The Importance of Seed Saving
Santa Fe Red Sorghum seedheads, grown in Albuquerque.
It's a warm day in January and you have a cup of hot tea in one hand and a seed catalog in the other. As you select this year's assortment of seeds, you dream of the endless possibilities for the upcoming growing seasons. Really, what could be better?
Well, what if you already had some of your seeds by practicing the tradition of seed saving?
History and Tradition
Long before seed companies and agricultural science, people collected, saved, and replanted seeds from one year to the next as an essential part of our survival for thousands of years. Seed saving is the reason our current crops came to be, which were selected for various traits over generations and traded across regions and continents. This selection lead to a genetic diversity of crops adapted to many growing conditions and climates, and created a large base for our food supply.
Over time however, genetic crop diversity has declined from 7,000 to 150 plant species, specifically with the rise of modern agricultural practices. This loss means that our food supply is reliant on a small selection of crops, making it more vulnerable to pests, diseases, and changes in climate.
Seed saving today may sound like a hobby to some, but the saving and sharing of rare, heirloom, and native seeds has always been, and still is, an important part of our worldwide food security.
To learn more about why seed saving is so important, I talked with local expert Miguel Santistevan. Miguel owns and operate Sol Feliz, an experimental seed saving farm in Taos, and he is working on his PhD at the University of New Mexico on regional capabilities of crop production as it relates to crop diversity.
Why is seed saving important?
Seed saving represents our original relationship to the land, a mutualism or symbiosis between us as humans and the plant kingdom. It is the basis of our understanding of seasonal cycles and time for planting; the use of plants for food, tools, art, and medicine; and the development of crops through domestication which is the foundation of our economy, social system, and technology.
How does seed saving relate to food security?
Seed saving is central to the ideals of sustainability and food security, especially in times of concern about climate change and food safety. Only open pollinated, heirloom seeds (landraces) have the ability to adapt to changing climate conditions in the time frame that they happen. We are likely to see climate changes that manifest as dry spells and drought; late and early frosts; hail storms and floods; insect and other attacks on crops; etc. The variability inherent in landraces will provide the basis for the continued selection of crops that are most able to adapt to these changes.
What is the best source for seed?
The best source for seed is a one-on-one trade with a local farmer who has heirloom seed with a multi-generational connection to the land. If the seed is organic and open pollinated, it can be adapted to local conditions, saved, and improved over subsequent generations.
Seed Saving Resources
Feeling inspired to collect and save your own seeds? Check out these great resources for information on where to find suitable crop varieties for seed saving, instructions on how to save seeds, and resources for seed saving education.
- Native Seeds/SEARCH, a non-profit based in Tuscon that specializes in conservation of American Southwest and Northwest Mexico seeds. Sells native Southwest and heirloom seeds.
- Annual Symposium for Sustainable Food and Seed Soverignty, hosted by Tesuque Pueblo.
- New Mexico Food and Seed Sovereignty Alliance, which hosts an annual conference.
- The International Seed Saving Institute has a free online guide about saving seed, with specific instructions for seed saving from 27 common vegetables.
- From Generation to Generation, an activity guidebook for seed education, grades K-12.
- Colorado State University Extension fact sheet on seed saving.
- Seed Savers Exchange, a non-profit of gardeners who save and share seed.