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Local and Regional Food Systems: Breeding & Selection

An index of initiatives and resources related to local and regional food systems.

Seed Saving

Across the globe there is growing awareness once again of the importance of breeding and saving seed for plant varieties specifically adapted to the needs and conditions of particular communities and regions, an important component of healthy food systems. The reasons for this work are broad, encompassing a greater desire for more locally suited varieties and biodiversity supporting health and resilience, to issues of food sovereignty. The following resources provide an introduction to this vast and growing body of work. Cornell community members can refer to the research literature section of this guide for database tools that can be used to find more scholarly resources.

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Cornell University Initiatives

  • Cornell Garden Based Learning projects, including:
    • Vegetable varieties investigation (Vvi) a citizen science approach to preserving biodiversity and connecting with community, designed to engage youth.  Participants interview gardeners about their opinions on vegetable varieties, and submit their findings to:
    • Vegetable Varieties for Gardeners, an online database that serves as a nation-wide online library of vegetable variety data.
  • Cornell University Agriculture Experiment Station
  • Plant Breeding & Genetics Department related programs, including:
    • Gramene.org, a curated, open-source, data resource for comparative genome analysis in the grasses, facilitating research and discovery work by researchers. Using controlled vocabularies and web-based displays, things like genetic diversity can be explored and mapped, potentially significantly increasing the efficiency of selections made in plant breeding programs. Extensive list of related resources. Possible model component of a bioregional breeding program, indexing and monitoring genetic diversity.
    • Organic Seed Partnership A collaborative effort creating a robust national network of organic vegetable breeders working with each other and regional growers to benefit the organic community with improved vegetable varieties that are adapted to organic systems combined with disease resistance, nutritional and flavor quality, and productivity.
    • Small Grains Project develops innovative approaches to crop improvement, encompassing molecular genetics, physiology, pathology, and breeding contributing to the development of superior crop varieties.
    • USDA AFRI project – Enhancing Education and Research for Plant Disease Resistance Supporting a transition to sustainable agricultural systems that focus on local production and prepare for the consequences of global warming, helping train plant breeders to utilize genomic tools, navigate a wealth of data with bioinformatics and synthesize research perspectives from both vegetable and grain breeding as part of their modern skill set, bringing together fundamental and applied plant breeding research.
  • USDA-ARS, Plant Genetic Resources Unit, located on the Geneva, NY Campus of Cornell University, is a component of the National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS). It conducts workshops and provides training opportunities in seed production and seed cleaning to small-scale seed companies and regional growers.

Conservation & Biodiversity

  • Bioversity International is a research-for-development organization working with partners worldwide to use & conserve agricultural & tree biodiversity for improved livelihoods, nutrition, sustainability and productive & resilient ecosystems
  • Diverseeds -Scientific project supported by the European Commission´s 6th framework programme, focused on "Networking on conservation and use of plant genetic resources in Europe and Asia". Diverseeds documentary film made by IDC shows the importance of agricultural biodiversity for food and agriculture, with astonishing pictures from Europe and Asia.
  • ETC Group works to address the socioeconomic and ecological issues surrounding new technologies that could have an impact on the world’s poorest and most vulnerable people. One area of focus for ETC is seeds and genetic diversity.
  • Global Crop Diversity Trust is an independent international organization working to guarantee the conservation of crop diversity. Noted agriculturalist (and TED presenter) Cary Fowler is the former executive director of the GCDT, currently serving as a Senior Advisor.
  • Kew Millennium Seed Bank Partnership is the largest ex situ (conserved outside their native habitat) plant conservation project in the world. Its focus is on global plant life faced with the threat of extinction and plants of most use for the future
  • Native Seeds/SEARCH conserves, distributes and documents the adapted and diverse varieties of agricultural seeds, their wild relatives and the role these seeds play in cultures of the American Southwest and northwest Mexico.
  • Navdanya started as a program of the Research Foundation for science, Technology and Ecology (RFSTE), a participatory research initiative founded by Dr. Vandana Shiva. The main aim of the Navdanya biodiversity conservation program is to support local farmers, rescue and conserve crops and plants that are being pushed to extinction and make them available through direct marketing.
  • Seeds of Diversity is a Canadian volunteer organization that conserves the biodiversity and traditional knowledge of food crops and garden plants.
  • Seed Savers Exchange is a non-profit organization dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. Their mission is to conserve and promote America's culturally diverse but endangered food crop heritage for future generations by collecting, growing, and sharing heirloom seeds and plants. SSE encourages “participatory preservation” amongst its members.

Grower Resources, Directories and Support

  • Association of Official Seed Certifying  Agencies (AOSCA) is dedicated to assisting clients in the production, identification, distribution and promotion of certified classes of seed and other crop propagation materials. Host of:
    • Organic Seed Finder, allowing organic seed vendors and potential customers to find one another.
  • eXtension.org -An online platform for learning and knowledge exchange, connecting subject area experts from Land Grant institutions across the U.S. with each other and knowledge consumers. Provides a number of resources on Seeds and Seed Saving, including online courses (registration required but simple and free).
  • Organic Consumers Association list of organic seeds, heirloom seeds, un-treated seeds, open-pollinated seeds, and organic seed suppliers.
  • Organic Growers' Research and Information-Sharing Network (OGRIN) Northeast US based organization that generates practical information for organic farmers and gardeners through farmer participatory research, review articles and fact sheets on issues critical to organic farming, and by providing forums for information-exchange between growers.
  • Organic Seed Alliance advances the ethical development and stewardship of the genetic resources of agricultural seed, through collaborative education, advisory services, and research programs with organic farmers and other seed professionals. Offer a variety of useful publications including policy reports, plant breeding and variety trial guides, seed production guides, online tutorials, worksheets, record sheets, and proceedings from biennial Organic Seed Growers Conference.
  • Organic Seed Partnership is a collaborative effort of universities, government agencies, non-profits, and vegetable growers working to make organic vegetable varieties more available to all. Efforts include creating a national network of organic vegetable breeders, and participatory plan breeding.
  • USDA PLANTS Database provides standardized information about the vascular plants, mosses, liverworts, hornworts, and lichens of the U.S. and its territories. Includes fact sheets, plant guides, and images for a range of crops, filterable by geography.

Industry/Trade Groups & Resources

  • American Seed Trade Association ASTA is concerned with the development, marketing and movement of seed, associated products and services throughout the world. Activities focus on intellectual property protection, regulatory matters, new technologies and communication and marketing in support of the seed industry. Provides a list of seed testing and accreditation agencies.
  • Directory of Organic Seed Suppliers from ATTRA –National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service. This searchable database provides sources for organic seed of both agronomic and horticultural crops. Some national, mail-order suppliers of untreated seed are included, with the emphasis on small alternative seed companies offering open-pollinated vegetable, flower, and herb seed.
  • New York State Seed Testing Laboratory, established in 1912 as the official regulatory laboratory for New York State, provides fee based seed testing services to residents, growers and seed companies.  Ensures truth in labeling for the New York State Department of Agriculture and Markets.

Seed Libraries

Adapted from SSE: Seed saving networks across the country are working to preserve regional crops and biodiversity by establishing “seed libraries”. A seed library is a place where plant genetics, in the form of seeds, are stored for research and public use. A grower borrows a certain amount of seeds, grows them out as a crop, harvests some of the seed, and returns the same amount of seeds he or she borrowed the next year. A seed library is a means by which a region can store and continually select from and improve upon the genes of its regionally adapted varieties, teach the public about farming and biology, and store alternative species of plants in case a widely used variety succumbs to a new disease or pest.

  • Center for a New American Dream hosted a webinar about how to start a seed lending program at your public library. Topics include funding models, obtaining starter seeds, patron orientation, and more. The webinar features speakers from seed libraries around the country.
  • Demeter Seed Library of UC Santa Cruz is composed of local farmers, gardeners, students, and biologists who believe in the importance of preserving the genetic heritage of our food.
  • Hudson Valley Seed Library grew from a small town library project into an online seed library focused on the Northeast with a full seed catalog for all gardeners. Today, it has its own seed farm where heirloom and open-pollinated seeds are grown, saved, and packed by hand, in unique “Art Packs".
  • Jane Addams' Hull-House Seed Library aims to not only provide seeds, but a historical background of each plant. By documenting the seeds journey from the original farmer to a seed borrower to the plot of dirt, there is an appreciation and comprehension of what heirloom signifies. The Seed Library asserts the connection between social, environmental and economic systems within the Chicago community.
  • Richmond Grows is a non-profit seed lending library located in the Richmond California Public library. The Library is open to everyone and provides, in addition to seeds, education about growing and saving seeds and organic gardening. Their website includes a fairly extensive list of other seed libraries around the world.
  • Seed Libraries Social Network is a national organization supporting existing and emerging seed libraries. Their site provides a range of useful resources, including instructions for sharing your seed inventory, a bibliography on seed stewardship, and support resources for starting your own seed library.

Seed Sovereignty

  • Campaign for Seed Sovereignty Effort led by European Campaign for Seed Sovereignty, seeking to address multiple issues related to seed saving, including protecting open access to seeds free of legal restrictions, and the right for all growers to obtain, re-sow, save and distribute seed.  The "Resilient Seed" booklet and film available on their site examines the monopolisation of seeds by agrochemical firms and EU regulation on seeds.
  • Farmer Seeds Nyéléni Newsletter Number 3. The international Nyéléni newsletter aims to be the voice of the international movement for Food Sovereignty.
  • Seed Freedom –site started by Vandana Shiva, supporting Global Alliance for Seed Freedom, a global campaign to alert citizens and governments around the world on how precarious seed supplies have become – and as a consequence, how precarious our food security has become. Offers several learning and action resources, including Navdanya Seed Kit for setting up your own community seedbank.

Other Seed Saving Organizations, Networks & Events

Learning Materials

General Guides
Handbooks, articles, etc. on getting started with seed saving:

Books
Cornell community members can search the Cornell Library Catalog to find a wide variety of materials in seed saving, and more broadly, plant breeding and selection at Cornell and beyond.

Films

  • Diverseeds  Documentary film made by IDC shows the importance of agricultural biodiversity for food and agriculture, with astonishing pictures from Europe and Asia.
  • Our Seeds: Seeds Blong Yumi Documentary from the Australia based Seed Savers Network, shot in eleven countries of Europe, Asia and Oceania, that celebrates traditional food plants and the people that grow them. The film shows how individuals and small groups have addressed problems of a globalized food system based on hybrids that require pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.
  • Saving the Seed, explores the struggles of rural farmers in Honduras to control their food supplies and livelihoods. The film highlights one organization’s pioneering model for rural community development.
  • Seeds of Freedom charts the story of seed from its roots at the heart of traditional, diversity-rich farming systems across the world, to being transformed into a powerful commodity, used to monopolize the global food system. Available for free download.

Curriculum