September, 25th, 2013
Have you ever tried collecting lettuce seeds? No? And yet, nothing could be easier. Unlike for carrots or onions there is no need to wait for two years; just leave your lettuce to go to seed. Tomato seeds are even easier to collect, store and replant — you can pick them up straight off your plate! Just leave them for a few days on some toilet paper in order to dehydrate them before slipping them into an envelope until spring comes around.
Every year, at the end of the season, Maryann collects her own seeds in order to plant them the following year. This takes some time, but has many advantages.
Economically-speaking, you no longer need to buy your seeds every year. The farmer is therefore not dependent on seed companies and therefore remains self-sufficient. When it comes to GMOs, not only are the seeds expensive, but what’s more they almost always have to be bought alongside certain “adapted” products, sold of course by the same company… This is the case for the weed killer Roundup © with for example cotton, corn, or soya, products sold as “Roundup Ready ©”.
Seed conservation traditionally takes place through exchanges amongst farmers. This also allows for genetic mixing and helps forge strong social ties in the area.
A selection adapted to your land and personal taste:
Depending on the plant, the farmer either keeps the seeds (e.g. wheat, lettuce, melon) or other parts of the plant (tubers, bulbs, etc.). Each year he selects the seeds from the plants he judges the best.
Seed conservation allows you to select the plants best adapted to your climate, pests, land, cultural practices and above all your own taste! All of this is difficult for large seed companies to achieve, as once they have selected a plant they sell it across a vast area, even across several continents. And we understand them! Varietal selection is time-consuming and costly for these companies, and it is understandable that they try to make their expenses profitable. Even if they try to adapt their products as far as possible to individual climates, it is understandable that they cannot adapt them to your individual field or garden.
By now you have understood that selecting your plants means adapting them to your land. Let’s not forget that seed companies select their plants in optimal conditions in terms of both land and material input (this is beginning to change, thankfully!¹). Therefore it’s up to the farmers to supply the fertilisers that are lacking in order to achieve the crop yields promised.
If your seeds come from a selection made at a nearby farm, and are adapted to soil, climate and cultural practices that involve low levels of material input, you won’t necessarily need to supply much material input of your own (fertiliser, pesticides, water, etc.) in order to produce a crop.
Lastly, varieties that are selected at the farm, known as “population varieties”, increase the biodiversity of the soil in which they are planted, unlike the pure-line, hybrid or GMO varieties that are often marketed by seed companies.
Problems associated with selection at the farm:
Replanting your own seeds can take some time, especially for fruit and vegetables! For cereals, it’s not enough just to pick up a sack of grains at random; you have to choose the plants that suit you best (in terms of taste, appearance, resistance, tolerance, etc.).
Another major issue: the law2. In France, farmers are only allowed to grow varieties that are registered on the French or European “List”. The list is responsible for indexing all the varieties that can be farmed for each species. Registering a variety on the list is time-consuming and expensive, and the registration has to be renewed every five to ten years if you want to continue to grow a particular variety. There are some exemptions made for earlier varieties considered to be in “genetic erosion”—but not for all local varieties—as well as for some species like millet that are not widely-grown; however these exemptions are often quite restrictive and above all difficult to understand. Finally, the exchanging of seeds amongst farmers is now prohibited, rendering these exchanges amongst farmers legally impossible.
You have understood by now that the seed issue is a complex one that touches on an infinite number of ecological, sanitary, economic, social, legal and even political problems.
The right to reseed one’s own crop should be indisputable for all farmers, but this is no longer the case. What was originally one of the foundations of agriculture is becoming more and more impossible to achieve lawfully. In France the law is now trying to take into consideration those local varieties that are “in danger of distinction”, but this is not yet the case for all local varieties, nor for the principle of selection on the farm. There are still many legal obstacles to overcome, since our model is now designed to meet the needs of new varieties. Nevertheless, some countries such as Switzerland have succeeded in finding solutions3 by agreeing to make exceptions for local varieties, so all is not yet lost!
1Bernard Rolland, researcher at INRA, suggests selecting wheat varieties from poor soils with low levels of material input. These varieties would be more adapted to organic farming, which uses very little material input.
2 The French Foundation for Research on Biodiversity (FRB) has published a report on the evolution of the biodiversity of wheat in France. Not that easy to read! But very interesting nonetheless.
3 If this interests you, I sincerely recommend that you read Ms. Shabnam’s thesis, “Semence et droit”, presented in 2008. It helps you to develop your own opinion, a subjective opinion of course but nonetheless very informed and thorough when it comes to the issues surrounding seeds.
Translated by students from Rennes 2 University, MTLC2M Master’s Programme