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The Gardener’s Guide to Seed Literacy and Advocacy

a.k.a. How to Choose Which Seeds To Buy

So you want to buy seeds, but you're hearing all this stuff about GMOs and heirlooms and you don't know which ones are safe and/or groovy. We hope this will help shine some light and make you feel like you're choosing like a champ.     


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1. Don't worry about GMO seeds. Yes, that's right. Right now, as a home gardener, you don't have the opportunity to buy GMO seeds. Those are for big farmers who have to sign contracts with the manufacturers to get a hold of them. Yes, there is a possibility of contamination of non-GMO seed crops with GMO pollen. That's simple biology. You can choose to buy seeds from non-GMO Project Verified sources if that is of supreme concern to you. However, consider the following point.  

2.Guaranteeing that seeds are non-GMO is expensive. Some larger seed companies go through the GMO Project Verified system to certify all the at-risk seed lots they purchase and sell. However, smaller seed companies like Snake River Seed Co-op cannot afford to certify all our at-risk seed lots as non-GMO Project Verified. In many cases, certification costs would be higher than the entire income we bring in from a particular seed lot. As a consumer, if you require your seeds to be non-GMO verified, you are selecting for a more globalized system that includes milliion-dollar seed companies, food manufacturers, and the like. Also, you're choosing a system that puts the burden of verification onto the potential victim of contamination rather than demanding that the parties responsible for putting the GMO pollution into the world carry the burden of verification. Along with dozens of other seed companies, Snake River Seed Co-op has signed the Safe Seed Pledge, which states that we will not knowingly sell seeds contaminated with transgenic material (GMOs). Then, we work to ensure good isolation for our at-risk crops. Ask your favorite seed company if they've signed the Safe Seed Pledge if you are concerned about GMOs.  

3. All seeds are not at risk of GMO contamination. In fact, only a hand full of commercially available crops have at this point been genetically modified. They are: corn, soybeans, cotton, canola, papaya, summer squash/zucchini, alfalfa, potatoes, and sugar beets. Including other crops that could potentially cross-pollinate with these GM crops, the list could expand slightly to include table beets, chard, Siberian and Russian kales, rutabagas, and some pumpkins and winter squashes. Everything else you grow in your garden is at no risk of possible GMO contamination whatsoever.  


4. Hybrids are not GMOs. Have you heard the comment, "But humans have been genetically modifying seeds for millennia?" This is a sound-byte answer to a much more complex reality. Yes, it's true. Humans have been tinkering with seeds for 10,000 years. For the vast majority of that time people have been selecting and breeding seeds that do better in their gardens and farms using simple field observation and selection. A farmer/gardener might notice a plant she likes and save seeds from it. Or she might cross it with another plant she likes by moving pollen from one to the other. In the second example, she has deliberately created a hybrid. Now, sometimes some of the steps of creating a hybrid happen in a lab. The basic difference between a hybrid and a GMO is that hybrids are crosses between botanically compatible plants while GM technology can insert genes from other species or even kingdoms of life into plants (like a bacterium in to a plant). Hybrid seeds can be used on organic farms, GM seeds cannot. You could make a hybrid by crossing plants in your back yard. You could not use the GM biotechnology methods without specialized equipment.  

5. Hybrids aren't creepy...except when they are. For the most part, hybridization is a useful and natural way to increase vigor and uniformity in plants. However, there is a controversial technique sometimes used in creating the parent lines for hybrid plants called cell fusion CMS, or Cytoplasmic Male Sterility. It's a technique that creates sterile male breeding lines, and it veers sharply from classical plant breeding methods, bordering on biotechnology. Seeds produced by this technology are banned on organic farms in Europe but the US still allows it. For a down-to-earth explanation of the technology, check out Adaptive Seeds' Andrew Still's essay Why Cell Fusion CMS is Creepy. One of the problems with hybrids is that there is virtually NO transparency about the techniques used to produce the hybrid. So, organic farmers and gardeners who wish to avoid using cell fusion CMS hybrids have no way of knowing whether the hybrids they want to buy are CMS "cybrids," as Still calls them.

  6. Heirlooms aren't the only awesome alternatives to hybrids, cybrids, or GMOs. We get a lot of folks asking if our seeds are heirlooms. Rightly so. Heirlooms are usually delicious--relics from an era when we selected varieties for flavor, not necessarily yield, uniformity, or the ability to travel long distances. They're also sometimes in danger of being lost. For these reasons, heirlooms are great choices. Heirlooms are simply older varieties of "open-pollinated" (OP) seeds. Open-pollinated seeds will breed true to type. In other words, as long as you've properly isolated them, you can save and replant the seeds from OP varieties and get plants that look and taste like their parents. And while we want to preserve heirloom varieties, we also want to support the breeding of new varieties that are well-adapted to the conditions of today. Seed savers have for millennia been selecting/breeding new varieties in response to specific needs or changes in environment, culture, etc. We want to ensure this important work continues. All of our Snake River Seed Co-op seeds are open-pollinated. We have lots of beloved heirlooms in our collection. We also have lots of newer OP varieties, some of which will become the "heirlooms of tomorrow".  

7. Consider both sides of the seed patenting debate. Please don't misunderstand: we are not in favor of patenting seeds. However, we also immensely value the contributions plant breeders make to our continued success as farmers and gardeners. Hybrids are by nature proprietary--if you replant the seeds from a hybrid, you won't get what a plant that looks like the one you saved seeds from, because the parents of hybrids are distinct inbred genetic lines deliberately crossed to make a reliable offspring in the first generation. Planting them out again will result in what seedsman Bill McDorman calls "Mr. Toad's Wild Ride." You don't know what you'll get in the subsequent generations. This explains why most seed companies hire plant breeders to focus on developing new hybrids. They're often high performing in the field, and growers have to buy the seeds from the company each year, which can help recoup the cost of developing the variety in the first place. Open-pollinated seeds are different. It takes at least 7 years to breed a new open-pollinated (non-hybrid) variety. Once it's released into the world, anybody can grow and successfully save seeds from it the first year, without having the costs associated with breeding the variety in the first place. This puts breeders of OP varieties and the companies who pay their salaries in a pickle. Who will pay the bills? The Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) is delving into this enigmatic challenge by seeking models that could work based on the open-source software movement. We offer several OSSI varieties, and the way we're plugging into this initiative is by voluntarily sending royalties to the breeders of these varieties based on how many packets we sell, which will hopefully help to encourage and sustain their breeding efforts so they don't have to turn to patenting to recoup their costs.  

8. The location of a seed company often has little to do with where the seeds they sell are grown. Though they may have a robust regional presence, seed companies generally purchase seeds from growers around the US and across the oceans. Seed packets say where the seeds were packed, but not where they were grown, so it is difficult to know as a customer where things are coming from. We're proud to be a part of a movement to re-localize our seedshed. We at Snake River Seed Co-op are committed to sourcing all our seed lots from the Intermountain West. This decision keeps us linked firmly to our bioregion, allowing us to grow our regional network of seed growers as well as address the specific challenges our region faces. It also offers us a way of celebrating our unique Intermountain West culture. If you care about buying local seeds, do your homework. Ask the seed companies who will potentially get your business where their seeds are coming from. Just because they were packed near you doesn't necessarily mean they were grown near you.  

9. Like the global food system, the global seed system lacks transparency. We have made enormous strides over the last few decades to increase our knowledge of where our food comes from. Farmer's markets, CSAs, farm-to-table restaurants, and a robust slew of celebrities chefs, farmers, and food systems activists have succeeded in making many of us source food from local sources that guarantee the welfare of workers, animals, and the environment. Seeds are still almost completely absent from that discussion. Many seed packets on box store shelves are from companies that are owned by other larger, more ethically questionable companies like Monsanto, Bayer, and DuPont. The sharp increase in proprietary organic hybrids from Europe flooding into larger (but still decent) seed companies like Johnny's and High Mowing Seeds attests to this as well. Ask a farmer at your local farmer's market where the seeds they planted to grow their produce came from and you'll likely find that they don't exactly know. For more information about what seed companies are owned by other companies as well as other insights into the global seed trade, check out this blog post.  


10. If we don't have a local seed system, we don't have a local food system. Support seed growers in your bioregion by choosing to plant local seeds!      

Photo by Katie Bertram