The War on Heirlooms

Being in the Heirloom and Open Pollinated seed industry is for me one of the best vocations, I love the fact that I get to grow and eat many varieties of vegetables that most people never get to hear of, let alone taste. The sheer beauty of some of our heirloom vegetables is astounding, and we get to eat them.

It’s a privilege for me to be able to supply the widest range of heirloom and open pollinated vegetables in South Africa and it’s an honor to receive new varieties every week from other gardeners throughout the country. Many of whom want no recognition, just the knowledge that the precious variety that they have will be carried forward for future generations.

We have been picking and packing beans and corn over the last two weeks and you will soon see some exciting new varieties on the site. Every time I start to shell a new bean variety the pleasure I get from watching the beautiful seeds drop into the bowl is immense. I have a weak spot for beans and we in South Africa are limited to a few varieties on our shelves, most grown in China and imported at a huge carbon cost to the planet. Livingseeds is fortunate to have close to 20 bean varieties this year and a few more coming again next year.

So what’s the point of this post? Well simply there is a war on people planting and growing Open Pollinated and Heirloom vegetables, this war is being fought openly and with considerable cunning by the large GM houses, all under the guise of social development and “sustainability” for rural small holders and subsistence farmers.

In the past, rural farmers used to save seed every year. They would take the seed that looked the best and this seed was kept back every year and planted. What happened was unique heirloom varieties were created that were specifically adapted to their own environments. The variety was resistant to their local pest and disease loads and the farmers had a unique treasure in what they planted every year. These varieties were landraces or heirlooms and they were all, most importantly, Open Pollinated. This simply meant that every year they could save and plant seed at no cost to themselves… every single year.

Now, what is being done is simple, but disastrously effective. The large GM houses will approach the local agricultural department and offer to supply free seed to rural farmers, this seed is invariably of hybrid or GM origin. The seed is distributed to the local farmers with promises of higher yields, less insecticide and of course it’s “free”.  These rural farmers knowing no better, plant the seed and either plant their own seed stock or eat the “old” seed stock as they have “new and better” seed to use.

A few months down the line, the traditional varieties and the GM seed stock now start to blossom and shed pollen. What happens is that this new GM seed stock starts to infect the old varieties and thereby wipe-out an entire history and genetic resource that can never be recovered.

Mission accomplished by the GM seed houses, and the farmer is now trapped into planting hybrid and GM seed. They may try to save the seed, but the problem is it’s too late! The damage has already been done.

On Monsanto’s website is a very chilling article that at first glance is the picture of social responsibility, but reading between the lines and sometimes even blatantly it states that it wants to get rid of Open Pollinated seed. In a world were GM seed houses have control of all seed varieties and where they can literally prevent someone from planting seed. Where does that leave the average smallholder, farmer or gardener? If you want to feed your family or make a living you will need to bow to the giant seed corporations and pay their taxes.

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