Perhaps. Heirloom seeds and domesticated animal varieties may come to the rescue when we need new solutions. So says a beautifully illustrated article in the August issue of National Geographic. As the range of plant and animal varieties dwindle in response to the influx of high-yielding, yet genetically vulnerable, introductions we have come to depend more and more on a small number of commercially important crops.
Why is this a problem? Because if disease or future climate change decimates one of the handful of plants and animals we’ve come to depend on to feed our growing planet, we might desperately need one of those varieties we’ve let go extinct.
Over centuries farmers bred their crops and animals to thrive in their local conditions, resisting drought or specific diseases, maturing early or late depending on climate, providing reliable yields year after year. Many of these idiosyncratic varieties were not adaptable to the demands of industrialized agriculture which dominates our food system today.
Like most gardeners and farmers, I buy almost all of my seed, with the exception of garlic, potatoes (I buy new seed potatoes every other year), and some beans and flower seeds. My neighbor plants all of her parsnips from her own seed, leaving one plant every year to flower after the spring harvest. Other gardeners I know save tomato seeds, spreading them onto paper towels after rinsing, tearing off a bit of paper and seed when it’s time to plant. (If you try this, remember to save seed only from open-pollinated varieties; hybrid seed will not produce reliable offspring.)
If you are interested in learning more about seed-saving, the article has an online sidebar listing groups that swap and sell heirloom seeds. (While you’re at the website take a look at their photo gallery of potato varieties from Peru and Bolivia. How could you resist growing “Ashes of the Soul”, “Feet of the Lequecho Bird”, or “Makes the Daughter-in-law Cry”?)
Do you save seeds? Are you propagating an heirloom variety handed down from great-grandparents? We’d love to hear your stories and advice.