seed smarts: on ‘hybriditis’ and open-pollinated seed, with dr. john navazio

scatter_seedsEVER GROW AN HEIRLOOM or other open-pollinated variety from seed, only to have it not look or taste like the photo on the packet—or even like the “same” variety when you grew it before? Maybe not your fault. Seeds aren’t like widgets; someone has to take care of the living genetics to make sure subsequent generations remain true to type, and even continue to evolve.

But who’s doing that critical, demanding work? To kick off what has become my annual Seed Series on the radio show and website, I interviewed geneticist and longtime plant breeder Dr. John Navazio—former senior scientist with the Organic Seed Alliance and now manager of plant breeding at Johnny’s Selected Seeds—to answer those seedy questions and more. Over the years, I have learned so much from John–including how to grow carrots (one of his breeding specialties).

Read along as you listen to the Nov. 18, 2013 edition of my public-radio show and podcast using the player below. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

Dr. John Navazio of Organic Seed Alliance my q&a with dr. john navazio


Q. First, John: What does the Organic Seed Alliance, which was founded in 2003, do?

A. We do work for the ethical stewardship of seeds among the agriculture community.

The key is that in the 13,000-plus years of agricultural history, farmers have always had, until very recently, a very intimate relationship with the seeds they grow. They have been the stewards of the seed, and in fact shaped the seed–and the farming practices and the communities have co-evolved with the seed-crop varieties they grew and saved the seed of.

It really is a two-way street: We’ve become more like the crops, and the crops have become more like a reflection of our needs.

Q. So OSA works to help more farmers get back to that traditional intimate, hands-on  two-way relationship with seed. But why does it matter that more organic seed is produced—why the “Organic” in the OSA’s name?

A.  When Matthew Dillon and I sat here in Port Townsend, Washington, and co-founded the OSA, we almost didn’t include the word “organic” in the title. We don’t want this to be any kind of exclusive club—we want to include anyone who is concerned about this common genetic [seed] inheritance that all humans share.

That being said, organic is very important to us, because we are true believers in creating an agricultural system that is an agro-ecosystem. The key to organic for me has always been minimizing the external inputs, especially those that are synthetic or human-derived, and making sure we beef up the natural systems that do all that marvelous ecological dance that makes ecosystems healthy and thriving.

In that light, organic has been important because it really is kind of the watershed of: Are you at least trying to minimize those nasty inputs that have overtaken agriculture in the past 100 years, and are you really trying to get agriculture in tune with nature?

When it comes to seed that is really important, because the crop varieties that humans grow are influenced greatly by the environment. If we grow our crops under high-input synthetic systems, they adapt to that.

Once you’re bombing your crops back to the Stone Age with chemicals, you’re shutting out the ecology of the region and the natural ecosystem that you’re farming in—you’re shutting it out from influencing your crops.

In organics, though, you re-introduce nature, and in order to do that in an agricultural system, you have to adapt the crops to perform under this whole new paradigm of not giving it more than enough fertilizer; not protecting it from every single pathogen, disease agent, or insect on the plant. How do we build these crops—how do we co-evolve with these crops—so that they perform nicely under this much more balanced agro-ecosystem that is good farming practices?

Q. I love a particular John Navazio-ism you’ve used when we’ve spoken before, the word hybriditis. What does that mean?

A. Hybriditis is the case where the predominant number of varieties available for any particular crop, like cabbage, or broccoli, or carrots, are hybrids–when 90 percent-plus of them in a seed catalog have the little F-1 symbol next to their names. When a hybrid is really your only option in a crop—then I say, “Carrots have got hybriditis.” With cabbage, carrots, broccoli—it’s hard to find a good non-hybrid or open-pollinated broccoli. Tomatoes have gotten a bit better the past 20 years, by comparison.

Pelleted carrot seedQ. How did that trend toward hybriditis happen? 

A. In the industrialization of agriculture, where we really wanted to make farming more like any other industrial process, uniformity becomes a very important component. There’s this drive to uniformity (of when a crop ripens, or the size or shape of each fruit, for instance).

Coinciding with that drive to uniformity just perfectly, about 100 years ago a group of pioneering plant breeders started doing inbreeding in crops, in the dawn of the modern genetics movement after Mendel’s work with peas was rediscovered. What they found was that they were getting this incredible degree of uniformity that no one had ever seen before in the natural world.

Traits we really loved were crystallized, by crossing two really unique strains in a controlled fashion: how well the corn stood up, how sweet the carrot tasted, how tender it was. Breeding hybrids was actually easier—once they found a hybrid cross that really worked, breeders “fixed” or stabilized it with those certain key traits they wanted and they could remake that hybrid ad infinitum—kind of like widgets in a factory.

Q. So that’s when the older open-pollinated varieties started getting neglected–because they couldn’t be “fixed” like that, and therefore required more ongoing TLC?  They were probably not very attractive to the new manufacturer mindset looking for uniform widgets, were they?

A. Yes, exactly; you always have to accept some level of variation in open-pollinated or non-hybrid crops. The thing we’ve found: In well-maintained older OP varieties where we do do the kind of selection that our forebears did, all the carrot roots or cabbage heads are pretty darn good—if not perfectly uniform widgets.

And we’ve found that most farmers in the organic revolution, and certainly most gardeners, are perfectly fine with that variation. Once seed companies started to go all hybrid, and stopped taking care of the old OP varieties and starting putting their eggs in one basket—where they made more money because of biological patents as a way to protect their seeds–breeders stopped taking care of them and the older varieties stopped co-evolving, and went to the dogs, actually. Everyone was praying at the hybrid altar.

Q. Lately, though, I keep meeting more and more of a group of what one aptly named seed company called Uprising labeled, “a rascally, populist movement of breeders and seedsavers [who are] bringing the work of breeding and variety stewardship back to the farms.” The kinds of companies who grow some or all of what they sell, and whom we’ll be meeting as this series continues.

A. We have a revolution going on. We have farmers and certainly gardeners who are saying, “We like many characteristics of those older varieties. We’ve lost something in quality, something in the soulfulness of many of these vegetables.

“And in fact we really are also a little bit skeptical of having companies control this whole hybrid seed thing, and we want to have the insurance of being able to grow the seed ourselves.

And: “Oh my, if I start doing my own seed and doing selection and re-learning this old craft of how to maintain these stocks as good enough for prime time—then all of a sudden the farmers and now these small seed companies you’ll be talking to in the coming weeks: They’re reacquainting themselves with the knowledge of how our ancestors did it. We are then rubbing shoulders with our ancestors.

And guess what the magic is? It actually starts evolving with their farm, with their needs, and it adapts to their climate, and in fact is better than the hybrids that we pay the big bucks for.

Q. So what was–what is–the work that needed to be done?

A. If you don’t maintain open-pollinated varieties year in and year out, and re-select for the type you like and get rid of the traits that are obviously not adapted to your system, then the OPs, through genetic drift, slowly peter out.

Beet seeds soaking before plantingQ. Is that why gardeners tell me they got XYZ variety and it didn’t look like the catalog photo, or the last time you grew it?

A. There are two reasons that this always happens to gardeners: Sometimes you get inferior seed that’s been sitting somewhere on the shelf too long, and it’s poor germination and poor quality.

Second, you might have this genetic deterioration where nobody is taking care of it. There are production seed companies out there—not ones we actually buy seed from, but the people the catalogs actually buy their seed from—who grow oodles of old varieties like ‘Detroit Dark Red’ beet or ‘Scarlet Nantes’ carrot and they don’t do their due diligence to maintain it. And farmers or gardeners then say, “Oh, man, this isn’t so great.”

So don’t be discouraged when you get a bad seed lot! Dig deep, learn how to grow it right, and try seed from one of the folks you’ll be talking to the next few weeks.

more, more, more

prefer the podcast version of the show?

MY WEEKLY public-radio show, rated a “top-5 garden podcast” by “The Guardian” newspaper in the UK, began its seventh year in March 2016. In 2016, the show won three silver medals for excellence from the Garden Writers Association. It’s produced at Robin Hood Radio, the smallest NPR station in the nation. Listen locally in the Hudson Valley (NY)-Berkshires (MA)-Litchfield Hills (CT) Mondays at 8:30 AM Eastern, rerun at 8:30 Saturdays. Or play the Nov. 18, 2013 show using the player near the top of this transcript. You can subscribe to all future editions on iTunes or Stitcher (and browse my archive of podcasts here).

dr. john navazio’s seed book

"The Organic Seed Grower" by Dr. John NavazioJOHN NAVAZIO is a geneticist and plant breeder who acts as senior scientist for the 10-year-old Organic Seed Alliance, and the Washington State University Extension specialist for organic seed.  He’s also the author of “The Organic Seed Grower: A Farmer’s Guide to Vegetable Seed Production.”

Though I am no seed farmer, I find the book fascinating and so useful. In addition to a history of agricultural seed, and a short course in the reproductive biology of vegetable plants, it profiles each plant family and each crop within them through its entire life cycle, seed to seed. I’ve picked up so many expert tips on growing, and saving, seed from reading it.

(Seed doodle, top of page, by Andre Jordan.)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.