Seed Saving and Cytoplasmic Male Sterility (CMS)

Big seed companies hybridize plants using CMS then claim they perform better than heirloom plants. I have never found improved performance to be verifiable, but corporations like Monsanto sell a lot of hybrid seeds on the promise of it.  That and photoshopped pictures of hybrids!

Since I am advocating seed saving and developing landrace seeds,  when you are buying seeds is a good time to address issues around GMO seeds.  A little caution is in order.

The reason I have not used hybrids for a couple decades has been because they do not breed true to type. I decided that without a full sense of the mechanics of hybrid technology when I was 20 or so… about 40 years ago and before hybrids were so prevalent.

I have moved a few times… maybe more than a few, I fixed up a number of houses for resale when I was younger and sturdier.   I also fixed up the gardens.  New seed varieties, more catalogs from ever bigger seed companies.  More hybrids, and less space given to heirlooms.

Why do seed companies endlessly create hybrids?  They sell more seed.  If you plant hybrids that do not reproduce true to type, you don’t collect seed, you buy more next year.  Eventually seed saving became an esoteric art that mystifies most gardeners, and even commercial farmers.  Heirlooms were no longer marketed and their seeds no longer saved.  Thousand of varieties are lost, and their genetic diversity is replaced by hybrids.  Some believe you can put it all back together by crossing hybrid genetic lines back into heirloom lines for a new diversity.  It only destroys more genetic material.

What is it about hybridization that causes me anxiety even though I don’t buy hybrid seeds?

The way hybridization is typically done in corporate laboratories is to create genetic Cytoplasmic Male Sterility in a plant, which then becomes a mother plant.  She no longer has male anthers that produce pollen.  She can still produce seed, and the corporation uses her to breed hybrid seeds.  Once CMS is introduced in a plant line, however, it remains in that line.  All mama’s seeds are now little mamas, the boys have been exterminated.  Eventually, the line dies out as each generation becomes more female.

For a seed saver, that means you get fewer seeds every year if CMS has gotten into your seed line.  If you include hybrids into your seed lines in an attempt to increase genetic diversity in carrots, for example, you will also introduce CMS and death to all.

If you are working to create a landrace variety with wide genetic diversity adapted to your conditions, you can only use heirloom and open pollinated varieties.

What if your heirloom seeds have already been contaminated with cytoplasmic male sterility?  How can you tell and what can you do about it?

Look closely at your flowers to see if the male anthers are missing or shriveled and lack pollen.  If you aren’t sure, look at several plants, the difference is noticeable.

What to do is harder.   Destroy the plant before it produces CMS seed.  In a vegetable garden, no muss no fuss, just eat it or compost it (minus sterile seeds).  Only allow seeds from healthy parents to enter your seed line.

Now, I know you won’t go out there and destroy any plants that have male and female flowers on separate plants, right? If you aren’t sure, check online.

I collect wild seeds in a small way, to get desirable wild plants for my garden. I also save seeds from some of my heirloom and landrace garden plants.  Unfortunately, CMS can be backed into heirloom seeds as well, creating a neverending dependence on corporate goodwill for future gardens.

Speaking of corporate goodwill, several new GMO potato varieties are being developed to “feed starving children” in India.  Because the corporation wanted

 to conduct trials in the Andes, the genetic home and continued gene pool of diversity, they declared that making their GMO plants male sterile would be 100% safe.  No mention was made about the facts of potatoes being vegetatively propagated,  and small root or tuber pieces left in the ground introduces the GMO death march of male sterilization into the most genetically diverse potato population.

Over 83% of seed potatoes sold in the US are sterile.  To create a landrace variety and try to get seeds will be hard.  I do think I will make the effort.

If you truly want to develop a landrace potato variety, you can get a lot of varieties, including seed or tubers, from members at Seed Savers Exchange.  The catalog comes out February 8, 2016, a dream book if I’ve ever seen one.

CMS is clearly a problem for those of us who want to save seeds.  Vigilance makes a difference.


About rebeccatreeseed

I am a naturalist raised by naturalists. Treeseed is my earned name, while Rebecca is my birth name. I am of Northern European descent, with a quarter Irish.quarter thrown in. I suspect I was a product of northern invaders into Ireland into Ireland. but hard to say since DNA disproved the family story about Apache blood! I have found some odd ancestors to replace them. Last year I bought 5 acres of pinyon-juniper forest on the side of a mountain in Santa Fe County, New Mexico. I am fulfilling a lifetime dream of a cabin in the mountains and a food forest that will feed me and local wildlife. I want to share this new phase of my life with others that might be interested.
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One Response to Seed Saving and Cytoplasmic Male Sterility (CMS)

  1. Pingback: Dr Vandana Shiva (David) vs. Monsanto (Goliath) | The Free

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