Why seed diversity is crucial to the future of agricultural production and food security

In the last 60 years, we’ve lost the genetic diversity of our seeds—more than 90 percent of all cultivars* have gone extinct. Seed diversity has been bred out in favour of GMO seeds, which many continue to believe is the answer to global food insecurity. However, sustainability researchers in the agricultural field are now seeing that by genetically modifying our seeds, we are actually destroying our biogenetic diversity and increasing food insecurity.

That means, in order to create a reliable food system at a time where the planet and its weather patterns are unpredictable, we need to look into bringing ancient, rare and diverse seeds back into rotation. Adapting seeds to our regions, otherwise known as “landrace seeds”, will be a fundamental way forward when looking at feeding a growing population as we endure climate change.

From small-scale to global

When agriculture switched from small-scale farms to large corporations, we moved away from community-saved seeds into commercialized seed companies. These large corporations began breeding crops so that huge harvests of identically sized and coloured produce could be picked on the same day to be shipped around the world. This was (and is still) done through inbreeding and the application of harmful chemical fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides that have damaged the planet's soil and human health overtime.

Limiting this genetic diversity in crops was thought to be a productive way to feed a rising population; however, historically, many famines have been caused by the failure of a single inbred or cloned crop due to the appearance of a new pest or disease. These “super” pests and diseases are especially dangerous because they grow to be immune or resilient against pesticides and sprays, and are then left to destroy an entire field of crops. These genetically weakened crops are also susceptible to harsh and unpredictable weather patterns, which there are increasingly more of due to climate change, leaving fields of crops vulnerable to destruction.

It only takes one major event to completely wipe out a highly inbred variety, leaving the world scrambling for food and resources. The solution to this is found in the thing we tried to eliminate: diversity in genetics.carrots and kalePhoto by Brad on Unsplash

What are landrace seeds?

Landrace farming and seed-saving focus on preserving seeds for genetic diversity and resilience. By planting multiple varieties of corn, multiple varieties of kale and other food crops, farmers and gardeners aren’t putting all of their eggs into one basket.

That first year of growing, the farmer might notice a corn crop that is resilient to drought (and if he/she lived in an increasingly dry area, would choose to save seeds from that plant), or another farmer might notice a cucumber plant resistant to bacterial wilt, and save seeds from those fruits. With a keen eye, farmers and gardeners can begin to pluck out the best seeds for their climate.

The difference between regular seed-saving and landrace seed-saving is the introduction of new varieties. Along with saved seeds, growers acquire additional seeds in order to plant an equal number of genetically varied plants nearby to allow for natural cross-breeding and pollination. Growers will use carefully selected open-pollinated and heirloom seeds from trusted seed companies, along with traded seeds from local neighbours, friends and seed banks. It’s common to plant from five to 50 varieties of seeds to make the original cross-breeding. In the following years, the landrace seed is then tailored to each garden and region by a survival of the fittest and farmer-directed selection.

Unlike with commercial GMO breeding, this natural type of “hybrid” selection doesn’t split open genetics and clone them. The key here is to always have a variety of crops that are resistant to different elements so that if one crop is susceptible to a bacteria or pest, only one or a few crops will be risked rather than the entirety of the field and food. By developing new varieties, farmers and gardeners can also create varieties that are missing from the repertoire in order to establish greater food security for the future.

The goal is to gather seeds from open-pollinated fruit that can withstand drought, flooding, pests and other changing climate factors throughout the year. By placing emphasis on the sturdiest crops from one growing year to the next, and incorporating new seeds to cross-pollinate for genetic variation, the seeds are able to adapt to the local climate and soil and produce the highest yields for the conditions.packaged seedsPhoto by Krista Bennett on Unsplash

How is landrace seed-saving important?

We have already seen an increase in prices for large-scale farming due to the unsuccessful (and unsustainable) effects of agrochemicals long-term, and that’s why small farms have made a resurgence. Small seed companies have reemerged in the last few years (some never left), but they can’t do the work alone. Having access to traditional landrace crops is rare, and the more individuals who participate in landrace seed-saving, the more quickly we can reestablish diverse and resilient crops.

Commercial seed companies have limited home gardeners’ ability to save their own seeds by incorporating cytoplasmic male sterility (CMS) into the genes of the seeds, which is why it’s so important to screen your seed company and ensure they are open-pollinated, heirloom or a mindful hybrid. Seed companies have used this method to create a reliance on gardeners buying new seed packets year after year, rather than saving their own seeds, which has also contributed to the decline in the world’s genetic variety.

When growing landrace seeds, gardeners should eliminate the idea of “purity” or “uniformity” from seeds. You may have unusually shaped tomatoes, or ones that taste slightly different, but that helps in adapting the plants to also have different nutrient profiles and benefits. The key is to not breed uniformity, but to keep the seeds open-pollinated and diverse.

To maintain an “adaptivar” landrace, you need to add small amounts of new genetics to the gene pool from time to time; include small amounts of two- and three-year-old seed in each year’s planting; grow a sufficiently large population to maintain genetic diversity; and be liberal when saving different sizes, shapes, colours, textures, flavours and maturity dates.

When creating a landrace, along with purchased seeds, you can (and should) include locally adapted seeds saved from your neighbours, community gardens and seed swaps. You’ll then take your saved seeds from this year and plant a new variety in the next row over. Then, if the new variety grows well, you can begin to save that seed and add it to your population.

Beginning this work and encouraging others to participate will help strengthen local food systems, resuscitate nearly extinct varieties, and incorporate new varieties that will allow humanity to be more adaptable and resilient through climate change and ensure the production of food for generations.

*A variety of a plant that was produced from a natural species and is maintained by cultivation." Collins