Seed saving is the practice of collecting, storing, and using seeds and other reproductive material from plants for use at a later date. It was the traditional method used by farmers and gardeners to ensure a long term supply of seed for new crops. A portion of each year’s crop would be set aside as seed for the next year’s harvest. In more recent times, the global seed market has come to be dominated by corporate powers as the prolific practice of seed saving has dwindled.
Seed Saving is an extremely simple process. The only required item is a sexually mature plant from which to take seeds. Most seeds are located in the fruit of a plant, or in the case of grain crops, they are the grains. Once a specific plant is chosen for its seeds, it is usually hung to dry for several weeks. Once dry, the seeds are removed from the plant and are sometimes dried further using solar radiation then placed into storage. In the case of seeds located in fruits, the seeds are simply removed, lightly washed, and dried in the same fashion.
Currently, a majority of the world’s agricultural land is planted with seeds obtained through companies rather than through personal or local seed banks (Howard). The diversity of seeds being sold is therefore limited by what the companies offer to sell. This becomes problematic when the majority of the world is using only a few types of seeds for any particular crop, similar to monocropping but on a much larger scale, if any one particular plant variety becomes susceptible to a pathogen or insect, a majority of the world’s supply of that crop will be at risk.
Genetically modified plants are increasingly being used by seed companies and their popularity could pose a threat to both ecosystems and farmers. Many farmers are either using GM seeds or their fields are being contaminated by the pollen from their neighbor’s GM plants. By increasing the diversity and abundance of seeds available, seed-saving farmers will be able to more readily deal with the ecological forces that threaten their livelihoods as well as protect the integrity and health of their non GM plants.
A greater threat to the diversity of seeds are legislative requirements being promoted in a variety of countries to require registration of seed varieties with state authorities before they can be sold. This is promoted as a way to certify the quality of seeds for the benefit of customers, but ignores customers who know their suppliers personally, and small suppliers who have to fulfill all the requirements to show that the seeds they sell are a distinct variety. Such requirements thus ultimately benefit large suppliers selling a reduced variety of seeds, and reduce the choice available to customers (the farmers).
In a world dominated by global seed corporations, the need for locally produced and locally adapted plants has never been higher. Through the use of seed saving operations, local communities are better able to support their agricultural needs. A large amount of debt is often incurred with the purchase of commercially produced seeds so a low-cost alternative would be preferred. By implementing seed saving programs, local communities are able to create an abundance of cheap, locally adapted seeds relieving financial strains while increasing a farmer’s ability to deal with ecological forces.
Context within NORA
- Food – local seed saving operations allow farmers to have access to local variations of crops instead of the standardized seed sold by companies.
- Being at home – seed saving is an activity that is done at home. It usually requires no external input once the initial seeds are acquired.
- Security – being able to save seeds for later planting helps ensure food security.
- Meaningful livelihood – with seed saving, farmers do not have to depend on foreign seed companies and can grow what they choose.
- Air – air drying seeds allows them to be stored for longer periods of time.
- Energy – solar radiation is often used to dry seeds so they can be stored for longer periods of time.
- Living Things – an already existing, sexually mature plant is needed to produce seeds
- Knowledge – a person must understand the practices and techniques used in seed saving
- Self-provisioning cluster – individuals may save seeds for their own personal use and that of their household.
- Community solidarity cluster – small communities may choose to share seeds among their members.
- Individual sales cluster – seed catalogs sell heirloom and local varieties of seeds to paying customers.
- Sharing/renting cluster – seed libraries rent out seeds to potential seed savers.
- Committed sales or service cluster – local farmers have a continuing dependence on seed providers
Understanding Current Patterns of Abundance
Seed saving, once the chief way farmers obtained seeds, has fallen out of popularity with the advent of global seed companies. In the U.S., large farms used to consistently save soybeans for the next years planting. With the advent of Roundup Ready® soybeans and intellectual property rights, everything began to change (Mascarenhas and Busch). Currently, the top three seed companies account for 53% of the global market share (Shiva). However, many groups never stopped saving seeds and a resurgence of seed saving operations is underway as a result of the strains put on farmers by not having access to cheap alternatives for commercially produced seeds.
The country with the some of the most comprehensive seed saving programs in the world is India. Since the early 1990’s, organizers from Navdanya, an organization which supports organic agriculture and farmer’s rights, have raised awareness among India’s farmers about the dangers of global seed monopolies. Over the past 25 years, Navdanya has set up over 100 seed banks throughout India, ensuring locally sourced, GM free seeds for local farmers. Seed saving programs have also been successful in countries such as Nepal, the Philippines, Japan, Australia, Kenya, and even the United States. Seed saving can be done effectively in any country in the world.
Seed Freedom: A Global Citizens Report– A document discussing seed saving programs and how they have been implemented in countries across the world.
Strengths and Weaknesses
There are virtually no down sides to seed saving. In most cases it is done in the home, requires no special tools, requires no energy source other than solar radiation, has extremely limited costs, and requires very little knowledge to implement. Because it requires so little to operate, it is ideal for use by all people. In, India, Navdanya has provided the knowledge required, allowing virtually anyone with limited means to save seeds. By practicing seed saving, individuals can increase their food security, avoid genetically modified foods, avoid large amounts of debt to seed companies, better deal with ecosystem disruptions, and take control of their own food source, enabling a freely chosen life direction. Put into practice, seed saving programs have only helped to increase freedom, equity, and sustainability among all of their stakeholders. Farmers in India, once at the mercy of global seed corporations, now have the means to secure their own livelihood with the help of Navdanya. The only people who do not benefit from local seed saving operations are the global seed companies who have created an artificial demand for their products, endangering the livelihood of the world’s farmers.
In addition to these benefits, seed saving operations also create a wide diversity of plant choices. Navdanya's seed saving networks have created a repository of over seven hundred varieties of rice alone. This diversity is important as it gives seed saving operations their ability to provide specific seeds for specific needs. If a region in the north of India is experiencing a drought, a drought-resistant variety from the south can be substituted. This biodiversity, created by farmers, is done out of necessity to ensure a yearly food supply that is resilient to environmental fluctuations. Indigenous farmers in Peru have done the same thing without the help of such a vast network. Once believed to be in danger of losing the biodiversity of their corn and potatoes, the Quechua of the Andes have actually been preserving this biodiversity out of necessity (Zimmerer). Cultural norms necessitated the consumption of diverse types of potatoes so farmers naturally saved the reproductive material of all the desired varieties to ensure access the next year.
The only downside of seed saving is that it the individual initiative and resources it requires are not always available. Without the knowledge or support for a seed saving operation from an outside source, many individuals would find it difficult to start a seed saving program on their own. In order to get past these limiting factors, the knowledge and practices of seed saving must be made publicly available to everyone.
Approaches to Creating Greater Abundance
As stated above, there are virtually no down sides to local seed saving operations. The only issue with these programs is that they often must be self-initiated by an individual who may or may not have the required knowledge. In most industrialized agricultural systems, there is virtually no network of support for farmers and potential seed savers. One of the biggest improvements that can be made to seed saving operations is to make all of the knowledge and resources required publicly available through the development of seed saving networks. Navdanya has successfully done this in India by creating a network of seed banks accessed and provisioned by the farmer of that country. The Navdanya network acts as a support system, giving the knowledge required to save seeds to any who ask.
Seed Savers Exchange Webinars– Online webinar presenting seed saving knowledge.
Apart from the knowledge required to start a seed saving operation, extra support is often needed to create a lasting seed saving network. To create a stable network, all people involved must feel a sense of trust amongst members. This trust can be built through workshops or other network building methods such as conferences or meetings. In India, Navdanya sends representatives to local villages to talk to farmers about seed saving and joining their network. Without the use of coercion or force, the farmers are able to decide for themselves whether joining this network will benefit them. These representatives also give additional support for villages or farmers already participating but who are struggling with some aspect of their operation.
An important strength of seed saving networks is that if the seeds are not exchanged for cash, restrictive legislation that forbids the selling of unregistered seed varieties does not apply.
Links and Stories
Arche Noah, Austria. Association for the preservation and development of crop diversity.
Campaign for Seed Sovereignty (international)
Conrad, Jessica (On the Commons). August 2012. Seed Saver Inspires Wide-Ranging Economic Renaissance in His Hometown.
International Seed Saving Institute, Basic Seed Saving Guide
Kaminsky, Sean. 2014. Open Sesame: The Story of Seeds (Video).
Red de Guardianes de Semillas de Vida, Colombia
Rowe, Jack. Seed Saving Handbook
San Francisco Public Library, Seed Lending Program
Seed Savers Exchange, Seed Donation Program
Seed Savers Exchange, Seed Savers Exchange Webinars– Online webinar presenting seed saving knowledge.
Seed Saving and Seed Saver's Resources (an international collection of links and information)
Navdanya – successful seed saving network in India
P2P Foundation. Seed Commons.
Union of International Associations. Exchanging Seeds. (last edited in 2000 when viewed on June 11, 2013).
For a more complete overview of seed saving watch this video by Workwithnature on Youtube.
Ashworth, Suzanne. Seed to Seed: Seed Saving and Growing Techniques for Vegetable Gardeners. 2002.
Fanton, Michel, and Jude Fanton. 1993. Seed Savers Handbook. Note: this is especially geared to Australia and New Zealand.
Howard PH. Visualizing Consolidation in the Global Seed Industry: 1996–2008. Sustainability. 2009; 1(4):1266-1287.
Mascarenhas, M. and Busch, L., Seeds of Change: Intellectual Property Rights, Genetically Modified Soybeans and Seed Saving in the United States. Sociologia Ruralis. 2006. 46: 122–138. .
Shiva, Vandana. Seed Freedom: A Global Citizens Report. New Delhi, India: Navdanya. 2012.
Karl Zimmerer, Changing Fortunes: Biodiversity and Peasant Livelihood in the Peruvian Andes. Berkeley : University of California Press, 1996.
Note: this page could be expanded by:
- providing brief information on the main organizations that are covered in detail in the Seed Freedom report,
- discussing some of the legislation (pending as well as already passed) that restricts or outlaws some seed saving practices, especially in the US and the EU.
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