Written by Hannah Van Eendenburg (third from left), a graduate student at the University of Colorado, Boulder, studying cultural anthropology. She is an avid soccer player, gardener, and a co-founder of the S.A.V.E. (Seeds Adapted to Variable Ecosystems) Salida Seed Library in Salida, Colorado.
While seeds can naturally reproduce and grow on their own, humans have been freely collecting, growing, saving, exchanging, and sowing them for over 10,000 years. These seed savers have shaped agriculture by preserving crop diversity, increasing flavor and nutrition, and encouraging the seeds to adapt to where they’re grown. Seeds have also played an important cultural role for humans, carrying stories and connections to past generations. However, the context of seed saving has changed drastically in the last 200 years due to corporate control and the climate crisis.
Seed Saving in Recent History
After landing in the Americas, European colonizers realized that their crops were not adapted to the conditions of what would become the United States. As their crops failed in these drastically different climates and soil, the colonizers turned to native plants. Through forced exchanges with indigenous tribes, Europeans began seed saving to build a collection of crops that were successful.
From these crops, as well as countless others taken from around the world, the US government developed an agricultural-focused patent office. The USDA was formally established in 1862, strengthening the collection, propagation, and distribution of seeds. Over 1.1 billion packets of seeds were being distributed by the government throughout the US for farmers to grow and adapt in different climates.
The private sector saw the potential for growth, and seed distribution began to change. In 1883, the American Seed Trade Association (ASTA) was established to build business alliances in the seed industry. This association convinced the federal government to discontinue the free seed distribution program in 1924. Intellectual property rights and patents were developed, further increasing corporate control in the seed world and making these companies economically and politically untouchable. It became illegal for individuals to save most seeds owned by corporations, and the rich history of traditional seed saving and the social and cultural role of seeds changed forever.
Today, power is consolidated in the hands of the four largest agricultural corporations in the world: Bayer (the company that acquired Monsanto in 2018), Corteva Agriscience, Sinochem, and BASF own more than 67% of seeds worldwide, grossing over $25 billion in 2019.
Seed Saving Today
Walking into a garden store today, the majority of seeds you see are most likely owned by one of these global companies. They are probably treated with insecticides, fungicides, and may even be genetically modified. These seeds might also be dependent on pesticides to grow. In the face of such limited choice, seed saving is the best decision you can make for your own health, the health of your garden, and the health of the climate.
Regionally-adapted seeds are those that have been grown and saved in your specific location for at least one season. These seeds learn from their environment, including specific weather patterns, soil type, season length, local pests, and more. These adaptations help your garden become more successful and eliminate the need for chemical inputs like pesticides and fertilizers.
By seed saving each year, plants become more dependable by adjusting to their surroundings. In contrast, purchased seeds do not have any genetic or biological familiarity with the ecosystem. Saving local seeds that flourish in your specific environment is key for food security and resilience. This is especially important today, in the face of the climate crisis, erratic weather conditions, and an increasingly unstable food system.
The Community’s Role in Seed Saving
Food growing and seed saving are at the front lines of the climate crisis. Growing well adapted foods at the local level gives us the opportunity to reduce our climate impacts while also making our food system stronger in the face of uncertainty. The argument for regional seeds is parallel to that of local food in many ways, including fostering community relationships, strengthening economies, and increasing social justice.
A local seed movement cannot happen without community. One of the fundamental models of community seed saving and sharing is the seed library. Seed libraries are institutions that lend or share seeds with the public. Their collections are often acquired through donations from community members and local seed companies committed to sharing their knowledge. For this system to be successful, there needs to be a balance between taking seeds at the start of the season and returning seeds after the harvest. This furthers seed adaptation and solidifies community partnerships into the future.
Seed saving is one of the most efficient and beneficial ways to have a successful garden. It promotes environmental stewardship, community connection, and a way to step outside of the global economy. And, it’s something anyone can do!
Climate Victory Gardening puts the health of people, communities, and the planet first, and it all starts with seeds. Consider adding seed saving to your gardening toolkit and explore (or start!) a local seed library this season!
This is the first article in a series of three about seed saving. The second article is about Adapting with Intention: A Lesson on Seed Saving, and the third article is about Developing Online Tools for Seed Saving and Sharing.
Read more inspiring Climate Victory Garden stories and tips.