YUF CSA’s sixth edition of our newsletter ‘Around the Watering Can’ is out! Sign up now on our website to receive our newsletter emailed directly to your inbox! Do you know what is going ‘Around the Watering Can’?
Here’s another quick excerpt below:
Open Pollination: Connecting Agriculture and Ecosystems
By Gwen Potter
Let’s talk about science for a few minutes. I’m not an expert, but ecology and biology are exciting topics – and unlike math (in my opinion), they really are everywhere around us.
Last year, I took a food policy course at York. I learned a lot in that class, but the idea that I’m still turning over and over is that we create an eco-agricultural system through our farming practices. You can’t draw a firm line between a “natural” ecosystem and a human-made farm: there’s constant, ongoing interaction between food crops, sometimes their wild cousins, and animals and insects. Yet, despite that, conventional farming based on hybrid seed does lead to a clearer line – and that’s cause for concern, both for us and for the ecosystem as a whole
I’ve heard the term “heirloom” applied to vegetables for years, but I assumed it simply meant older varieties that have been largely superceded by newer ones bred for specific traits, from higher yields to the ability to travel across a continent without signfiicant damage. However, I’ve come to understand that there’s something more about heirloom seeds. You might say that they depend on an intact, healthy ecosystem, because one of the essential characteristics of an heirloom plant is that it must be “open-pollinated”.
Open-pollinated plants rely on insects, birds, wind, and other natural mechanisms to carry their pollen to other plants of the same species in order to reproduce. This kind of reproduction increases the genetic diversity of the species, because the next generation of plants will have traits from both parents. Even though the plants’ reproduction is uncontrolled, most heirloom food crops do breed true because generations of human farmers, saving seeds for the next year, have preserved and spread the characteristics they value most. (Jared Diamond’s book Guns, Germs, and Steel has a description of how this happens that I highly recommend.)
Hybrid plants, in contrast, cannot reproduce through open-pollination; pollination may happen, but the second generation of plants will not be the same as the parent generation, and when it comes to food crops, that creates problems for us. (Keep in mind that “hybrid” does not equal “genetically modified organism”; hybrids can be and are created through traditional and ancient plant-breeding techniques. They do not necessarily incorporate genes that have been inserted from other organisms.) When I was researching seed saving for another project, I learned that many people have discovered that while they can save seeds from, for example, a standard (hybrid) butternut squash from the grocery store, the fruit that grows from those seeds will often not be a butternut squash – and may taste absolutely foul. While hybrid food crops may give higher yields, they can also redue the independence of farmers and food grower since the seed cannot be saved, and because the plants’ genetic traits are not spread and shared between the different plants, hybridization also reduces the overall diversity of the species.
The wind is probably not going to go away, but there is mounting evidence, most recently from Laurence Packer at York University, that many insect pollinators – especially bees – are threatened by human activity, and so are many birds. This could seriously impact the variety of foods available to us. We can help by planting native species gardens – or perhaps by becoming pollinator observers for Seeds of Diversity – but I think we can also help by supporting food growers (like YUFCSA!) who are working to blur the line between the “natural” and the human-made by growing heirloom plants, which depend on those pollinators and also sustain them, anywhere and everywhere they can.