Saving Our Seeds, Saving Ourselves

By: Katherine Peinhardt


We all know that seeds are important. They are more than just the beginning of a plant: they are the flavorful jewels that glisten from the inside of a pomegranate; the rich flavor that makes up tahini; and most importantly, the keepers of our global genetic future. Packed inside each seed is the history of agriculture; a tiny compendium that tells the story of the decisions made by our ancestors who chose one plant over another, time and again, until it became what we eat today.

You may have heard about global efforts to save this inner wisdom of seeds, or even read about the monolithic Svalbard seed bank that lies close to the North Pole. It promises to protect worldwide biodiversity as long as we maintain the permafrost by which it is surrounded. However, some seed banks face existential threats, like this one that was recently forced out of Syria.

Though climate change and conflict threaten to overtake these facilities, scientists continue to gather and protect seeds from all over the world, as a backup plan for our global agriculture system. Creating a failsafe for our food systems, rich with seeds that are adapted to different temperatures and moisture levels, is crucial in an age of a changing climate.

But short of a trip north, what can one really do in the face of decreasing biodiversity in our food system? All of this concern about preserving the genetics of agriculture led me to an Eating Matters podcast, recorded close by in Bushwick, that covered more local efforts at seed-saving.

Steph Gaylor, of Invincible Summer Farms on Long Island, prides her practices as “being a little different,” as the tagline of the farm reads. Growing rare, heirloom seeds that have deep roots in Long Island agriculture, Steph has become a local seed banker herself.

Steph dug into this idea more deeply when she founded the Long Island Regional Seed Consortium, an organization that focuses on the importance of the production of local seed. Touting “seed sovereignty,” in which individuals can choose to save seed and improve upon different varieties to suit their tastes, the consortium is bringing back biodiversity to crops like tomatoes, which have grown to be almost maddeningly uniform in the average United States kitchen. A seed swap and a seed library provide the resources that local farmers need to pay close attention to biodiversity at ground level.

How to Support Food System Biodiversity

  1. Buy local and seasonal

  2. Buy heirloom varieties

  3. Swap seeds with your friends and neighbors

  4. Learn about your local food history

  5. Grow regional or endangered varieties of your favorite foods

  6. Support local seed banks

It may be as easy as asking where you can buy a Shinnecock tomato, or grabbing a Cheese Pumpkin any chance you get (at least once you find out what, exactly, it is). Heirloom varieties like these do more than just look and taste unique—they preserve the historical agricultural knowledge of your region.

Biodiversity is a source of resilience in local foodways, imparting an ability to handle pests, changing weather or crop diseases more readily, while putting people in touch with their culinary heritage. In all cases, choosing to support farms that focus on providing a variety of rare, heirloom, or even downright unusual crops, is a first step to promoting biodiverse agriculture that can weather the shocks of a changing food system.