Wherever traces of human settlement have been found we find evidence of the culture of plants. From the Quaternary Ice Age, the Pleistocene and even older stone age, we seem to have understood the value of cultivating plant life for food and other material use.
Domestic gardeners and food growers have always collected and sown the seeds from the plants we found most useful. Each year as seeds are gathered they bring with them genetic and dynamic information. Seeds saved for generations carry characteristics that are important in the preservation of genetic diversity. They carry the adaptations the plant has made in order to reproduce in its local conditions and resistance to pests and diseases; evolution needs that information in order to carry forward natural improvements for future generations.
Nowadays we let seed companies produce seed for us, but if we do not protect the heirloom and open pollinated seeds for food production we may not have access to seeds in the future. The availability of seed will be in the hands of specialists at best or large corporations at worst that breed commercially to improve uniformity, consistant maturation and larger yields as required by large scale agriculture at the expense of taste, nutritional value and small scale production requirements (i.e. cropping over longer periods). If commercial seed companies breed F1 seeds that rely on proprietary fertilisers and pesticides, (in the case of Monsanto in India) then the seeds are useless to those without the means to pay for not only the seeds each year but the chemicals necessary to grow them.
When seeds are bred in controlled conditions they can be weakened making them less hardy or able to adapt to climate extremes or new diseases. But worst of all when seeds are bred in such a way that the plant cannot reproduce successfully itself then these plants are effectively extinct, they are static and cannot evolve.
Given our changing climate it is even more important that we allow plants to evolve dynamically as they adapt to their changing climate conditions. Heritage and non-hybrid seeds are open-pollinated, and unlike hybrid F1 varieties, that means seeds can be saved for future years, developing dynamic crops, evolving and adapting to the local ecosystem.
I don’t want to discount F1 seeds or commercial plant breeders for that matter altogether but I want to save seeds from the best plants I grow and carry on growing them into the future. Lots of great gardeners advocate F1 seeds and claim they provide bigger, better more consistant crops but in my experience I haven’t found that to be so. In fact for some varieties particularly brassicas, capsicums and curcubits the F1 varieties in particular were not able to withstand the almost biblical waves of pestilance we seem to get here and did not fare as well as some of the heirloom varieties.
The older varieties represent strains that have been handed down the generations saved by hand because of their taste, value and strength as they have adapted. By starting with open pollinated seeds we can collect seeds each year and grow plants which, through careful selection of seeds from the best plants, improve through the years.
For more information about Heritage seeds go to Seed Networks and Libraries