There’s a wonderful feeling that comes over me when the garden I have planned and tended and nurtured finally begins to pay off. Of course, I’m pleased with the success of producing food for my family, and I’m excited about the nutritious fruits and veggies that will grace my table for the entire year to come, but the best feeling of all is knowing what is (and isn’t) in or on the food we eat. In years past that statement would have been all about chemical fertilizers and pesticides. But these days, the threat of food crops infected with Genetically Modified Organisms is a major concern. That’s why learning how to save seed is so crucial to today’s organic gardeners and farmer.
I have written several articles and a handbook on saving open pollinated and heirloom seeds (Read Saving Seeds and Garden Time: Do You Know Where Your Seeds Come From, and The Garden Seed Saving Guide: Seed Saving for Everyone) and I often open my seed saving classes by talking about GMO’s, because it is a term that many people have heard of, but one that few really understand.
Sometimes referred to as GMF’s (genetically modified foods), GMO’s are essentially plants that have had their natural genetic structure altered by mixing them with the genes of unrelated species – including viruses, mold, fungi and other plant, animal and human genes. I won’t assume to know what your spiritual beliefs are, but I don’t believe that God ever intended for rice and mice to splice. And despite assurances from those who have a monetary interest in GMO’s, there are serious concerns as to how genetically modified foods act upon both humans and animals when consumed.
But one very important– and perhaps more sinister – side effect of GMO’s is the reality that these types of food crops can and do pass their Frankenstein-like genes on to naturally open-pollinated food crops through the process of pollination. These genes, once in the natural environment, may be virtually impossible to eradicate, making the saving of open-pollinated seeds virtually impossible and in some cases, illegal.
Case in point: Monsanto has quite literally sued the land out from under farmers who were found to have even minute amounts of patented Round Up Ready corn growing in their fields among their non-Round Up Ready (RUR) crops. Monsanto claimed that these farmers were intentionally growing patented RUR crops without having paid for the right to do so (all commercial farmers growing RUR crops must sign a legal contract to do so). And while that may have been true in some of the cases, many more farmers claimed that they had not intentionally grown Monsanto’s RUR crops. Some suspected that RUR seeds were drifting onto unsuspecting farms after falling from passing grain trucks, or that perhaps RUR seed were accidentally being mixed in with other non-RUR seeds at the larger grain processing mills. But what the farmers didn’t realize in the early days of GMO crops was that not only were GMO’s capable of pollinating non-GMO crops, but that in doing so they were spreading their patented genes directly through the pollination process. This phenomenon is well described in the article entitled, Potential Effects of GMO’s on Outcrossing Rates, by Cricket Rakita:
In mid-1998 at the University of Chicago, some technicians were experimenting by genetically modifying a mustard variety to be herbicide resistant. Though no known gene effecting floral characteristics was altered, the workers noticed that the genetically modified flowers looked a little different than those on the not altered plants. Though the scientists thought this change was unlikely to be significant, they decided to test the modified plants’ out-crossing rates in comparison to the non-altered plants. (An out-crossing rate is the rate at which the pollen from the measured plants successfully pollinates a female flower and produce viable seed).
In the September 3, 1998 edition of the journal Nature, Dr. Joy Bergelson of the University of Illinois published her tragic results in a paper stating that the genetically engineered mustard has fully over 20 TIMES the out crossing rate of the standard mustard. This means that pollen from the genetically engineered mustard is over 20 times more likely to successfully reproduce than its natural counterpart growing right next to it.
This disturbing fact spells certain disaster for farmers growing, or wanting to grow, non-GMO crops or save their own seed and for the future of open-pollinated seed in general. For even if the farmers aren’t sued out of business, they certainly have little chance to save pure open-pollinated seeds within any proximity to similar GMO crops without unwanted contamination through the pollination process. And as to the future of pure strains of open-pollinated seeds, that might just get blown away with the wind.
And because corn pollen is wind-driven, it can easily travel upwards of five miles in all directions. Thus GMO corn can and often does infect open-pollinated corn with its genetically modified genes.
The unfortunate farmers who have spent generations perfecting and saving their own open-pollinated seeds have absolutely no way to prevent this genetic contamination, nor do they have no say in where it can or cannot be grown. And when facing a corporate giant like Monsanto, with its deep legal-fund pockets and powerful legislative lobby, have literally no recourse against it.
And if you think that because you’re just a small garden farmer that you are immune to situations such as this, think again.
Make no mistake – the money to be made on the ownership of genetic patents is staggering. That’s why the big grain and pharma-giants like Cargill and Monsanto are racing to patent plant genes – and not just GMO’s that they created, but all plant genes of any value; like the vegetable crops that you and I grow in our gardens. And most recently, corporations like these have been quietly buying up companies, both large and small, that specialize in selling common garden seed to people like you and me.
Imagine this scenario: all the plants in your garden are literally owned by a few multi-national corporations. You must not only buy their seed, but you may have to pay for the right to grow it, as well. And if you save seed or propagate the plants vegetatively you may find yourself face to face with a lawsuit and a very real threat of going to jail for patent infringement. I’m not just talking about seeds from plants that these companies worked years to develop – I’m talking about old varieties that have been around for 50, 100, or even thousands of years!
You can just see the dollar signs swirling, can’t you?
The very real threat here is that, in the near future, we may not have the right to save our own seeds because some big corporate giant will own the rights to them. This frightening scenario is taking place all over the world. But the big question is, when will this plant-grab come home to roost and how do we protect ourselves right now?
First of all, by saving and growing our own seed, we are essentially asserting our cultural and indigenous rights of collective ownership. Farmers in India won a suit over their natural right to use the native neem tree in part because they could show that they had already claimed that particular genetic sequence simply by growing and using the plant for generations upon generations.
Secondly, by saving seeds of open pollinated and heirloom varieties of vegetable crops, we help ensure a naturally diverse gene pool within the various varieties of plants we choose to grow. The potato famine in Ireland was caused by a late blight that affected potatoes, which were the main vegetable food crop and the main source of income for many small farmers in the country. No potatoes in Ireland were immune from the blight because everyone was growing the same exact variety of potato. Had there been a larger variety of potatoes, an immune variety could have been located and grown instead. As it was, hundreds of thousands of people suffered terribly and many more died of starvation for lack of a diverse gene pool.
That’s all pretty heavy stuff, but unfortunately it is something we must consider when discussing the reasons why we should save seed. So whether you have a big garden, or a little garden, or a market garden or a 10 acre food plot for self-sufficiency, knowing how to save your own seeds will save you tons of money, and one day, it may just save your life.
Jill Henderson is an artist, author and the editor of Show Me Oz