Whatever Will, Becomes What Is:
Landraces and Folk Seed Varieties in Self Sustainable Agricultural Systems. A “post-historic” method (post-modern, pre-historic). Or the “Back to the Future” solution to modern, sustainable agriculture.
By: Alan Reed Bishop
Bishop’s Homegrown/Homegrown Goodness/Hip-Gnosis Seed Development
There is not enough room on the internet to archive the many discussions between home gardeners and market farmers regard Hybrids vs. Open Pollinated varieties. The issue itself stirs the passion of many enthusiasts and many debates have see-sawed back and forth across the tide of many a gardening forums and popular opinions. Here we seek to explain the importance of both, but particularly the relevance of Open Pollinated and Landrace regionally adapted seeds and the potential that new hybrids provide the intrepid plant breeder in regards to new genetic recombination’s.
Humankind has been cultivating the soil for anywhere upwards of 10,000 - 20,000 years, selecting, adapting, tilling, planting, growing, and ultimately eating varieties which are well suited to their circumstances, climates, and tastes. Seed has been saved and passed from generation to generation and much pride has been taken in this, the most important aspect of civilization building. All of this seed is representative of the cumulative hopes and dreams and history of specific agrarian societies encompassing the entire globe. Wherever there is civilization, there must be some type of agriculture; even invasive societies have to rely on the weight of agriculture on the backs of their captive towns and districts.
Genetic diversity and inherent observation are the keys to sustainable agriculture and its development at that point in our past. At some point in our distant past multiple hunter gatherer societies must have found seeds germinating in their fertile waste piles, or otherwise early and accidental compost, this knowledge (gnosis) fostered the idea of permanent agrarian civilization and thus began the cultivation of the earth. Many mistakes must have been made, many may have perished from starvation from the worst of these catastrophes but each mistake made was a new collective lesson learned. Surely the biblical book of Genesis makes the clearest metaphor and record of such an occurrence. Could the Tree of Knowledge have been the first cultivated food crop, the exile from the Garden of Eden representative of having this Gnosis which will change your life forever, once you have this Gnosis you can never go back to a Hunter-Gatherer society (we were provided by nature), because now it is forever ingrained as part of the human experience? (Thus begins greed and power mongering, Kane and Abel?)
These lessons and genetic memories are still carried in our collective psyche, our DNA spiral, our universal mind and in the genes of the seed that we plant; we only have to listen and observe closely to read this unwritten history book.
Looking at the genetic diversity of the past, present, and future of our edible heritage one can see the lines, sometimes drawn clearly, other times nearly invisible, a living mystery, of the evolution and selection of our various food crops. One thing is for sure, all are the result of some form of genetic hybridization (accidental or purposeful, nature made or man made), stabilization, further hybridization, selection, and ultimately preservation of Genes (sometimes the genes are more important than the variety)
Take for example corn, developed at some point in our distant past by messo-Americans from the grassy weed Teosinte and developed into the worlds largest staple food crop, to the extent that corn was making the long trip across the Atlantic and Pacific long before Columbus arrived to claim that he had “found” Amerika and making the trip from South America to Canada by way of the indigenous Native American Tribes and their trading long before Henry Ford created the first Model T or the Spanish introduced horses.
Many methods have existed and have been created parallel to the development of our genetic heritage for implementing various genes from one variety of food crops into another closely related variety. In the past I have discussed the cultural mixing of various seed types in order to create a diversified genetic family tree or pedigree for many varieties, often resulting in recombination’s of genes that add specific benefits to the original seed in the form of environmental adaptation, disease or pest resistance, or nutrition. Another method that is still incorporated today in Mexico via the very genetically diverse Maize crop grown there is a form of natural wind pollination by way of planned field integration. Say you are growing a variety of corn that you really have faith in, but particularly enjoy the traits shown by a friend’s crop, perhaps you would grow your corn next to his corn to ensure cross pollination, you gain something you wanted in your crop from his and he may gain something from yours. The results of course are hybrid seed which will in the F1 generation show some degree of hybrid vigor but over time will be selected for the traits that the grower finds the most important. Without this type of naturally occurring but human manipulated crossing, many of our food crops would long ago have gone into extinction and with it any number of important cultures and information. Of course over time man developed more complex hybridization and selection methods, particularly timed out and thought out methods of cross pollinating one crop variety with a closely related crop variety by hand, leading to more refined plant breeding programs after Mendel had thoroughly explained dominant and recessive genes, ironically using a food crop, namely peas, to prove his theories.
Thus far we have made no mention of the anomaly of modern GMO crops, some will argue that Genetic Modification of crops, or the movement of genes between two wholly unrelated species is just a natural advancement of the principals of traditional plant breeding, but this is far from the truth as it works against all that nature has shown us about the movement of genes between species and how those genes are then tested by time and nature. This breakdown of cell walls and movement of genes between completely unrelated organisms can hide many unexpected and hazardous consequences including allergic reactions, pest and disease control issues, and other unknown variables. These, my friends, are quite literally Chimeras.
As we can objectively look at our agrarian past and the natural evolution and selection of crops used to feed agrarian societies we can see just how important that hybridization has been to our agricultural heritage and civilization as a whole. Without hybridization the list of crops that we currently enjoy and which we have enjoyed for hundreds of years would have been forever altered, particular emphasis has been placed on work with grains, those most essential of human food crops.
Of course hybridization is one thing, segregating out those genes, or bringing them into their fixed and open pollinated states is equally important. These inbred and Open Pollinated (self replicating) lines formed the basis for stable agrarian cultures to rise up, thrive, and flourish in growingly complex systems. A quick look at ancient Mesopotamian agriculture and South American agriculture (Peru and the Amazonian Basin) in particular will give one a concrete sense of exactly why cultures and regions are so closely associated with their crops and will give us an anthropological basis for speculation of the rise of religious belief and spiritual certainty and the importance the ancients placed on sacrificing food crops to perceived notions of gods (often representative of the combined forces of nature and their effect on cropping and harvest).
Many Open Pollinated varieties can also be considered folk varieties or landraces, this is to say varieties particularly adapted to, associated with, and traded and grown amongst the people of a certain bio-region and or culture. These varieties have withstood the test of time, disease, drought, pests, famine and more and still stand with us, nearly unchanged, years later. The current rise in interest of OP and “Heirloom” varieties is proof that at some point during the “Green Revolution” that what worked 1,000 years ago, still works now. As we have learned since the time of the “Green Revolution” the trade off for self sustainable fertility and regional adaptability of open pollinated and landrace seeds in exchange for
cheap and unsustainable energy and fertilizer was neither a wise or warranted trade, leading almost completely to an eroded food base in regards to lost and extinct genetic varieties, less nutritional food, and the whole sale polluting of millions of acres of valuable crops land, waterways and more via petrol based inputs which are not necessary for landrace and regionally adapted varieties.
The modern farmer concerned with self sustainability has more options that ever, but would do well to study up on Open Pollinated, Landrace and Folk Varieties while also not discounting the worthiness of home created hybrids for the sake of segregation or the segregation of non-GMO hybrids with useful genetic traits into an Open Pollinated Derivative. To discount any of these options is to miss out on an equal share of what we have experienced in the past 10,000 years in regards to agriculture. The thing is, these decisions are hard to make without the proper information.
Part of the problem is that so many are concerned only with growing anything that they find interesting instead of growing only those crops which have been time proven to grow well in your particular climate and situation. Often times one will hear others make mention of the superiority of hybrid seed over OP because the user had a bad experience with an open pollinated crop. More often than not this failure is to be blamed on a poor variety selection then on the fact that such varieties were “Open Pollinated”. Now more than ever the heirloom seed movement is making available a terrific amount of diversity, certainly suited well to the intrepid backyard plant breeder who sees the value in the genes contained in that crop more than the value of that particular variety to his particular environment. Unfortunately many first timers and non plant breeders don’t make this distinction, poorly choosing a variety from the High Dessert Southwest to grow in the Humid Deep South river deltas, failure is almost always guaranteed in these situations to some degree or another.
The trick is hunting down varieties that have been stewarded and selected to grow in your area over a number of years. Folk varieties, landrace varieties, commercially released Open Pollinated varieties. There is an art to such a search and much to be learned. Some of my favorite moments in life have been gleamed from visiting with locals who have produced their own seed from local varieties for generations, often glad to have someone to “gift” the seed to as their gardening years are long over. These varieties produce better on our farm and under our “Eco-Logical (read organic without certification) conditions than any modern commercial hybrid and don’t often succumb to pest or disease or drought conditions that have taken down varieties that are otherwise not adapted to our conditions.
Using these landrace and open pollinated varieties we can create the sustainable farms of the future using the footprints of our past. These varieties are adapted to the natural fertilizers of organic gardening in conditions that modern hybrids have not been engineered to handle, they can fend off most of the blights associated with agriculture without the use of petrol chemicals and carcinogenic pollutants and they honor our agricultural past.
Filling in the gaps then becomes the issues, as many times there are gaps in local seed varieties. For example, here in Pekin Indiana in the Ohio Valley we found that we were without a local watermelon variety adapted to our climate which is unfortunate given the large allotment of watermelons grown in the White River Valley in Jackson County Indiana to our immediate north. As such, it was necessary for us to create a pool of new F1 hybrid varieties using parent plants which could donate the required genetic dispositions and traits to our new varieties. These F1 varieties were then grown and selfed and seeds from the projects were bulked, the F2’s have been evaluated and seed once again bulked, next year the F3’s will be evaluated and selections made, in a few years we will have created (with any luck) an Open Pollinated variety that is well suited to our climatic farm conditions and which represents our cultural bias in regards to looks and taste. A new piece of Americana if you will. With any luck others will help us distribute this new variety in our region, to keep it alive, and in time it may indeed become a “folk variety” or “heirloom.
If one approaches such projects knowing the importance of the work and the artistry that goes into all the facets of seed saving, plant breeding and selection then one already knows that the outcome of such a project can only further their grasp on self sustainability, culture creation, and spiritual importance. If it doesn’t exist then you must help it evolve, it is part of your heritage to do so, as such "Whatever you will, becomes what will be." With the exception of Mother Natures own selection criteria of course!