Unlocking Genetic Diversity with the Backyard Seed Vault Project

By Mat Rogers

seedsThe 1979 children’s book Ox-Cart Man describes a colonial family who spends all year raising a crop and an ox, building the ox’s cart, and making mittens, brooms, and candles. Then the ox-cart man sets off to market to sell the crop and the mittens, brooms, and candles, then the ox, then the cart. He returns home carrying the supplies from the market the family will need for the next year and everyone starts over again.

Maybe at one time we all shopped at markets visited by ox-cart men. Since then, farmers, artisans, cooks, and eaters have had to develop ways to recover from the American institution known as the supermarket by developing first farm CSAs, then distribution models for the bounty of fruit trees, local meat, wild foraged food, ferments, canned goods, backyard fruit, ready made traditional food, charcuterie, homemade goods, wild game, and on, and on, and on. We’ve neglected, however, to focus all that know how and social networking on one vital lynch pin of our agricultural systems – the genetic diversity underlying all of that delicious food.

Seed companies work to exert their control on crop genetics and protect their investments with biotechnology. One way to protect their property from being co-opted by others is by producing and marketing F1 hybrids, which do not “come true from seed” and thus cannot be saved from year to year, a predicament for farmers. Big Seed is also not always interested in maintaining diversity and some favorite varieties are at risk of commercial extinction. Judith Redmond of Full Belly Farm discussed difficulty in securing Early Girl tomato seed in a recent CSA newsletter (PDF) . The patent on Early Girl, an F1 hybrid, is owned by Seminis, which controls 75% of tomato genetics and was purchased by Monsanto in 2005.

Seed banks, from national collections to doomsday vaults, are repositories of global plant genetic diversity and have their place as libraries and back-ups. However, seed held under these models is held ex situ, inaccessible to backyard gardeners or small farmers, and removes us from our crop heritage. Having a stock of seeds on hand to sow a yearly garden and some extra for larger community plots in case of food supply disruption does appeal to agrarian self sufficiency and a DIY ethic. You can buy your own mini seed bank, but even this model perpetuates seed as a commodity to be controlled by few. Seed savers, in contrast, exchange genetic diversity in cooperatives and seed swaps, forming an in situ seed bank that reconnects us with a 10,000 year lineage of crops developed to suit the growing conditions of a region and saved every growing season over these many millennia.

Correctly saving open-pollinated, also called heirloom, seed can be a bit of a challenge in small, urban garden plots. The main issue is isolation distance, the space required between plantings of the same species of crops of different varieties to ensure the variety remains pure. Recommended isolation distances vary from 25 feet for self-pollinators, such as tomatoes, lettuce and peas, to a mile or more for outbreeders, such as corn and brassicas like cabbage and broccoli. Correct isolation distances could be maintained if you were to grow, for example, Bull’s Blood Beets, Cosmic Purple Carrots, and Country Gentlemen Sweet Corn; the couple on the next block grows Chiogga Beets, Arkansas Traveler Tomatoes, and Perisienne Carrots; and the family across town grows Amana Orange Tomatoes, Strawberry Popcorn, and Tete Noir Cabbage.

With this concept in mind, Agrariana, a non-profit founded to “Rescue for Human Society the Native Values of Rural Life,” announces the Backyard Seed Vault initiative. We’re looking for approximately 100 San Francisco Bay Area gardeners for the inaugural season who would like to work as a community to save heirloom vegetable seed. A late May kickoff potluck and seed sale/swap is in the works. Agrariana will organize regular produce trading meet-ups during the summer to ensure everyone can experience the full variety of the crops grown and couple those events with workshops on composting, compost tea, cover cropping, canning, and other gardening and rural skills. As harvest approaches, Agrariana will lead hands-on workshops in participants’ gardens on properly saving seed. The Backyard Seed Vault is working in conjunction with the Bay Area Seed Interchange Library (BASIL), a project of the Ecology Center, for their immense knowledge on properly saving, labeling, cataloging, and storing seeds. Seeds not redistributed to participants will be donated to BASIL, providing an opportunity for any community member to “check out” seed to grow in their gardens. Gardeners of all skill levels are welcome to participate. You can get signed up at Agrariana’s website.

I like to think that the ox-cart man socialized with his fellow farmers at the market and returned home with a few traded seeds in his pocket to try in the family kitchen garden. A bit like at the Bailey Building and Loan, the ox-cart man’s genetic ’savings’ weren’t locked up in some safe or owned by a company, they were in the soil of his neighbors’ plots, awaiting a withdrawal should anyone need it. In an era of uncertainties – economic, environmental, political or otherwise – this is a plan I can feel certain about.

mat_and_chickens_lowresMat Rogers is a doctoral candidate in ecological engineering at the University of California at Berkeley studying vegetated natural water treatment systems. He is the co-executive director of Agrariana, which wraps up its Reading Seeds, Planting Ideas authors series on Wednesday, April 28 with a conversation between Nicolette Hahn Niman and Claire Hope Cummings. Mat lives in Oakland, where he spends time on traditional food preservation projects, develops a micro-farm and food forest, Hidden Alley Ranch, and blogs at matrogers.com .

6 Responsesto “Unlocking Genetic Diversity with the Backyard Seed Vault Project”

  1. Jeremy says:

    Great write-up, and it will be interesting to see how the project works out. One tiny quibble. People tend to say of F1 varieties, as you do, that their seeds “do not “come true from seed” and thus cannot be saved from year to year”. The point is not that they cannot be saved, but that they don’t come true! It is easy enough to dehybridize a hybrid, especially for something that usually inbreeds, like a tomato. You need to grow a lot of plants, and save seeds from the varieties that most closely resemble to parent, but if you do that, it doesn’t take long to “fix” a new, open-pollinated variety. If Early Girl is getting scarce, save some seeds now and get to it!

  2. Years ago one winter we fed a lot of tomatoes to our pigs. The tomatoes were hybrids. The next summer we had a huge number of tomato plants come up wild in the field and from those plants we got most excellent fruit. The next year we did too… Turns out that hybrids breed fine. Sure, maybe some didn’t but a very large number did and that is what matters. They quickly converted to open pollination and even grew wild in our northern Vermont mountain climate, sell seeding from then. We have also had this experience with tomatillos and some other plants. I purposefully save seeds from pumpkins and other veggies.

  3. Red Icculus says:

    Thank you for not spouting the hippie drivel that saved seeds from hybrids don’t make viable seeds.  They just make more variations than open-pollinated heirloom seeds.  We have gotten several interesting phenotypes worth keeping from saved F2′s.  Even if you don’t catch all the keepers, they are still delicious tomatoes you only invested your time in.

  4. Hippie drivel? No, the “You can’t save hybrids” is Big Ag Seed Co drivel trying to convince people they can’t save seeds and must rebuy them every year. That is the origin of that myth. It is in the advertising.

  5. Mat Rogers says:

    Jeremy, Walter and Red, thank you for your insightful comments regarding saving hybrid seed.  I want to clarify for readers that while the term “hybrid” may have you thinking of hybrid animals of two closely related species (mules, ligers, etc.) that produce sterile offspring, hybrid vegetables are of the same species and produce viable seed.  It is just that the hybrid is the first generation of seed produced by the careful crossing of two parents on the scale of whole fields of, say, tomatoes.  The second generation from the F1 will be a combination of the genetic material of the F1s (plus whatever else they came in contact with), not the parents that produced the hybrid.  The gene pool of that generation is just not very stable yet.  You are in essence starting a breeding experiment for a new variety.  Back to an animal analogy, heirlooms are standard dog breeds and F2s are mutts.  The mutts are of course reproductively viable and may have desirable traits, but their genetics wouldn’t stabilize into a new standard breed for many generations. 

    For those with more gardening/seed saving experience, I say go for breeding trials out in the back field.  They will yield edible fruit and we need people developing new varieties.  But your comments illustrate why saving hybrid seed is not ideal for urban gardeners in California, whom our program is designed for.  First, as Jeremy states “You need to grow a lot of plants, and save seeds from the varieties that most closely resemble to parent.”  If you have a big garden or field to test out new varieties from F1s that’s great, but most urban gardens have just a few plants and if you want to grow the same tomato you grew last year, you can’t count on the seed from the F1s.  Walter describes letting a plot of tomatoes grow up wild and finding some excellent fruit.  If you do have some acreage to let that happen, out here in California you would have to irrigate it or have a plan to dry farm them and I daresay the cost of doing that would disincline folks to leave to chance what they’ll end up with. 

    Red, I’ll take one on the chin and admit I was toeing the line that hybrid seed can’t be saved (I spent more time discussing the subtleties of hybrids in a draft, which had to get edited to “blog length”).    Perhaps the statement should be changed to ‘can’t be saved and expected to produce the same variety next year.’  I don’t think it’s hippie drivel to help beginning gardeners/seed savers realize what hybrids are and encourage them to start with heirlooms.  The fact that heirlooms are owned by everyone to save and distribute as we like, while hybrids are a product that leave you dependent on Big Seed (if you want to keep growing that variety), is reason enough to get behind heirlooms.  Damn, that sounds a bit like hippie drivel.  Oh, well.

  6. “Hippie drivel? No, the “You can’t save hybrids” is Big Ag Seed Co drivel trying to convince people they can’t save seeds and must rebuy them every year. That is the origin of that myth. It is in the advertising.”
    Then “hippies” are extraordinarily susceptible to “Big Seed Ag Co’s” advertising.

    While seed companies want to protect their R&D investment by producing hybrids, at the same time hybrids take advantage of Heterosis or Hybrid Vigor – they grow bigger, stronger, and produce more. That’s why upwards of 99% of corn in this country is hybrid corn – not because of some nefarious corporate takeover of genetics. While we do not understand fully why heterosis occurs, a discussion of why hybrids are grown that lacks even a mention of the role of heterosis is missing a big part of the picture.

    Getting people to experiment in their back yards is good, and should be encouraged for the fun and discovery that can occur. (And failure) I am actually producing some videos on how to make controlled pollinations as part of my graduate program. The kind you could do in your backyard:

    What troubles me is linking this practice to what is essentially a political statement that people must do this to ‘protest’ against depending on the work of plant breeders for the seeds that farmers grow. Hybrids are not the enemy, and biotechnology is not an enemy, either. Especially since once the patents run out on proprietary inbreds, biotech traits, etc, there’s nothing keeping you from saving those seeds, breeding them as you see fit, in a network of backyard gardens or your own commercial breeding operation. This makes me wonder about the predicament of the Early Girl hybrid seed – is there an Organic seed producer that can license the use of the proprietary inbreds to produce organic-compatible seeds, or can small organic growers link together to buy seeds cooperatively?

    I would also like to add that you can take several hybrids that combine well, spread the pollen between them, grow out the next generation, lather, rinse, repeat, and voila! Now you have a “synthetic” population. If you choose some important traits and if they fix after a few generations you will likely have an OP variety on your hands, like Jeremy said.

    Finally, on the commercial end of it, must a company continue to produce seeds of varieties that only a few farmers (or individuals) want to grow anymore? (You could form an argument that they should release the variety to the public if it is not popular enough to produce to sell.) Should Microsoft continue to support Windows 3.0?

    Also, whenever I hear a talk by a commercial breeder about their breeding program, while they mostly breed amongst their ‘elite’ lines, they also incorporate traits from other varieties, or even wild relatives. In fact, Jeremy here put up a post on his blog not too long ago about how the regional genetic diversity of 8 field crops has gone up in the last few decades: