Crop diversity and seed saving



Evolution needs two things: Natural Selection and diversity. For thousands of years, farmers have saved seed, and consequently their crops have become more and more closely adapted to the many different farm environments on earth, and a huge diversity has been created. Unfortunately, modern plant breeding is rapidly destroying this diversity. Farmers are encouraged to grow a few varieties which are believed to be best overall.

These new varieties tend to be very uniform, but this makes them vulnerable to pests and disease: While the crop may have been bred to cope with the pests and diseases of today, next year a new disease or pest could sweep through half the world's crop, because if it can attack one plant, it can attack them all. Evidence has shown that the old practices of growing many different varieties of cereal, instead of one single variety greatly reduces the risk of disease.

The seeds sold in the garden centre are generally claimed to be "high yielding", but this only means that they were high yielding at the seed company's testing centre, in rich soil, with plenty of pesticides and fertilisers. They are claimed to be disease resistant, but despite the whole armoury of pesticides available and the breeding which has been done, farmers now lose more of their crops to pests and disease than they did 50 years ago.

I am looking for crops which will grow well in my soil, in my climate, on soil enriched with compost made by me, partly shaded by a large elm and sycamore trees. I want a crop which will resist the diseases and pests which are present in my garden, and which will have sufficient diversity to adapt to cope with future pests and diseases. This is why I save seed from plants which have already grown successfully on my soil, to breed varieties that are right for here.

Most vegetables and crops take a year or more to produce seed. Bacteria, viruses, insects etc. can go through their entire life cycle in a day or less. For this reason, the bugs evolve faster than plants, animals and humans. To cope with this, long lived organisms usually reproduce sexually, mixing their genes at 50:50 with those of another member of their species, to produce offspring with an entirely new and unique set of genes. This way the next generation has a chance of resisting the bugs which the last generation were vulnerable to.

Plant and animal breeders go on selecting from ever more inbred and uniform crop and animal varieties, in an attempt to produce the perfect soyabean, sheep or whatever, failing to realise that evolution is a continuous process, which has no end or even direction: The bugs evolve a way to attack a plant, the plant evolves a chemical defense, the bugs evolve immunity to the chemical defense, the plant evolves a new defense etc.

Now that cloning animals is possible there is talk of cloning entire new varieties of farm animals which (we are assured) will be resistant to all known diseases, stronger and faster growing. I have my doubts. Sex exists for a reason!

Genetic engineering of crops is being claimed as a way to solve all of the man made problems of modern agriculture. Now the entire genetic code of rice (or at least one variety of rice) has been sequenced. We are told that this will allow the men in white coats to produce superior varieties of rice..... assuming that scientists can figure out exactly what every one of the thousands of genes does....and assuming that each gene acts independently of all the other genes.....and assuming that a rice plant is a very complicated machine, and that each gene can be treated like a single component....and assuming that when every gene has been studied, the brains of the scientists will be capable of understanding precisely why variety A yields more than variety B under a particular set of environmental conditions.....then it might be possible to improve on nature, but I have my doubts.

The GM food corporation Monsanto (who are currently trying to make us eat genetically engineered maize and soya in processed foods against our will) often talk about their concern for the starving people of the world. However, they have also developed a gene to be added to their new crops which will make the seeds from the crop sterile, thus ensuring that farmers cannot save seed and have to buy more seed from the company every year.

The rival biotech firm, Novartis has a more sophisticated plan: Genetically engineered plants which cannot grow unless sprayed with a chemical which is patented by Novartis

British seed companies are attempting to discourage seed saving. They recently issued a statement to the effect that if their profits continued to be hit by farmers saving seed, then they would have to cut costs and reduce the quality controls on the seeds they sold. In short this could mean that seeds of serious weeds like couch grass could "accidentally" get mixed with seeds sold commercially. To prevent this happening, farmers should continue buying all their seed and encourage others to do likewise.

For years before this, plant breeders were producing F1 hybrid seed, which must be bought fresh every year because the resulting seeds will not have the desirable characteristics of the parent plant.

Modern plant breeding companies claim that the seeds they breed have been "improved" by their science, and consequently are the intellectual property of the company that grew them. They have to justify their existence somehow I suppose. Monsanto have prosecuted farmers all around the world for growing "Monsanto" seed without permission.

Crops are wild plants which have spent millions of years evolving in the wild, before being cultivated and bred (often unintentionally) by generations of farmers, since the dawn of agriculture around 10,000 years ago. This is how sweetcorn evolved from a wild grass with seedheads 1/8 of an inch long. In the last 50 years, plant breeding has shifted out of the hands of subsistence farmers, and into the hands of governments and multinationals, who have collected seeds from all over the world (usually without paying anything back to the farmers who bred them, or to nature for creating them), inbred a tiny selection of them, hybridised them and sold them back to the farmers. In the process, 40% of the world's crop varieties have become extinct since WW2. And now we have GM crops, which we are assured will be better than any traditional varieties. We will never be able to check this claim, because the old varieties will be extinct in a few years time, or they will be the exclusive property of the biotech companies. With clever lobbying, and a buy up of the worlds seed collections, the biotech companies look set to monopolise the world's food supply.

Like we said, seed saving is important
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