Our ancestors didn't have to decide beteween pesticide-free and regular foods or seeds. They weren't faced with potential ill effects of genetically modified crops.
Today, unfortunately, we have choices to make. Seeds are part of our cultural heritage, and their genetic integrity impacts food sustainability and future generations.
But is it the seed that matters, or the growing practice, or both? If I buy conventional seeds and grow them organically is my food still organic? And what’s the difference between heirloom seeds and organic seeds anyway? Can seeds be both heirloom and organic?
Let’s set the record straight, and give you the information you need to make educated decisions as stewards of the land, and practical decisions as modern-day gardneres taking budget, availability, and short- or long-term viability of your garden into consideration.
Organic seeds are seeds that have been put through the rigorous process of becoming certified organic. What that means is that the seed came from a parent plant that was grown on an organic farm. The rest is up to you. If you want organic fruits and veggies you have to grow them organically. Planting an organic seed and then spraying the surrounding area with Round-up does not an organic garden make.
So why not just buy the cheaper conventional seed and grow it organically? Well you could. The advantage of buying organic seeds is all based on principle. You’re voting with your dollars and supporting organic farming.
Heirloom seeds are seeds from plants that have been passed down over several generations/growing seasons, and carefully saved because they are believed to be valuable for one reason or another. Maybe they have a delicious flavor, maybe the plant is resistant to disease or harsh weather, or maybe it is exceptionally beautiful. I especially like to use heirloom seeds for tomatoes. These tomatoes are often juicy and vibrant and look like clouds—what I mean is they are not perfectly round, they have lumps and bumps all over and I think they are gorgeous. Most perfectly round tomatoes have come about from hybridization and even genetic modification.
If you buy heirloom seeds you can continue to save the seeds from your garden to plant again next year.
When I say “conventional seeds” I mean the seeds you can buy just about anywhere, often very cheaply. These seeds are neither organic nor heirloom but they are hybridized or genetically modified.
Now not all hybridization or genetic modification of seeds is bad. Corn came about solely because of hybridization after all. What does hybridization of seeds and plants mean? Well when you look at the produce section at the supermarket and you see rows and rows of tomatoes, apples, carrots, etc., that are all about the same size and color, that is a result of hybridization. Most fruits and vegetables at the grocery store are hybridized to produce uniform produce that can hold up during the transportation to the store and that have a longer shelf life.
You know Red Delicious apples? They aren’t so delicious. They are watery and often mealy. But Americans think they want perfectly shaped, bright red apples. So the Red Delicious was hybridized to produce just that—at the cost of flavor. If you buy hybridized/conventional seeds you are also risking the flavor of your garden.
Find an heirloom Red Delicious and now you’re talking about something that truly is delicious.
In short, you can buy conventional seeds and grow them organically (or not—up to you). Your homegrown produce will probably still be better than anything you can buy at the supermarket. One drawback to conventional seeds, however, is that you cannot save the seeds from your plants. Because the plants are the result of hybridization the seeds will either be sterile or produce a plant totally unlike the plant you took the seed from. To ensure highest quality nutrition, flavor and to create a seed bank, you will need to spring for the slightly more expensive heirloom seeds.
Darla Antoine is an enrolled member of the Okanagan Indian Band in British Columbia and grew up in Eastern Washington State. For three years, she worked as a newspaper reporter in the Midwest, reporting on issues relevant to the Native and Hispanic communities, and most recently served as a producer for Native America Calling. In 2011, she moved to Costa Rica, where she currently lives with her husband and their infant son. She lives on an organic and sustainable farm in the “cloud forest”—the highlands of Costa Rica, 9,000 feet above sea level. Due to the high elevation, the conditions for farming and gardening are similar to that of the Pacific Northwest—cold and rainy for most of the year with a short growing season. Antoine has an herb garden, green house, a bee hive, cows, a goat, and two trout ponds stocked with hundreds of rainbow trout.