here are my ‘3 Gems’ from the 2012 Organic Seed Growers’ Conference. First of all many thanks to my travel companions, Heather, Jen, Vanessa and Rupert for making the journey very interesting and enjoyable, even at 6am! I literally could not have made it to the conference without you, so special thanks to Heather for sharing her vehicle, and to Jen for her mad driving skills!! Thanks also to Farm Folk/ City Folk for their financial assistance and furthering the work of BC seed folk.
The conference was a wonderful meeting of ‘my people’. As a newbie in the seed world, it definitely provided much needed inspiration and vision for the upcoming season, and instilled a deep sense of pride in the work that we do. Keep it up folks!! It was a great reminder of how important it is to come out of our winter hibernation and experience the power of connection and cooperation, before getting caught up again in another growing cycle. As a group we have a solid vision for the future, and the work ethic to make it happen! I’m looking forward to the 2014 Conference already.
The first gem I would like to share is a perspective on traditional plant breeding vs genetic engineering. In his keynote address on our first morning at the conference, William Tracy from the University of Wisconsin spoke about the value of public plant breeding projects. With the loss of funding for Land Grant Universities in the States, public plant breeding projects have been in decline, with privately funded plant breeding work taking their place. Instead of being added to the public domain, the result of this work is proprietary information, and contributes more towards private bottom lines than towards our shared agricultural heritage and food security. He claims that organic agriculture and public plant breeding are made for each other!
What I found so interesting was his description of plant breeding as ‘technology’ vs genetic engineering as ‘science’. At first it seemed strange to say that traditional plant breeding is not a ‘science’. But as Bill Tracy explained, there is a fundamental difference between the two. Genetic engineering, as the name would suggest, functions within an ‘engineering’ paradigm. In this paradigm, the solution to a problem is envisioned, each element of the solution carefully studied, and the end result literally ‘engineered’, as a road or a bridge would be. It is an ‘A to B’ path, with B clearly in view. In this context, humans are very much in the driver’s seat. On the other hand, plant breeders are definitely not engineers. They operate within an altogether different paradigm. They may identify a problem with as much precision and understanding, but they cannot proceed as the engineer does. Plants are simply too complex to control! As human plant breeders, we may apply carefully selected pressures, but if we are to be successful, we must step back and let the plants offer up the solutions to our imposed problems. This ‘dialogue’ is at the heart of successful traditional plant breeding. Although I’m not a plant breeder or a geneticist, I really enjoyed this angle which added another layer to my understanding (arsenal!) in the GMO debate.
The second gem was a little more practical, and directly related to my experience starting a small seed company. My understanding of genetics is fairly basic, but I do know the difference between an inbreeder and an outbreeder. One of the practical applications of this knowledge is that I need to plant a larger number of individual plants of any given outbreeder to maintain healthy genetics. Otherwise inbreeding depression will occur. When this happens, the plants are less vigorous, tend to have lower germination rates, and may be weaker in other aspects too, like failing to fully mature.That is the inherent benefit of ‘land races’, e.g. they are so genetically diverse that although they may not be as predictable in appearance or performance, their genetic variability makes them exceptionally resilient in an unpredictable environment. Based on this understanding, I was curious about increasing the genetic diversity within any one genetic line of an heirloom variety. I wondered: would it be beneficial to obtain genetic material from different sources of say, Calabrese Broccoli, and mix them together to obtain of more genetically diverse line? John Navazio told me that this was not in fact a good idea! The reason being that any one of those sources could represent a poorly maintained line. In that case you could be setting yourself back by many years of improvement, by inheriting undesirable genetic material. The better solution, he told me, was to source out a reliably maintained line, from a breeder with a good reputation for varietal purity and cultivar enhancement, and to maintain the foundation of good work already present within the line. I have to say that I heard many great things about Frank Morton’s work, so I will be looking to his salad and brassica stock for my own initial grow outs.
The third gem has to do with isolation distances. Jen already covered this one quite thoroughly, but I’ll give my 2 cents. Isolation distances seem to be a hot topic among novice seed savers. In workshops and presentations I’ve done, people have many questions about this, especially about where to obtain reliable information, since so many sources seem to provide conflicting numbers. Some sources indicate 50 feet between lettuce varieties, others 1/2 a mile. That’s a big difference! And rarely does there seem to be much indication of why these distances are recommended. That makes it difficult for the novice seed saver to understand ‘why one distance and not another’, and how to adapt this information to less-than-ideal (read: real life) circumstances in the field or garden. Well Dr. John Navazio certainly helped to clarify this for me: basically, there are no sure-fire methods for preventing cross-pollination. That’s right, no certainty! That’s Nature for you. We learned during the pollinator management workshop that honeybees can travel up to 7 miles in a single foraging trip, and will not necessarily politely stick to one variety at a time. In any case, commercial seed growers have a number of strategies for overcoming this, including planning amongst themselves to limit the crossing of dissimilar crops. Basically, if two frilly, red lettuces cross, who is really going to notice? But if a green romaine and a red oakleaf get mixed up, you’ve got some confused and possibly unhappy customers. You get the idea.
Thanks for reading! Happy seed saving to all.