It is miserable for a farmer to be obliged to buy his seed; to exchange seeds may, in some cases, be useful, but to buy them after the first year is disreputable.
to Farm Manager William Pierce Nov. 16, 1794
I first read this quote when we visited Mount Vernon in 2000, and even though we were still city slickers back then, that quote has been stuck in my head all these years. I think some things are easy to remember because they simply make sense.
Every now and then someone will ask me what "sustainable" really means. It is far more than a feel-good buzz word, although advertisers may toss it around as if it were nothing more than that. A sustainable farm is one that can sustain itself -- it can go from year to year without external inputs. This is why modern agriculture is not sustainable. Modern farmers must buy their seeds, fertilizers, and chemical pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, and other chemicals from suppliers every year.
If a farmer uses genetically modified seeds, they are legally prohibited from saving seeds for planting the next year, which means they have to buy them from the seed supplier year after year, reducing profits and making them unsustainable. The GMO seeds are also created so that they must be used with certain chemicals. Without the chemical fertilizers, the seeds won't produce much, if anything. And if you use an herbicide that is not linked to the seed you planted, you'll kill it. It's a great deal for the chemical companies, but not so great for the farmers.
This is why the sustainable garden uses open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. You can legally save the seeds from one crop and plant them in your garden next year just like George Washington because heirloom seeds are not patented, which means the technology that created the seed is not owned by anyone. I've heard some people say that they buy organic seeds because they don't want to buy GMO seeds. I can understand their confusion because when you buy food, you do have to buy organic to know you are not getting GMOs. The law does not require producers to label GMO foods, but the situation with seeds is completely different. Although the seed companies don't exactly put a big GMO label on their seeds, they do require you to sign an affadavit -- and don't worry about missing it! It is usually two pages with small print, and they won't sell you the seeds unless you sign the form saying that you understand the rules.
I recently received a catalog that included a "Squash Technology Stewardship Agreement" that included a section that began, "GROWER AGREES:
- To use Seed solely for planting a single commercial crop.
- Not to save or clean any crop produced from Seed for planting and not to supply Seed produced from Seed to anyone for planting other than to a Seminis-licensed seed company.
- Not to transfer any Seed to any other person or entity for planting.
And it goes on and on about your responsibilities with the "Seed" (always capitalized), such as not planting it in any county, state, or country where it is prohibited. You even give them the right "to inspect and take samples from Grower's fields to confirm compliance with this Squash TSA." And you have to mail the form directly to Seminis, which is a subsidiary owned by Monsanto. If you think this isn't a big deal, just google "Monsanto sues farmers" and you'll have enough to keep you busy reading all day.
Whenever I get a seed catalog with a so-called "stewardship agreement" in it, I refuse to buy anything from that company for a couple of reasons. First, I don't want to support any company that supports GMOs, and second, it just makes me question their ethics, which makes me not want to do business with them. I know Big Ag says we need GMOs to feed the world, but they're wrong. We already grow enough food to feed the world, but 40 percent of it is wasted in the distribution chain, in grocery stores, restaurants, and people's kitchens. And people in third world countries don't need GMOs; they need refrigerators and electricity, so they can store food. And right now, most of the farmland in Illinois is quite literally wasted because it is used to grow corn and soybeans that are not consumed by human beings. More than 99 percent of corn grown in Illinois is NOT sweet corn, so it is either fed to livestock or turned into corn syrup, corn oil, corn starch, and more than a hundred other non-nutritive food additives, as well as ethanol. And the soybeans are used in the same way -- vegetable oil, soy lecithin, dozens of other non-nutritive food additives, and biodiesel. So, the GMO industry is not feeding the world, regardless of what warm and fuzzy stories they try to sell consumers.
If you're new to gardening or want some new options for vegetable seeds, I recommend Baker's Creek, Seed Savers Exchange, and Landreth's, and although I've never ordered from them personally, I know people speak highly of Southern Exposure.
But using heirloom seeds is only half of the equation for creating a sustainable garden. I'll talk about what else you need to do in my next post.