Saving Seeds

By Wildfong, Bob | Alternatives Journal, Winter 1999 | Go to article overview

Saving Seeds

Wildfong, Bob, Alternatives Journal

Farmers and gardeners are the best hope for protecting what remains of food plant diversity

THE ABILITY TO ACQUIRE viable, well-adapted seeds has allowed human beings to form civilizations, set up permanent settlements and build cities, supported by a reliable and bountiful source of food.

Throughout history, hundreds of species of plants have diverged from their wild roots. It is their ability to adapt and change that has made plants so important to us. Without controlled breeding and selection, it would be impossible to grow acres of corn as far north as Canada, wheat would be no more than a wild grass, and all apples would be tiny crabapples.

Many times, we have had to change the kinds of food crops that we grow. As people moved to different areas of the world and developed different farming technologies -- from simple ploughs to giant combines -- their seeds changed with them.

We have inherited thousands of varieties of useful plants that exist only because farmers and gardeners have grown them, produced seeds, and grown them again. Hardly any of these domesticated plants could live without human care. Our plants are a chain of seed-saving, but that chain is breaking.

The natural and human history of our food system is at the roots of issues affecting crop diversity in modern times. In the 1920s and 30s, the Russian biologist and explorer N.I. Vavilov studied the genetic distribution of cultivated plants throughout the world and discovered that their greatest natural diversity occurred in several tropical and subtropical regions. He concluded that crop plants had originated in these regions, which he called "gene centres", later to be known as "centres of diversity". [1]

Agriculture is considered to have begun independently in three areas of the world, where edible grains grew in the wild: wheat, barley and millet in North Africa, beans and corn in Central and South America, rice in east Asia. Early hunter-gatherers discovered that these grains could be planted intentionally, putting an end to the nomadic need to travel to find more food. [2]

When the earliest farmers began cultivating foodgrain crops, seeds were part of their harvest. The kernels of wheat and millet that they ate were also used to plant their next crop. Seed saving was a natural act of setting aside a portion of the harvest to be sown at planting time. In contrast to our modern practice of buying seeds as an input, early farmers used seeds as part of a self-renewing cycle.

Until recently, farmers in the centres of diversity have had an enormous selection of wild plants to include in their seed stocks. Wild relatives of crop plants that displayed drought tolerance, insect resistance, or other favourable qualities would be brought into cultivation to eventually give those strengths to the cultivated crop. Since each farmer could propagate a slightly different set of varieties, or a different ensemble of plant genes, a staggering number of useful plant varieties evolved on the simple farms of Africa, Latin America and Asia.

The collections of seeds grown by traditional farmers are often called "landraces" or "farmers' varieties". [3] These are mixed, highly diverse populations. In a field of traditional African landrace wheat, the plants are genetically heterogeneous. Many slightly different plants grow side by side, creating a form of crop insurance. If dry weather suits certain plants, then those plants thrive. If the weather turns cold and wet, others grow better. Either way, there is usually an adequate harvest, and rarely a total crop failure.

Traditional farmers trade seeds with one another, always searching for those that grow best on their particular patch of land. The best grains are saved for planting and only the second-grade seeds are used for food. High-land farmers and low-land farmers often have different types of plants, fields on sand and fields on clay support different types, all developed through natural and human selection. …

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
One moment ...
Default project is now your active project.
Project items

Items saved from this article

This article has been saved
Highlights (0)
Some of your highlights are legacy items.

Highlights saved before July 30, 2012 will not be displayed on their respective source pages.

You can easily re-create the highlights by opening the book page or article, selecting the text, and clicking “Highlight.”

Citations (0)
Some of your citations are legacy items.

Any citation created before July 30, 2012 will labeled as a “Cited page.” New citations will be saved as cited passages, pages or articles.

We also added the ability to view new citations from your projects or the book or article where you created them.

Notes (0)
Bookmarks (0)

You have no saved items from this article

Project items include:
  • Saved book/article
  • Highlights
  • Quotes/citations
  • Notes
  • Bookmarks
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

(Einhorn, 1992, p. 25)

(Einhorn 25)

1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

Note: primary sources have slightly different requirements for citation. Please see these guidelines for more information.

Cited article

Saving Seeds


Text size Smaller Larger Reset View mode
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

Full screen

matching results for page

    Questia reader help

    How to highlight and cite specific passages

    1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
    2. Click or tap the last word you want to select, and you’ll see everything in between get selected.
    3. You’ll then get a menu of options like creating a highlight or a citation from that passage of text.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Citations are available only to our active members.
    Buy instant access to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn, 1992, p. 25).

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences." (Einhorn 25)

    "Portraying himself as an honest, ordinary person helped Lincoln identify with his audiences."1

    1. Lois J. Einhorn, Abraham Lincoln, the Orator: Penetrating the Lincoln Legend (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1992), 25,

    New feature

    It is estimated that 1 in 10 people have dyslexia, and in an effort to make Questia easier to use for those people, we have added a new choice of font to the Reader. That font is called OpenDyslexic, and has been designed to help with some of the symptoms of dyslexia. For more information on this font, please visit

    To use OpenDyslexic, choose it from the Typeface list in Font settings.

    OK, got it!

    Cited passage

    Thanks for trying Questia!

    Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

    Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

    Buy instant access to save your work.

    Already a member? Log in now.

    Author Advanced search


    An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.