Research Papers

Preserving Seed Diversity

Without a strong base of diverse seeds, food production is threatened by disease and climate change. Promoting the use of diverse seed types enhances food security and promotes the preservation of traditional cultural practices and values.  Seed security can come from preserving seeds in an underground bunker, but at a more pervasive level seed security comes from seed sovereignty and the right to use and exchange seeds freely within a community. With the advent of genetically modified organisms (GMOs), seed sovereignty is threatened by patents defending seeds as intellectual property. As more farmers become reliant on these commercially produced genetically modified seeds, the start up cost of farming can often exceed the profit especially on small farms. To combat the loss of seed diversity and to increase seed security, organizations like Seed Savers Exchange and The Jane Addams Hull House Museum Seed Library fight for the right to plant.

Plants are living things that operate in a natural cycle of seed, plant, fruit. Before the advent of GMO’s farmers and gardeners would take the seeds of the best fruit and save them to be planted the next year. It was an ongoing, evolving process that produced different varieties of an organism. The modern system of agriculture, using patented genetically modified seeds, cuts off the natural evolution of the organism. Forbidding farmers from replanting the seeds of their harvest stops the naturally evolving system from moving forward, relegating the selection of traits to a laboratory.

The two methods of seed production in use today can be categorized as the formal system and the local system.1  The formal seed system is deliberately constructed and produces a consistent product of certified seed. The formal system is the business end of seed production, it encompasses companies that produce GMO’s like Monsanto as well as those which supply organic and heirloom varieties like the Seed Saver’s Exchange. The local system encompasses basically every form of seed production the formal system does not: seed fares, seed libraries, exchange between farmers, and simply reusing one’s own harvest.2

The formal system leaves those using the seed out of the production

Reusing one’s own seeds is often where the modes of seed production overlap. Farmers purchase seeds from a company that is part of the formal system and use the seeds of the next generation as part of the next planting. A problem in this overlap is that companies specializing in the production of genetically modified seeds like the Roundup Ready variety of soybean by Monsanto treat their seeds as intellectual property and have patents prohibiting their replanting. The patent is intended to defend the work of geneticists who developed the herbicide resistant crop as well as the company’s multi-million dollar investment.

Monsanto in particular is very stringent in enforcing its ‘technology agreement’. The New York Times has reported on several incidents of farmers unknowingly violating their contract with Monsanto which allows only annual seed use. Monsanto sued Homan McFarling $780,000, nearly ten times his net worth, for using seeds obtained from a harvest of Roundup Ready soybeans something McFarling says, “Every farmer that has every farmed” has done.3  The patenting and strict regulation of seeds is taking the formal system of seed production to the extreme. Genetically modified soybeans are much more expensive than their  non-GMO counterparts, going for almost for more than double the price.4  Modern farming techniques encourage the use of herbicide to lessen the burden of weeding, and thus facilitate the proliferation of herbicide resistant crops. The genetically identical plants produce higher fruit to stalk ratios and all ripen at the same time making large scale mechanical harvesting easier. The cost of herbicide in combination with the higher price of genetically modified crops creates a tough economic environment for the small farmer. The pressure to keep up with large industrial farms increasingly pushes farmers to use the more expensive seed with the hopes of a larger, weed free yield.

Roundup Ready 2 Yield will more expensive than its predecessor

This promise of herbicide resistance in combination with restrictive planting policies makes many farmers dependent on the seed company, not to mention the herbicide which in Monsanto’s case is produced by the same company. It may seem questionable to manufacture a product that is harmful plants except the varieties also said company also produces, but that is beside the point. An escape from the dependency on GMO’s lies in making use of companies at the other end of the formal seed system as well as participating in the local seed system.  Seed Savers Exchange, a not for profit organization based in Iowa is at the opposite end of the formal system. They collect seeds from thousands of members as well as from their 950-acre farm and sell them via catalogue and internet.5 Their seeds come with no replanting restrictions and have never been genetically modified. Seed Savers Exchange was one of the first signatories on the Safe Seed Pledge in 1999, a promise to never “knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants”. The SSE’s mission extends beyond simply opposing GMOs, they seek to enhance and preserve the cultural significance of farming and gardening while giving their patrons access to genetically diverse seeds. Each seed packet comes with a history of the lineage of that variety of seed, attempting to bring genetic diversity to fruition through the appeal of a story, a technique also used by the Jane Addams Hull House Museum Seed Library.

In an interview with the Chicago Tribune, Hull House Museum director said, “There’s no reason every urban library in a city couldn’t be a seed library,” The model is simple, check out a packet of seeds, plant them, and return the seeds that the mature plant produces.7 The system grows exponentially and ensures there are always seeds available for the next borrower. The library was started as a result of a $15,000 grant obtained from the Institute of Museum and Library Services and looks to provide an alternative to buying produce from large grocery stores.8  More extensively the Seed Library provides a means for users to know where their food comes from and share their growing experience with other library users. The Seed Library insists on users documenting their planting and encourages the sharing of gardening stories attempting to encompass the cultural value of gardening.9All of the seeds, from marigolds to habenero peppers, are heirloom varieties obtained either from the Hull House farm or other local farmers.

Drawer of seeds at the Westcliffe seed library

Heirloom seeds are incredibly important for the genetic diversity of agriculture. Commercially produced seeds of big agriculture, though high yielding and pest resistant, are genetically uniform and are helping to fuel what Cary Fowler, director of the Global Crop Diversity Trust calls a “mass extinction”.10  According to Fowler, In 1880 farmers in the United States were growing over 7,000 named varieties of apple and since 6,800 have gone extinct. This is not exclusive to apples, over 100,000 varieties of wheat exist today, but many are in danger of being lost “not in the same way you lose your car keys…losing it in the same way that we lost the dinosaurs.”11  simply because ease of industrial agriculture relies on uniformity. That uniformity can only be achieved by having genetically identical plants growing at the same height and ripening at the same time. Heirlooms have grown to be locally specific varieties, possessing resistance to the pests alongside which they evolved. The varied genetics often produce interesting colors and shapes as well as more intense flavors. Since heirloom varieties are not focused on easy mechanical harvesting or large fruit to stalk ratios, the plants themselves are larger and have larger leaves leading to an increase in photosynthesis and an increase in sugars produced for the fruit.12

The Seed Savers Exchange 2012 catalogue

The Seed Savers Exchange is one of the world’s largest suppliers of heirloom varieties and in addition to distributing seeds to gardeners and farmers, SSE has taken the next step in seed preservation: donating seeds to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Cary Fowler, a former board member of the Seed Savers Exchange is now intimately involved with The Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Svalbard, Norway. This vault is the world’s defense against unpredictable natural disasters as well as preventable neglect which both have the potential to dispatch large numbers of crop species. Currently over 700,000 seed samples from around the globe are housed in the vault, each sample sealed in an envelope, placed in a box and stored on a shelf.13 The largest seed bank in the world, Svalbard represents a backup plan for agriculture. Should certain crop varieties be eliminated in modern agriculture, the seed vault will be able to start that genetic line over again. The vault acts as a safety deposit box, those who deposited the seeds being the only persons to be able to take them out again.14

The seed vault is a last stand against the loss of genetic diversity in agriculture.  Seed Savers Exchange and the Jane Addams Hull House Museum Seed Library are organizations working toward putting genetic diversity back in the hands of the gardener and small farmer. By moving away from the formal seed system and embracing the local seed system, farmers can find regionally adapted varieties that are: 1. Much less expensive than their genetically modified counter parts. 2. Naturally bred to be resistant over years of careful selection. 3. Help preserve genetic diversity and cultural identity of agriculture. By improving the access to and distribution of seeds, farming becomes less uncertain and the genetic diversity of agriculture is preserved outside of the bank.





1. Sperling, Louise, and David Cooper. “UNDERSTANDING SEED SYSTEMS AND STRENGTHENING SEED SECURITY: A BACKGROUND PAPER.” FAO Corporate Document Repository. FAO Agriculture and Consumer Protection Dept., 2003. Web. <>.

2. Sperling

3. Liptak, Adam. “Saving Seeds Subjects Farmers to Suits Over Patent.” The New York             Times. The New York Times, 02 Nov. 2003. Web.             <            over-patent.html?pagewanted=all>.

4. Liptak

5. Ott Whealy, Diane. “About Us.” Seed Savers Exchange. Seed Savers Exchange, n.d. Web. 08 June 2012. <>.

6. Ott Whealy

7. Hageman, William. “Nurturing Plant Legacies: Two Groups Lend Seeds and Plants to Gardeners.” Chicago Tribune. Chicago Tribune, 23 Mar. 2012. Web. <>.


8. Associated Press. “Museum Starting Seed Library for Urban Farmers.” Chicago Defender Online. Chicago Defender, 20 May 2011. Web. <>.

9. Unlisted. “Hull-House Seed Library: About.” Jane Addams Hull House Museum. University of Illinois at Chicago, n.d. Web. <>.

10. Fowler, Cary. “Saving Seeds: One Seed at a Time.” Lecture. TED. Oxford University, Oxford. July 2009. TED Ideas Worth Spreading. Ted Conferences LLC, Aug. 2009. Web. <>.

11. Fowler

12. Tortorello, Michael. “IN THE GARDEN; Vintage Seeds Or Flinty Hybrids?” The New York Times. The New York Times, 24 Mar. 2011. Web. <>.

13.  Unlisted. “Storing Seeds.” Global Crop Diversity Trust. GCDT, n.d. Web. <>.

14. Fowler