Saving Seed, the Birth of Agriculture, Human Civilization (Woooah!)

The domestication of plants has most certainly been instrumental in shaping the world as well as human civilization as we know it.  Domesticating plants by selecting desirable traits, controlling pollination and saving seed began to see success around 8,000 to 10,000 years ago in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East (centered in what is now Iraq).  The success of plant domestication began to turn the wild inedible parent plants of crops such as rye and other cereal grasses into useful and edible crops.  As more and more wild plants were selectively bred to become useful and edible the shift from nomadic hunter gatherer to sedentary farmer began.  Exactly how and why that shift began is something beyond my understanding as 10,000 years later agriculture (and human civilization) still face huge challenges. Because although agriculture appeared as a shining hope of stability, it also opened a bit of Pandora’s Box.  Perhaps we should have just remained hunter-gatherers roaming to and fro. So, for better or for worse, the human success in plant breeding led to perhaps the largest shifts in human history to date.  But enough of my (very)  limited history lesson and on to some seed saving we’ve been doing on the farm.

I’ve noticed that for many of the refugee families, saving seed is not a new concept.  I imagine that in Burma saving seed was the only way to ensure you’d have

Families cut open and harvest seed from a bottle gourd

seed for the next planting.  In agriculture today most varieties of plants are hybridized by plant breeders.  These hybridized plants will produce seed that is not “true to type” or in other words will not grow into a fruit or vegetable that is the same as the parent fruit or vegetable from whence it came.  In some cases that seed can even be non viable and produce nothing.  The rise of hybridized seeds (again for better or worse) has taken seed saving out of the hands of the farmer and into plant breeders; there can be quite a bit of money to be made from a successful hybrid.  As a result, thousands of varieties of plants have been lost as farmers stopped selecting their own plants and seeds and were lured in by the promise of hybrids.  Being to young to know personally about the varieties that were lost, many of which were adapted to specific growing conditions or for specific traits, I can only speculate on the performance of hybrids vs. non hybrids. Realistically, I have seen hybrids outperform their non-hybrid counter parts when it comes to production or disease resistance for example.  But, my beliefs cause me to want to rise against the problem of not being able to easily save hybrid seed and grow non-hybridized plants.   There is of course also great concern for the loss of bio-diversity that came with the extinction of thousands of plant varieties as hybrids become the convention.

So after saying all of that I will admit that I made the choice to grow about half hybrid and half non-hybrid plants at the farm.  It will certainly be a gamble next year to see what kind of plants will grow up from the seed we saved this year.  With the refugee families’ exuberance for seed saving we may grow considerably less hybrids next year.

There is most certainly a satisfaction gained from the cycle of growing and saving, growing and saving.

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