One of my former students sent me this powerful essay from J.L. Hudson Seed Co.
We recognize that the biological diversity of the Earth has intrinsic value, beyond any value to humanity.
We recognize that the biological diversity of the Earth is the result of ages of evolution by the community of all living beings, therefore humanity’s efforts at breeding or selecting improved varieties for our own use only builds on the fruits of countless generations of effort by the whole of life.
We recognize that existing cultivated varieties are the result of the efforts of countless generations of gardeners and farmers throughout the world, therefore our own efforts at breeding or selection of improved varieties only builds on these gifts that have been freely shared with us by our ancestors.
THEREFORE we recognize that the biological diversity of the Earth, and the diversity of all cultivated species are the common heritage of all life, and of all humanity, and we REJECT the theft of the biological commons by individuals, corporations, and governments through plant patenting, gene patenting, Plant Breeder’s Rights (PBR), Plant Variety Protection (PVP), or any other form of intellectual property applied to living things. We reject life patents in any form.
We pledge that we will not patent or otherwise seize control over the varieties we produce or reproduce. We pledge that we will not sell or distribute patented or PVP- or PBR-controlled seeds or plants in any form. Further, we will distribute the seeds and plants which are in our trust only with the express prohibition of their use in any breeding, selection, genetic engineering or any other activity which is intended to result in any form of life patent, so that the seeds, plants, their progeny, and all genetic material will remain in the public domain in perpetuity.—J.L. Hudson, Seedsman, 1 January 2002
About Difficult Seeds
Over millions of years, wild plants have evolved germination strategies which ensure their survival, but which may not be convenient for the home gardener who wants a quick and even stand of plants from a packet of seed. Many seeds sprout irregularly, so that if the first flush of seedlings is killed by adverse weather, insect predation, etc., more will come along to take their place. In adaptation to various environments, some seeds need periods of cold, warmth, darkness or light, fire, etc. Some have seedcoats of varying hardness or impermeability, and others contain chemical germination inhibitors which must be leached from the seed before it can sprout. Some species disperse themselves over wide areas by being eaten by animals, the seed sprouting far from the mother plant, the seedcoat softened by digestive juices. Many seeds have internal clocks, and give much higher germination at certain times of the year, regardless of the treatment given. All seeds wait for the correct time and conditions before sprouting, and the gardener must mimic those conditions to ensure successful germination.
We are continually testing seed for germination, and conduct research into improving methods of handling difficult species. For slow seeds, which take months or years, making a standard test impractical, we may use 2,3,5-triphenyltetrazolium chloride to test for hydrogenase enzyme activity, which quickly indicates whether there is a living embryo in the seed. It can take years of research to determine the best ways to germinate a specific species. Oryzopsis seed has been studied for over 50 years, yet we still do not fully understand its requirements. Even then, seed collected from one population may germinate readily, yet the same species gathered in a cold-winter area may need cold treatment.
We offer many seeds which are easy, and sprout quickly and evenly. But with some you must be prepared to experiment, be patient, and use your initiative and intuition. Remember that with some rare species, you are venturing into unknown territory. Most corporate seed companies will not carry difficult seeds, only selling, easy, mass-produced varieties. We like to offer a more challenging alternative.—J.L. Hudson, Seedsman, November 1989.
About Organic Seeds
One of my earliest memories is of watching my father turn the compost pile. The sight of the teeming life within the pile, and the warmth and rich scents it gave off, are still so clear to me that I feel like I could reach out into that memory, and pull myself through, shedding over a half-century of years and return to that happy summer day. I learned organic gardening from my father, and have practiced it to this day. A few years ago, when visiting my father, I noticed some weed killer in the garage – a strange and unexpected sight, and I did not realize at the time that it was one of the first signs of the Alzheimer’s that finally killed him. So it was only madness that brought him to put poison on his land, and this pointed out to me again the madness of industrial agriculture.
There are nearly 7 billion people in the world, and all of us need to eat. Can this number of people be fed by organic agriculture? Without fossil-fuel mined phosphates, without fossil-fuel fixed nitrogen? Without fossil-fuel driven tractors to till, and trucks to take the food to people?
Maybe. We don’t know. It would take a massive, worldwide reorganization of human society to achieve this.
Can this be done?
When the oil runs out, we, or our descendents, will find out.
Until that time, we support an orderly move towards a more sustainable, more regenerative agriculture. Theoretically, we have the knowledge and the technology to make this transition with minimal suffering, but we feel it is unlikely that humanity will choose to take the steps necessary to create a viable future. Currently, our species is on a path that seems destined to create a future of the maximum possible human suffering.
While we use organic methods ourselves, and we fully support organic agriculture, we must object to the “organic seed requirement” of current law. This requires organic growers to plant only organically-grown seed, otherwise their crop will not be considered “organic.”
Most people do not realize that this requirement was inserted into the law at the request of a large corporate seed company in one of their attempts to gain control of the organic seed market, or that many in industrial agriculture support the organic seed requirement because it will be an additional burden on organic farmers, which will lessen their economic viability.
There are currently some exemptions to the organic requirement, but again, the corporations are pressing for and “end to the loopholes”, and claim that no matter what the cost of organic seed, or no matter how limited the selection of organic varieties, that this is no excuse for organic growers to fail to buy their product.
We are also seeing serious profiteering by a few organic seed suppliers at the expense of their fellow organic growers, with some organic seed selling for ten times or more the cost of conventional seed. There is absolutely no excuse for this – NO organic seed is worth TEN times its conventional counterpart.
While we fully support the move towards the organic production of seed, we do not believe that there is any solid evidence that organic crops grown from conventional seed are any different from those grown from organic seed. In over thirty years distributing seeds, we have seen excellent organic seed as well as excellent conventional seed, and poor organic and poor conventional seed. We do believe that organically-grown crops are superior in many ways to those grown by industrial agriculture. We do believe that when seeds are grown organically for many generations, that particular strain will be better-adapted to organic production, but I doubt that anything under ten years will be significantly better.
The key to the quality of seed lies in the DNA – the genetic content of the seed, and only secondarily from the conditions of production, harvest, drying, and storage. Without good DNA, no matter what the conditions of production, the seed will not be worthwhile to plant.
For example, wild-collected seed is not considered to be “organic”. If a grower wants to produce an organic crop of a medicinal plant, and that seed is available as certified organic, under current rules she must use the organic seed, and cannot use the wild-collected seed. Wild populations of medicinal plants may vary considerably in the specific medicinal properties, or in adaptation to specific local conditions, and several organic growers have expressed concern that some medicinal crops in cultivation are in serious need of the greater genetic diversity that would come from an infusion of wild genes from wild plants. Under current rules, plants grown from wild seed could never enter the organic market. This is causing the same kind of genetic uniformity seen in conventional agriculture, which is contrary to organic principles of diversity.
Also, many traditional vegetable varieties vary considerably – some growers are careful about reselection for superior traits, others are not. If a specific variety is available as “organic”, an organic grower would be required to use the seed, regardless of quality.
We support organic agriculture, and we also support small-scale, family farms. Should we purchase “organic” seed produced by a large corporation, or seed from a struggling small farm who does not happen to have organic certification? What would you do?
We believe that organic growers need the freedom to plant the best seeds and the best varieties they can find, regardless of how they were produced. We feel that the dangers of the loss of genetic variation in our food crops by the limitation of available variety, and the consolidation of control of seeds by corporate interests, currently far outweigh the advantages of “organic seed”.
When we have spoken about our concerns with organic growers, most have heartily agreed with our views, but a few have taken a very fundamentalist hard-line that “We support ‘organic’ no matter what!” and that organic seeds should be required no matter what other harm this causes. We would suggest that it would make more sense for these organic purists to also require that organic growers may not use plastic irrigation pipe (a major source of toxins), or any fossil fuel or electricity (sources of environmental harm) in their operations or when transporting their product to market. Should we require that organic growers use only human and animal power to plow and ox-carts to carry their produce to market? The “agri-smog” of pesticides from California’s agricultural Central Valley is killing frogs far downwind, high in the Sierra Nevada. Can any grower downwind of this kind of agriculture be considered truly “organic”?
In the summer of 2004, we replaced some of our ageing, flexible black polyethylene waterlines with larger-diameter, more permanent buried PVC pipe with glued connections. Periodically I emptied the pipeline and refilled it, checking the expelled air – for over 6 months, it smelled strongly of PVC solvent, and over a full year later, it still smelled faintly of solvent. The solvents used in PVC glue are toxic, and no doubt contaminate the water the pipes carry to our plants – for this reason we flush them before use. Although miles of PVC pipe are used in organic operations, we know of no other organic grower that has checked this source of toxins. Should we require that organic growers use expensive steel pipe? Should we require that water lines not be used for a year, until all trace of solvent has dissipated into the air? Should we be absolutists, and make it even harder than it already is for small growers to remain economically viable, or do we accept the reality that nowhere on the planet is free of man-made toxins?
We would like to point out, that while we fully support organic agriculture, we do not support fundamentalism, irrationality, or superstition, and we certainly do not support profiteering or corporate attempts to control organic seed supplies. We are opposed to making organic agriculture into a fundamentalist religion, and we are opposed to the theft of the word “organic” by government bureaucracy, and we are opposed to the corporate takeover of the “organic movement”.
“Wait a decade or two and every potato coming out of the state of Idaho will be labeled ‘organic’, a word already under very serious stress. The process will be entirely predictable. The big food companies will buy federal and state legislation designed to put the small producers out of business, the same way the meat companies finished off the small packers and processors years ago, by insisting on hundreds of thousands of dollars worth of stainless steel and other ‘sanitary’ equipment, all intended to bankrupt the local sausage or ham maker. Wall-Mart’s buying power will drive down organic food prices and start to drive small farmers to the wall.”
—Alexander Cockburn, “Wall-Mart’s Coming Lunge into Organic Food”, an article on the corporate takeover of organic and the weakening of organic standards.
We need to build bridges, not walls. Instead of a black/white – organic/conventional standoff, with the small-scale grower caught in the cross-fire, we need to provide for a whole range of possibilities that will allow farmers to easily move along a spectrum of alternatives towards a healthy agriculture, rather than building a wall they must vault over.
Take back organic!
The word hybrid is used in two very different ways in the seed trade. First, to designate F-1 hybrids, and second, to designate open-pollinated plants which originated in the crossing of two distinct varieties or species.
F-1 means ‘first filial generation’, and F-1 hybrids are the first generation produced by crossing unlike parents, the offspring of which exhibit ‘heterosis’ (hybrid vigor) and are very uniform. The characters of F-1 hybrids are not stable, so that seed saved from F-1 plants will not come true, and may produce many distinct types in the second generation, often reverting to various ancestral forms. Therefore, the original cross must be repeated each year in order to produce seed.
The second meaning of the word is much older, going back to the last century. Many flower mixtures are called ‘Hybrids’ or ‘New Hybrids’. These are not F-1 hybrids. They are the result of crossing unlike parents in order to produce variation, the progeny were then selected for desired attributes such as new flower colors, etc., and these characters fixed by selection. These are open pollinated, and are relatively fixed. The original crosses are not repeated – the various strains are kept pure by selection and isolation. I distribute this type of seed.
Open pollinated. or O.P., means that bees, wind, and the agencies of nature are allowed to pollinate the flowers, rather than by emasculating the flowers and applying pollen by hand as in F-1 hybrids.
I do not distribute F-1 hybrids. First, because the grower cannot save his own seed from them to multiply the plants as he chooses. This insures the gardener’s and farmer’s dependence on the seed company to produce and sell the seed to him each year. Second, gaze at a field of F-1 plants. They appear to be almost machine-made. This genetic uniformity of the first generation causes vulnerability to crop failure. Two famous examples of crop failures in genetically-uniform crops are the wheat stem rust epidemic of 1954 which took 75% of the crop, and in the southern corn blight epidemic of 1970, which destroyed 20% of the crop. Even more devastating was the Irish potato blight of the 1830’s, in which 2 million people starved, and 2 million fled, reducing the country’s population by half, was also because of uniformity in the crop—because potatoes are propagated vegetatively, they have high genetic uniformity in fields, actually being clones of the same plant. Although the wheat and potatoes were not F-1 hybrids, they highlight the problems that may occur with genetic uniformity. Third, the widespread cultivation of F-1 hybrids to the exclusion of the old open pollinated varieties narrows the genetic base of our crops, and contributes to the ‘genetic wipe-out’ which is alarming biologists and agronomists throughout the world. Finally, the methods used to produce the F-1 seed each year are inhumane, and contribute to the exploitive world-view which is destroying our environment.
An important point: in wild nature, hybridization between populations, races, varieties and species is a common, natural occurrence. In wild nature this is a highly beneficial process, promoting diversity and evolution. The objection here is to controlled, large-scale industrial production of hybrids, leading to uniformity rather than diversity, and leading to the corporate control of germplasm. There is no problem with natural hybridization, or with home gardeners experimenting with hybridizing plants in their backyards, except that each individual should give consideration to the ethical questions about the invasiveness and inhumaneness of the procedure.
Certain people have mis-interpreted our opposition to hybrid seeds as a justification of their erroneous ideas against so-called “race-mixing”. I would like to make it very clear that the classification of human beings on the basis of skin color or other superficial characteristics is not biologically sound. A rose of any color is a rose. The equality of human races is a scientific fact, as is the fact that there is no such thing as a “pure” race. Contrary to racist superstitions, it is a scientific fact that the mingling of human races socially, culturally, and by intermarriage is a highly beneficial process, and should be encouraged.—J.L. Hudson, Seedsman, 1974, 1986 and 1996.
“They do not want to know that centralization is not only the death-knell of liberty, but also of health and beauty, of art and science, all these being impossible in a clock-like, mechanical atmosphere.”—Emma Goldman.
“Ignorance is preferable to error; and he is less remote from the truth who believes nothing, than he who believes what is wrong.”—Thomas Jefferson