To Save A Seed
by Emily Kennedy
For three days, the tiny mason jar of green goo sat on the little table beside my bed. Twice, in the middle of the night, grasping past my telephone, glasses, book, I reached for it in the throes of a terrible autumn sleep-thirst, and almost kicked it back. Those poor few dozen seeds were probably almost consumed in a half-sleep more times than I’ll even know. Why did I even put them there? I asked myself. At the time it seemed like a small, nice reminder of how something that feels so dauntingly complicated can, in reality, be quite simple.
I am definitively not an outdoor gardener, nor am I particularly gifted at keeping even more manageable plantlife alive. (My house-plants are happy to serve as references.) But the promise of seeds appeals to me at some fundamental level—that these humble little creatures provide almost everything to the world; meanwhile, we spend our days treat- ing the pettiest, silliest things as largesse.
Blowing warm air onto my chapped fingers outside of the West Tisbury Public Library on a cold, fall day, it took me exactly two minutes to cut my ripe, green tomato in half on its equator, scoop the pulp out with my fingers, and place it in a jar with water. That began the process of, well, processing a seed. That was it.
Each morning after, I stirred the little beacons in the tiny glass jar, and poured the fermenting pulp off of the top of the mixture. At the end of three days, as instructed, I filled my jar with warm water, and let the contents settle. The seeds that floated to the top were immature; the seeds that stuck to the bottom were kept—those would be the viable ones, I was told. (I guiltily wondered if I had unexpectedly slurped down any of these survivors in the night.)
I strained the seeds and left them out to dry on a newspaper on my countertop, watching as they changed shape as they dried. I placed my handout—“How to Save your Tomato Seeds!” in a folder next to my bed, with the others: “How to Save your Bean Seeds!” and “How to Save your Lettuce Seeds!” as well as a primer on how to borrow and donate to the new, local community seed library. For the first time in my history with this conversation, seed-saving seemed manageable.
The conversation around seed-saving, of late, has seemed devastating at best, apocalyptic at worst. My first exposure to mass seed-saving was through the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a seedbank on the Norweigan island of Spitsbergen that opened in 2008. The vault, halfway between Norway and the North Pole, was built to preserve a variety of plant seeds that are duplicates—spares—of seeds held in gene banks worldwide. The facility has the ability to preserve up to 4.5 million seeds at a controlled temperature of −0.4 °F; right now, it is estimated to hold almost 800,000 back-ups of the world’s seeds.
This seed bank functions like a real bank, in the sense that it holds back- ups for proprietary seeds in the case of emergencies of great scale—disease, war, agri-terrorism, natural disasters. No one has access to others’ seeds, but the back-ups are there in case the originals are lost. To someone who didn’t understand the level at which seeds are already being saved across the globe, this sounds both dystopic and completely rational, given our current conversations in the global food community. After all, wouldn’t we be crazy not to process and preserve seeds in this way?
The simple processing and saving of seeds, of course, is not so simple, and in recent years has become entangled in multinational agribusiness, corporate profits and arcane patent law. Monsanto, the world’s largest seed producer, has gained a reputation for aggressively enforcing its seed patents—some critics label them “scorched-earth” tactics—even if it means chasing farmers all the way to the highest court in the land.
According to the Center for Food Safety, 10 agribusiness giants hold patents to two thirds of the seed for the world’s commercial crops. By late 2012, Monsanto had sued more than 410 farmers and 56 small farm businesses in 27 states and gained more than $23 million in court awards, although that amount is just the tip of the iceberg since many of the lawsuits result in settlements, the group argued in a court brief against Monsanto. (And we’re just talking about the United States.)
Just last year, the United States Supreme Court sided with Monsanto in its fight with Indiana farmer Vernon Hugh Bowman, saying that he could not use the company’s patented soybean seeds beyond that first crop year. (When farmers buy Monsanto seeds, they generally must sign contracts that promise not to save them for successive crops; rather they must buy new ones.) While the court said its decision was narrowly tailored, it has nonetheless provided fuel to communities to develop their own seed stocks separate from those under patent.
The practice of saving seeds from the best and heartiest plants to aid the process of natural selection is surely as old as farming itself. It would not have taken long for our ancestors, freed from the peripatetic life of hunter-gatherers, to discover that some plants fare better than others, and that starting with seeds from the heartiest or tastiest vegetables, grains and herbs will reliably reproduce the same good results.
Over thousands of years in communities worldwide, this practice evolved into differing patterns of preserving and collectively sharing seeds. Immigrants to the United States in the colonial era tucked their best seeds into bags and stitched seeds into their clothing, over time sharing them with their new neighbors. In Africa, local farmers formed cooperatives with the implicit understanding that seed diversity could help them cope with drought and other extreme weather condition, disease and political upheaval.
How such a simple and seemingly pure concept could have become in a relatively short time a global political issue is hard to fathom, but comes down to the usual culprit: money.
Over the last few decades, the increasing influence of agribusiness has substantially altered the principle that plants and their genetic heritage are a public good that should continue to be collectively managed. Through patents and other means, corporations are increasingly pushing the notion that seeds and the way they are developed are private, not community property.
But that’s where small, community seed-saving initiatives come in. Throughout the world, efforts large and small are being made to combat the consolidation of seed ownership. Local seed banks are springing up everywhere to preserve genetic diversity and reassert an ethic of community cooperation to ensure food security. In the United States, disparate small seed libraries are creating a quiet counter-revolution. The right to control our own food can’t be taken away.
Beginning this year, Island Grown Schools, the Farm Institute, and the West Tisbury Public Library have teamed up to put together a series of seed workshops based around Martha’s Vineyard’s first community seed library.
This new momentum, apparently, has been slowly building over time. Earlier this spring, a group gathered for the Martha’s Vineyard Seed Summit, a training organized by Island Grown Schools and facilitated by national leaders in the seed systems movement, including Ken Greene, the founder of the first community seed library in the country, the Hudson Valley Seed Library. This series of workshops prioritized education and outreach, but, most tangibly, the creation of a central community seed library on Martha’s Vineyard. The goal was to start small, and focus on a few key crops—lettuce, beans, and tomatoes—and to pass knowledge onto those—farmers, educators, and hobbyists—interested in becoming leaders in the community on the issue of building our local seed supply.
The word is not quite out there on this movement, but it’s getting there. As of this writing, Martha’s Vineyard’s own seed library is humble—a self-described “cabinet,” housed within the West Tisbury Public Library. Head to the back of the building, swing a right, take the staircase down to the lower level. The library sits across from the fluorescent-lit conference rooms, for now an old-fashioned card catalog, four drawers across by six drawers tall, pleasantly old-fashioned amid the modernity of the building. A hand-lettered sign above the catalog declares it open for business: “Welcome to the Martha’s Vineyard Community Seed Library.” Only a few of its drawers have been designated with their classification so far: tomatoes, beans, and lettuce are what can be found here, primarily. (These are the plants that have been processed and workshopped at recent, local events.)
I spent a recent Monday evening reading in one of those conference rooms, and found myself looking up to watch the basement’s few other night loiterers walk by, open the drawers, read the display, and sign up for the e-mail list. Most people seemed tentative, as if they were handling something both foreign and sacred. We should try this, I overhead one woman say to her companion, opening up a drawer and fingering an envelope. Sure, I heard. May as well give it a shot.
For more information on borrowing from and donating to the Martha’s Vineyard Community Seed Library, visit the West Tisbury Library and ediblevineyard.com.