What seed-saving can tell us about the end of the world

Interest in the ancient practice spiked during the pandemic. But as climate change bears down, why we save seeds may matter as much as the act of saving them.

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The seed bank at the China Vegetable Technology Expo Garden, in Pengzhou, Sichuan Province, stores more than 2,000 kinds of vegetable seeds. Photo by Wang Lei/China News Service via Getty Images.

In the fall of 1941, as the Nazis invaded Russia, choking trade routes into Leningrad and starving the city’s population, a group of botanists decided that it would not be the end of the world. They were researchers at the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry, which at the time housed the world’s largest seed collection, a bank of precious genetic diversity. For 900 days, the botanists stood watch over a stockpile of nearly 400,000 seeds. They burned anything they could find to stay warm and smuggled out small shipments of seeds to be preserved abroad. But mostly they just survived, until they didn’t. Faced with diminishing supplies and surrounded by seeds they refused to eat, the scientists began to starve. The siege ended in 1944, and even with nine members of the research team dead, the survivors considered their efforts a success. They had saved species of corn, wheat, and rice, among numerous other crops, that were invaluable to the Russian people — and, as the scientists saw it, to the entire human race.

During the summer of 2021, 80 years after the siege of Leningrad, I stood in my kitchen in Maine staring at a tomato, contemplating seeds and the end of the world. The doomsday thoughts had begun in earnest a year earlier, when a new virus had swept into our lives, causing panic and hoarding that emptied out grocery stores. It wasn’t bunkering down with a stockpile of seeds amid war, but it was my first brush with food scarcity. I had only been a mother for 10 months, and a question I never imagined having to ask — How would I feed my baby? — was suddenly on my mind. The notion of saving the seeds turned over in my thoughts, from novel hobby to potential necessity and back again.

Vavilov Plant Institute in St. Petersburg. Photo by Antoine GYORI/Sygma via Getty Images.

Even before the pandemic, How will I feed my child? was a question many millions of parents faced each day, under far more dire circumstances than what I was dealing with. According to the UN World Food Program, nearly a billion people do not have enough to eat on a daily basis. And by some estimates, without fundamental changes in the way the current food supply is distributed, global food production will have to increase 70 percent by 2050 to meet the needs of our expanding population. The continued viability of seeds will play a major role in whether we succeed or fail; because that expanded production has to happen as climate change collides with our food system, spreading drought, collapsing ecosystems, and destroying crops and livelihoods. Climate and agriculture are already locked in an ouroboros of dysfunction, as the way we produce our food contributes to the greenhouse gas emissions that further weaken our ability to produce food in that same way — the snake eating its tail while we dream of a 1.5-degree warming goal, the global temperature increase we’re told we must not blow past if we hope to avoid mass devastation.

Meanwhile, the tomato staring back at me from the cutting board was flawless. In the midst of a pandemic-purchasing binge, I had picked up a seedling at a local nursery and put it on my deck. At first, I had no expectations other than I didn’t want to buy tomatoes anymore. But then the first fruit to ripen turned a golden yellow, like a tiny setting sun. Its guts were even more glorious. Sliced open, the tomato was a swirl of fleshy pink that seeped gently into its blond perimeter, a new Pantone color in the making. Its taste was the dew and the dirt and the tang of summer. There was only one problem: I didn’t know who this tomato was. In my haste to “garden” I had thrown away its little plastic placard — its botanical baby announcement. So if I wanted to keep eating this tomato in late Maine summers to come, I would need to save its seeds.

Giant banksia seed. The plant is native to western Australia, and its seeds and flowers are traditional sources of food and medicine for Indigenous communities. Photo by Levon Biss.

I had been flirting with the idea of saving seeds for some time, but in a way that made me self-conscious. The awareness of my privilege — I was pretty confident I would always be able to feed my child — combined with my inability to decentralize the fate of my immediate family as climate change worsened, was a source of shame for me. The impulse to save seeds, though seemingly innocuous, was tangled up with all that. We had everything, and yet here I was wanting more. It felt like the opposite of those Leningrad scientists, who responded to impending doom with a selflessness that is hardly recognizable today. Still, my thoughts had a certain logic; the human brain evolved to hoard in times of stress and uneven resources (and, not surprisingly, to belittle others for doing the same) — and these were stressful times.

I wasn’t alone. The sensation of our crumbling universe drove record sales for seed companies across the country during the growing seasons of both 2020 and 2021. “We haven’t seen seed sales like this ever,” Philip Kauth, the executive director of REAP Food Group, told me. When we spoke in the summer of 2021, Kauth worked at the Iowa Seed Savers Exchange, which houses one of the country’s largest open-pollinated (meaning pollinated by insects or other natural processes) seed banks and has been in operation since 1975. It focuses its collection on the biodiversity of food systems, so the seeds it stores and distributes are ones that produce edible plants.

Every broccoli crown you bag at the store, every fruit you skin for your child, comes from a seed stocked with generations of DNA. But it also comes, Kauth explained, with a story of how it traveled from one continent to another, from the earth to your hand. Archivists at the Seed Savers Exchange catalog these stories. Some speak to the end of worlds: a bean grown by a prisoner at Auschwitz who took it with her when she was forced to march. Others to hope for the future: a lima bean grown since the 1930s by someone’s beloved great grandfather. And still others to a mix of both: a tomato seed smuggled into prison by someone serving a sentence for a drug charge, and harvested in a work-release program. Earlier this year I read about a woman fleeing wildfires in New Mexico with a jar full of maíz de concho seeds that had been passed down through her family for generations. She said it was the first thing she packed.

I was learning a funny thing about seeds: though they hold the blueprints of life’s beginnings, they’re often associated with the end of something — my tomato, life as we know it — apocalypses big and small.

What would be the story that I would eventually tell my daughter about this tomato? In her first year of life, tomatoes were one of her favorite foods — kumato, plum, beefsteak, grape. I plucked their seeds from dried stains on her shirt collars before throwing the garments in the wash. Would I tell her I saved its seeds so she could keep eating something she loved? Or would I tell her something closer to the truth: that sometimes, when I pictured the future, I wondered if tomatoes would even be there at all?

The practice of seed-saving — the harvesting, cleaning, drying, and storing of plant embryos — has been around for thousands of years. Indigenous societies in North America stewarded food systems that relied on collecting and saving seeds for nearly 10,000 years. More recently, farmers from Maine to California did the same. Not so long ago, if you wanted to eat you had to grow your own food, and that meant saving seeds from one harvest to plant the next season. The process wasn’t political or controversial; it was what humans did to survive.

Sponge gourd seed. Also known as the Egyptian cucumber or Vietnamese luffa, it is native South and Southeast Asia. Photo by Levon Biss.

But over the past century, a series of changes in how we live and work effectively put an end to small-scale seed-saving. Between 1900 and today, the percentage of Americans who live on farms shrunk from nearly 40 percent to less than 1 percent. People were driven, or enticed, off the land by consolidation and mechanization in agriculture, by the rise of food processing and supermarkets and refrigerated transportation that made it possible to efficiently get food grown in one place to the rest of the country. A strong economy and expanding service sector afforded new opportunities to make a living beyond the farm. 

As a result, regional agriculture faded, taking variations of crops and food options with it. Corporate chains replaced family-run markets and restaurants, and convenience, from the ubiquitous drive-through to all manner of frozen and packaged products, replaced home cooking. America became a country of automobiles, suburbs, and chain stores, and what we ate became increasingly homogenized.

Those who chose to continue farming were famously told to “get big or get out,” and getting big meant growing huge amounts of corn and soybeans for the commodity markets — the raw materials for those new time-saving food products. By the 1990s, commodity crops were increasingly grown with genetically modified seeds, which were patented by the companies that created them, making it a crime for farmers to save them from one season to the next. Today, four multinational corporations control around 60 percent of the world’s seed sales: Bayer, Corteva, ChemChina, and BASF.

This modern approach to feeding the nation, celebrated for its “efficiencies,” cost us a wealth of genetic diversity. Between 1903 and 1983, the United States lost 93 percent of its seed diversity, with crops like lettuce dropping from 500 varieties to just 36. Worldwide, the situation is just as dire; in about the same period, we’ve lost 75 percent of global seed diversity. This loss is part of a larger collapse of plant and animal biodiversity that threatens humanity’s food supply, health, and security.

In fewer than 100 years, seed-saving, a practice that had always been essential to human survival, went from mainstream to something most of us are barely aware of, something happening at the fringes of our food culture — small farms, Native communities, survivalists. Yet all of a sudden, or so it can seem, this loss of agricultural diversity is being felt keenly, as climate change makes the need for experimentation with plant breeding at the local and regional levels important again. Because a crop that has grown for decades in one region may soon be much less viable there. Corn, for instance, faces an uncertain future in Iowa, the country’s leading corn producer, due to the increase in extreme weather events, like derecho storms. The arid western Plains are shifting east, which further threatens corn land. And in California, which produces most of the fruits and vegetables Americans eat, rising heat, drought, and wildfire are driving efforts to shift some of the state’s agricultural burden elsewhere.

To address climate challenges like these, we need to wrestle the practice of seed-saving back from the fringes and into the everyday. And in many places, efforts to do that have already begun. Nonprofits like the Seed Exchange are rematriating their seed libraries and returning some heritage varieties to Indigenous seed keepers. In Maine, residents voted last year to amend the state constitution to protect the right to food sovereignty, which included seed-saving. It was the first ever “right to food” referendum passed in the United States, but how it will play out in practice is still unknown.

Seed-saving has always been bound by two oppositional ideas–the prospect of the end of life as we know it, and the hope of sustaining that life. Throughout most of human history, that tension was straightforward: simply ensure that enough viable seed from one harvest was saved to plant another successful crop the following spring.

Dried Himalayan pear. The fruit grows in the Himalayas, from Afghanistan to southwest China and Burma. Photo by Levon Biss.

Even the crises that drove people to take extreme measures to safeguard seeds tended to be discrete events that, though potentially catastrophic for those involved, did not represent an existential threat to all of humanity. For the scientists in Leningrad, their immediate world was obviously at risk from the German siege, but less so the wider world, which would go on, no matter what happened to the seeds they were protecting.

Today, the heightened interest in seed-saving is happening in the context of one genuinely global existential threat — climate change — and another — the Covid-19 pandemic — that has killed more than 6 million people and is ongoing in every corner of the world. In that sense, it would be weird if I wasn’t having doomsday thoughts. And in moments when my anxiety got the better of me, I funneled it into the internet, where I found vendors selling seeds to people preparing for some version of the shit going down. The company Texas Ready, for instance, sells “Liberty Seed Banks,” military ammunition canisters full of seeds. Shoppers can buy the “Lock Box,” advertised for four adults, the “Safe,” for six, or the “Treasury,” suitable for 30+ adults. Though the website states that the seeds are for “adults wishing to supplement their diet with fresh, nutritious, truly organic produce,” the founders of Texas Ready explain the company was conceived in “response to front page headlines.” The subtext is actually selling the idea of preparing for societal collapse.

That idea, that we should be prepared for emergencies — whether societal collapse or a hurricane — has a long history in this country. In the 1950s, as seed-saving and other self-reliance skills, like hunting and food preservation, were being abandoned, fear of a nuclear war with the Soviet Union spurred construction of basement bunkers, the advent of duck-and-cover drills, and development of a national emergency alert system, which required radio stations to broadcast local guidance in case of an attack. The federal government’s “Blue Book” on civil defense stressed that, “The family unit constitutes the basis for individual self-protection.”

As the Cold War cooled and eventually ended, environmental disasters — natural and man-made — replaced war as motivation for those who made preparedness a priority. But as our faith ebbed in government and institutions generally, and our social networks frayed and then migrated online, the task of preparing for emergencies took a darker turn. There was a growing fear of civil unrest, stoked by an increasingly unreliable and ideological information landscape. The terror attacks of 9/11, and the Great Recession in 2008, gave rise to conspiracy theories, as well as to genuine fear and anger as more people felt increasingly on their own. There was talk of a new American civil war. Today, the term “prepper” conjures the image that Mark O’Connell describes in his 2020 book Notes From an Apocalypse: A Personal Journey to the End of the World and Back — a subset of “white American men who were convinced that the entire world was on the verge of a vast systemic rupture and were obsessively invested in making sufficient preparations … for such scenarios.” The popular narrative of the American prepper has become one of isolation, social breakdown, the threat of violence.

Melembu seed. The distinctive shape of the fruit gives the genus its name, pterocymbium, which is Greek for ‘winged boot.’ Photo by Levon Biss.

The mix of people who prep, broadly speaking, was never as singularly white-male-militant as that narrative suggests. And when the pandemic began, interest in prepping — whether or not you actually identify as a prepper — became even more widespread. Sales at Preppi, an Oprah-endorsed company that makes high-end emergency prep kits, rose 5,000 percent in March 2020. An article that same year in National Geographic suggested, “We’re all preppers now.”

Still, there is something undemocratic about this approach to preparing for the worst. To be sure, fear that your food is running out — especially when you lack the knowhow to grow, gather, or kill it yourself — causes undeniable anxiety. I remember the relief I felt during the early days of the pandemic, seeing a semi-truck pull into the parking lot of my local grocery store. I didn’t care what it was filled with, only that it was full. But the everyone-for-themselves response, however instinctive, obscures the fact that we all exist as members of a fragile ecosystem. Rejection of that membership, by bunkering down and refusing to participate, will lead to almost certain collapse. The folks who shop at Texas Ready, like the Leningrad botanists, are prepared to hole up in a bunker full of seeds, hoping to survive as their world collapses. But the scientists’ mission was based on a belief in a collective future, not on the abandonment of that future.

I decided that the story I would tell my daughter of our pandemic tomato would begin not with the saving of its seeds, but in the timelessness of seed-saving itself. To tell that story, I would need to turn off my computer and reacquaint myself with the feeling of hope, or at least the feeling of dirt beneath my fingernails.

Berembang, commonly known as the mangrove apple, is found in East Asia and northern Australia. It is eaten raw or cooked, and also used medicinally to treat things like coughs and cuts. Photo by Levon Biss.

Maine’s rural roads, winding through stands of ancestral maples and cow hills, are something to behold. They twist and narrow and buckle without much notice, so drivers must take it slowly as they cruise the subtle valleys of one of the country’s more overlooked agricultural regions. Here, the practice of seed-saving thrives.

I pulled off one such road last fall to visit Roberta Bailey’s farm. Bailey recently retired from Fedco Seeds, one of the only seed co-ops in the country, and was now working as sort of a freelance seed-saver, growing a variety of edible crops, harvesting their seeds and sending them to businesses like Fedco and Johnny’s, another Maine-based non-GMO seed company, for distribution nationally by mail to small growers. Her seed-breeding expertise is known broadly, both within and beyond Maine, and I had come to see it firsthand. As in, see the dead plants, dry as rattles, and watch Bailey crack them open and retrieve their seeds. Weary of the apocalyptic scenarios in my head, I wanted to experience the bountiful, idiosyncratic lives of the seeds themselves.

Seeds are made to survive hardship. They’ve evolved in both obvious and surprising ways, some with shells as hard and smooth as ocean-worn stone to withstand the beak of a crow or the heel of a hiking boot; others, topped with a helicopter of silken hairs, to spin and dive on a breeze. They know how to hitch rides on the wings and backs of animals, and have adapted to the various obstacles on their way to a fertile landing spot.

Bailey uses techniques to extract seeds from their dried stalks and pods that range from sifting to brushing to sluicing (in the case of tomatoes, the process for which I learned from her and used on my own fruit). In her greenhouse, washed with sunshine and aromatic with the life phases of plants, she keeps sieves, rolls of wire mesh and sheets of soft netting, old yogurt containers — all tools she’s co-opted for her seed-saving needs. Bailey describes herself as “machine averse,” and prefers her hands and her hand-made tools to an expensive thresher. The day we met, she’d been investigating ways to extract beet seeds, which are stubborn, and had found some ideas online that involved hockey sticks and running over them with a car.

Field manioc seed. Also known as cassava, it grows in tropical and subtropical regions, where its root is a staple food. Manioc is among the more drought-resistant crops, capable of thriving in marginal soil. Photo by Levon Biss.

Bailey had an opinion when I mentioned my impression of the selfishness of contemporary preppers. It’s the difference, she said, between “acting from a place of abundance and plenty versus a fear-based place of, I need to hang on to everything I have.” The growing of your own fruits and vegetables; the saving of your own seeds or buying from those who do both; the rewilding of yards and parks and cemeteries — these are all commitments to ongoingness, to a collective future in which we all have roles to play. Seed-saving as part of a plan to prevent the end of the world with stewardship — of our relationship to food, yes, but also of our relationships with one another — rather than by stocking up and dropping out. If you partake, Bailey seemed to be saying, you will never have to prep.

When you start thinking of them as little lives — with the potential to sustain thousands more —and not as a commodity to be hoarded, you realize there also is a mystifying grace to seeds. In her poem “Nothing is too Small Not to Wonder About,” Mary Oliver writes about a cricket preparing to die in the fall, and how his singing grows slower and slower as the house he’s squatting in grows colder. “This must mean something, I don’t know what/But certainly it doesn’t mean/he hasn’t been an excellent cricket/all his life.”

If these biological processes — the life of a seed, the death of a cricket — seem like magic, maybe it’s because, to some degree, they should. Through my daughter’s eyes, a seed plunged into dirt and forgotten for months only to find one day a tomato plant in its place, is sorcery. Seeds grow trees and plants, some of which, in turn, grow people and communities. The practice of saving them gives us a reason to gather and socialize. In planting them, we get dirty, connecting to land in the process. And we get to eat the fruits and vegetables that they offer their lives to grow. Seeds, and seed-saving, are anything but anxious and lonely, feelings that can arise when it seems the world is closing in, fostering thoughts of retreating and building walls to protect yourself and your family. In fact, they are the opposite. I found that seed-saving decreased my anxiety about the future, not only because the practice itself is methodical and soothing, but also because the outcome was directly linked to making a difference in the worrying circumstances of our food systems.

Yellow piquia seed. Native to the Amazon, piquia has a yellow, fleshy pulp around four seeds. The seeds contains a nut that can be roasted and eaten. Photo by Levon Biss.

For the sake of my daughter, I had to decide to not allow the world to end. And so I began to invest, little by little, where I could. I volunteered to sort and package seeds for the Wild Seed Project, a nonprofit committed to saving and distributing native seeds in Maine. On my first day, I was given the easy task of counting partridge pea seeds that clatter like dried beans when spilled out of their jar. The repetition of sliding seeds across a dinner plate with the corner of an envelope or measuring them in pinches from an egg cup is soothing and focused. Heather McCargo, the project’s founder, calls it “seed therapy.”

I made idle conversation with McCargo and Beth, another volunteer, about bringing magnifying glasses on nature walks, constructing felted gnomes out of milkweed pods, and other inspirations for my daughter, who is learning to love the Maine woods and beaches. Come November, McCargo will give me the wax of a bayberry and, together with my daughter, I will sprinkle it on a beeswax candle in the mold of a fir tree, creating the illusion of snow. Beth brought me Queen Anne’s lace in a folded envelope and a little pinecone from Germany wearing a red hat. I took home ironweed, milkweed, and wild oats. Gifts, but also the spoils of our work together, cutting mountains of seed with the back of a butter knife, necks bent like we were drinking from puddles.

The process encouraged me, as hard as it was, to understand uncertainty as an opportunity, rather than a misfortune. This is what seeds do. Nature’s odds are cruel to seeds and yet year after year they grow into trees and plants. We err when we assume climate apocalypse is inevitable. Doing so makes us give up and turn away from each other rather than determining what role you can play to carry on — resourcefully — the way seeds must in order to ensure their future generations.

Once, during a morning of seed counting, we were discussing the mission of the Wild Seed Project and I said it’s about seed-saving. McCargo corrected me. “It’s not about seed-saving,” she said. “It’s about seed-sowing.” This was the distinction I’d been searching for. We save seeds to plant them: season after season, warming year after warming year. It’s a tiny affair, seed-saving, of becoming that bird or animal who spreads them, shaking them from coat and feather, but its result is the assurance that we will go on.

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