obsolete. Robinson demonstrates through 40 years of experience in numerous countries with diverse crops that farmer bred, landrace varieties bred as populations for horizontal resistance to disease, pests, and climate stress are more successful over the long run (Horizontal resistance will be revisited in a future issue).
The whole systems approach inherent within biodynamics compels us to grow our own seeds and improve the varieties that we use for our conditions. The seed is an expression of the life force of the farm organism and is adjusting itself subtly to the evolution of the farm organism with each succeeding generation. It is also distinctly possible that seed grown on a biodynamic farm will be uniquely adapted to perform under biodynamic management. Rudolf Steiner spoke of how the parent plant endowed the seed with a tendency towards form and function, but that there was ample space for new forces to stream into the seed from the cosmos. In this regard the forming seed, nourished with biodynamic compost, horn manure and the horn silica is capable of carrying cosmic and spiritual forces into the succeeding generations. Plants grown from biodynamic seeds are a vehicle through which to allow the expression of the farm individuality. I encourage us all to renew our partnership with nature and the process of plant domestication through our involvement in stewarding the seed.

Don Tipping,
October 2007

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