January is the month of magic-peddlers, glossy catalogs promising all manner of visual and culinary delight in the form of small, dry seeds. A quick glance through their bright pages offers a visual taste of what we’ve lost by consolidating our food production systems into large corporate farms which grow massive quantities of single crops for shipment around the world. Sure, we can eat pineapples year-round in Michigan, but where on our supermarket shelves are the plum purple radishes, the golden beets? Where are the plump, white, lavender-blushed Rosa Bianca eggplants? What happened to Jimmy Nardello’s Sweet Italian Frying Pepper, the seeds of which Jimmy’s mother carried with her when she immigrated to the United States in 1887? What about sweet, tart, Green Zebra tomatoes? Anyone remember Patty Pan squash?
I’m enormously grateful to the plant breeders and organizations actively working to preserve the diversity of our agricultural seed stock. I’ve spent the past month scouring their catalogs as I created our production plan and field maps for the coming year. But, I’ll admit, when it comes to filling out order forms, the choices can get overwhelming. I want to plant them all! In selecting crops for this coming season, I looked for varieties which offer delicious flavors, disease-resistance, and hardiness under variable growing conditions. I also considered broader ethical, economic, and environmental issues in deciding which types of seeds to purchase and which companies to buy them from.
Though we had to make some hard decisions to leave a few vegetables out of our plans for this year due to space considerations, our current production plan should offer customers a nice variety of produce throughout the season. Here’s our list of crops:
|Scallions:||Deep Purple, Nabechan F1|
|Bulbing Onions:||Giant Zittau|
|Garlic:||Spanish Roja, Music, Rocambole, Silverskin|
|Turnip:||Purple Top White Globe|
|Radish:||Cherry Belle, Pink Beauty, Purple Plum|
|Broccoli:||DiCicco, Bay Meadows|
|Kale:||Dwarf Blue Curled Scotch, Lacinato|
|Brussels Sprouts:||Seven Hills, Diablo F1|
|Swiss Chard:||Bright Lights, Fordhook Giant|
|Beets:||Red Ace F1, Touchstone Gold|
|Head Lettuce:||Winter Density Romaine, Buttercrunch|
|Summer Squash:||Black Beauty Zucchini, Golden Glory F1, Sebring Zucchini F1, Benning’s Green Tint Patty Pan|
|Cucumber:||Marketmore 76, Diva|
|Winter Squash:||Sweet Dumpling, Delicata, Waltham Butternut, Spaghetti Squash|
|Pumpkins:||Charisma, Winter Luxury|
|Cantalope:||Sarah’s Choice F1|
|Salad Mix:||Encore Lettuce Mix/Gourmet Lettuce Mix|
|Snap Beans:||Provider, Fresh Pick, Pencil Pod Golden Wax|
|Snow Peas:||Oregon Giant|
|Early Tomatoes:||New Girl F1|
|Slicing Tomatoes:||Boxcar Willie, Delicious, German Johnson, Big Beef F1|
|Salad Tomatoes:||Mountain Magic F1, Black Prince, Green Zebra|
|Paste Tomatoes:||Amish Paste|
|Cherry Tomatoes:||Blondkopfchen, Cherry Roma, Chocolate Cherry|
|Yellow Tomato:||Golden Sunray|
|Eggplant:||Rosa Bianca, Orient Express|
|Peppers:||Early Jalapeno, Jimmy Nardello’s, Gourmet F1, Ace F1|
|Potatoes:||Dark Red Norland, Kennebec|
Of course, putting a crop in our plans doesn’t guarantee that its fruits will appear in our CSA boxes or market booths. As in any year, we’re bound to make some adjustments along the way and despite our best efforts, some crops may fail while others will be bountiful beyond our expectations. Last year we lost our entire potato crop to a week of soaking rain early in the season, but our cucumbers were the best I’ve ever grown, both in taste and in abundance.
As you glance through the varietal names listed above, you might notice that several are followed by the abbreviation “F1.” This stands for “filial 1,” but in more common language these plants are known as hybrids. Their seeds have been created by cross-pollinating two plant strains to produce offspring that have improved qualities over each of their parents. However, because of the wonderfully complicated genetic dance that creates and sustains life as we know it, the children of these offspring (or F2 generations) may not retain these desirable traits. It’s kind of like when your Cousin Millie ends up with your grandfather’s green eyes and red hair when your parents and all of your aunts and uncles are brown-eyed brunettes. Because planting seed saved from hybrid varieties can have unpredictable results, farmers usually re-purchase hybrid seeds each season rather than trying to breed their own seed stock from these plants.
Some folks in the sustainable foods movement are concerned about the proliferation of hybrid varieties in our modern agricultural system. Rightly so, I think. Though cross-pollination is a natural process which anyone could facilitate given the right knowledge and resources, problems develop when corporations claim exclusive rights to parental strains, forcing farmers to purchase seeds year after year rather than having the option of breeding their own plants. This makes our global food supply more vulnerable by limiting the overall genetic diversity of our collective seed stock. I don’t believe, however, that the misuse of hybrid technologies justifies the abandonment of this valuable and time-tested plant-breeding technique. When open-pollinated (non-hybrid) varieties are available with the qualities we’re looking for, we choose them. And when superior hybrids are offered, we’re happy to purchase them from reputable companies.
There are certain types of seed that we refuse to plant, however. Unlike cross-pollination, genetic modification is not a natural process. To create genetically modified crops, scientists physically alter DNA, the genetic blueprint on which life is built and which drives both its form and functioning. An analogy—when I was a young child, before I had any notion of sexual reproduction, I asked my mother what would happen if my brother married our dog. What would their kids look like, I wanted to know. People and dogs can’t have kids together, my mother replied. But what if they could? I insisted, undeterred by any concept of biological impossibility. It can’t happen, my mother reiterated, people and dogs can’t have children.
But with genetic modification, they now kind of can. In the chapels of their laboratories, scientists have married such diverse species as corn plants and soil bacteria, intermingling their genes in a single strand of DNA. What’s the problem? Part of the problem is that we don’t entirely know what problems these new genetic combinations may cause in the ecosystems outside of laboratories. But we’re creating some problems with these genetically modified organisms (GMOs) that are very predictable. In the case of the corn and bacteria, genes from the soil bacterium Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt) which produce a protein toxic to caterpillars, are inserted into the genome of corn plants. If you’ve ever pulled back the husk on an ear of sweet corn to find a writhing grey worm and a trail of caterpillar poop across the sweet, ripe kernels, you can imagine why farmers might want to plant a crop with such a genetic combination, since that little worm’s first bite of succulent corn would be its last.
Here’s the problem, though. Life adapts and species change in order to survive. We know this—it’s why doctors are cautioned not to over-prescribe antibiotics, so that we don’t facilitate the development of antibiotic-resistant strains of diseases. When you take an antibiotic, or when a farmer sprays pesticides on her crops, the poison usually doesn’t eradicate every single organism that it targets. A few organisms survive the poison and reproduce, passing their genes on to their offspring. The next time the farmer sprays the pesticide, the strongest of these offspring are the ones that survive to reproduce. Eventually, if this continues, the majority of the pest population may end up being genetically resistant to the poison.
So when a toxin such as Bt is constantly present in the environment inside a widely-planted host crop such as corn, it creates a literal breeding ground for Bt-resistant strains of caterpillars. This is especially unfortunate since Bt is actually a great tool for organic farmers. A naturally-occurring bacteria non-toxic to animals (including humans) it’s one of the few organic substances available to combat caterpillars such as cabbage loopers and tomato hornworms, in addition to the earworms and borers which can plague corn crops. The fear that we share with the organic community is that Bt may quickly lose its effectiveness due to overuse in GMOs. This might mean that we’d have to make the difficult choice to either use substances that are more dangerous to humans and/or more ecologically harmful in order to protect our future crops or to not grow plants such as sweet corn at all.
We’ve ordered our seed from companies who have signed the Safe Seed Pledge, affirming their refusal to sell GMOs. It begins: “Agriculture and seeds provide the basis upon which our lives depend. We must protect this foundation as a safe and genetically stable source for future generations.” As I slice open the padded envelopes and boxes now arriving in the daily mail, I turn these words over in my mind. The round red-brown pellets of turnips, the pointed flakes of lettuce, and the tan discs of tomatoes and peppers are small, unspectacular. But they are our foundation; every sprout, every leaf, every succulent vegetable begins inside these seeds. We expect wonders.