Archive for March 2nd, 2008

The Seeds of Hunger: Seed Availability as a Limiting Factor

Sharon March 2nd, 2008

Welcome to the Month of March, which will be officially known as “Hard Times Now” month over here at CB. During the course of this month, I’m going to work under the assumption that we may reach a crisis point fairly soon due to economic constraints – and the underlying pressures of energy and food.

Do I know this to be true? Absolutely not – nor is my intent to scaremonger. But I do think that living the thought experiment of “what would happen if we entered into a Depression right now” is an important exercise. There are simply too many signs of deep, pervasive trouble (I’m not even going to bother linking here – if you don’t know what I mean check out the Debt Rattle at

So whether we’re talking obliquely about a food crisis by talking about food storage and preservation, or we’re explicitly exploring what we might have reason to be concerned about, I’m going to focus this month (and ask my readers to do the same) on the possibility that we may not have years to prepare or accustom ourselves to the idea of hard times, but weeks or months.

Which makes this a good time for me to write a series that I’ve been mulling over and working on for some time, about the problem of seed supplies. That is, I wanted to ask the question of whether our seed supply would be able to meet demand if we suddenly needed to move to large scale gardening and home food production? Would we even be able to do so, in a fast-growing food crisis (not unlike the one that seems to be beginning now)?

I found the answers disturbing. The first part will go over the problems of seed production. The second part will focus on what we can do about that, and the third and fourth on the ways that growing a seed saving garden that you rely upon for food and future food is different than the kind of gardening many of us do.

I’ve said before that I don’t find it especially likely that the US will undergo a Cuban-style sudden loss of all fossil fuel inputs anytime soon. I suspect our transition will go more slowly. But believing that we won’t have a sudden energy crisis doesn’t mean that I think that we may not be forced to make a fairly rapid transition to a regenerative, home scale agriculture.

It is not at all difficult to imagine present trends of rising food prices and and absolute shortages, combined with a faltering economy to bring about widespread hunger not only in the Global South, but in the North as well.

Right now most Americans and other rich world denizens are still fairly oblivious about the world’s depleted food supplies, falling reserves and the implications of peak oil and climate change for the food supply. While people are beginning to wake up to energy issues and climate change, the reality that it will affect their diets, and their access to dinner simply hasn’t penetrated. The news has just begun to discuss food issues, but we are already well into the early stages of a food crisis that is likely to continue to worsen.

When people do finally become aware, they are likely discover their vulnerability in some fairly difficult, unpleasant ways. They are likely to find stores short of preferred food – or prices too high for them to pay and food pantries unable to meet demand. They will need to eat different foods, and learn to grow them. Which means they will need seeds – millions or tens of millions of people will need seeds for their gardens.

And they will not merely need a couple of packets of tomatoes, basil and peppers, but enough seed to plant fairly large gardens filled with staple crops that can feed them through their dry or cold seasons, along with the tomatoes peppers and other flavoring crops that make such a diet palatable. That is, they will need ounces of parsnip and carrot seed, larger quantities still of seeds of greens for succession plantings, pounds of seed potatoes and plant starts. If they need winter or dry season greens, they will need additional seeds for sprouting.

And, because the need to garden is likely to be accompanied by economic difficulties, they will need open pollinated seeds, that is, seeds that come true to type, rather than more expensive hybrids that have to be bought year after year. Then, they will need to learn to save them, and in many cases, learn to produce enough seed for next year’s crop as well as feeding themselves, to store it and keep it viable. Or, if they rely on hybrids they will need to find the money for more seeds – but with millions or tens of millions of people competing for available seed sources, and predictable rises in price.

We face the real possibility that it may well be easier to teach 100 million Americans (and a similar proportion of folks in other nations in the Global North) how to grow food than it will be to find enough seeds to feed them, and to grow more, if an agricultural transition happens rapidly, requiring a large percentage of the US to grow food to feed itself quickly.

Obviously, there is no such thing in any meaningful sense as “peak seed” that is, a seed crisis is a short term, rather than long term problem. But assuming the possibility of a Depression or skyrocketing food prices, it is not so very hard to imagine that many of us might depend on our food supplies – and soon. With a large percentage of the US population needing to transition to home production in the space of a year or two, seed supply represents an enormous potential bottleneck, and one we have not consider sufficiently.

That is, individuals have thought about storing and saving seed for themselves, but my own perception is that little has been written or discussed in regards to the real stakes of the seed issues on a large scale.

There are a number of issues here. The first is the absolute supply of seed, the second the (vastly smaller) supply of open pollinated, non-GMO seeds. There are concerns about time to ramp up commercial seed production, and time needed to become a successful seed saver. There are issues of seed quality that are likely to become more critical when we depend on our garden seed to eat – that is, when a crop failure means that we do not have any peas this year. There are critical issues of genetic diversity and disease vulnerability, and particularly the vulnerability of staple food crops like corn and potatoes.

I think most of us have underestimated the potential limits created by our current seed production model when applied in a crisis. There are also solutions to these problems, and I will get to these.

One of the most obvious is home seed saving – the more people who produce seed, the better. But seed saving is not always easy, and seed savers gardens work differently, in some respects, than the gardens of those who can rely on seed always being available. Parts 3 and 4 of this series will consider how to create a seed savers garden – how much land needs to be allotted to seed crops and how serious seed saving shapes our gardens.

But first, I want to emphasize the sheer magnitude of the problem. I suspect many of us who are aware of food security issues have thought, at least a little, about the problems of getting seed in a situation of energy disruption, but mostly on a personal level. This essay is an attempt to evaluate how serious the seed issue might be on a national level for the US. I would encourage readers in other countries to consider doing similar evaluations for their own nations. I’ve kept my focus narrowly on my own country here because seed policies and garden practices differ enormously – other nations might well be better prepared. They’d almost have to be.

It is helpful to begin by describing the seed trade as a whole. The vast majority of seed production in the US is focused on professional, industrial scale farmers, and on a fairly narrow range of crops. A majority are either hybrids, that is they (generally – some plants labeled hybrids have actually stabilized genetically and do come true, but this is comparatively uncommon – more on this later) do not “come true” if you save seeds from them and replant.

That is, if you take an open pollinated seed (once all seeds were open pollinated), plant it, grow the plant out and save seed, you’ll get something pretty much like what you planted, if you take reasonable care to prevent cross-pollination. If you plant a hybrid, you’ll get a mix of “off-types” that resemble the parents, not the plant you want. Some of these may be fine, some may be nigh-on inedible – you simply don’t know. You can replant seed from hybrids, but often what you get will not be what you want – the plants will be less vigorous, lower yielding, less good tasting or in other ways inferior, because the hybrid was about the combination of the two parents, not either parent singularly. If you have time and patience, you can grow these hybrids out, get rid of any ones you don’t want, and select until you get something you do want, but that takes some years, and does not offer short term solutions.

The home garden trade is a small subset of the seed trade, and the serious home gardening/small farming trade a vastly smaller subset even of that. The majority of home gardeners start comparatively few seeds – they purchase pre-started flats of vegetables instead of seeds. I’m consistently amazed to see things that are grown from seed incredibly easily – lettuce, for example, in flats, and being bought like wildfire. So the majority of home gardeners have little experience planting seeds at all – carrots, perhaps and peas, and that’s probably about it. Although slightly off my main topic, this is something worth noting – even most experienced gardeners may have almost no experience growing food from seeds.

Of gardeners who do start seeds, the vast majority – more than 90% of them – do not order from seed catalogs and companies that specialize in home garden seeds, they get their seeds from seed racks in garden centers, supermarkets, Walmarts and other places. And the majority of seed companies that sell through these seed racks are not deeply invested in producing high quality seed. According to Steve Solomon, founder of Territorial Seeds and author of _Gardening When It Counts_ the vast majority of seed sales involve simply the purchase of bulk seed, often from foreign distributors, and repackaging of that seed without variety trials, often without germination tests, and with little consideration of what is adapted to particular regions.

In many cases, the cheapest varieties of bulk seeds will have off-types, because hybridization often requires labor-intensive hand pollinating in the field, and high cost isn’t what such companies are after. Solomon also notes that many companies use extremely poor quality seed, even sweepings from the seed floor, in cheap packets to be sold in commercial garden centers. Those 10cent packages of seed you see in various places may not actually even have 10 cents worth of seed in them.

Only about 10% of the home garden seed trade is focused on high quality vegetable seed production, mostly by mail order. These are the seed catalogs whose seed will have the germination percentages they claim. These are the people who will replace your packet that does have poor germination, and who will ensure vigorous seed with varities tested for your region – but it is important to remember that they do serve a tiny percentage of the total seed sales in the US, and they are not necessarily prepared to serve a vast increase in need.

That is not to say that high quality mail order catalogs are the only place you can get decent or viable seed – but they probably are the best source for home gardeners.

In an agricultural transition period, when people start running short of food, what they will want are seeds that are viable (that is, they are not too old and have been stored well, and thus, will grow), vigorous (that is, they grow well and don’t produce weak plants vulnerable to disease and pests), high yielding (that is, they produce a lot of whatever crop we are seeking), are adapted to their climate and to small scale food production (that is, they weren’t selected for commercial production, or primarily for shipping ability and they grow well where we’re growing food), available in fairly large quantities (most home gardeners buy a packet or two of each thing, but if you are feeding yourself from your garden, or making succession crops, or selling at market, you’ll find you need much more seed), and reasonably priced (that is, you can afford to buy it, or you can save seed and only buy it once).

Most of the home garden seed trade may produce seed that has some of these qualities, maybe even all of them. But only a small percentage is focused on ensuring that all these requirements are met. Assuming that, for example, we were to see food shortages in 2009, and a widespread agricultural transition beginning in 2010, how long would it take to ramp up an adequate seed supply that would serve small scale market gardeners and home food producers, and meet the above requirements?

Well, first of all, we could expect to see serious shortages in 2010. That year, seed suppliers would be unable to meet demand – they have been expecting less than 5% of the American population to plant any kind of garden, most of them flower gardens, and they simply don’t have enough spare production capacity to meet present needs. This is particularly likely if the biofuels boom is continuing, and there is no leeway in the demand for seed among commercial farmers that might be sold to home gardeners.

Imagining that 10-20% of the population begins to garden in 2010 and existing home gardeners expand their production, we can expect seed prices to skyrocket, availability to fall, and many people to have to rely on seed packets that don’t meet the above requirements – that is, seed packets that have been kept in heated supermarkets and thus have reduced viability, or those routinely placed outside where they get wet and are exposed to repeated freezing and thawing, or were of low quality to begin with. So not only will the seed trade come up short, but some of what will be sold will be seed that was never of a quality likely to feed those who depend on them.

This is seed that was grown cheaply, with minimal investment of labor in things like isolation and drying. The idea was to allow a gardener who wanted a few lettuce plants to essentially dump the whole package on the ground and get a few dozen lettuce plants – and for that purpose, it works. The problem is that if the home gardener really needs to eat the food they are growing, they need higher germination rates and vigor than they are likely to get from many commercial seed rack seeds. Remember, when you eat what you grow, seed quality equals food quantity. Poor seed means hunger

Now seed production obviously requires at least one year to ramp up – and two years for the large number of primary vegetable crops that are biennials. Many of these are staple foods in difficult times (carrots, cabbage, etc…). So let us imagine that early in 2010, as it becomes obvious that there’s much more demand for seed than there is supply, seed producers all over start casting around like mad for people to grow seed out for them.

In some cases, this will be perfectly possible. Existing seed farms may be able to ramp up their production. Large companies may be able to outsource seed production to poorer countries, where the labor intensive process of hybridization can be done cheaply – assuming, of course, that the crisis allows such trade and expansion. But again, assuming that the biofuels boom is still in progress, we may see difficulty finding land to triple or quadruple seed production.

Seed companies will probably look to farmers who have not grown seed before – and this is potentially a good business for them. But it is worth noting that the need for seed production will become obvious in late winter and early spring of a year in which many farmers will have already planned for crops – that is, it may not be easy to convince farmers to begin growing a field of carrots for seed production – that farmer may have expected to grow watermelons for market instead. A high price may have to be paid for the seed – more than the watermelons would have generated, which is likely to raise the price of seed further.

Seed saving on a large scale is quite difficult for some crops, and for inexperienced farmers – again, it is not unlikely that offtypes and some crosspollination will occur, particularly for wind pollinated crops that are difficult to isolate, such as corn. Since seed production also requires adequate equipment (winnowing, drying etc…) and storage facilities, again, it is likely that there will be some losses in production, even if seed sellers can find enough farmers to produce the seed at all so quickly.

For biennials, there are several additional issues. Most biennial production in the US takes place in fairly warm areas where it is not too difficult to overwinter chard or carrots in the field. If it is necessary to localize seed production, this may require more capital investment in hoophouses and other heat retention aids. Some crops may not be able to be produced on a large scale in some regions – for example, production of cabbage seed in the cold northeast generally involves digging up the cabbages, planting them in buckets of sand and replanting them – not bad on the home scale, much harder over multiple acres. This is enormously labor-intensive and large scale local cabbage seed production may be impossible – or prohibitively expensive. Also, a biennial crop that stays in the ground must compensate the farmer for extended periods in which she can’t plant anything else – again, prices can be expected to rise.

Meanwhile, new seed savers are likely to have similar difficulties with keeping seed pure and overwintering some crops – the learning curve on seed saving is reasonably long. It requires very little practice to successfully save lettuce, bean and pea seeds, but quite a bit to master squash, corn and beets, especially in a neighborhood where lots of other gardeners are creating opportunities for cross-pollination. Again, this is not necessarily a disaster – cross-pollination doesn’t always result in something you’d choose, but often the results are edible. But sometimes they aren’t – or just barely – if you have ever eaten the results of a badly isolated squash cross.

Practiced seed savers will be under some pressure to expand, either so that they can sell, give or share seed, or to enable family members to start their own gardens. So they can expect to have to either enlarge existing gardens, or devote an increasing percentage of their gardens to seed production. Some crops, such as squash, are have no “price” for seed production – that is, you can have your squash, eat it, and save the seeds. But for a majority of crops, a choice has to be made – eat it or save seed from it. Bolting lettuce and spinach are unpleasant to eat – a tomato, eggplant or pepper has to be on the verge of rotting to produce good seed. Peas and beans must be dried and saved. So must potatoes and sweet potatoes. Expanding seed production means making choices between more food and more seed – difficult in a time of crisis, when we’re hungry.

So we can expect that the ramp up will involve quite a lot of low quality seed in the first year or two, either from grower error, or outright hucksterism. For example, those who do not care about the eventual result might simply strip the seeds off some ears of corn, unconcerned about the fact that a field of cow corn grew right across the road from the popcorn, and that the plant will not come true.

Certainly we can expect prices to rise dramatically, and families to struggle to pay them. It would be 1 year before any rise in production of annual vegetable crops could be expected. 2 years before we would see the first biennials – remember, biennials include many nutritious, calorie dense and cold hardy crops. But again, those first and second year efforts are likely to be expensive and contain many quality issues. By year three or even four or five, depending on the severity of the crisis and the rate at which new gardeners are added, we could expect both an easing of constraints and a better seed supply – but in the meantime, depending on how much we depended on our gardens, the cost may come in malnutrition, even starvation.

Next, solutions and the creation of a seed savers garden.