Episode 199. First Principles Continued: Seeds

This is the World Organic News for the week ending 20th of January 2020.

Jon Moore reporting!

Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

This week we continue our journey down the first principles rabbit whole with a look at seeds.

Seeds are a many splendored thing! From the dust like powder of Tiff seeds all the way up to monster broad bean seeds, they all have one thing in common: They are life in suspended animation.

Our task as gardeners is to release that life into its most favoured conditions.

Thankfully, most seeds have similar needs and this makes our tasks somewhat simple. 

Before we get to actually sowing, and that’s different module, let’s look at our options.

GMO Seeds

Oh possibly Heresy 101. Bare with me on this. I’m not advocating for salmon genes being added to tomatoes to make them frost hardy. And this is a thing that’s been done. 

GMO seeds are developed through genetic manipulation in the laboratory. These techniques showed great promise for plant breeders. Monsanto ruined it for everyone by splicing resistance to their herbicide RoundUp into the genes of some plants. Corn, Soybeans and Cotton are the best known. This meant these not only can be, but to cover the extra costs of the seeds, need to be sprayed with RoundUp. The RoundUp wipes out all the other plants and leaves the GMO plants “unaffected”. This led to a huge increase in RoundUp usage with paddocks and gardens flooded with the stuff. The ongoing litigation regarding this weed killer’s connection with cancers taints not just Monsanto but the idea of genetically modifying seeds.

The techniques could have been used to speed up standard plant breeding techniques. Instead of crossing varieties to find a useful trait, say drought resistance, the gene for that, once identified, could have been spliced into a high yielding variety and a new high yielding, drought resistant variety created. However the Monsanto effect now smears all GMO endeavours.

Luckily we have more than enough options to be going on with.

Hybrid Seeds

This option relies upon the notion/effect of hybrid vigour. When two relatively unrelated strains of a plant (or animal for that matter) are mated, their offspring exhibit increased growth rates, size and vigour. This means, of course, bigger harvests. 

As with all things in life, there’s a trade off. When the seeds collected from hybrid plants are sown again, they tend to revert to their two grandparent varieties. This means it is not worth the effort of saving and replanting hybrid seeds.

This way of breeding seeds has been taken to extremes in some cases. Multiple crosses and back crosses and so on until the desired characteristics are arrived at. Each cross, naturally enough, puts a little more onto the cost to the end user. This is offset by the greater production, sort of. These crosses and selection decisions are based upon a fairly tightly defined set of parameters. Fertilizer, water and between the rows, herbicide use are all carefully calibrated to the growth cycle of the plants. A change in expected weather conditions, too much, not enough water, more cloud so less photosynthesis and any other variations from the standard will affect the yield. So while hybrids are well documented and productive, I’m not sure they are suited to an organic based system.

While they do though tend to be more productive than our next option, you must purchase new seeds every season.

Heirloom/Heritage Seeds

These seeds can be collected and replanted, year after year. They are also known as open pollinated seeds. While they tend to be less productive but not by much, than hybrids, saving your seed can be a considerable saving, year after year.

Another advantage Heirlooms have is flavour. Hybrids have been driven by the need to transport produce to market without it spoiling. Plant breeders have been successful in this but the trade off is flavour. The more, currently, obscure heirloom varieties were selected, originally for flavour. This is obviously the case with tomatoes. 

I’ve lost track of the number of people who have complained that tomatoes don’t taste like they used to. A quick look around any local supermarket reveals maybe three different varieties of standard tomatoes. There’s more variation in the cherry tomatoes but they’re still, to my mind, fairly tasteless. All of them have been selected for disease resistance, transportability and shelf life.

Ugly varieties like mortgage lifter, black russian and so on won’t sit on shelves for days but the flavours are remarkable. Even if they don’t last long, they do make great sauces and chutneys, again improved by the flavours they carry. I’ve even seen tomato jams. Home preservation of harvests are not a thing of great importance to hybrid seed breeders. 

Heirloom and Heritage seeds have survived in people’s backyards, in their vegetable gardens and amongst some commercial growers. Because the produce has to travel from the garden to the kitchen, spoilage is not a consideration.

The other advantage heirlooms have is local adaptation. We can select seeds from the best plants each year. Whatever “best” means to the individual gardener. Usually best means size and flavour. Once you have your heirloom seeds, their open pollinating habits mean you can start selecting for your locale from your first harvest. After ten or twenty five years or even several human generations you will have varieties better suited to where you garden and this is a good thing.

The last advantage I think is relevant with heirlooms is their genetic base. With hybrids, the more crosses, the more tightly defined the genetic material. So it follows that heirlooms have a wider genetic base. In practice this means a few things. Hybrids will ripen and be ready for harvest all at once, or as close to that as the breeders can achieve. Heirlooms tend to ripen over a longer period. A wider, more shallow bell curve is that helps.

Now if it rains on the three days the hybrids are ready, maybe the whole crop is lost. Because some of the heirlooms are ready earlier and later than those same three days of rain, a harvest is still possible. As climatic conditions become more variable, this ability to produce a return under different, less than ideal conditions, becomes more important. 

Many heirloom varieties have been lost during the last century as the “Green Revolution” was foisted on many smallholders across the world. We must cherish and grow our remaining varieties, as a=often as possible to keep them viable and adapting.

A quick summary of seeds:

  • There are three options:
  • GMO
  • Hybrid
  • Heirloom/Heritage
  • You get to choose between volume and flavour
  • You can select for volume and flavour with heirloom seeds
  • Hybrids need to be purchased every season
  • Heirloom seeds can be collected and replanted year after year


Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

Thank you for listening and I’ll be back next week.  



World Organic News

email: media@worldorganicnews.com

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