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Seed preservation critical to preserving sustainable agriculture

By Susan Carroll

Article from

Conglomerate seeds taking over our seed stock

Heirloom tomato and seed preservation at UAWRI

The Organic Consumers Association estimates that from 70-100% of different crops in the U.S. are grown from genetically engineered seeds.

One of the less promoted means of saving small farming is the practice of heritage seed preservation.

In Arkansas as across the globe, regional plant lovers are scrambling to identify and preserve fading stores of traditional plant varieties. Seed banks are being formed, including Norway’s Svalbard Global Seed Vault, nicknamed the Doomsday Vault, promoted as the “ultimate safety net for the world’s most important natural resource.”

‘Heirloom’ species suited to specific regions, climates or microclimates, are critical assets to protect in the fight for biodiversity. The Council of Food Safety in Washington D.C. quotes one Arkansas farmer as saying, “It’s getting harder and harder to find conventional [soybean] seed,” meaning seed that has not been “contaminated by genetically engineered (GE) traits.” Farmers, including Arkansas farmers, are ending up in court worldwide being sued by the likes of Monsanto and BASF for practicing the traditional farming method of seed saving. Seed producers claim control of both the seeds planted by the farmer and the seeds harvested. Farmers end up paying royalties on genetically modified seeds grown in their own fields.

Arkansans seeking to save open-pollinated heirloom seeds

“Sometimes seeds surprise us,”said Elizabeth Mattocks, horticulturist at Winthrop Rockefeller Institute (UAWRI), discussing an effort to propogate a regional corn that turned out to be something unexpected. Mattocks works with UAWRI's Joanna Seibert, who develops, designs and implements the education side of sustainable agriculture and small acreage farming at the Institute, reaching out to people from across the world and here at home for inspiration; for example, UAWRI sometimes grows specimens for Dr. Brian Campbell, assistant professor in anthropology at University of Central Arkansas who leads an open-pollinated heirloom seed preservation effort that includes a seed bank and public seed swap in Conway. To talk about sustainability,” said Seibert, “we have to bring together the growers, the distributors, the restaurants and chefs, even down to where we get the seeds.”

China shares same risks to seed diversity as Arkansas

To that end, Seibert will travel to Hubei Province in China in November 2009 to work with Professor Li Weichang of the Chinese Academy of Forestry and director of the Center for Rural Mountainous Development and Peter deMarsh, president of the Canadian Federation of Woodlot Owners. She will also visit Beijing to present her masters thesis supporting the transformational power of immersive place-based, experiential education in supporting community based natural resource management.  

“Like us,” said Seibert, “China is facing many of the same issues of sustainability and energy along with trends toward leaving rural life for the cities. And we want to understand the implications. Of course, these are very complex issues and my project is a microcosm and an entry point for beginning to understand sustainable systems and possible education lessons, some of which we might be able to incorporate at UAWRI. As well, there is so much to learn from China with its 4,000 years of agricultural history in Hubei. Hopefully we can set up an ongoing equitable exchange of knowledge.”  

Meanwhile, the Monsanto website announces an 84 million dollar merger with China Seed, the number one Chinese producer, that will extend the GE reach beyond the tropical regions to local farmers across all four corn-growing areas; Greenpeace demonstrates at Monsanto’s Beijing office; Semanis in China announces a new GE tomato, Oudun™ long-shelf-life (LSL) pink tomato, with ripening inhibitor gene to gain “greater control over the marketing channel” says the same Monsanto site.

When asked about big farming in China, Seibert said, “according to one of my North American colleagues working in China, there are big rallies, or as they call them, celebrations, put on by Monsanto; they’re offering free seeds and many people think ‘how exciting’ to get free seeds, with no awareness of the implications and the risks to their traditional methods of saving everything they produce in order to survive."

Links to seed preservation and seed industry sites

Arkansas seed links and articles:

Conserving Arkansas’ Agricultural Heritage website (part of UCA seed bank and Conway seed swap effort)

Winthrop Rockefeller Institute:

Arkansas State Plant Seed Board:

Ozark seed bank -
CAAH seed bank (Conserving Arkansas's Agricultural Heritage)
Food Bank of North Central  Arkansas Heirloom Seed Shop (purchases tax deductible)
The Arkansas Native Plant Society
Arkansas Natural  Heritage Commission
Arkansas space tomato project
Farmers in northeastern Arkansas forced to pay BASF damages for seed saving practices
UCA's Brian Campbell and Dr.  Allison Hall (seed saving article) "Host a seed swap' article

National and international seed links:

Southern Seed Legacy Website:

Lady Bird Wildflower center (at the University of Texas at Austin)
(Lady Bird native plant database online)

International Seed Saving Institute:

Seed Savers Exchange:

Plant swap forum:
The Global Crop Diversity Trust:

 SvalBard Global Seed Bank:

Crop Diversity Trust article about the Global/Millennium Seed Bank (Svalbard)  http://www.croptrust.or/main/arctic.php?itemid=211

The Greenbelt Movement (founder won Nobel Prize for tree planting efforts)

Professional seed trade industry groups

Arkansas Seed Dealers Association:

American Seed Trade Association:

SeedQuest "global information services for seed professionals"

Non Profit funded by multinational seed (GE) producers (recently launched educational/PR effort)

Seed bank for outer space?

Seed Program Software
Seed Program for Windows (helps you organize your seeds)

Recommended reading/watching

The Food Movie:

Seed Wars:


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