Heirloom seeds have recently enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity. While it may appear that they’ve become the latest ‘must-have’, humans have relied solely on heirloom seeds, season after season, for centuries. Whether it be quick growing rice, the sweetest yams or prolific peas, people have been carefully selecting and saving seed from plants that survive and thrive in their climates. Heirloom foods are treasured for taste, nutrition and as tummy fillers. The rich diversity of the world’s cuisines is thanks to the efforts of diligent seed savers across time, especially those who understand the importance of true seed.
To produce heirloom seeds, plants are open - pollinated (see below) naturally with other plants of the same variety. This ensures that the seed remains true and, therefore, the favourable characteristics of that plant perseveres. Because of this, growers never need to source or purchase this particular seed again. This is a crucial element for anyone to become or remain self-sufficient in food. Once a variety has displayed the same characteristics over many generations, growers can rely on the outcome of their labours. There are many risk factors in food production, from climactic fluctuations and events, to pests and diseases, so it’s nice to kick back knowing that those particular pumpkins (should they grow) will make a warming soup and keep through winter.
Open- pollination means that pollination takes place naturally through self-fertilisation, wind, those saucy birds, those shameless bees and humans. Human intervention in the pollination of heritage seed is about preservation and consistency. Certain plants are promiscuous and will happily cross with others of their own species and this needs to be prevented. Yes, it’s controlling, a bit snobby and kind of creepy, but for good reason. If cross pollination occurs, the next generation of seed will no longer be true. They’ll become hybrids, the genetics of that valued variety will be lost and food security could be a risk.
The truth is that all heritage seeds probably started out as hybrids. Their great-great-great etc grandparents liked to fool around and their resultant babies were bonny and beautiful. People loved them, grew them, let them ripen into old age and saved their seed. These seeds retained their valued characteristics over many generations and remained true, earning their esteem. And hybridization 'fooling around' occurs naturally all the time. Say you’re growing Queensland Blue pumpkins and your neighbour has Butternuts growing. You save the seed from your pumpkins expecting Blues, but the next generation has a Queensland Blue form with a Butternut flavour and colour. You know what those guys were up to while your back was turned, don’t you? Perhaps you’ve accidently discovered the next best pumpkin heirloom. The issue is that you can’t be sure these seeds will produce reliable results into the future and you’ve got quite a wait to find out. These characteristics need to stabilise for generations before you can be confident that they’ll remain true. And if they get loose and start partying again, well…
Human intervention in preserving heirloom seed is the polar opposite of the production of commercial hybrids. One prevents cross-pollination, the other performs it. Commercial hybrids are created with an intentional, controlled crossing of two parents of different varieties of the same species that will (hopefully) produce new, desirable traits. For example, a pest resistant variety crossed with a high yielding one. We’re talking arranged marriages here and it’s the breeders that decide who pollinates who. For cross breeding to be successful, two true (heirloom) parents must be used. The parents are crossed, records are taken, seeds are ripened, saved and sown. If the results are welcome then those parents are locked together forever. If not, their torn apart for all eternity. While we may resent the controlling and invasive nature of human intervention, we must admit that hybridisation can produce impressive results. Burpless cucumbers, wilt resistant tomatoes, eyeless potatoes. These days agriculture relies heavily on hybrids due to innovations that increase several beneficial characteristics. Yield, pest and disease resistance and shelf life are the most popular ones. Unfortunately, though, where there are gains, there are often losses. Those of us old enough to remember, can attest to the sad decline in flavour of many of the popular supermarket varieties.
The process to successful hybridisation is lengthy. Most plant breeders want a return on their investment of time and money, so will guard the parental linage fervidly. And if their work produces desirable results, they tend to whack a patent on the breed quick sticks to maximise their potential profit. Hybrid seed is, therefore, often more expensive (at least initially) than heirloom seed. One of the greatest issues with commercial hybridisation of seed, however, is the inability to rely on this seed into future generations. The babies of hybrid plants carry a random mix of mum and dad’s DNA so the traits displayed in the first generation will not dependably continue into the future. While it may be fine for a novice home gardener to pursue second generation hybrid seed, erratic and unreliable results could be disastrous for farmers and those reliant on their own food production to survive. This locks people, often the most vulnerable, into an expensive cycle of buying seed, season after season making commercial hybrid seed big business. First generation hybrids (F1’s) are cloned and grown to produce large quantities of single generation seed. Cloning is done in a Petri dish environment, but is biologically the same as the common practice of taking cuttings.
We all squirm in our seat a little when GMO (genetically modified organisms) are mentioned. Considering what we know about heirloom and hybrid seed, it’s safe to conclude that most plants are, in essence, genetically modified at some stage of their development. What we’re really concerned about, however, is genetic engineering, or bioengineering. Basically, the DNA of organisms are manipulated and switched to introduce preferable (and ultimately profitable) traits or to establish control of desirable ones. Foreign genes from one type of plant are inserted into the genetic code of another, often from different species entirely. Development of genetically modified seed is primarily a commercial quest to circumvent potential environmental risks and limitations in the food production cycle. Corn is one of the most common vegetables used for genetic engineering. GM corn has a bacterial toxin added to its DNA designed to attack a common corn predator - corn rootworm. There are concerns that it may attack our own intestinal gut flora too. You’re unlikely (at this stage) to find genetically modified seed in the gardening section of your supermarket. They’re mainly used in agriculture, that is, broad acre farming.
There are persuasive arguments that support genetic modification of food crop seeds, such as a reduction in food wastage, particularly in poor countries and remote areas, where refrigeration and transportation are issues. It can offer more bang for your buck in terms of nutrition by enhancing certain vitamins, their quantities and potency. GM can support food production in extreme environments, from desert, to flood zones, to saltpans. The primary motivations, however, are shelf life, flavour, texture, disease, pest and pesticide resistance and increased yields. Oh, and apparently, it’s important to balance a brick on your tomatoes. This seed couldn’t be any further out of farmers’ and home growers’ hands. You need a PhD in molecular genetics, a lab coat and a menacing laugh to understand how to do this. And let’s face it, it’s research - long term effects take time to show. It’s a far cry from passing an envelope of lettuce seed over the side fence. Large corporations are the main players in developing these seeds, so ethics are a huge concern. And genetically modified seed is patented and owned. This seed does not remain true and therefore is unsuitable (and illegal) to save and re-sow.
Without a doubt, seed is the stuff of life. Seed saving and production is essential for securing our food future and we, as consumers, will influence how this is done based on what we value most. It’s up to us to, at the very least, understand how seed is being presented to us commercially and decide for ourselves what we do and don’t support. Heirlooms offer us a traditional, self sufficient option. Hybrids offer us benefits in large scale food production. Genetic engineering takes us into an uncertain brave new world. We may have the technology and science to manipulate seed production but, for me, just because we humans are capable of doing something, doesn’t mean we should.