The Seed Ambassadors Project

Bringing Biodiversity Back

The Control of Seed and Seed Sovereignty

Rye Ramble (from the 2015 Adaptive Seeds Catalog)

The Control of Seed and Seed Sovereignty

At Adaptive Seeds, we talk about our work of Bringing Biodiversity Back. Part of that, of course, is growing and stewarding seed and providing you with good seed stock for your own seed saving efforts. But seed work isn’t only done in the field, and preserving seed sovereignty and freedom takes more than just saving seeds. Working to keep seeds free of control mechanisms, such as patenting, is another important aspect of promoting and preserving agricultural biodiversity, as is building awareness about what seed control mechanisms exist.

We often feel like outliers in the seed world because we wish to keep seed a free, sovereign community asset that is passed down between the generations and between friends. A growing number of people share this pro-sovereignty perspective and we are excited to be part of this community. The more I think about all the different forms of seed control schemes, the more I realize that it is very strange to try to empower seed freedom. It seems like the multinational seed industry is desperately trying to put our collective inheritance into proprietary bondage for the benefit of their shareholders as quickly as possible.

You might think, “Your seeds are not free, they cost money.” So what is meant by free? Like open source software we believe seeds should be, Free as in speech, not as in beer. In a metaphorical sense I see all seed as free and what we get paid for is not the seed per say but the service of stewardship and production of a precious gift. A seed is a living organism that has intrinsic value and a long history, of which we seed stewards have only contributed a small, very recent part. We can’t own that.

Onion flowers at Adaptive Seeds

The concept of seed ownership is problematic in part because it is rooted in entitlement philosophy. As humans we all have a little bit of this philosophy always under the surface. It is a trait that helps us survive in competitive situations of scarcity, but I think it is inappropriate in situations of abundance. As an overt practice it is more common in institutions and businesses (especially in regards to Intellectual Property rights), than in our personal behavior.

An Entitlement Philosophy in regards to seeds might sound like this: “I worked really hard to grow, cross, select, trial this seed and then sit around thinking. Therefore I deserve to extort payment from anyone who wants to save this seed and start from where I left off. Never mind that I didn’t start from scratch. I only added a very small part to a massive historical phenomenon. Now you must pay me to do the same because I deserve it.”

Common mechanisms for seed control

HYBRIDS
Yes, hybrids are a great way to breed good, uniform varieties quickly. But most of the value to the seed company is that you have to continually buy it from them because they have a monopoly. This monopoly is mostly what we are paying for and we are certainly paying through the nose.

CELL FUSION MALE STERILITY
These pollen sterile varieties are usually hybrids and they provide an additional level of control. Seed from these varieties cannot usually be saved and the traits from the sterile parent are “locked up” and only available to the company that produced the parents of the cross. I see cell fusion hybrids as being rather diabolical and a kind of Terminator Seed. See 2014s Rye Ramble Cell Fusion Hybrid Seed is Creepy.

PLANT VARIETY PROTECTION (PVP)
PVP is the kinder, gentler seed control mechanism, making it illegal to produce the seed for sale without permission for a 20 year period. This monopoly is nicer than a SWAT team because it allows seed saving for personal use and allows for making crosses in breeding projects. I understand why many seed companies and plant breeders approve of PVPs, but I see PVPs as the “Patriot Act of Plants” leading to the “Police State of Utility Patents.”

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All Things Garlic – An Adaptive Growing Guide

‘All Things Garlic’

Garlic is one of our favorite crops – this year we grew over 2,000 lbs! Since we’re in the middle of garlic selling season we thought we would share some basic (and not so basic) info about how to grow and care for this kitchen staple.

We offer three main types of garlic at Adaptive Seeds.

Hardneck
So named because it produces a woody stem, this type of garlic is known for havinggarlicmusic fewer (4 – 12) easier-to-peel cloves than softneck garlic. It generally has a more pungent flavor, which many garlic lovers prefer. Hardneck garlic tends to have fewer of the papery sheathes both around the clove and around the bulb. This wrapping protects the garlic from light and changes in humidity, so hardneck garlic does not store as long as softneck. Generally speaking, hardnecks store well for about 3 – 4 months. We offer two types of hardneck garlic – Porcelain & Glazed Purple Stripe.

Varieties include: Music, Purple Glazer, Romanian Red, Rosewood, Purple Italian Easy Peal,, Zemo.

Softneck
garlic nootka roseIn contrast to hardneck garlic, this type of garlic has a pliable stem (neck). Softneck garlic stores better and can be more productive. We offer several varieties of Silverskin type softneck, which is the most common garlic for commercial growers and what you most likely find in the grocery store. Silverskins have excellent storage and pure white bulb wrappers. Silverskin garlic can have up to 40 well-wrapped cloves per bulb. We also have Artichoke types of softneck garlic. Artichokes have only about 12 – 20 cloves each, and both the cloves and bulbs tend to be significantly larger than Silverskin varieties. Artichoke garlics tend to mature up to 4 weeks earlier than Silverskin types. Both are great storage types and generally speaking can store up to 9 months.

Varieties include: Broadleaf Czech, Harry’s Italian Late, Nootka RoseOregon Blue Silverskin, Siskiyou Purple, St. Helens.

Elephantgarlicelephant
Elephant garlic is not technically garlic at all, though it looks, acts, and tastes similarly. It is a leek, and has a much milder flavor than true garlic. The bulbs usually form giant 3-6 cloves. This type will produce a scape, like hardneck garlic, and also stores about the same as hardnecks.

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Cell Fusion Hybrid Seed is Creepy

Cell fusion CMS is truly anti-evolutionary and is contributing dramatically to the the loss of agricultural biodiversity in the seed industry, as the genes cannot be recovered from cell fusion CMS hybrids.

Recently I have been asked by several farmers and seed savers to write up a little something about a technology few people know about that is becoming more and more prevalent in our food system. When I bring it up in passing everyone seems to want to know more and their first question is often, “Why have I never heard of this?”  After discussing it with many other organic farmers a question I always get is, “Is that illegal for organic farming?” I answer by saying “No, not yet at least.” And then predictably they say, “Well, it shouldn’t be allowed.”

Chicory Flower

Chicory Flower

This technology has been called “cell fusion CMS” and it is used to create male-sterile breeding lines, which are then used to create many common F1 hybrid seed varieties. These hybrid varieties are found in many seed catalogs and including many hybrid cabbage, broccoli and interestingly Belgian endive among other crops.  The technology has been around for the last few decades and is sometimes called hybrid seed from protoplast fusion cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS). I  have nicknamed it “transgeneric cybrid seed.”  It is a kind of a biotech revision of a naturally occurring breeding technique that now straddles the border of genetic engineering. I said revision because some cytoplasmic male sterility can occur naturally – but cell fusion CMS does not occur naturally.

In organic agriculture, GMOs are of course expressly forbidden. I was confused whether this cell fusion CMS technology was GMO or not so I looked up the definition in the IFOAM Standards. IFOAM is the International Federation of Organic Agriculture Movements and they say:

“Genetic engineering is a set of techniques from molecular biology (such as recombinant DNA) by which the genetic material of plants, animals, microorganisms, cells and other biological units are altered in ways or with results that could not be obtained by methods of natural mating and reproduction or natural recombination. Techniques of genetic engineering include, but are not limited to: recombinant DNA, cell fusion, micro and macro injection, encapsulation.”

So by international organic certification standards cell fusion is considered GM, but not necessarily in the United States or in many other countries that disregard the IFOAM standards.  Maybe we all should just start calling it a GMO and have some actual parity in organic standards.  I will now try and explain how it works with as little jargon as possible.

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Bringing Biodiversity Back

2013 Rye Ramble (reprinted from the Adaptive Seeds printed catalog.)

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Bringing Biodiversity Back for Real, Explained…

We don’t simply write long variety descriptions because it is interesting and we don’t choose rare varieties because they are simply novel.

I feel that seeds, with the biodiversity and cultural knowledge they embody, are a doorway into the mystical realms of our reality. That sounds a little funny and I am not trying to lose you into a woo-woo made-up universe here. I am just trying to explain some reasons for why we do what we do. And predictably every year we discover more reasons for doing this seedy thing.

Frosty FennelWe write long descriptions and choose rare varieties for the sake of conservation, food security, the joy of the experience, and the encouragement from others to continue the hard work; these are all good reasons. But these reasons are like the layers of a leek stem. Every reason we give is a layer of the leek and we keep getting closer and closer to the core. One day we will get to the apical meristem and continue to peel and there will be an empty space where there was a growth point, mysteriously keeping its secrets from us. And yes, this is yet another reason we give ourselves to continue this journey, because we won’t know every reason.

So why do we write these long descriptions when other seed companies write one sentence and sometimes even get the color wrong? What it comes down to for me is that cultural knowledge about seed varieties has eroded even faster than the seed varieties themselves.

An agro-ecosystem, like any ecosystem, can lose genetic diversity. (You probably already know this next part and it’s probably why you came to our seed catalog.) Over the past few centuries the industrialization of agriculture has contributed to the near total loss of all agricultural biodiversity. You might say it is an exaggeration to say near total, but according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, we have lost 75% since 1900 and continue to lose 2% every year. When considering losses before 1900, and that most of these estimates include the varieties kept in gene banks that are considered “saved from extinction,” then you must estimate that nearly all agricultural biodiversity has been lost.

There is a big difference between biologically lost and culturally lost. If you think about how few varieties are still being grown by farmers and gardeners that are saved year to year to further adapt them to local conditions, then one might say nearly all diversity has gone culturally extinct, too.

Of course there are different levels of genetic erosion. The loss of genes within a variety is less obvious than the loss of varieties altogether, but it is also important to work to preserve diversity on this level. Then there is the extinction of species or the loss of entire plant types.

Corn-Open-Oak-Party-Mix-DentWhen thinking of all of the layers to this leek stem, it is easy to see why most people would rather contribute money to a conservation organization than do the real work of preserving and increasing the biodiversity that does exist. But when it comes to preserving this type of agricultural diversity, the real work is not nearly as difficult as preventing the clear-cutting of rainforests:The real work can be as easy as saving seed and breeding new varieties of vegetables in your garden.

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Willamette Winter Gardening Chart

I know it is mid winter and winter gardens get planted in August at the latest, but we have been looking at an acre of winter vegetables and have been inspired to complete a long needed update of this document. It is version 4.0 and full of new info and opinions. Let us know what you think and we will update it like open source software, slowly but surely.

Big Willamette Winter Garden Chart 4.pdf

Seed Swaps for Everyone – “How To”

The world could always use more seed swaps and here are a few tips for organizing your own Seed Swap. (Thanks to Kim in central Virginia for the e-mail prompting this blog post.)

The folks at Seedy Sunday Brighton have a whole page devoted to hosting a seed swap. Food not Lawns also has a bit about organizing one.

The first thing is to get some friends involved, because it can be a lot of work (organizing, set up, clean up, promotion, etc.). If you don’t know anyone that will help you, post some fliers at garden stores or your local natural foods store, or maybe even the community garden bulletin board if your community is lucky enough to have one.

We have seen a few ways seed swaps can be organized. You have to decide which is best for your group.

Seedy Sunday Brighton has a central table, and when people come in, they give their seeds to the table, then volunteers organize them for redistribution. This way seems overly centralized and impersonal to me, but it works for them, and it may be necessary to do it this way at an event that draws upwards of 1,000 people. They also charge a small entrance fee to cover their expenses and require either a straight across swap of seed for seed or 50 pence for a seed pack, partly because “people don’t value that which is free.” At every other seed swap I have been to, everything is free.

A second way is to set up tables and have people stand near their stuff, so they can explain it to others that might have questions. This is what we do at the smaller fall seed swap.

A third way, which is also good, is to set up tables and have designated areas for different types of plants: flowers, herbs, tomatoes, etc. this is what we do at our large spring seed swap.

Most seed swaps descend into a sort of chaos even with the rough framework, so you could just have some tables and have people toss their seeds wherever they land. Then it’s a real treasure hunt!

Some other tips:

* If the group is 30 people or less, it is nice to stand in a circle and have people introduce themselves and what they’ve brought. This gives the swap more of a community vibe.

* If you know any seed geeks or old gardener types, be sure and personally invite them to help ensure there are some good seeds there.

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