Today as I sorted and cleaned up my seed collection in preparation for our monsoon season, I was surrounded by the beauty, diversity and sacred nature of seeds. We get lots of questions about the difference between heirloom, hybrid and GM seeds, and while there are amazing articles and resources I will link, I wanted to share my opinions around it in simple, non-jargon terms.
Traditional seeds (heirloom/open pollinated/native) are synonymous with: freedom, autonomy, sovereignty, culture, tradition, abundance, decentralization, resilience, polyculture
Corporate seeds (hybrid/GMO/GE) are synonymous with: greed, control, chemical pesticides, farmer suicide, waterway pollution, cycles of debt, dehumanization, abuse, vulnerability, monoculture, centralized power
We are marketed lies that corporate seeds are the key to feeding the world with their efficiency, productivity and predictability. In reality, this ‘effectiveness’ is built on the foundation of expensive chemical fertilizers and pesticides that are inextricable with soil degradation, biodiversity death and farmer illness, debt and suicide. Local seeds are marketed as being backward, ‘peasant’, lower yielding, prone to disease and all together lesser quality. This demeaning propaganda could not be more false. We are fed these lies because there is big money to be made for the corporate giants of industrialized farming. These lies go against the foundational way of being of seeds and nature – abundance and freedom!
Seeds multiply exponentially! Any gardener or farmer has witnessed the bounty of seed from just a single healthy plant. Rohen White, a Mohawk indigenous woman and community seed saver, reminds us that seed is “a wonderful example of the natural abundance of the Earth and … a beautiful expression of the gift economy. The seeds teach us to be generous and to share our abundance with other people and this is really the true nature of things.” This inherent nature of seeds’ replication abilities cannot coexist with insatiable corporate greed, and so these corporations lobby our governments, influence our laws and push and shove and bully their way into our fields. With billions of dollars in advertising budgets, these chemical companies confuse farmers – offering the world and delivering a cycle of struggle. Let us remember that 200 years ago there was not 1 single seed company; seeds are the expression of our communion with the land and were treasured, saved and shared freely within communities.
Around the world, controversial seed laws inevitably protect corporations at the cost of the farmer. In most countries, it is illegal to sell seeds that are not certified. Certification requirements, which are written into law with the help of Big Ag lobbyists, are based on uniformity and predictability that heirloom seeds simply cannot guarantee – they are living, morphing, evolving expressions of the nature. Lobbyist help twist the way governments define seed quality by giving preference to ‘uniformity’ over ‘viability’ or ‘vigor’. Unsurprisingly, lab made hybrid and genetically engineered (GE/GMO) seeds fit neatly into certification requirements for monopolized legal selling. Unfortunately, there is private sector influence in agricultural policy in every country in the world. Seed laws in many countries are even making it illegal for farmers to save and exchange their own seed. More on that here.
Heirloom, open pollinated seeds are resilient and have the necessary genetics to adapt to unprecedented climate change. Today’s seeds are a culmination of thousands of years of communion with the earth and using non-chemical, traditional polyculture methods. They are adapted to thrive with low inputs and carry within them an internal knowing of local climate conditions. They reproduce freely and allow seed to be spread far and wide. They represent freedom and autonomy; they keep farmers free from debt because seeds are saved year after year. When farmer’s switch to corporate seeds, which must be purchased up front, they too often fall into debt when the crop yield is not enough to repay for the inputs required (hybrid/GE seeds, pesticides, fertilizers. GE/GMO seeds go entirely against the flow of nature; they cannot reproduce and must be purchased each season. Hybrid seeds can reproduce but without any genetic purity, and in a practical level, must also be purchased each season. How can we let corporations get away with this? To take something that reproduces exponentially and freely and make it sterile… Did you know 10 companies account for 55% of the global seed market? This monopoly on seeds means a shocking drop in biodiversity, leaving our global food system quite vulnerable.
For many indigenous cultures, they are our ancestors. “All of us — and that includes everyone who is reading it now — descend from a lineage of people who had a very intimate relationship with plants. It’s just in the last couple of hundred years of human history we’ve been looking at seeds and food in general as a commodity as opposed to something that was an integral part of our life that we shared.” (Rohen White) Hybrid and GE seeds give us ‘food’ in its most basic sense, something to fill our bellies. Local seeds give us nourishment with medicinal characteristics and cultural & spiritual significance. They give us freedom, health, vitality and hope. Growing, saving and distributing native seeds is the most hopeful form of activism.
There is a conversation happening among seed savers or the ‘rematriation of seeds’; the returning of traditional seeds to the land, to grow again and re-establish the communion seeds and humans have had for millennia – seeds nourish us, and in turn, women ensure the continuation of the seed. The term rematriation is used over the more common repatriation to give honour to the feminine line; for it is women, across cultures and time, that have held the responsibility of seed keeping in their hands. Seeds are our ancestors. They have spirit and intelligence. They do not belong in labs with private patents. They are part of the commons, part of our shared human communion with the land.
While laws are getting restrictive on farmer’s ability to sell and trade seeds; the best things we can do is stand in our sovereignty and grow native seeds, collect them and share them freely in community seed swaps, give them to organic farmers, and write to our representatives about our opposition to the privatization of seed. The free and respectful exchange of native seeds is our right. Let us never forget that these seeds have known us through thousands of years, they have grown with us, they have literally formed us. Life force cannot be privatized, patent, lab-grown and homogenized. Keep the power with the
people! Keep seeds free!
Seed sovereignty resources:
Farmer's rights & seed politics with Via Campesina
Where to buy open pollinated, heirloom seeds:
More food politics resources: