The Miracle of Seeds

The water supply of a permaculture center and seed repository is threatened by plans to spray its adjacent watershed with a powerful herbicide at the end of the month. Why? The owner of this land wants to convert it from scrub to trees, which need sunlight to start their growth. A helicopter is waiting to spray metsulfuron-methyl to kill the scrub, which is near Hawke Bay on the east coast of the north island of New Zealand.

Oregon State University, which has studied this herbicide, warns as follows: "do not eat berries, mushrooms ... or drink water, from newly-treated areas." The Koanga Institute irrigates all its plants from the watershed, including a large collection of heritage berry bushes, along with its staff and volunteers drinking the water. So a conflict exists between a neighbor who quite reasonably wants to grow a forest and permaculturists dependent on water that would be contaminated.

This situation is a microcosm of a global situation, involving not only herbicides but crops of genetically modified organisms. Heirloom seeds are being preserved and traded at many sites, as by the Seed Savers Exchange at Heritage Farm in Iowa, or by the Svalbard Global Seed Vault on an arctic island that's part of Norway. Motives vary. Some seed savers just want to serve growers who reject GMOs or prefer traditional varieties. Others are guarding against disasters, after which humans would need a supply of seeds. Svalbard specializes in duplicates of seeds that are in national and other repositories and might be lost or inaccessible.

We who buy our food at the grocery store do not have to think much about seeds, leaving that to farmers who may save seeds and to corporations that sell seeds. We have a vague sense that species are dying, and that GMOs might be less safe than their developers claim, but so far the grocery store keeps supplying food, and we have other things to worry about. True, the New York Times just gave a big front page headline to the leak of a U.N. report on food scarcity that will be caused by climate change, but the scarcity hasn't happened yet.

I once experienced the joy of a seed exchange, in which growers both traded seeds and sold them. (It was held on the Big Island of Hawaii.) Small enough to be carried in a pocket, a handful of seeds contains the complete instructions to make a row of carrots or of apple trees, just as an acorn does for an oak. What a miracle! But with 98 percent of U.S. workers living elsewhere than on a farm, and farms having grown, in some cases, to industrial scale, the miracle of a seed is almost forgotten.

In New Zealand, the Koanga Institute offers courses in growing what it calls "nutrient dense" foods, based on soil that is not just a holder drenched with a few chemicals, but is a complex of beneficial micro-organisms into which heirloom seeds are planted. Can the Institute raise funds toward the price of the watershed lands in time to stop spraying of the herbicide? Stay tuned, or maybe consider joining the supporters of an effort that is an example in a global struggle.