In a traditional Indian pueblo garden in New Mexico in 1985, filmmaker Kenny Ausubel focused his camera on a man clutching a fistful of seeds. The man opened his hands to reveal beautiful red corn kernels. As he began to speak, he also began to weep. He told the story of finding a small pot filled with the seeds inside the mud wall of his adobe home. Not knowing what they were, he took them around the pueblo, asking if anyone could identify them. No one could, until two elders spoke up and explained that they were the sacred red corn of San Juan Pueblo, which hadn't been grown in more than 40 years. Had the man not discovered the seeds, this variety of corn might have been lost forever, says Ausubel, who went on to found the Bioneers Conference, a gathering of environmentalists whose aim is to restore the earth.
Seeds like the red corn are called "heirlooms"—old varieties of fruit, vegetable, herb, and flower seeds that, in the words of Kent Whealy, cofounder of Seed Savers Exchange in Decorah, Iowa, "are passed down in families the way jewelry or furniture are." In Whealy's collection, for instance, he has a bean that was brought over on the Mayflower, seeds that General Robert E. Lee's wife gave to Lee during the Civil War, and even seeds for a variety of lettuce that Thomas Jefferson grew at his home, Monticello.
But the preservation of heirloom seeds is more than just an exercise in nostalgia. Buying these seeds and planting them, or choosing to purchase heirloom produce, is vital to the health of our environment, to the preservation of biodiversity, and as a hedge against famine. Preserving heirlooms might even be thought of as a spiritual practice—an opportunity to act on our good intentions for the world that nurtures and sustains us.
"You can't save our environment or genetic diversity unless you save the foundations that created it in the first place," says Bill McDorman, founder of Seeds Trust, an organization committed to preserving and disseminating heirloom seeds. "And what makes our environment diverse and sustainable are seeds."
The Picture of Imperfection
Heirloom seeds are nonhybrids, which means that they self-reproduce and that the seeds of the offspring remain genetically true to the parent. Most of the produce available at major supermarkets is instead hybrid—the result of crossbreeding two different varieties to reinforce particular traits. Hybrids are bred for greater crop yield and to still look perfect while withstanding handling, packaging, and shipping.
Heirlooms, on the other hand, might display imperfections; tomatoes, for instance, can come in odd colors and lumpy shapes, sometimes with scars on their skin. But there's a reward for looking past the surface—taste. Heirlooms often offer more intense flavors than many of their crossbred counterparts. Varieties of lettuce and greens with names like Black Simpson, Magenta Spreen Lambsquarters, and Formidana delight the tongue with unusual sensations: mineral flavors, citrusy aromas, intriguing textures. They're a far cry from the watery crunch of iceberg.
But heirlooms are superior to hybrids in other ways too. Planting heirlooms that are regionally specific and well suited to their local environment means they can be grown with fewer herbicides and pesticides than genetically uniform hybrids.
Also, the self-propagating nature of heirlooms—as opposed to hybrids, which don't always reproduce on their own—ensures the integrity and diversity of seed stocks. This is crucial to preserving biodiversity—nature's safeguard against famine. When American agribusinesses plant enormous swaths of land with hybrid seeds, they create a single uniform crop. It is precisely this uniformity that makes crops susceptible to blight—and that could ultimately jeopardize our food supply. If we become dependent on a single strain of hybrid and that crop fails, we have no backup.
Put bluntly, we need a variety of self-propagating seeds to ensure our ongoing survival. "The world's food system is treacherously perched on a rapidly eroding genetic base," says Ausubel, who is also cofounder of Seeds of Change, a company that sells heirloom seeds. "We can't afford to lose these traditional seed stocks—our genetic legacy and our fail-safe against extinction."
The Natural Way
some of our most widely consumed crops—soybeans and corn, for example—are now largely being grown from genetically modified (GM) seeds. GM seeds are heavily promoted by their creators, in part because they can be patented and therefore can generate significant profits for the companies that produce them.
While biotech proponents say that foods from GM crops are well tested and safe, Arpad Pusztai, formerly a research scientist at the Rowett Research Institute in Aberdeen, Scotland, says there are surprisingly few scientific, peer-reviewed studies about their impact on the health and safety of humans. Even animal studies are rare. In other words, no one knows what long-term effects GM foods will have on us or on the environment.
Planting heirloom seeds is therefore a pragmatic way to preserve and protect our own health and the health of the planet, which are inextricably linked. It's also a soulful way to show our respect for both our past and our future. Many indigenous people, Ausubel explains, believe that seeds speak the voices of our ancestors, and that in planting them we become the ancestral voice of the future. "It's a very powerful transmission, spiritually and culturally—a gift that each generation gives to the next," he says. "To respect and sustain life in all of its diversity is at heart a spiritual practice. There is nothing more profound than that."
Dayna Macy is Yoga Journal's communications director.