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Keynote Speech at Common Ground County Fair

Kent Whealy, Keynote Speaker · Common Ground County Fair · Windsor, Maine · September 21, 1985

My name is Kent Whealy and I’m the director of a non-profit organization of vegetable gardeners known as the Seed Savers Exchange. The Seed Savers Exchange is actually a preservation project which is trying to save what remains of our vanishing vegetable heritage. The majority of the vegetable varieties currently available to gardeners may be lost within a few short years unless drastic action is taken. We are actually working with two groups of seeds: heirloom varieties, which are seeds that are passed down from generation to generation within certain families; and also with commercial varieties, which are currently being dropped from seed catalogs. I would like to spend my time with you today telling you about how the Seed Savers Exchange got started, what we are trying to accomplish, what heirloom varieties are, the problems we all face relating to the loss of genetic diversity, and how we as backyard gardeners can help to turn the situation around.

Because the United States is a nation of immigrants, we have been blessed with the largest and best collection of food crops ever bestowed on any nation. From literally every corner of the world, gardeners brought with them the best of their vegetable varieties and acclimated them to varying regional conditions. This natural ethnic wealth of seeds is greater than we could ever have achieved through plant exploration and introduction. But much of this irreplaceable genetic diversity is being lost forever and we must act immediately to save what remains. Dr. Garrison Wilkes, who is a Professor of Biology at the University of Massachusetts, described the situation well when he said, “The genetic diversity of our food crops is a national wealth which the varied racial and ethnic members of our nation have brought from their homelands. It is unthinkable not to preserve and maintain these and other reserves of genetic diversity that still exist for future plant breeding needs.”

All across our country, elderly gardeners are keeping collections of unique vegetables that have been adapting for lifetimes to local weather and building resistance to local diseases and insects. In many cases these seeds have been grown by the same family and in the same location for 150 years or longer, always being passed to the next generation. But our society has become so mobile that most families move every few years. So right now we must help with this handing-down process or thousands of heirloom vegetable varieties will be lost during the next generation. When these master gardeners pass away, unless they have found younger gardeners to replant their seeds, their outstanding strains become extinct. Not only will future generations never enjoy them, but we have lost forever irreplaceable genetic characteristics which may be desperately needed in breeding future food crops.

My involvement with heirloom seeds began quite by chance. In the early 1970s, my wife and I had just moved to the northeast corner of Iowa. It’s a beautiful area of limestone bluffs and clear streams and dairy farms near the Mississippi River where Iowa and Wisconsin and Minnesota meet. We were newly married and were planting our first garden together. Diane’s grandfather, Baptist Ott, took a liking to us and was teaching us some of his gardening techniques. He was a really ornery old fellow and was the best storyteller I’ve ever met. We became really close.

That fall he gave me the seed of three garden plants that his family had brought with them from Bavaria four generations before. He gave me the seed of a large pink German tomato, which was a potato-leaf type. He gave me the seed of a small, delicately beautiful morning glory which was purple and had a red star in its throat. He also gave me the seed of a strong-climbing prolific little pole bean which he just called Snipple bean. (I found out later that “snipple” just means “snap” in Low Dutch…. he used to say with a twinkle in his eye that he spoke High Dutch, Low Dutch, Bavarian and broken English.) Anyhow the old man didn’t make it through that winter and I realized that if his seeds were to survive it was up to me.

About that same time I was lucky enough to come across the writings of Dr. Garrison Wilkes, whom I mentioned earlier, and also the writings of Dr. Jack Harlan, recently retired Professor of Plant Genetics at the University of Illinois. These two scientists have been trying for decades to warn the public about the danger of genetic erosion. I would like to read a couple of short quotes to give you an idea of the seriousness of the situation. Dr. Wilkes has written, “The reason for alarm and concern about the loss of native strains is the irreplaceable nature of the genetic wealth. The only place genes can be stored is in living systems, either living branches, such as the bud wood of apple trees, or in the living embryos of grains and vegetable seeds. The native varieties become extinct once they are dropped in favor of introduced seed. The extinction can take place in a single year if the seeds are cooked and eaten instead of saved as seed stock. Quite literally, the genetic heritage of a millennium in a particular valley can disappear in a single bowl of porridge.” Dr. Harlan has written, “These resources stand between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine. In a very real sense, the future of the human race rides on these materials… The line between abundance and disaster is becoming thinner and thinner, and the public is unaware and unconcerned. Must we wait for disaster to be real before we are heard? Will people listen only after it is too late?”

So there I was with a handful of heirloom seeds and a respect for both their value and also their fragility. At that point I had no idea how prevalent heirloom seeds were, but it was obvious from what I’d seen in Baptist Ott’s garden that the ones I’d been given were excellent. I began to wonder how many other people might also be keeping seeds which had been passed down to them by their families. I also wondered how often, when elderly gardeners pass away, the seeds which they had bred up and selected for a lifetime might sit in a can in a shed somewhere until they died too. So I decided to write to gardening and back-to-the-land magazines in an attempt to locate other gardeners who were also keeping heirloom seeds.

During these past ten years, I’ve discovered that heirloom vegetable varieties aren’t common, but they are also not all that rare. When a person decides for whatever reason to immigrate to the United States — to become a stranger in a strange land — gardeners will invariably bring seeds with them. Seeds are a link to their past and ensure that they can continue to enjoy their foods from the old country. So the Italians brought tomatoes, the Germans brought cabbage, the Mexicans brought chiles, and the Russians brought rye and wheat. And these seeds have been smuggled into this country in the linings of suitcases, under the bands of hats, and in the hems of dresses. I’m sure that gives the USDA quarantine people nightmares, but that’s the way it has happened down through the centuries and that’s the way it’s still happening today. We have seeds within our organization that supposedly were brought over on the Mayflower and we also have seeds that were brought over from Laos last year by the boat people.

Because of my training as a journalist, I have been able to use the media quite successfully to locate gardeners who are keeping heirloom seeds and I have organized them into an annual seed exchange. But in the beginning this contacting went quite slowly and by the end of the first year I had located only five other gardeners who were also keeping heirloom varieties. That winter we corresponded with each other and traded seeds through the mail. The next spring one of our group, an elderly woman from Missouri, passed away, but by then three of us were growing the Bird Egg bean that her grandparents had brought to Missouri in a covered wagon in 1858. I kept right at it and by the end of the second year there were 29 of us. That year I published a six-page newsletter….well….to be quite truthful, I ran copies off on an unguarded Xerox machine in the place where I was working. I became the focal point for all correspondence and communications. By the end of our third year there were 140 of us and I began mimeographing a yearbook which contained each member’s name, address, lists of the garden seeds each had to offer, and also lists of what they were trying to find. The next year I read everything I could find on saving vegetable seeds and added a Seed Saving Guide to our yearbook to teach others how to save all of their own vegetable seeds and keep their varieties pure and disease free.

Our “Winter Yearbook” is published during January of each year and 1985 is our tenth year. This is a copy of The 1985 Winter Yearbook which is 256 pages long and contains the names and addresses of our 550 “Members” and lists the garden seeds each has to offer and also lists of what they are trying to find. “Members” (gardeners offering seeds through that Yearbook) can obtain seeds just for postage. “Non-Members” (gardeners receiving the yearbook, but not yet listed in it) must send $1.00 for each sample of seeds requested. This discourages the merely curious, but still allows us to distribute our seeds to gardeners who sincerely wish to join us in this unique preservation project.

We are particularly interested in contacting other gardeners who are also keeping seed of vegetable varieties that are: family heirlooms; traditional Indian crops; garden varieties of the Mennonite and Amish; varieties that have been dropped from all catalogs; outstanding foreign varieties; essentially, any vegetable seeds that are not available commercially. We have found that whenever we go into an area where people are really isolated, we often find a real treasure-trove of seeds. That isolation can take various forms. Often it is geographical and we have found that the rugged backwoods areas of the Ozarks and the Smokies and the Appalachian Mountains are extremely rich in heirloom varieties. Isolation can also be religious. It has been extremely difficult to penetrate such communities, but slowly we are beginning to see among our members more Mennonite, Amish, Dunkard and Hutterite gardeners. And as trust has built in the Seed Savers Exchange, we are also beginning to gain more Indian members. I am particularly pleased with this, because many Indian peoples are very reluctant to share their seeds. They believe that their seeds are sacred and well they should, because seeds are the sparks of life that feed us all….We have even been entrusted with Cherokee seeds which were carried over the Trail of Tears, which was a death march that occurred in 1836….I am really encouraged that traditional people and ethnic groups have enough trust in the organization to be willing to join. At the same time, though, I know that misuse or overuse will quickly drive away these more cautious members.

I wish that each of you who are gardeners might have a chance to look through one of our yearbooks. You would be amazed at the amount and the diversity of the plant material being offered. For the past couple of years our members have collectively been offering about 3,500 varieties per yearbook. And during these past ten years, our members have made seed available for an estimated 250,000 plantings of varieties that were not available from any commercial source and many of which were literally on the edge of extinction. It is difficult even for me to imagine the impact that such an exchange is having. And the material we have been able to locate thus far represents really just the tip of the iceberg. Even with 550 members that’s only an average of 10 per state. Try to imagine what is still out there, at least for the time being. We think it is quite possible that the efforts of our small but dedicated group may double the genetic diversity available to backyard gardeners.

Well, that should give you a fairly good idea of what heirloom vegetable varieties are and how the Seed Savers Exchange is working to save this unique heritage. There is also another group of vegetable seeds that are just as endangered and these are the commercial varieties which are currently being dropped from seed catalogs. I’m sure that every one of you who are serious gardeners has, at one time or another, been saddened when one of your favorite varieties was dropped from a catalog and you didn’t know where else to find it. If it’s still available anywhere in the United States or Canada, you can find it in this book which is called The Garden Seed Inventory. This is an inventory of 239 seed catalogs which lists all of the non-hybrid vegetable and garden seeds still being offered. It includes the variety name, range of days to maturity, a list of all its known sources, and the plant’s description. This 448-page 8 ½ x 11” book describes 5,785 varieties and it took me over three years to compile. It’s being heralded by both gardeners and scientists as a landmark study.

This book represents your heritage as vegetable gardeners (at least everything that’s available from commercial sources). The diversity and quality and number of garden varieties now being offered commercially is almost beyond belief. Gardeners in the United States and Canada are truly blessed. But it is quite possible that half of everything listed in this book could be extinct within the next few years! The major forces threatening this diversity include plant patenting legislation, takeovers of seed companies by multinational corporations, plant breeding for machines instead of gardeners, the profit-motivated hybrid bias of most seed companies, and increasing bankruptcies of small businesses. I think we need to take a few moments to examine the events and trends which have brought such a massive amount of plant material to the very brink of destruction, in order to determine how to neutralize this threat.

Plant patenting legislation was first passed in England in 1975. At that time England became a member of the International Union for the Protection of New Varieties of Plants which is also known by the acronym UPOV. UPOV is a Geneva-based organization that promotes and coordinates plant patenting laws around the world. Proponents of the legislation argue that it is necessary to keep unscrupulous competitors from pirating newly developed varieties and offering them under other names. Opponents say it stifles the free flow of plant material between breeders, which is essential if dynamic breeding programs are to be maintained, and allows breeders to make slight genetic manipulations to plant material, which they did not originally develop and then “lock up” that material for 18 years.

Enforcement of the legislation quickly became a legal nightmare because it is almost impossible to prove in court that one plant is identical to another. But European lawmakers plunged ahead and phased in a system of “legal” and “illegal” vegetables designed to facilitate enforcement. They published what is known as the “Common Catalogue” which lists all of the vegetables they have deemed permissible to sell in Common Market countries and they established stiff fines for persons selling any of the older varieties not on the list. Dr. J. K. A. Bleasedale of England’s Wellesborne Station described the Common Catalogue as a “self-inflicted wound” and confided that the catalog was inspired by commercial interests and was intended to clear the European market for the patented varieties. In July of 1980 the legislation took full effect and 1,547 vegetable varieties became illegal to sell in England and the other Common Market countries which belong to UPOV. Dr. Erna Bennett, formerly with the Crop Ecology and Genetic Resources branch of the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations in Rome, estimated that by 1991 fully three-quarters of all the vegetable varieties now grown in Europe will be extinct because of attempts to enforce plant patenting laws.

The situation, as it continued to develop in England during those years, was reported in the quarterly newsletters of the Henry Doubleday Research Assoc. Lawrence D. Hills, Director of the Association, spearheaded the forces in England that opposed plant patenting and has tried valiantly, but unsuccessfully, to change the legislation. He was able to stir up enough national publicity that OXFAM made a grant of 300,000 Pounds Sterling to establish a Gene Bank at Wellesbourne. The Gene Bank, built as a government facility, was dedicated six years after the situation first became apparent. But the dedication of the facility was a bittersweet event because much of the vegetable material, which Lawrence D. Hills and his colleagues had hoped to save, was already extinct. They are currently establishing Vegetable Sanctuaries in the kitchen gardens of several stately homes in England, where the varieties they have been able to salvage will be permanently maintained. They have also sponsored expeditions to collect peasant-varieties in various European countries which have recently joined UPOV, hoping to lessen the destruction.

In January of 1979, amendments to strengthen and extend our own Plant Variety Protection Act of 1970 were introduced on behalf of the American Seed Trade Association and its 600 member companies. These amendments sought to standardize U.S. patent coverage with European laws so that the United States could also join UPOV. The hearings for these amendments were unpublicized and the American Seed Trade Association and the USDA expected no public awareness on the issue and no trouble running them through. They were wrong. Before the hearing even started and continuing through the entire legislative fight, members of several grass-roots organizations working with genetic preservation generated more mail against the legislation than any agricultural issue in memory. Opponents used the various hearings on the amendments to try to educate legislators about the threats facing genetic diversity and to expose the amendments as destructive, European-inspired, special-interest legislation. But the final battle was lost due to unbelievable political acrobatics on one of the last frantic days of the Carter Administration. The amendments were passed into law on a voice vote during a lame duck session of the United States Senate. The furor over the legislation died down all too quickly when there was no immediate move to install a system of legal and illegal varieties as had happened in Europe.

At that point opponents of the legislation hoped that the newly created public awareness about genetic vulnerability would at least result in increased support for the National Seed Storage Laboratory and for various collection programs. Unfortunately, that has not been the case. To say that germplasm research and preservation programs in the U.S. have been given low priority, would be a gross understatement. The National Seed Storage Lab did not receive a budget increase during its first 15 years of existence. The USDA has not had even one full-time plant explorer since 1970. The U.S. government only allocates a pathetic $40,000 per year to collect the rapidly vanishing genetic resources on which the future of U.S. agriculture will depend. And all this at a time when scientists around the world are voicing increased alarm as they watch the wholesale destruction of the centers of diversity for the world’s food crops, caused by the introduction of the Green Revolution’s hybrids and the newly patented varieties which are being marketed in Third World countries. The U.S. government is making a catastrophic mistake by not immediately initiating a crash program for plant collection world-wide.

Plant patenting legislation has definitely made seed companies attractive investments for multinational corporations. During the first week after patenting legislation was passed in England, one company, RHM, bought out 84 seed companies. When RHM’s buying spree was finally complete, over 100 seed companies had merged. Shell Oil of Great Britain has bought out 56 seed companies since the passage of the legislation in England. Royal Dutch Shell became the world’s largest seed and agrichemical company, almost overnight. Seed company takeovers in the United States have also reached epidemic proportions: Atlantic Richfield took over Dessert Seed Co.; Celanese bought out Joseph Harris; Ciba-Geigy, a pharmaceutical giant in Switzerland, purchased Funk’s Seeds; IT&T now owns Burpee; Amfac took over Gurney’s and Henry Fields; Sandoz, another Swiss pharmaceutical multinational, purchased Northrup King; Upjohn bought out Asgrow Seed Co.; and Monsanto purchased DeKalb Hybrid Wheat. And these are just a few of the more than 60 recent North American seed company takeovers.

Multinational agrichemical conglomerates view seeds as a logical lateral extension of their financial interests. They are already manufacturing pesticides, fungicides and chemical fertilizers. With their newly purchased seed companies, they are now able to give commercial growers a package deal — seeds which will grow well with their chemicals. Some agrichemical firms have even started selling pelleted seeds, which wraps each individual seed in a small capsule of pesticides and fertilizers. Such tactics point out an obvious conflict of interests which occurs when major agrichemical corporations are allowed to buy out seed companies. In the past, excellent breeding programs have produced food crops which are resistant to a multitude of diseases and even to pests. But it is doubtful that such corporations, whose very existence depends on selling pesticides and chemical fertilizers, will spend any time or money to develop disease- or pest-resistant crops. And yet plant patenting legislation is allowing these same corporations to lock up valuable breeding materials for 18 years. You know, somewhere in that tidal wave of special-interest legislation pouring out of Washington nowadays, there ought to be a law prohibiting agrichemical and pharmaceutical corporations from owning seed companies.

The tremendous consolidation now going on within the U.S. seed industry also threatens to destroy most of the plant material available to gardeners. When a large corporation buys out a small, regional, family-owned seed company, it invariably drops the former owner’s collection of standard varieties and replaces them with the more profitable hybrids and patented seeds. The new corporate owners are only concerned with profits and usually switch immediately to generalized varieties which will grow reasonably well anywhere in the country, thus assuring the greatest sales in the company’s new nation-wide market. No thought is given to preservation or the fact that the collection of seeds being dropped is probably the reason that company was successful in the first place. Often these regionally-adapted collections represent the life’s work of several generations of seedsmen within these families. Plants in these collections often are extremely well adapted to local weather and resistant to local diseases and pests. We cannot allow this irreplaceable genetic wealth to be destroyed just for the short-term profits of a corporation which may not even own that company next year.

Such losses might be viewed with less alarm, if the varieties being dropped had been superseded by superior ones as was often the case during the first half of this century. But the garden seeds currently being dropped from the catalogs are among the best home garden varieties we will ever see. Almost all of the vegetable breeding being done today is for commercial application and such varieties seldom suit the needs of the home gardener. Most commercial breeding strives for an extremely concentrated harvest period, so that machines can do the picking all at one time. Fruits must have tough skins and solid flesh to withstand mechanical harvesting and then endure cross-country shipping. Varieties are bred for eye-appeal, so they will look good and sell good in grocery stores and in seed catalogs. And some are specifically developed to be stored for extended periods in refrigerated, controlled environments.

As long as our food crops are being bred for machines and large commercial growers, the varieties being introduced will continue to stray ever farther from the needs of the home gardener. Gardeners are most concerned with flavor. If that fantastic flavor is there, appearance means nothing. Fresh garden produce is only “shipped” from the backyard to the kitchen table, so skin and flesh can be as tender as possible. Gardeners want varieties that can be harvested all season long, so they can enjoy fresh produce right up until frost and also spread out their canning activities. Many of the older varieties have remained popular because their excellent keeping abilities allow gardeners to enjoy the fruits of their labor until the next spring. Gardeners need locally adapted varieties which will grow well in their unique and increasingly changeable weather and withstand local diseases and pests.

Home garden varieties such as these are the ones which are currently being dropped from the seed catalogs. Far from being obsolete or inferior, these varieties are the cream of our vegetable crops. Each is the result of millions of years of natural selection, thousands of years of human selection, and usually almost a decade of intensive and costly plant breeding and testing. Only the very best make it to the catalogs and each is unique and irreplaceable. But they are being allowed to die out due to the economics of the situation with no systematic effort being made by government agencies or lay organizations to store and maintain them. The survival of these home garden varieties represents the vegetable gardener’s “right” to determine the quality of the food which that family consumes. If home gardeners allow their vegetable heritage to die out, they will be locking themselves forever into a position of dependence on the corporate wholesalers and the varieties that their owners choose to offer.

By the spring of 1981, many of my members were voicing concern because these commercial losses seemed to be escalating. But no overall picture of the seed industry existed which would let us see if these varieties had really been dropped completely from commercial availability. About that same time the amendments to our plant patenting laws were passed, so I decided to attempt an inventory of the entire U.S. and Canadian seed industry. Mail-order vegetable seed catalogs, no matter how small or obscure, were gathered from throughout the United States and Canada. Computer equipment was purchased and I began working on the Inventory late that summer. I mistakenly estimated that such an inventory could be completed in one year and would include 120 seed companies and 3,000 non-hybrid varieties. The Garden Seed Inventory actually took over three years to finally complete and includes 240 companies and nearly 6,000 non-hybrid varieties. This gigantic project involved an exhaustive and nearly incomprehensible amount of work. But it had to reach completion, because the stakes are high. This preservation tool is capable of turning the present situation around.

The greatest value of The Garden Seed Inventory is that it shows which varieties are in the most danger before they are dropped. Many gardeners would gladly buy up a supply of seed, if they knew it was about to be dropped. But usually they have no warning that a favorite variety is in danger until it simply doesn’t show up in a particular catalog one year and they are unable to find another source for it. This Inventory shows all of the alternative sources that are still available. Gardeners can now search through every variety being offered to locate ones which are perfect for their local climate and resistant to local diseases and pests. Gardeners in high-altitude or northern regions can use the Inventory to locate hardy and short season varieties. Concerned individuals in other countries can use it as a model for similar inventories. Preservationists around the world can use it to buy up endangered commercial varieties, while sources still exist, and then permanently maintain them. And, because the Inventory focuses attention on the seeds that are the least available, many small, almost unknown seed companies will be rewarded and strengthened because they are offering unique or regionally-adapted varieties.

The Garden Seed Inventory has made it possible for the first time to accurately assess which varieties are being dropped and how quickly. As it grew towards completion it became increasingly more fascinating and more frightening. Fascinating because, when viewing the entire garden seed industry in detail, the amount of plant material available is incredible! Frightening because, it is now apparent that over 48% of all non-hybrid garden seeds are available from only one source out of 239 companies! (Now when I say that, I don’t mean from one “particular” company. I mean that those varieties are down to being offered by one random source out of 239 possible sources.) This study shows that 2,792 varieties, which is 48.3% of the total, are available from only one source. And if the varieties that are down to being offered by just two sources, are added in, that figure goes up to right at 60%

Although the study hasn’t been going long enough to draw any really firm conclusions, it appears that each year we are losing about 5% of everything that is commercially available. But that figure doesn’t really reflect the overall decrease in availability. Many of the varieties, which are now available from one or two sources, were available from six or more sources when I began this study. And most of those companies dropped these varieties just last year. In other words, it appears that the sources of supply for these seeds have already disappeared. Although many of these varieties have not yet been dropped completely, they will be as soon as those few companies sell out their remaining supplies of the seeds. An almost unbelievable amount of loss is possible within the next few years. Hopefully an immediate and systematic effort can still rescue most of these endangered seeds. But there is never any guarantee that any variety offered by a small number of companies will still be available in next season’s catalogs.

There has been only one other complete U.S. inventory of commercially available food plants. In 1903 the USDA published a book entitled American Varieties of Vegetables for the Years 1901 and 1902 by W. W. Tracy, Jr. It included variety names and sources, but no descriptions. This earlier inventory has been studied in depth and then compared to printouts of what is being kept in the National Seed Storage Laboratory. Only three percent of everything available commercially in 1902 survives today in that government collection! (And if tomato seeds didn’t keep so darn good in cold storage, that figure would be down to about 1.5%). It is depressing to see the huge lists of garden varieties available at the turn of the century and realize that almost all of them have been lost forever. Imagine everything that would still be available for breeders to work with today, if the 1901/1902 USDA Inventory had been updated annually and if endangered varieties had been systematically procured and maintained. But even though disastrous mistakes have been made in the past, there is absolutely no excuse for losing anything from now on. At this point we are just picking up the remaining pieces, but we must “at least” do that and do it quickly. Time is running out and we will never be given this chance again.

It is ironic that we presently have access to such a vast array of the best garden varieties ever developed, and yet so much of this invaluable and irreplaceable resource is in immediate danger of being lost forever. We are truly at a crossroads. It is still not too late to rescue from extinction what remains of our vanishing vegetable heritage. Just try to imagine what it would cost, in terms of time and energy and money, to develop this many excellent varieties. But they are already here. All we have to do is save them. We are the stewards of this sacred genetic wealth and we better start acting like it. If we don’t, generations yet unborn will curse our stupidity and deplore the fact that we valued power and money more than we valued their survival.

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