The Secret Lives of Seeds

Much has been made in our neck of the woods over the use of genetically engineered commodity crops (notably sugar beets and canola) whose DNA has been manipulated to allow these plants to withstand an onslaught of chemical applications, easing the farmer’s job of controlling weeds or pests. This new technology is a serious threat to farmers who still practice the art of seed saving, or those who grow vegetables primarily for their seed (as many in our Valley do), because the same DNA that provides the resistant traits has been deemed eligible for patenting.

In this surprising scenario, pollen dust that rides on the haunches of insects or is caught in a drift of wind belongs to someone (someone with an extensive legal team). That same pollen, once it enters the pistil and ovaries of a neighboring plant in the same botanic family and twists itself into a new genetic combination, still belongs to someone. If the patented DNA floats onto your land, the seeds from your fields and your toil belong to the company that owns their genetics. This makes saving these tainted seeds illegal and permanently infiltrates (and renders unusable) the genetic stock of a seed grower’s operation.

Consumers of food products may wish to seek out terms such as non-genetically modified (non-GMO) and non-genetically engineered (non-GE) on grocery store packaging if they’d like to boycott the practice of patenting plant DNA. As a consumer of seeds for the home garden, you run little risk of accidentally encountering said patented genes, but a newly developing branch of plant patent law leaves the gardener’s seed catalog with its own gamut of ambiguities.

Two terms the seed catalog shopper has surely encountered are ‘open-pollinated’ and ‘F1 hybrid.’ Both refer to a vegetable variety’s breeding history. F1 hybrids, as you may recall from your high school biology introduction to the work of Gregor Mendel, are the result of a cross between two true breeding (or homozygous) parents. This first generation not only ends up with the desirable traits from both parents, its seed stock is also nearly uniform. Thus, F1 hybrids are known for their consistency and vigor, as well as their marketable traits.

If you felt so inspired to cross two identical F1 plants, however, you would find that the genetics unleash, leaving you with a wildly diverse set of F2 varieties, few bearing resemblance to their parents. The practical outcome of this phenomenon is well known to gardeners: F1 seeds cannot be reliably saved—they must be purchased annually from the company that goes to all the trouble of creating them year after year, making them a good candidate for trait patenting.

Open-pollinated (OP) has a variety of meanings, ranging from genetic crossing facilitated only by wind and insects (a form of hybridization that occurs freely and all of the time), to a more intentional cross facilitated by placing plants with desirable traits in close proximity and repeatedly selecting the best progeny until the genetic variation mostly stabilizes. Unlike F1 hybrids, open-pollinated crosses will always have a subtle spectrum of traits among the batch. But what a gardener accepts in slight loss of uniformity she gains in ability to develop her own seed stocks, which over time will adapt to the character of her garden.

One is not necessarily more virtuous than the other. I buy both for my own vegetable plot, with a significant bent toward the OP varieties. I like the integrity of something owned by the commons—like mythology, folk songs or cherished recipes, each gardener, each season leaves its residue and passes it forward. I also enjoy saving my own seeds.

Certain vegetables, such as tomatoes, peppers, lettuce and beans, self-pollinate (meaning the pollen is already located within each flower, needing no more than a bump or a gust of wind to move it to the right place). This allows a gardener to basically carry on as usual, planting different tomato or lettuce varieties side by side, and still collect seed that will produce a similar plant the next year.

It was through reading the Wild Garden Seed catalog (a local seed breeding operation that works in in partnership with Gathering Together Farm of Philomath, OR) that I caught wind this year of how the vegetable-breeding world is changing because of a new trend in plant variety patenting. The gist of it is that larger breeding operations are starting to apply for patents on specific traits they have selected for, including such difficult-to-qualify features as color, shape and flavor (read Frank Morton’s full article here).

This troubling and outrageous development has serious implications for an operation like Wild Garden Seed, but also for the rest of us. Once vegetable traits legally belong to a business entity, their genetic wealth becomes blocked from meaningful participation in the greater genetic pool. And, more immediately, it is illegal to save seeds from patented varieties.

As eaters, we don’t (and rarely can!) look so deeply into the chain of food production to learn the background of the seeds that grew into our salad, or whether the seeds that grew into the feed that our hamburger ate were bred in a way we would accept of our own feed. For this reason, I am thankful to businesses like Wild Garden who grow seeds with integrity and make them available to the farmers that help to nourish our community. But as members of this society, we must also consider our part.

Though I have long been suspicious of patented plant DNA, until recently, I would doubtfully have understood the implications of a patent on an F1 hybrid or OP variety. I urge you to read more and learn why we must protect the ability of our nation’s farmers to grow the best food they can.

Wild Garden Seed’s webpage has an archive of well-researched and well-written articles on plant patenting as well as the politics of GMO’s in the Willamette Valley.

Frederick Kaufman further discusses the dangers of plant patenting in his piece published on the Slate website in December 2012.

Margaret Roach recently wrote an op-ed titled, Look Carefully at those Seeds, for the NY Times regarding the need for more organic seed sources.