Lately I've been thinking about where our seeds come from, and the stories they bring with them. When you plant them, those stories from the past shape the future too.
Every seed tells a story. GMO seeds tell a story about laboratories and big money. Many F-1 hybrids tell a story of proprietary inbred lines, trade secrets and induced sterility. But there are encouraging stories too.
There are the stories of heirloom seeds. Some brought from Italy, China, Ireland, Africa. Some grown as sacred foods on our continent for thousands of years. Some shaped in our own farms, towns and cities by gardeners and farmers saving their own seeds. Heroes like Will Bonsall have collected thousands of traditional heirlooms to save and carry on. I carry lots of these, and try to pass on their stories if I know them. Our "Heirlooms and Their Stories Collection" has seeds from my neighborhood, along with a couple of pages telling their stories. But not all wonderful stories are old, historic ones.
When asked why he didn't patent his famous plant introductions, University of New Hampshire professor Elwyn Meader said "I was working for the taxpayer and the results of my work belonged to them." Today, seed corporations, and even universities, are using patents and GMOs to keep their work locked away from the public. But some public-domain breeders like Jim Myers at OSU have stood firm.
You can read the story of how Monsanto's Seminis Seed Corp tried to steal Myers' work HERE. It's both an outrage and an inspiration.
From the 19th century to the present, our land-grant universities, and small seed growers have given us a diverse heritage of public domain, open-pollinated seed that continues today. If you have grown Oregon Sugar Pod Pea, Waltham Butternut Squash, Grand Rapids Lettuce, Provider Bean, Rutgers Tomato, Clemson Okra, you have harvested the legacy of Jim Baggett, Robert Young, Albert Yeager, and other great public-domain breeders. They believed that improving food plants was a service to humanity, and they were right.
Since 2012, we have a new set of public-domain heros who have voluntarily given up their patent rights as part of the Open Source Seed Initiative. People like Carol Deppe, Frank Morton, Jonathan Spero, and David Podoll are outstanding breeders, and could have made money patenting their work. Instead, they put their varieties in the public domain, for others to save seed and continue to improve. Quail Seeds carries 21 OSSI varieties.
The Open Source Seed Pledge reads:
“You have the freedom to use these OSSI-Pledged seeds in any way you choose. In return, you pledge not to restrict others’ use of these seeds or their derivatives by patents or other means, and to include this Pledge with any transfer of these seeds or their derivatives.”
This means that, as with open-source software, not only the pledged variety, but all varieties bred from it are protected from patenting. The seeds and their progeny are in the public domain forever. This is what makes crop improvement possible.
The full range of our genetic heritage is essential to safeguard our food supply from drought, disease, and other challenges. In 1970, blight wiped out most of the US corn crop. It was able to reduce millions of acres to slimy rubble because 43% of all US corn was grown from just 6 parent lines, all of which were genetically vulnerable. Luckily, plant patenting didn't exist in 1970. Breeders had access to other corns that did have resistance.
You can learn more about OSSI here. If you love heirloom seeds and want to help preserve and spread them, consider joining the Grassroots Seed Network. It is a great resource for finding heirlooms not offered by seed companies. Membership is free. They have launched a crowdfunder campaign to continue their good work. Check it out at:
Jamie Chevalier lives and gardens on a river in the Coast Range. She has gardened professionally in Alaska and California, as well as living in a remote cabin and commercial fishing. She wrote the Bountiful Gardens catalog from 2009 to 2017, and now is proprietor of Quail Seeds.