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A Seed Saved is a Seed Earned

February 4, 2012

Swapping items is far more rewarding when you feel that you’ve produced the very items you’re swapping. There’s an inherent sense of pride in it, knowing that someone wants to now own something you’ve made. Although it seems odd to think of plant seeds as being “human produced” outside of agricultural laboratories, even ordinary gardeners can save their own seeds. Although I failed to save them last year – and I wish I had, especially our heirloom tomatoes – the process itself isn’t very complicated.

Beyond the matter of simple pleasure of DIY, saving seeds is also good for society as a whole. Most of the produce available in the grocery store comes from only a very limited number of breeds within any given plant species. These monocrops present both ecological and social problems. Ecologically, having a lack of genetic diversity makes our food supply quite vulnerable to various pests and diseases. If there’s only one or two breeds of a major crop, there’s less of a chance for mutations to exist in the plant population that could potentially counteract a devastating fungus or other infestation.

Socially, saving seeds preserves both cultural heritage and economic freedom. Most breeds of fruits and vegetables these days are created to maximize appearance and the ability to hold up under long-distance transport, not taste. That’s why beautiful, round red tomatoes can be mealy, while funky, lumpy heirloom tomatoes are startlingly tasty. Having good produce is key to making great vegetable-based dishes and many traditional dishes just won’t taste the same with produce from the grocery store. In addition, many varieties are part of a location’s cultural fabric. Even though only two or three types of apples are available in most grocery stores, as a proud New Yorker, I can name more than 10 types because I’d pick them myself at the local orchard as a kid.

Lastly, saving seeds supports small farmers, both domestically and internationally. Most of the seed sold for commercial growing today comes from only a few major agri-business companies, including Monsanto. Because these companies have an inherent interest in continuing to sell seed to farmers, they have bred and genetically modified “terminator” seeds. These seeds are basically the mules of the plant world – they will grow into adults, but never be fertile. For many farmers in the U.S., this isn’t a huge problem, as many of them wouldn’t have anticipated saving their seeds anyway. However, for farmers in developing worlds, who have saved seeds for generations and have no other alternatives to purchasing non-corporate seeds because of these companies’ market dominance, this is a huge social justice issue. Many of them go into massive debt as a result of having to purchase these seeds annually, ever being sold on the idea that they if they purchase more expensive seeds this year, they’ll have a big enough crop to get them out from under their debt. So there’s the people in both the U.S. and abroad that purchase these corporate seeds and pay entirely too much for them.

But what if a farmer decides they will get their seed elsewhere or save it themselves? One would think that Monsanto would leave them alone, being as they have chosen not to be a customer. Unfortunately, it’s not that simple. Instead of allowing people to save their own seeds, Monsanto is suing these farmers and professional seed savers for violating Monsanto’s patents. They argue that because they have a patent on their seeds, and their seeds may have cross-pollinated with the crops of the farmer – even if that farmer has never bought a Montsanto seed in his or her life – that the farmer is “stealing” their intellectual property. Even worse, in many cases, the farmer is an organic farmer who actually has his or her organic status and accompanying premium at risk because of other people’s genetically modified crops crossing with theirs. Taking these legal measures against people who Monsanto has little proof of saving seed or didn’t even want the seed in the first place is straight-up unethical. By saving seeds ourselves and supporting companies that do so, like Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, we can stand up to those seed companies and tell them that these practices are unacceptable.

Knowing all of this social, political, and economic background is great, but it’s even better when we can put it into practice. Although the devoted gardener can save seeds from just about any plant, I’ll describe how to save seeds from one of the most common plants to do so – tomatoes. Because heirloom tomatoes are actually pretty easy to grow and can be expensive to buy (either as fruit, seedlings, or seeds), they’re one of the best to save from.

Saving Tomato Seeds

  • Pick and wash fully ripe tomatoes.
  • Cut the fruits across the middle, not through the stem or blossom ends.
  • Squeeze seeds and gel into a bowl or bucket. Removing seeds on cherry and currant tomatoes is much easier if you grind them using a blender or food processor.
  • Tomato seeds are surrounded by a gelatinous sack. These ferment in nature, which is a process we need to imitate. Fermenting removes the sack and kills seed-borne tomato diseases.
  • To ferment the seeds, keep them in a jar for one to three days. During this time, the container will start to stink and become covered with a layer of white or gray mold. When the mold completely covers the surface of the liquid, add enough water to double the mixture and shake it vigorously. The good seeds will sink to the bottom. Pour off the mold and bad seeds. Add more water or use a strainer with running water until only clean seeds remain.
  • Dump the seeds out on a glass or ceramic dish. Do not use soft paper or cloth. However, coffee filters can be useful for drying.

    Folks in the process of saving tomato seeds at our Ecolocity DC workshop on seed saving.

    Here’s some more resources with comprehensive directions on saving seeds and breeding plants “true,” so that different breeds don’t cross with each other by mistake.
    Seed to Seed. Suzanne Ashworth. 2002. Seed Savers.
    Starting from Seed: The Natural Gardener’s Guide to Propagating Plants. 21st Century Gardening Series. 1998. Brooklyn Botanic Garden.
    Seed Sowing and Saving: Step by Step Techniques for Collecting and growing More than 100 Vegetables, Flowers and Herbs. Carole B. Turner. 1998. Storey’s Gardening Skills Illustrated.
    “The Future of Food.” (film) Director Deborah Koons. 2004.
    International Seed Saving Institute.

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