Seeds form the base on which all the food we consume is built. They come in an array of sizes, shapes, and varieties. We depend on them for survival. Yet, seed biodiversity is decreasing.
Last Thursday, the Pomona College Museum of Art screened the documentary “Seeds: The Untold Story,” which was followed by an Art After Hours seed-planting activity. The event was part of the third annual Sustainability Festival, a campus-wide event co-sponsored by the Pomona College Sustainability Office, EcoReps, and the Organic Farm.
The film chronicled the recent loss in seed diversity by following seed keepers, scientists, activists, and farmers who are passionate about conserving the seeds we depend on.
The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations has reported that, since the 1900s, around 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost. A study done in 1983 by the Plant Genetic Resources Project of the Rural Advancement Fund counted seed diversity in the United States and found that 94 percent of varieties vanished between 1903-1983.
This means that a large number of edible food species that were grown and sold around 100 years ago, like certain varieties of cauliflower, cabbage, and artichoke, are now extinct. The fruit and vegetable produce we see in grocery stores today is less diverse than it was in the past.
The FAO cites “the replacement of local varieties by improved or exotic varieties and species” as being the primary catalyst for biodiversity loss. “Wild” and uncultivated crops, ones that are harvested outside agricultural areas, are reduced when commercial species are introduced into traditional farming systems.
A reduction in crop diversity raises concern about the resilience of our global food system, according to the FAO. Less diversity in the seeds we plant and the crops we grow makes our agriculture more vulnerable to threats like drought, pests, and disease. Over time, an increased reliance on the same few seed varieties leads to the loss of well-adapted crops that can stand the test of time and make it to our dinner tables.
The film cites patents as another contributing factor to loss of seed diversity. Seed breeders and agribusinesses use patents to establish ownership over the seeds they have created. Farmers and seed keepers speculate that this legislation allows companies to promote genetically engineered seeds and restrict the distribution of wilder varieties.
Patenting of seeds, according to the film, has contributed to the consolidation of the seed business where three companies now control just over half the industry. These companies could possibly make it so that only a limited variety of seeds are given to farmers and make it to our marketplaces as produce. However, there is no definitive research showing that farmers are unable to get the seeds they want as a result of this market control.
In order to mitigate biodiversity loss, many of the film’s speakers have created seed banks, where they are devoted to collecting and storing endangered seed varieties for future generations.
What can you do to help protect and promote seed diversity? The film suggests saving and swapping seeds, starting a seed library, and supporting seed banks and seed freedom organizations. Another option is to create and attend events, such as the Sustainability Festival at Pomona, which increase awareness of conservation and sustainability needs.
D’Maia Curry is a geology major at Pomona College. She loves dancing, reading, and looking at really cool rocks.