As the discussion about sustainability increases, it only makes sense to overlay this discussion on everything you do. As a pastor, one thing I have discovered about people is that they have a propensity to get excited about something before enthusiasm quickly wanes if they aren't equipped and supported for the long haul. In planting my garden this spring, I also found a similar truth to be evident in the seeds I was using when it came to the choice between heirloom seeds versus hybrid seeds.
More and more people are becoming aware of the value of using heirloom seed rather than the hybrid seed that is most commonly sold in stores. Over the past years large commercial seed producers have gradually weaned the public off heirloom seeds in the name of greater yields and productivity. By doing so, vegetable gardeners nationwide have become dependent on these huge corporate suppliers. This has become such a normal practice that most weekend gardeners have become oblivious to the problem and unaware that there is another way.
First generation hybrid seeds and genetically modified or bioengineered seeds are the alternatives to heirloom seeds. While both of these seeds produce luscious-looking fruit and often at a much larger yield rate, they aren't suitable for true sustainability. Hybrids are sterile and genetically modified seeds threaten to cross-pollinate with natural seeds, threatening the purity of heirloom seeds. The reliance upon these types of seeds can cause major problems, especially for poorer farmers in rural areas such as India. Without proper education and training, these farmers' livelihoods are being threatened to the point that since 1997, the Indian government estimates 25,000 farmers have committed suicide.
However, Heirloom or "open pollinated" seeds are natural and can be passed from generation to generation because they have the ability to reproduce season after season. For example, if you grow a tomato plant from heirloom seed you can harvest the tomatoes in the fall, save and dry their seeds, and replant them the next spring for another harvest. Heirloom seed is the kind of seed that has sustained the human race up until 1951 when hybrids were first developed. There have been thousands of fruit and vegetable species that could be lost with the growing dependency of hybrids simply because hybrids are specialized and focused on production more than natural heritage. One writer reveals, "With heirloom seeds there are 10,000 varieties of apples, compared to the very few F1 hybrid apple types." Heirloom seed will continue to serve humanity as long as there are stewards who understand their value and continue to protect their integrity. More and more organic gardeners are not only trying to use and preserve these seeds, but encouraging others to do the same.
Hybrid seeds are like mules. They have great value for one generation, but when their life is over, their breed ends with them. Mules are specifically bred for their calm disposition, endurance and strength. However, the world became dependent on them for survival, mule breeders control the market for a short period of time--but struggle to maintain sustainability. American agriculture is rapidly moving toward this dangerous kind of dependency.
Many are coming to recognize the need for sustainability - sustainable individual lives and a sustainable planet. They are awakening to these critical issues. As a result many are ringing bells of alarm and becoming keepers of purity. The use and production of hybrid and genetically altered seed, like so many other things these days, is at best short sighted. They may produce abundance for the short term but may have the devastating potential to threaten the welfare of future generations.
Tri Robinson is the founding pastor of the Vineyard Boise Church in Boise, ID and author of Saving God's Green Earth: Rediscovering the church's responsibility to environmental stewardship and Small Footprint, Big Handprint: How to live simply and love extravagantly. In his spare time, Tri manages his homestead, which is moving toward sustainability, and blogs about it at www.timberbuttehomestead.com. Follow him @ Twitter: tri_robinson.