You could say horticulturist Dr. Lee Barnes has good karma. Barnes grew Bolivian rainbow pepper plants for years because he enjoyed watching the finger-shaped peppers change from purple to cream, then orange to red, and he liked eating the spicy fruits. By saving seeds over time, he cultivated a plant that thrived on his land in Waynesville, with peppers three times larger than those on the parent plant. He named the variety "Smokey's Rainbow Hot Pepper."
Barnes is a well-known advocate for saving seeds—he organizes the Seed & Plant Exchange at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association's sustainable agriculture conferences—and he has shared his pepper seeds often.
"One year I lost all my seeds by mistake," he says, "which meant I lost Smokey's Rainbow." He later recovered the variety at a seed exchange. Someone had planted Barnes' free pepper seeds, then saved their own; he could once again enjoy his favorite peppers.
Barnes' story illustrates the good sense behind seed saving.
"When you save your own seeds, you can pick from the best plants and produce varieties that work well on your land," he says. "You can maintain the background of genetic diversity, while adapting it to what works best for you."
These well-adapted plants are called landraces, unique varieties specifically suited to the hundreds of millions of microclimates that exist around the world, and for most of history farmers have preserved them by saving seeds. These seeds carry cultural traditions, agricultural wisdom and sustainable biodiversity from one generation to the next, creating a 12,000-year-old heritage that nourishes our food system today.
Yet trends in the seed industry have sustainable agriculture advocates worried that a growing portion of this heritage may come under private ownership. Seed companies are consolidating, concentrating the supplies of germplasm into fewer and fewer hands. And our legal system gives these companies the right to patent plant genes and treat seeds as intellectual property.
Article I of the U.S. Constitution has long protected individuals' right to patent intellectual property. Luther Burbank's work as a prolific plant breeder spurred Congress to pass the 1930 Plant Patent Act, which made it possible to patent new plant varieties. In 1970, the original Plant Variety Protection Act allowed seed companies to protect plant varieties for 18 years. But farmers could still save seeds, and breeders could use seeds for research purposes.
Then Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty, a genetic engineer working for General Electric, requested the first patent for a living organism, a bacterium he developed to break down crude oil. The U.S. patent examiner originally denied the request, claiming a living thing was not patentable. But in the 1980 case Diamond v. Chakrabarty, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a live, human-made microorganism is patentable under the Patent Act of 1952.
Twenty-one years later, the court ruled that utility patents could be applied to plants. Since then, Monsanto and other biotech companies have been isolating individual plant genes and patenting them, essentially buying the plants that contain them. Bt corn, a genetically modified variety owned by Monsanto, represents just one of the company's patents, which in 2004 totaled almost 650.
"Now, if you save seeds from a specific tomato variety that contains a gene owned by Monsanto, you are liable for the theft of intellectual property if you use those seeds, whether you bought the original seeds from Monsanto or not," says Carolina Farm Stewardship Executive Director Roland McReynolds.
Over the years Monsanto has earned a reputation as the most aggressive developer of genetically engineered agronomic crops like corn and soybeans. It has spent millions buying up regional seed companies, mostly as a way to compete with other large seed companies for market share. But in 2005, Monsanto bought Seminis Inc., the world's largest vegetable seed supplier, giving it a major presence in the vegetable seed business for the first time.
"Right now just a small handful of vegetable varieties contain genetically engineered traits," says C.R. Lawn, the founder of Fedco Seeds, a co-op that sells seeds to N.C. farmers. "And my concern is that Monsanto will eventually insert these traits into their vegetable varieties. They haven't said yes they will, but they haven't said no they won't, so we don't know. And we don't know the long-term effect of these traits on humans."
Cricket Rakita coordinates the Carolina Farm Stewardship Saving Our Seed Project (www.savingourseed.org) from Louisa, Va., where his goal is to preserve the traditional vegetable and flower seeds of the Southeast. Although seed banks do exist in the United States, he believes there is not an adequate bank of the Southeast's heirloom seeds, open-pollinated varieties that were developed before 1940. And he worries that as Monsanto combines forces with vegetable seed dealers like Seminis, it will spend its burgeoning resources on patenting these heirloom genes.
For Rakita, plant genes are like the words in a dictionary, and the different plant varieties are like books. "It's just as important to preserve the words as it is to preserve the great books," he says.
And just like words, which can be used by anyone free of charge, Rakita sees plant genes as public property, tools that farmers can use to breed the varieties that are well-adapted to their microclimate.
His theory is that seed banking will keep plant genes out of Monsanto's reach. If a seed is banked, its traits are documented, a copyright is registered with the Library of Congress, and a sample of that seed is preserved, sealed and dated. When these steps are complete, the seed is registered as part of the public domain.
"And if it's part of the public domain, it can't be patented because everyone can already get it," Rakita says. "Just like you can't patent tortilla chips because everyone knows they've been made for thousands of years."
In North Carolina, Rakita has recruited people like Warren Brothers, a former tobacco farmer who now grows seven acres of certified organic vegetables, herbs and grains in Lenoir County, to help him build his bank.
Brothers grew barley, wheat, rye and velvet bean seeds for Rakita for two years, with moderate success. Like everything else on his farm, it had to make sense financially.
"I kept hoping it would pay its own way," he says, "but it didn't."
Still, after harvesting food grown from plants that thrive in the Southeast and savoring the results, he knows it's wise to save seeds. "My father saved collard seeds for up to 20 years, and I have some of those seeds today," he says. "I know how important it is to save heirloom varieties if you enjoy good-tasting fruit and vegetables."
Think of tomatoes like the dusty-rose colored Cherokee Purple, a locally grown variety known for its sweetness, or the delicious Eva Purple Ball, hearty enough to resist the Southern-spreading Septoria leaf spot, a disease that can wipe out entire tomato crops.
"Without access to seed varieties adapted to local conditions, growers can't provide the highest quality food," McReynolds says.
Yet saving these seeds can be challenging. To keep seeds pure, many plants must be isolated so they don't cross-pollinate with other varieties. And our hot, humid summers can make it hard for some seeds to dry out, which makes them more susceptible to bacteria and disease.
"This means you often need a mechanical way to dry seeds," says Ray Christopher, who owns Timberwood Organics in Efland. "If the seeds don't get dry enough, many of them can't be used."
For growers selling their seeds, it can be hard to win this numbers game. So on-farm seed saving works best for many of them. Martha Gross, Timberwood's farm manager, has been saving tomato seeds from a variety that started out as a hybrid in the greenhouse, then crossed with something else.
"The tomatoes ended up being very hearty and good tasting," she says. "The plant germinates well, and it works well with our land. By saving these seeds, we have more control over the tomatoes we grow."
Timberwood also devotes a third of an acre to growing green cotton for the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, a Virginia seed co-op that sells vegetables, flowers and herbs that grow well in the mid-Atlantic. It is difficult to extract the pea-sized seeds from the cotton boll, especially since it's done by hand, but Gross can do it during the winter, when work at the farm has slowed down.
Most local farmers save a portion of their own seeds, and many share them through informal networks that draw from a specific geographic area, like the Barnes' seed exchange. Barnes says each exchange is different, and that you never know which seeds will be there.
"Anyone can participate, and most people who do are market gardeners," he says. "All we ask is that if you use seeds from the exchange, you share them with somebody else. We need to keep the genetic diversity in our plants and in our food. It's our heritage, and once it's gone, it's gone."
Barnes will host a seed exchange at the 14th annual Organic Growers School, held Saturday, March 10, in Flat Rock. Rakita will offer a class titled "How to Save Heirloom Seeds" at the workshop as well. For information, go to www.organicgrowersschool.org. For more information about the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association, visit www.carolinafarmstewards.org.