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What is Heirloom Seed?

There are basically 3 seed types; 1) Heirloom or open pollinated seed of which the seed produces true to type and the seed may be saved to replant again 2) Hybrid seed which is a cross between two plants. The seed may not be saved from these because it will not grow true to type and usually carries a patent for several years or is seedless and 3) Genetically modified seed of which is crossed with plant or animal genomes and has the terminator gene in which no viable seed can be produced. These latter two types cannot reproduce viable seed for replanting and is covered by law restricting patents. This means a loss of food security when large corporations own and control these patents.

In the last century or so, the world has lost 75% of its edible plant varieties. That might be hard to perceive when many of us have enough food on our plates, but consider this: According to the United Nations’ Food and Agriculture Organization, only five cereal grains make up 60% of our calories. A system that depends so heavily on so few crops is quite fragile. Think of the Irish Potato Famine – the use of only one variety of potato led to a catastrophe. In 1845, the introduction of a new fungus wiped out the primary source of food in Ireland, leading to the death or emigration of some one and a half million people.

Industrial agriculture and the chemicals and machines that it employs have required that farmers and, more often, scientists breed for uniformity in plants and animals. In the United States in particular, genetically engineered plant varieties have had a devastating impact on biodiversity.

According to the USDA's Economic Research Service, since their commercial introduction in 1996, use of genetically engineered (GE) crops by US farmers has increased steadily. In fact, in 2013, 170 million acres of GE crops were planted in the US, seeds that are patented and cannot be saved and planted again next year. That’s roughly half of all American cropland.

Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa has been monitoring the loss of commercially available non-hybrid seeds since 1981. In that year there were about 5000 vegetable seed varieties available from mail order catalogs. By 1998, 88% had been dropped! The world's largest vegetable seed company which controls 40% of the U.S. vegetable market just announced the dropping of 2000 varieties of seeds in one day, in one bold stroke. Are there more patents down the road that will genetically engineer varieties among these 2000 dropped seeds rendering them patented, protected or genetically sterile?

It’s no wonder, then, that stewards of heirloom seed and heritage varieties are scarce. With no one to teach his or her neighbors and children about the importance of these plants, or make them available to the growing generation of young organic farmers of whom 90% want to plant heirloom seed varieties, the art of saving seed dies out, and with it, we lose the precious varieties and exquisite flavors these mentors safeguarded. We lose our food sovereignty!

Food seed biodiversity is critical--absolutely critical--to human survival. For one reason, whenever one of the inevitable plant plagues sweeps across huge swaths of land, even across whole countries, biodiversity is the way we find those varieties that are resistant. We're not going to find them if they lie aging in the jars and freezers of corporate labs. A rich, bio-diverse genetic heritage almost ensures that protected pockets of resistant plants will stand like oases in virtual deserts of destruction. From these we have historically bred new seed stock.

Our rich food seed heritage with its Creator-given biodiversity, the genetic foundation for human survival, is rapidly being tampered with, patented, and transferred from gardens, fields and the free marketplace to reside in the "germplasm banks" of a handful of transnational corporations. If the seeds you can grow and save to feed yourself and your neighbor aren't in the stores or in the catalogs, then you can't buy them. If you don't already own them, will you ever be able to get them again? Not likely unless you know an heirloom seed seller.

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