23 January 2009

Heirloom vs. the Other Stuff

It's that time of year that the seed catalogs begin arriving in the mail. Some catalogs boast 100% heirloom seeds while other catalogs don't tell you much about where their seeds come from at all. Some catalogs may have a few heirloom varieties, but one has to read each description carefully to ensure that heirloom is what they are buying.

For some readers, this news is old hat, and you probably have your favorite seed sources (or maybe you have been saving your own), but for newcomers to the gardening game, seed catalogs can be very intimidating and overwhelming with all the varieties and descriptions. You may think, Do people really have the time t read all this stuff? The answer is yes. That is why the owners of seed businesses send catalogs out in December. Gardeners throw all other literature aside to scour the new catalogs whether they need seeds or not.

If you are buying seeds for the umpteenth time or for the first time, remember the importance of supporting the heirloom seed industry. Why? Alright, here I go:

Heirloom is something that has been passed down through time. There is a whole historic meaning of the word, which you can research on your leisure, having to do with antiques and precious family stuff, but for today's educational purposes, I am choosing to keep things simple.

In this case, heirloom seeds are seeds that have been passed down over time. Why is this such a big deal? Because when you use an heirloom seed, you are guaranteed the same vegetable or fruit as the original seed from possible a hundred years ago. Hybrid seeds do not produce the same plant the following year because offspring of hybrid saved seeds usually show unpredictable characteristics from the grandparent plants instead of being similar to the parent.

You may have heard of Thomas Jefferson's vegetable garden, and there are many people that take time each year to recreate this garden. Historically, it's a big deal. Imagine eating tomatoes that were grown from the same seed as Thomas Jefferson used? You are, in essence, eating the same tomato. (Okay, soil quality effects the taste of the food, but we aren't discussing that right now.) When a person plants an heirloom seed and produces food from it, that person can also save seed from that plant and be assured to grow the same food the following year. That's how our ancestors did it.

It's not that hybrid seeds are bad. Hybrids are simply hand-pollinated crossed plants. They have benefits such as higher yields and better tolerance or maybe resistance to splitting (as with tomatoes), but hybrid seeds cannot be saved from year to year. It is also labor intensive to assure the same hybrid plant year after year. So if you want to be sustainable in your gardening practices, so not buy hybrid seeds because you will need to return to the garden center spring after spring after spring to buy seeds.

There is also what is known as GMO seeds. GMO, what does that mean? GMO stands for Genetically Modified Organism (or GEO for genetically engineered organism), which means that the GMO item has been modified with DNA from something else to alter the original genes. It is gene altering. I am not mentioning any names, cough Monsanto cough, but they are really fucking things up.

With seeds, there are many reasons as to why some may argue GMO is good. GMO seeds promise things like better pest resistance, herbicide tolerance, disease resistance, cold tolerance, drought tolerance, salinity tolerance, nutrition, and pharmaceutical vegetables (Yes, you read that right...Researchers are working to develop edible vaccines in tomatoes and potatoes. These vaccines will be much easier to ship, store and administer than traditional vaccines.) In order to "create" this kind of ability in seeds, the seed needs to be altered with something else. Some people use the term "Franken seeds" because no one is quite sure what exactly is being used to alter the seed genes, and I have having a hell of a time finding it on the internet, which is pretty scary. The best I could find was this from Natural Awakenings:

"The processes used to create GMOs are not precise or predictable. What is precise is the first step, selecting and engineering the DNA to be used. After that, genes are engineered and recombined with bacteria, viruses, and other designer molecules, then often put into a ‘gene gun’ and shot into living cells."

Why is this such a big deal because some people might like the idea of a stronger disease and bug resistant crop? Glad I presented the question for you. There is so much information on this that I will highlight some of the important things then post the websites where I found the information so you can read the more detailed findings if you choose.

Criticisms: Harm to other organisms like beneficial insects; reduced effectiveness of pesticides; resistant bacterias; reduced effectiveness of herbicides creating "super" weeds; increased human food allergies; unknown effects on human health like cancers and tumors; and economic concerns like dependency on Monsanto products. GMO seeds can not be saved. Well, they can be saved, but when planted, the gardener is not guaranteed the same quality fruit or vegetable as the original seed provided affecting sustainability of all farmers and gardeners. Crops can be contaminated with GMO seed, too. Heirloom corn is suffering because the wind is blowing the pollen from GMO farms, which is contaminating the corn on other farms and our heirloom seeds. If you plant GMO seeds, you may be contaminating the gardens around you.

Here are a few websites that I found helpful and go into detail:

Natural Awakenings

Discovery Guides

Seeds of Deception

GMO and hybrid seeds are not labeled as such. Be sure that the seeds you buy are labeled heirloom.

Go heirloom. Learn to save your own seed. Exchange saved seeds with your friends and neighbors. This is yet another step on the battle of fighting for our food security.

For links to heirloom seed companies go to Heirloom Seed Sources and Seed Catalogs please add sources in the comment section there!!!

Thanks for reading.

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