Wild Willow Farm is excited to welcome you to our self-guided tour! Follow the signs around the farm and learn about each landmark along the way. Thank you to local Chula Vista High School students for helping to create content for each QR code!
What is a seed?
A seed is a flowering plant’s unit of reproduction, capable of developing into another such plant. There was once a time when seed saving was common among farmers. Unfortunately, this practice has all but disappeared. Most of the seeds that are grown globally are controlled by a few companies. As a result the world has lost 75 percent of its crop diversity in the past 100 years. Mass production of food has led to a few popular varieties that value increased shelf life over flavor and nutrition. Traditional vegetable varieties are being replaced, and heirloom vegetables are being driven to extinction.
The lack of genetic diversity in our crops caused by the disappearance of vegetable varieties may put the world’s food supply at risk. Diversity allows the species to adapt to various pests and diseases. While some may be killed off, others will be immune to the epidemic and thrive. No one can know what the future holds; what genes will be the most important to us in 50 years, which diseases and pests will be around, or what the earth’s climate will be like. As vegetable diversity shrinks, our food is susceptible to epidemics and infestations. For example, between 1970 and 1971, a single fungus wiped out many of the US corn crops, because only six varieties of corn made up 70 percent of the US corn crops.
Another example is apples. Only 5 percent of US apple varieties that existed 200 years ago still exist today. Hundreds of heirloom vegetable varieties, like the Runner Bean and the Shetland Cabbage, are at the brink of extinction. Another example in history is the Irish Potato Famine. The Irish relied on only one potato breed, the Irish Lumper, and one crop, monoculture. This made them vulnerable to a fungus to which the breed had no resistance, resulting in the great famine. It is estimated that 1 million people died in three years, and about two million emigrated. The Incas on the other hand developed a potato for every environment, cultivating over 3,000 varieties. If an insect or fungus attacked one crop, the others survived.
How can we increase genetic diversity?
One solution is seed saving. Seed saving allows for greater crop diversity. The hybrid seeds that dominate the commercial seed market have been developed to boost beneficial plant characteristics but at the detriment of diversity, which is vital for the sustainability of our food systems. Crop diversity creates natural resilience which allows for recovery from challenges like new strains of disease or climate change. “Seed saving can help tackle the impacts of climate change on our food systems,” says David Price of the Seed Co-operative. Open pollinated seeds – seeds that are saved – “are part of the solution because they are resilient and able to adapt.”
Interest in seeds has spiked. The Seed Co-operative, which sells organic, open-pollinated seed across the country, saw a 600% increase in orders after the Covid pandemic hit. A trustworthy source is paramount. Seeds need to be grown in ethical and agroecological ways. If your seed has been shipped from abroad, grown in a monoculture, doused with pesticides and artificial fertilizers, then it won’t thrive. Seed saving also encourages human scale farming as opposed to large mechanized farming systems that manage the soil differently that in turn sequester carbon.
Others are doing their part by saving the pool for the future through seed banks. The Svalbard Global Seed Vault 1300 kilometers beyond the Arctic Circle, is the world’s largest secure seed storage, operated by the Norwegian government. This vault stores tens of thousands of varieties of essential food crops such as beans, wheat and rice. Through seed banking, crop evolutionary history can be recalled and retrieved.