Editorial: Seeds, the Alpha and Omega of Agriculture

In the beginning of agricultural history, even before the advent of cultivation, seeds were gathered by women and men from trees, bushes, and grasses. Later there were farmers to sow the seeds and harvest the plants they nurtured. In time engineers designed farm machinery, and leading agronomists were those who were experts in chemistry. More recently, it seemed that agricultural economists and plant breeders were poised to take over the world. Throughout this evolution, the life cycles of many food crops have centered upon a neat, unchanging phenomenon: that a single seed multiplies to hundreds more.

Today many of the world's farmers face a major challenge to sustainable food production: the proliferation of hybrid varieties, seed which must be purchased year after year. This challenge is reflected in the monikers that identify new cultivars and hybrids, initials and numbers like LM27 or J1655. These names are functional, almost robotically so, derived from a clinical dedication to resolving world hunger. Yet they seem to be missing an essential cultural element. Our modern challenge is to rediscover the culture in agriculture often veiled by an ignorance of traditional knowledge. Such knowledge is most vibrant with respect to local seed varieties.

Nothing excites farmers more, agronomically speaking, than seeds. Yet the vast majority of farmers worldwide have certainly not behaved enthusiastically with respect to adoption of new crop cultivars and hybrids. For the most part new varieties have been slowly accepted. Farmers' reluctance to embrace new cultivars is not due to laggard mentality. Their reasons cover a broad range but, most fundamentally, when farmers resist adopting new cultivars, they are resisting loss of control over household production systems.

The management of natural resources for food production - lakes and rivers for fish, forests for multiple use, and savannas for livestock - cannot be reduced to manipulating a few variables. Like the ecosystems in which farms are managed, farmers' seed selection criteria are complex. The culture of agriculture does not accommodate simplification, because the culture of agriculture is about people. Thus the availability of labor for sowing is important in seed selection. Processing and cooking time for cereal grains counts. Taste is important. This is also why discussing seeds with farmers may be most effective if cultivar names and traits were designated in farmers' languages. Use of farmers' language terms would enable crop breeders to view seed issues through farmers' eyes, as do several con-tributing authors to this edition of the Ag-Sieve.

Annually and perennially, seeds are the beginning and end of food production. While habitat destruction is a primary cause of biodiversity loss, ignorance of local knowledge about crop seeds is a major perpetrator of germplasm loss. Maintenance of genetic diversity will help sustain the crop landraces vital to millions of peoples' food security. When seed diversity is diluted, crops become vulnerable to failure. When crops fail, communities wither, societies perish. To help us avert such tragedy, to avoid global adversity . . . just think diversity.