There aren’t a lot of horror stories connected with good gardening, but here’s a very real scenario that could play out anytime, sooner or later, coming to a planet like ours.
For years now scientists have practiced genetic modification for creating new species that produce more, are more weather tolerant and are more blight and insect resistant plants. When it comes to flowers, the benefits are obvious. There are no blue roses in nature? Slip in a gene that makes a fish blue and now the roses are, too! A favourite perennial doesn’t bloom continually? A little manipulation at the DNA level, adding an ever-bearing gene from another species and now it does. The potential list for ‘improvements’ is endless.
With vegetables the process is just as fast and results can be world changing. Best of all the creator of a genetic modification is able to patent it and make money selling it. So now the scenario is set, let’s pursue it.
A breakthrough genetic modification has been achieved with rice. A strain has been created that triples the yield, makes the rice more nutritious and reduces the fertilizer necessary to grow it. Matter of fact, this rice grows anywhere.
Five years after the introduction, the rice yield is staggeringly high, no one who eats rice as a staple part of their diet is hungry anymore and rice fields are being decommissioned world wide. Rice this prolific doesn’t need as much space to grow. There is a paving and construction boom on the freed-up rice fields which are in ideal proximity to population centers for use as housing.
The only fly in the ointment is the number of people who seem prepared to steal the patented seed for their own use. The creators say the seed is sterile, it can’t cross breed with other seeds so anyone who’s got it and isn’t a registered grower, has stolen it. Only after the world wide catastrophe is it proven that the seeds leapt farmers fences and successfully crossbred with normal strains. To anyone paying attention, this would have been the tip off, because now 90 percent of the worlds rice is the GM product.
Ten years later, slowly at first and then like wild fire, a rice blight, one unknown by the breeders, ravages the rice crop. Yields are down 75% world wide. You can’t grow on the abandon rice fields because they are now part of the urban blight and won’t grow anything but pavement. But the real problem is people stopped growing the old strains to take advantage of the new and that combined with the GM rice crossing boundaries means that gene pool is mostly extinct. There might have been a gene or two in that old DNA that could have fought off the blight, but we’ll never know because the rice that wasn’t grown, left no seed and is now lost.
Occasionally that idea wakes me up at night. It’s just too plausible to ignore. And that’s where heritage seed companies, NGOs and even some enlightened government agricultural departments come in. They are trying to save the seeds of the past to protect the future.
Heirloom vegetables as a rule have lots more vitamins in them than brand-new varieties. This is because in order to make them larger or tougher or a different colour, the breeder has to give something up and in a lot of cases, that’s nutritional value. Flowers likewise have a larger variety of shapes and colours within a type, although all the seed may not breed true depending what compatible plants are in the neighborhood.
The companies vary in size from a single person to national projects. They save anything that can be propagated by their members or themselves because seeds have a shelf life and storing some varieties safely is not enough. (Although cryogenics, freezing seed in liquid nitrogen seems to be a promising field of research).
Despite the gloomy story above, these companies are helping expand the gene pool in many flower and vegetable seed areas. While it is an uphill climb, you too can help the cause while growing some wondrous heirloom varieties in your own back yard garden. This works in two ways. There are Heirloom Seed Companies that exchange seed. They will take seed from a plant variety you have (and they don’t), and give you some seed in return you’ve never grown before. There my be an annual fee involved for web sites and brochures. There are also a number of companies who prefer to cultivate old fashioned or rare varieties and sell the seed on as retail outlets, the thinking being that if you like a variety of flower or vegetable, you’ll save it, too, so you can replant it.