How To Read a Seed Catalog

Understand the biology and business of seeds.

The winter months are quiet times for the food & herb grower who lives in temperate zones and that is part of the problem. If we had to tend to gardens, we’d have less time to drool our way through those beautifully produced seed catalogs that start arriving in December.  And we would be far more realistic about what we really can grow.

There are only two words to describe this activity: garden porn. (Don’t Google that phrase…the links DO NOT involve gardens or growing.) 

Where You Buy Your Seeds Matters

Seed buying has also become a political act: where you purchase seeds is increasingly important to our overall agricultural system.

And that is not an exaggerated statement.

By some estimates, during the last 100 years, over 90% of all the vegetable seed varieties available in the USA at the beginning of the 20th century have disappeared. 

Think about that…such a loss of diversity should be terrifying to anyone who understands the role that biodiversity serves in the ability of all species to adapt and survive while maintaining the integrity of their genetic health.

During the last few decades, biotech companies (e.g., Monsanto, Bayer, Dow) and chemical companies (e.g., Dupont) have been buying up smaller independent seed suppliers and now own 60% of the world’s seed. In an effort to streamline and manage their supplies, one of the first things these corporations do is eliminate the diversity of seeds by simply not making them available for sale. Their suspected long-term goal is to move to a limited inventory of patented, genetically engineered, and expensive seeds.

There were nearly 400 ownership changes involving these firms in the last 23 years. The peak occurred in 1998, shortly after patented, genetically engineered seeds were commercialized.

~ Dr. Phil Howard (from philhoward.net)
Seed Ownership Structure
Who owns the world’s seeds by Dr. Phil Howard

This graphic, created by Dr. Phil Howard, a professor at Michigan State, has been updated several times to reflect the continuing efforts of corporations to monopolize the seed industry. The latest update shows that the “Big 6” agrichemical seed corporations have merged into the “Big 4” – a trend of consolidation that is also found in the factory-farmed meat industry and one that is happening in the organics industry.

Seeds that are proprietary (patented, trademarked, and owned by the seed breeder or company) are often unable to reproduce additional generations of plants. More importantly, it is illegal to save and plant patented and/or genetically engineered seeds, so growers lose the ancient right of saving seeds from their gardens.

Facts About Seeds & Their Modification

Fact #1: Humans have been modifying plant seeds since the beginning of agriculture. All of our crops had wild ancestors that humans have modified for cultivation and taste.

Fact #2: International agricultural corporations have been genetically modifying seeds to increase yields, extend hardiness, benefit transportability, resist diseases, and alter flavor and textures by modifying within a plant’s genus for seven decades.

Fact #3: Species diversity is critical to the survival of plants. The Irish Great Famine of 1845-1849 was the result of a single crop dependence (potato) and the lack of potato species diversity which allowed for the infectious blight to ruin the entire country’s crop. The human impact was tragic: 1 million people starved and another million migrated out of their home country.  Species diversity is even more important as we face the effects of rapid climate change.

Fact #4: Genetically engineered crops (GE) (AKA genetically modified) are crops whose DNA has been altered by the addition of DNA from non-related species to increase resistance to pests, diseases, drought, and applied chemicals (e.g., pesticides, herbicides). American farmers have been growing these crops (soybean, corn, cotton) for several decades. There are currently no GE seeds available to the home grower. But factory-farmed meat is often fed GE crops.

Fact #5: GE seeds are patented and saving seeds to use the next season is illegal. Thus, farmers must purchase expensive new seeds each year.

What’s my concern? The discussion about whether GE crops are healthy for animals, humans and the environment is an important issue for research, but for me, the #1 concern is the ownership and lack of diversity of seeds. 

If biotech corporations control the seed, they control the food supply and more importantly, the botanical diversity. Our future as a species and its reliance on plant species as a food source rely on botanical diversity.

As consumers, the most important action we can take is to eat organic crops and pasture-raised meat (GE crops are not permitted) and to support local farmers who often grow lesser-known and regionally adapted species. 

To preserve seed access, we need to support the smaller seed suppliers who are working diligently to maintain diversity through the use of open-pollinated seeds.

As food growers, the most important action we can take is to save some of our own seeds.

Vintage seed catalog page
Vintage Vegetable Seed Catalog Page from Pixabay

Free The Seed

The only real power we have against large corporations is how we spend our money. Buying non-patented seeds from small seed companies who support the Safe Seed Pledge and the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI) helps to ensure the following freedoms: 

  • That our agricultural system has the biological diversity necessary for its healthy survival.
  • That future generations have access to the plant diversity we currently enjoy.  
  • The right to practice the 12,000-year-old tradition of saving and planting seeds.
  • That our food is free of genetically engineered seeds.

What is the Safe Seed Pledge?

Over 70 seed catalog companies have signed onto the Safe Seed Pledge. This statement offers evidence of the seed companies’ commitment to not selling genetically engineered (AKA GMO) seeds. This pledge is not regulated in any manner and only indicates that the company does not support the distribution of GE/GMO seeds to home gardeners.

What is the Open Source Seed Initiative?

The Open Source Seed Initiative is an organization dedicated to the preservation, access, and education of open-source seeds (no patents, licenses, or restrictions on the use of seeds). You can learn more about their work and find a seed supplier who supports their mission at osseeds.org.

Where to Buy Open-Pollinated Seeds?

I recommend buying from regional and smaller seed companies and seed-saving non-profits, thus supporting those who grow and save most of their seed from their own fields or regional seed growers. Another advantage of buying from a regional seed grower is that the plants have adapted to your region’s environmental conditions. The seed partners listed on the Open Source Seed Initiative website are a good place to start.

An Incomplete Seed Supplier List

This is a list I created several years ago and I know there are smaller regional seed companies I have missed.

How to Read a Seed Catalog

How To Read a Seed Catalog

If you are new to growing food, then those seed catalogs can be a bit overwhelming and full of unknown botanical and horticultural terminology. Understanding the biology and business of seeds is the first step. This list defines terms that are commonly used in seed catalogs.

Heirloom: Originally, the definition pertained to varieties with a history of greater than 100 years, but today heirloom varieties can be younger. Commonly defined as a variety passed down amongst families or communities and often named after a breeder or seed keeper, many of these seeds have a life story of how they were brought to the US, or a state and the number of generations that a family has been planting the seed. My favorite name example: Mortgage Lifter tomato which was developed by a home gardener in the 1930s who sold enough of the seeds to pay off his mortgage!

Heirlooms are considered to be a part of the genetic heritage of a crop.  Some seed suppliers also call these heritage or ancestral seeds. In most cases, they are open-pollinated so the seed can be saved for reproduction. Check out Seed Saver’s Exchange of an organization that is protecting heirloom seeds.

Variety: Related plants that share nearly identical traits and have evolved in the wild from a species or subspecies and which is sufficiently distinct to be given their own varietal name. These seeds can be saved for reproduction.

Cultivar: An abbreviation for “cultivated variety” and indicates that a plant variety has evolved in cultivation rather than in the wild. The plant names are sometimes trademarked.

Hybrid or Plant Variety Protection (PVP):  A plant resulting from the intentional cross mating of distinctly different parental types. Hybrids & PVPs can be made b/t any two parents regardless of their genetic background. F1 hybrids (often referred to in seed catalogs) are the result of a cross between two inbred lines. Seeds often do not “come true” which means that they will not look or taste like their parents, so seed saving is not always reliable. Hybrids are usually licensed or patented. Note: Hybrids include those that have been bred to resist environmental conditions like disease, to change taste, size, or color, and/or to increase yield and have greatly improved garden yields. Many gardeners prefer these since they help increase successful production.

Genetically Modified or Engineered: While humans have been manipulating plants for thousands of years to increase yield, improve taste, resist disease or change the size, genetic engineering of seeds began in the last 30 years and involves inserting genetic material from other species or adding chemical compounds (e.g., Roundup Corn). These seeds are currently only available for animal feed (corn and soy are examples) and cotton and are not available to home gardeners. They are always patented and growers are not allowed to collect seed and replant. 

Non-GMO: An organism whose genetic material has not been altered across species or intra-specifically through genetic engineering.

Open-pollination (OP): Generally, a term to indicate that a variety may be cross-pollinated but is not an F1 hybrid.  Specifically, OP allows individual plants within a population to freely inter-mate. Seed can be collected and will “grow true” when planted. Many heirloom seeds are also open-pollinated.

Untreated Seed: Not treated with preservatives, fungicides, or other chemicals that are commonly used in conventional agriculture.

Organic Seed: Seeds that have been produced according to the National Organic Program standards.

Source: Common Seed Terms from OSU/WSU 2007 Farming Sourcebook