Saving Our Genetic Heritage One Seed at a Time

Seed Saving Watermelon Orange-Glow (2)Jill Henderson ~ Show Me Oz

(originally published in Permaculture Activist – May 2017 issue)

I have been saving garden and native plant seeds for the better part of 20 years. What started out as a simple way to save a buck quickly became a deep-rooted passion. After so many years as a teacher and advocate, it is truly exciting to see so many people interested in saving their own seed. Yet, there are those out there who still think seed saving is just a pass-time or a fad – just another hash tag in a world of buzzwords. Perhaps seed saving is just another trend in a long line of trends, like bacon everything, backyard chickens and kale, but for those of us who have worked towards seed sovereignty and food freedom for years, an American seed saving fetish is exactly what this country needs right now.

And while you might be able to see it happening in real time, the truth is that every year we lose an untold number of open-pollinated food varieties and the genetic diversity they represent. In today’s modern mode of agriculture, mono-cropping with GMO, hybrid and patented seed is the norm. This is in large part because farmers and gardeners just don’t save seed like they used to. Thomas Jefferson once said, “The greatest service which can be rendered any country is to add a useful plant to its culture.” If that is true, then the second greatest service would be to save the seeds of those useful plants.

Genetic Diversity & Seed Patents

By saving the seeds of food, fiber, and feed crops we can preserve or enhance the characteristics of a particularly useful or interesting plant through the process of selection. And when we save seeds of open-pollinated and heirloom varieties, we also help to ensure that those crops develop and maintain a naturally diverse gene pool, which goes a long way to ensuring their productivity and disease resistance.

One tragic example of why preserving and enhancing genetic diversity might be the ultimate key to human survival lies in The Great Famine of Ireland, which was caused by a blight that affected the main food and cash crop in that country. The disease ravaged the country’s potato crops because everyone was growing the same exact variety of potato. Had there been more varieties of potato being grown – i.e. a much larger pool of genetic diversity – at least a few resistant varieties not affected by the blight could have been easily grown instead and the people of Ireland would not have had to suffer the way they did.

It was precisely because of a limited gene pool that hundreds of thousands of people starved, suffered and died. And while it is not a pretty thought and in a land of plenty, hard to even imagine, tragedies like this should give us reason to pause when it comes to allowing seed into our gardens and fields that cannot physically or legally be saved by the grower.

And if saving seed is a buzzword, or a trend, or just a fad – I really don’t care. Because each time someone saves an open-pollinated or heirloom variety of seed, the greater the chance that we will increase the genetic diversity of our food crops both at home and abroad. Indeed, the work we do right now to preserve open-pollinated seed will have long-lasting implications for the future of humankind.

Another issue related to preserving genetic diversity and mankind’s intrinsic right to grow food and save seed from plants that are natural to our environment is the patenting of life forms.

Make no mistake – the money to be made on the ownership of genetic patents is truly staggering, which is why the big agriculture, chemical and pharma-giants like Cargill, Monsanto, Syngenta and DuPont have been racing to patent as many plant genes as they can. And they aren’t just patenting the GMO crops they create but all plants with any value, like the vegetable crops that you and I grow in our gardens and even wild native plants.

Imagine this scenario: all the plants in your garden are literally owned by a few multi-national corporations. Not only must you buy their seed, but you may also be required to pay for the right to grow them. And if you save seed or propagate plants grown from those seeds, you may find yourself face to face with a lawsuit and a very real threat of going to jail for patent infringement. If you can imagine it, you can see the dollar signs swirling and the noose tightening around the necks of farmers and subsistence gardeners worldwide.

Perhaps some will find my rhetoric a bit too doomsday, but the very real threat is that one day we may not have the right to save seed.

An early example of corporate biopiracy involved the patenting of the neem tree, which belongs to the mahogany family of trees and is indigenous to the Indian subcontinent and widely cultivated in various countries throughout Africa, Central and South America, Asia, and the Caribbean Islands.

According to a TED Case Study entitled, The Neem Tree, Environment, Culture and Intellectual Property, the medicinal, insecticidal, and utilitarian properties of neem were first documented 2,000 years ago in ancient Sanskrit texts that extolled its virtues as “a cure for ailing soil, plants and livestock.” But the usefulness of neem, as determined by the people living in these regions, is extensive and deeply cultural.

The West knows neem best as an effective insecticidal agent effective on more than 200 destructive crop pests and does not harm non-chewing insects or the environment.

The leaves of neem are fed to livestock and used in the treatment of a wide array of injury and illnesses in humans such as leprosy, ulcers, diabetes, skin disorders, hypertension, general inflammation, infections, kidney stones, and as a potent spermicide. Neem oil has been used as lamp oil and added to toothpaste and soaps, and the raw twigs are commonly used as effective natural toothbrushes.

The wood of neem is also very hard and dense and has been used for fuel and as termite-resistant lumber for homes, fine furniture, and various novelty items. The TED report goes on to point out that, “Neem based pesticides, medicines and cosmetics have been produced by some laboratories in India, but there has not been an attempt to make ownership of the formula legal because Indian law does not allow agricultural and medicinal products to be patented.”

In 1971, the owner of a timber company in the U.S. learned of the value of the neem tree and began germinating its seeds and growing the trees for pesticide production. Eventually, he applied for and received a patent on the insecticide known as neem oil and in 1988 sold the patent to W.R. Grace. In 1992, Grace secured the rights to the pesticide formula and promptly began suing Indian companies for patent infringement.

The Indian people denounced the patent, but their complaints fell on deaf ears until Vandana Shiva, a champion for working class people all over the world, stood up to the corporate strong-arm tactics used to intimidate and subdue the resistors. Shiva helped the Indian people fight for their legal rights against the corporate bio-piracy, claiming that the people already owned the indigenous rights to the use of the tree in all its forms. After a long and arduous battle, the people finally won their suite against Grace, but only in India.

Unfortunately, this scenario is played out over and over again throughout the world – primarily in third world countries where the citizens are often too poor to mount any real legal challenge. Sometimes the people win, but more often than not, they lose. All one has to do to witness the loss of cultural heritage right here in the United States is to look into the current trend of quietly patenting heirloom garden vegetable varieties by simply changing a tiny fragment of their DNA. Eventually, this will lead to confusion among consumers and unintentional patent infringement by farmers, gardeners and seed savers who do not understand the Utility Patents and Plant Variety Protection laws.

The first step is to begin growing and saving as many types of open-pollinated seed right now. By doing so, we are essentially asserting our cultural and indigenous rights of collective ownership. The people of India won their lawsuit against bio-piracy in part because they could show that they already “owned” the neem tree and all of the products made from it because they were the ones who first discovered it, grew it, and developed its uses over thousands of years. Therefore, if we are going to protect our long and diverse agricultural heritage from bio-pirates, we must grow and save the seed of heirloom open-pollinated fruits, herbs and vegetables before it’s too late.

Be sure to check in next week for the second part of this article.
Until then, Happy Seed Saving!

Show Me Oz | Living and loving life in the Ozarks!
Gardening, foraging, herbs, homesteading, slow food, nature, and more!
© Jill Henderson


GSSG-Cover-135x211_thumbThe Garden Seed Saving Guide
Easy Heirloom Seeds for the Home Gardener

As the world food and seed supply is being been hijacked by powerful corporate interests, saving seeds is a skill that everyone needs to learn to survive. Praised by gardeners and seed savers alike, this little no-nonsense book will teach you everything you need to know to start saving your own organic seeds right now in less than 50 pages!  Look inside!


Jill Henderson is an artist, author, and the editor of Show Me Oz  Her books, The Healing Power of Kitchen Herbs, The Garden Seed Saving Guide and A Journey of Seasons and Illuminati Agenda 21 can be found in the Show Me Oz Bookstore.  Jill is a featured columnist for Acres USA and a contributing author to Llewellyn’s Herbal Almanac and her work has appeared in The Permaculture Activist and The Essential Herbal.


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2 responses to “Saving Our Genetic Heritage One Seed at a Time

  1. This is a very interesting and important article about seeds and their importance. Unfortunately, many farmers don’t understand the importance of growing and saving the seed of heirloom, and they keep buying the seeds from companies; I have seen that in Europe all over, farmers keep buying the seeds and this is done due to laziness or indifference or just ignorance. Thanks for your article Jill and for opening the eyes of people, hopefully.

    • Thanks, Laura. Seed saving is a passion that pays. Farmer’s stopped saving seeds because most of the crops are either GMO or patented varieties that makes it illegal to save seed from. Also, crops that are open pollinated, like corn, are easily pollinated by nearby GMO corn which transfers those patented genes to the OP varieties – again, making saving seed illegal. Also, many have forgotten how to save seed and breed their own varieties. It’s these things we have to change before farmer’s can start saving and sowing their own seed again.

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