Seed Saving and Line Breeding: Preparing for Climate Change

Reader Contribution by David R. Braden Iv

One of nature’s key strategies to respond to environmental change is maintaining the genetic diversity of the ecosystem. Unfortunately, the trends are toward decreasing genetic diversity while the risk of climate change is increasing. Whether or not our industrial system is the cause of climate change we will have serious problems if our food system is unable to adapt to those changes.

Two things all of us can do to increase genetic diversity are 1) stop spreading poisonsand 2) stop tilling.  Both of those choices will increase the amount of carbon tied up in the soils potentially reducing the rate of climate change and both choices will increase the number of species participating in our gardens. In addition, we can start saving seeds that are adapted to our conditions and begin breeding domestic animals adapted to our conditions. That way appropriate genetic variations will be available as the climate of other places begin to look more like our own. Hopefully, someone else will be doing the same for us.

Genetic Diversity

If you want to make money in agriculture you must discover something patentable and convince the rest of us that buying from you is better than just doing it the old way. Since that is were the money is, the option of buying seeds and breeding stock is the option that gets advertised and that advertising has been highly successful. The problem is that hybrid seeds and breeding strictly for production reduces genetic diversity in the system. That makes the system vulnerable to things like new plant diseases, pesticide resistance in pest species and a changing climate.

Our society as a whole is better off if we understand the value of genetic diversity. Adapting to climate change will require it. Genetic diversity means that each element of the system has multiple ways to respond to any given change. Hopefully, some of those responses will be successful . . . or that element goes extinct. Genetic diversity is what makes the system resilient. The money you don’t spend buying hybrid seeds and specially bred animals is money you can invest in helping nature select the best variations of crops and livestock for our conditions.

Seed Saving

One of the most profitable marketing ploys ever made was the one promoting hybrid seeds. If we are buying our seeds every year anyway, then of course, we buy the ones that give us the best chance at a bumper crop. It may be true that we get marginally more production as a result of “hybrid vigor”, however, the advantage of the hybrid is limited to a fairly narrow set of soil and weather conditions and we must buy new seed every year. Seed saved from a hybrid variety will not grow out the same as its parent. Only the parents of popular hybrids are grown out in any volume and genetic diversity is therefore diminished.

If we save seed from year to year, we are cooperating with nature’s plan to develop the best varieties for each combination of soil and weather conditions. After a few years of selecting the best performing plants from an open pollinated variety, we will have a variety specifically adapted to our precise conditions.

One of the things we like about neighbors working to improve their habitat is the opportunity to cooperate in saving seeds. It takes time and planning to save seeds for all the plants we want to grow. With a team, each member can specialize in the type of seeds they want to save and then share all the seeds come planting time. The other problem with seed saving is cross pollination. If we grow multiple varieties of squash in the same garden, for example, the varieties will cross and we cannot tell what the seed will produce next year. With a team, with gardens spread throughout the neighborhood, each garden can have a single variety of squash while the team can still enjoy all the varieties.

If you are going to continue to buy seeds you can still help maintain genetic diversity in our food crops by buying open pollinated varieties from local seed producers.

Line Breeding

It is equally important to maintain genetic diversity in the animals participating in our system. At the Living Systems Institute we maintain a breeding flock of chickens in order to supply laying hens to our team members. We produce one new generation each year. From each generation we select a few hens and one cock to renew the breeding flock. When the new hens start laying we cull an equal number of the older hens. After the eggs are hatched each generation, we cull the subordinate cock.

The hens most represented in each generation are the ones that are laying the most during the ten days in April when we are collecting the eggs to go in the incubator. We only incubate those eggs that have the characteristics we like to see when we are cooking breakfast.

As usually practiced, breeders use line breeding to optimize a single characteristic such as egg production. That process can reduce the genetic diversity of a flock. Our goal is to select for the variations best suited to thrive in the precise conditions we have provided while still maintaining the genetic diversity that will allow the flock to adapt to a changing environment.

One group of neighbors saving seed and breeding their own chickens is not enough to prepare for climate change. We need groups of neighbors working at increasing genetic diversity all over the world. Climate change is a sign of the end of the industrial age. If humans are going to survive the end of the industrial age it will be because individuals and groups of neighbors take these matters into their own hands. It cannot happen any other way.

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