Faded Genes

Seeds…those sleepy little kernels tucked in their winter coats. Not one metabolic quiver until, suddenly and by the millions, they start to move. They travel by ground and by air, from state to state, from December through April. That’s the time of year when discerning growers scour seed catalogues, browsing long lists of plants with names like “prickly poppy” and “early blood turnip-rooted beet.” They scroll and search, lured on by the promise of the harvest, even while frost hugs the ground.

 

We’re the after Christmas business,” says Brian “Cricket” Rakita, the pony-tailed manager of the collectively owned seed exchange Southern Exposure, situated on 70 forested acres in Mineral, about 50 miles east of Charlottesville.

Closer to town is the non-profit Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants. Both are seed banks dedicated to saving endangered germplasm, that is, heirloom plants: The established flowers, herbs and edibles of yesteryear, from potato onions and cheese pumpkins to bachelor buttons and broom corn.

Heirlooms, which come in staggering variety and from all over the globe, derive from seeds deemed worth saving by successive generations. Like antiques, age is usually the first consideration. Southern Exposure defines their seeds as pre-1940 because, as Rakita explains, American crop diversity declined with the World War II quest to feed Europe. International shipping favored a few stalwart strains, while countless others fell into obscurity.

Age definitions vary, though. The Jefferson Center for Historic Plants concentrates on garden plants “at least 100 years old,” says director Peggy Cornett. The center focuses on varieties grown by Jefferson and documented in American gardens throughout the 19th century.

While big seed catalogues may offer a few historic varieties, spreading heirloom seed is mainly small business, beyond major catalogue player Burpees. For example, despite their mail-order catalogue and nine contract growers, Southern Exposure keeps only about five acres in production, has fewer than 10 employees and sells from just two local outlets under its own name: Integral Yoga and the Thomas Jefferson Center for Historic Plants. Small is a relative concept, through: Rakita’s operation includes an inventory of more than 550 varieties of vegetables, grains, flowers and herbs.

While the primary goal of the collection is to keep their catalogue we stocked, Southern Exposure’s other stated goal of preservation puts it in sync with gene banks, grassroots seed-saving networks, botanical gardens and backyard growers everywhere. But the available stock is nowhere near comprehensive. A study done by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI) shows that 97 percent of vegetable varieties available in 1900 are now extinct.

Some gardeners are highly motivated to protect that slim percentage of heirloom plants that remains. Sue Frankel-Streit, a gardener from Trevillians whose family grows much of their own food, raises older varieties not only for their unique flavors but also as an act of preservation. “We plant heirlooms because we think they’re being lost,” she says, “and everything contributes to an ecosystem.”

Scientists, too, have found reason to embrace heirloom plants. Where traits involving pest and disease resistance are concerned, Rakita claims that “most genes that have solved modern agricultural problems have been found in heirloom varieties.”

Doug Taylor, a population biologist at UVA, explains that the need to seek genes from long-established plants arises from the uniformity of “crop species” today, which have become genetically narrow in the quest for high-yield crops for industrial agriculture. “You lose a lot of variety whenever you enrich a strain.”

Rakita says the solution to the corn blight of 1970—which nearly turned the United States into a food-importing nation because farmers had abandoned many of the regional varieties and relied on monoculture instead—came from an heirloom strain in Mexico: a gene for corn-blight resistance.

Following the blight, studies showed that most major American crops were just as vulnerable to disease due to a lack of biodiversity. The importance of gene banks suddenly came to light. The United States Department of Agriculture’s national germplasm system was then bolstered with new funding, while grassroots groups began organizing themselves into seed-saver exchanges, according to the Southern Legacy project, an heirloom preservation effort through the University of Georgia. While the USDA has concentrated on collecting germplasm globally, seed savers—both groups and individual gardeners like Frankel-Streit—continue to focus on local varieties.

 

Outside the huge loft office of Southern Exposure, tangles of old plants and new winter greens dot the grounds. A cold storage room nearby holds hanging strings of drying garlic and a broken freezer filled with jars of seeds. (Rakita says it doesn’t matter that the refrigerator repairman hasn’t stopped by yet; it’s freezing outside.)

With three-quarters of their business occurring in winter, employees keep busy processing orders, preparing packets and testing seeds for germination, which entails placing seeds on damp towels in an incubator until they sprout.

Most of Southern Exposure’s customers are backyard growers, but big businesses have dipped into the catalogue, too. “Dupont has purchased from us in the past year,” says Rakita. But Southern Exposure doesn’t, in turn, buy seed from Dupont, the world’s largest seed company.

“They don’t sell the things we’re interested in,” he says.

Besides pesticides and other agrochemicals, Dupont Corporation sells hybrid and genetically modified seeds, typically referred to as GM. Between Dupont and the Monsanto Company, the two control about 93 percent of the GM seed market worldwide, according to RAFI.

Lab hybridization is a form of genetic engineering that involves the blocking, adding or scrambling of DNA to create new traits. While such technology can splice one gene into another, it can’t create genes—fresh seed is required as the raw material. Hybridization, whether done in the lab or by breeding distinct, open-pollinated parents, is one way to tweak plants to make them higher yielding and more pest resistant. But these varieties, according to Rakita, are “impossible to preserve.” They don’t “breed true,” he says.

“The real benefit of these GM crops seems to lie in intellectual property,” says UVA’s Taylor, referring to the way companies like Monsanto and Dupont profit from patenting seeds.

Where food crops are concerned, gene tinkering is particularly controversial, with some experts estimating that nearly two-thirds of the products on the shelves of American supermarkets contain genetically engineered ingredients like corn, soy, canola and cottonseed oil. In 2001, 60 percent to 70 percent of all processed foods contained these staples, according to Whole Foods Market.

For gardener Frankel-Streit, growing heirloom plants is a deliberate choice to avoid “Frankenfood”: “We don’t want to grow genetically modified seed,” she says, adding that the main assurance for her family lies in starting with organic seed.

 

 

Southern Exposure adheres to the international “Safe Seed Pledge,” a promise to not knowingly sell GM seed. But even backyard gardeners enjoy the benefits of “improved” strains that can trump pests and boost the bounty. So, in lieu of hybrids—and in addition to raising heirlooms—Southern Exposure develops new open-pollinated plants.

“It takes seven or more years to take a wild variety and hone it to a dependable new one,” says Rakita, who studied agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. In some cases these plants “better suit people’s needs—should a certain insect develop greater resistance,” for example.

The company does buy and resell a few hybrids, though, including silver queen corn. Additionally, plant varieties that fall out of favor commercially can regain popularity. Consider cotton, which once came in many hues. “Naturally colored cottons have been big sellers,” says Rakita, displaying a boll of dusky orange fluff.

Even with the tender care that a seed bank like Southern Exposure puts into cultivation, however, there is a risk of losing varieties as a result of unwanted cross-pollination. Heirlooms are almost all open-pollinated plants. They’re grown outdoors, pollinated naturally via bees, wind, rain—and sometimes, by the wrong pollen.

In the area around Mineral, for instance, genetically modified crops like corn and soybeans are grown. What complicates the risk, says Rakita, is a dearth of research on “safe isolation distances” between GM and non-GM crops. Further, studies indicate that the pollen of some GM plants may travel greater distances and reproduce more readily than that of traditional plants.

Southern Exposure grows corn, for instance, a crop that has far-ranging pollen. “Our safeguard is primarily timing,” says Rakita. “Field corn in this area is planted early—so we plant our seed corn late.”

Another strategy, says Rakita, is to know the neighbors. “I know what’s being grown” up to one mile away, he says. But without studies confirming safe distances—which vary considerably from crop to crop—it’s hard to know if your “neighbor” is the gardener up the road growing organic melons or the farmer miles away growing acres of GM crops.

So why not protect heirlooms in a greenhouse?

“That’s not how these varieties are grown,” Rakita says emphatically. “When we grow a variety out for seed, our job is to take out the rogues—the poor performers. I can’t emphasize enough how important this is for keeping a variety strong. We’re selecting for the same conditions we expect growers to raise them in.”

Rakita says he’s combed the Internet and scoured the world, even asking Monsanto to conduct safe-distance studies. “I’ve found nothing since 1998,” he says, referring to a study that showed GM mustard to reproduce with wild species at a rate higher than expected.

“I don’t think these corporations understand the ecological effects of these things,” says Taylor. His personal view is that Monsanto, Dupont and their ilk have “not made the case” for the usefulness of GM crops in the first place. Unfortunately, he adds, the issue of transgenic gene transfer isn’t a hot or heavily funded research topic, either. “It isn’t popping up in studies of gene flow,” he says.

All of which leaves preservationists wondering if they’re doing the job they thought they were.

But the uncertainty hasn’t deterred Southern Exposure from the work of preserving the Kansas cantaloupe, Cajun jewel okra, and all those other nearly forgotten gems. Hundreds of them, in fact.

With biodiversity on the decline across the globe, Rakita has chosen to focus his efforts. “Variety,” he says, “is what we specialize in.”

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