No flashy neon sign will guide you. You'll need to know where to look for this underground treasure. Find an old north end school in Seattle's Phinney neighborhood and you're getting warm. Circle round to the back door, past a tool lending library, down a set of steps, through a boiler room, and you're getting warmer. Bill Thorness with the King County Seed Lending Library tries the combination on a locked door. “Oh yeah, now I remember.” Open sesame.
The door opens to a small chamber and like a classic tale in One Thousand and One Nights, the treasure is revealed. Not gold or silver, but samples of seeds that have supported diets and allowed civilizations to flourish all over the globe.
Stored in glass jars in a dark cupboard, the open pollinating seeds at this lending library start-up have one purpose: to maintain, preserve, and share a diverse supply of non-GMO seeds. Thorness shows off beans originally grown by Seattle's Angelo Pellegrini, one of the founders of the slow food movement, donated by local gardeners; heirloom varieties he believes were grown by Thomas Jefferson, scarlet runner beans, parsnips.
In his book, Edible Heirlooms, Thorness noted a USDA study that found a 97 percent loss of diversity from 1903 to 1983. Since then industrial agriculture's singular focus on monoculture has made the problem worse, he says. “So the tiny little bit of diversity we have left today is really important for the future of a healthy food supply. If we had a catastrophic loss of one crop, say the main variety of corn grown in the U.S.,” he says, “it could be a huge economic problem, as well as a farmers problem and an eater's problem.”
Consolidation of seed companies is spurring the movement by organic and non-GMO growers like Thorness to nurture a local and culturally diverse seed supply. Three companies — Monsanto, Dupont Pioneer and Syngenta — control 53 percent of the commercial seed market. Critics say the big three promote GMO and patented seeds and offer fewer and fewer varieties.
Seed libraries are a way for people to take back control of seeds and food, says Olympia Seed Exchange founder Caitlin Moore. Seed exchanges and seed lending libraries, including three branches of the King County Seed Lending Library and Port Townsend's Organic Seed Alliance, are not only the outcome of a political fight, but of a fight for genetic diversity, says Moore. “They're growing in popularity because more and more people are realizing that consolidation is causing us to lose our options.”
Growers can't invent diversity or genes. The only thing they can do, she says, is to work with what nature has provided and cross one trait with another, using classical plant breeding techniques that have been around for thousands of years. “When we have a lot of people saving seed," Moore says, "they're also discovering some of those crosses in their back yard or farm and creating new varieties and generating new combinations of genes.”
The best technique for growing a vigorous variety of plant, says Thorness, is to grow 30 or 50 of the plants from seed. No one urban gardener usually has space to grow 50 plants. But if 10 gardeners come together and each grows five from seed and the seed from all 50 is blended together, “we'd have a very vigorous collection of seed that would result in stronger plants and better plants and more diverse plants.”
The easiest way for an urban gardener to join the effort is to pick a simple plant to save, say beans or peas, says Thorness. Let some stay on the vine instead of picking them all. After they mature and the pods start to dry, cut down the plant, in case of rain. “After the pods are totally dry and the beans can be shaken around inside the pod that indicates they're ready to be shelled.” Store the seeds in a jar with a lid and put in a packet of silica to absorb moisture. However, seeds are living things, he notes, you can't let them dry out too much.
In his new book, The Triumph of Seeds, San Juan Island author Thor Hanson examines the traits and the habits of growers that have allowed seeds to be successful. His focus is on reminding us why we care about them in the first place. From the coffee and chocolate many of us can't live without to the cotton in our clothes, spices in our foods, fuels, intoxicants and poisons, dyes and fibers, seeds are fundamental. The genie is already out of the bottle on GMO technology, Hanson tells me, and it will be a struggle to make peace with because of our intimate bond with seeds. It's a bond that began 12,000 years ago when agriculture was developed in the Fertile Crescent of Western Asia.
“That's one of the reasons you find seeds at the heart of this debate,” he says. “Even though many of us live far removed from farm and field, seeds continue to resonate with the cultural accumulations of this bond.”
In his book, Hanson talks about one seed bank that even some seed lovers may not be aware of: the U.S. Department of Agriculture's the National Center for Genetic Resources (formerly known as the National Seed Bank). The facility on the edge of the Colorado State University campus in Fort Collins, Colorado, was built to withstand earthquakes, floods and catastrophic fires. “On the off chance that dams on the nearby Horsetooth Reservoir burst," writes Hanson, “the building is designed to float.” More than 2 billion species are held in the collection, every imaginable food plant as well as samples of their closest relatives from the wild.
In our conversation, Hanson calls it an elaborate fix to a problem of our own making. Traditionally, seed diversity was found in our own fields. But for more than a generation, industrial agriculture has focused on a few varieties on a mass scale.
It's a diversity more and more gardeners and farmers are working to reclaim in garden beds, pots and fields everywhere. Both the National Seed Bank and a number of open pollinating seed banks – they allow pollination to occur randomly in the open, rather than under controlled conditions – recognize the need to cultivate seeds that can withstand climate change. The director of the U.S. Department of Agriculture-run seed bank, Chris Walters, told Hanson that as areas of the country heat up and get drier, the USDA will increasingly turn toward sorghum as a grain mainstay. That's one of the reasons the seed bank has tens of thousands of varieties of sorghum and other plants, to keep those varieties preserved.
Meanwhile, open pollination seed lovers all over are preserving and cultivating seeds. There are an estimated 300 seed lending libraries around the country. But much seed sharing goes under the radar with seed lovers exchanging seeds because that's what they do, quietly, and without fanfare. Caitlin Moore with the Olympia Seed Exchange sums up the most direct action individuals can take: “Learn how to save seeds.” Or buy them from small, farmer-owned companies. She and Thorness with the King County Seed Lending Library recommend several distributors, Uprising Seeds, Wild Garden Seed and Pea Seeds.
The Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa, the oldest and best known organization addressing the concerns about seeds, has been offering organic, heirloom and non-GMO seeds for 40 years, helping to build what is now a quiet but strong movement across the country and in the Northwest.
An audio version of this story produced at the Jack Straw Cultural Center is below:
Caitlin Moore will lead a Spotlight on Seeds workshop May 30 at 21 Acres Center for Local Food and Sustainable Living in Woodinville. Details and a link to registration here.