Seed Viability Myths

Geri Guidetti, founder of the Ark Institute, is one of the foremost authorities in the subject of non-hybrid seeds and survival gardening in the country today. Even in quick answers such as what you will find below, her comments are informative and authoritative. This is one lady who knows what she's talking about. If you haven't had the chance to visit her site, you owe it to yourself to drop in.

What follows is a 1997 posting to one of Gary North's forums, with Geri's answer inserted after each question.

Dear Geri, ...At the Portland Preparedness Expo recently, I spoke with a lady who sells sprouting seeds and equipment as well as other storage foods such as grains and beans. She told me several things. Could I run them by you for accuracy. Let me list them as follows:

It is a mistake to remove oxygen from stored packages or buckets of seeds, grains, beans, etc., because they breathe - they respire - and they require air/oxygen for that, or they become dead food. She said these foods breathe the oxygen and create carbon dioxide as their byproduct. If deprived of air/oxygen, the foods will not sprout (grow) after a couple of years.

Geri's answer: No, the seeds, grains, beans do not necessarily become dead food when the oxygen is removed. In fact, according to the National Seed Storage Laboratory in Fort Collins, CO--our official national seed bank--research shows no measurable difference in seed/grain viability for a majority of seeds whether stored in air, CO2, N2, or vacuum. If sufficiently dried, all of these seeds are effectively dormant to the point that the surrounding gas mix, or lack thereof, is insignificant to storage. Note, too, that we are talking viability, here--the ability for the seed to grow after storage. Seeds do respire at an extremely slow rate, however, which can be measured with a small increase in carbon dioxide gas after many years of storage.

Now, the presence of air with its high O2 content will eventually cause beans to harden, but if kept in cold or freezing temperatures and DRY, they should be viable for germination for many years. They will, however, take longer to cook.

The lady said that nitrogen packing of seeds, grains or beans will do the same thing - cause sterility as far as sprouting goes (eventually), and less wholesomeness as far as other aspects of the foods are concerned.

Geri's answer: No. The lady (I'm sorry) was wrong. N2 will not cause sterility according to the Nat'l Seed Storage Lab. I know of no negative effects of N2 on nutritional value. In fact, the displacement of O2 by N2 extends many seeds' lives because it prevents harmful oxygenation. N is a critical component of all cells, so is not foreign to the food grains.

I ask her why it would matter much if one were simply going to cook the item anyway. She thought it did matter - that vitamins and whatever other beneficial aspects of the food would be lessened or killed. She mentioned a recent study at their university where wheat so stored was found to be glutenless when they tried to make bread with it.

Geri's answer: It would be interesting to see a study that claimed gluten was destroyed by nitrogen packing. Interesting, indeed. Gluten proteins contain nitrogen as an integral part of their molecules. I know of no biochemical mechanism that would cause the presence of high N2 gas in an intact seed's environment that would cause the decomposition of gluten proteins. Heat could do it. Maybe they heated it!

They (she and her husband) pack their grains/beans/seeds in buckets and add a cup of diatomaceous earth, mixed throughout the bucket. Supposedly, this product kills any bugs.

Geri's answer: Diatomaceous earth is merely the dead carcasses of microscopic protozoans, cells with ornate, pointed, sharp, almost glass-like "shells" when they are dried. They are components of toothpaste --the grit that cleans your teeth--compounding waxes for autos, etc. They are dangerous to soft-bodied insects who end up impaling themselves on the glassy spikes and protrusions of these pretty "shells". Now, the insects that frequent grains and beans generally fall into beetle and larva categories. Larvae are susceptible to death by diatom, but hard-covered beetles are not. Diatomaceous earth is good to sprinkle on the ground around prize plants when slugs and snails are feasting on them. It pierces their soft little bellies and makes them die.

I ask if adding bay leaves to the stored grains/beans/seeds would protect that stored food from bugs. She said that any bugs would try to get away because they don't like the aroma, but the bugs would not be killed.

Geri's answer: I agree with her on the bay leaves. The bugs don't like them, but it is not a foolproof solution. We need as close to foolproof as we can get.

The lady also said that any stored food in buckets should be transferred to another bucket (poured into) every two years or so - to replenish the oxygen and to release the CO2.

Geri's answer: No. No. No.

They also sell hulless oats and hulless barley. The lady said that removing the hull from 'normal' oats or 'normal' barley destroys vital parts of the grains, so the grains, then, must be heated to very high temperatures to keep them from spoiling, but that they are then dead foods. Oat groats, oatmeal, 'normal' barley are all in that category. But their organic barley and oats are a hulless variety - non-hybrid - and do not suffer the same fate as their counterparts. I don't know what this means for other grains with hulls. I know buckwheat has a hull, and there must be others. I guess I need the hull (whole!, smile) story... And perhaps you know of a source for this 'diatomaceous' earth. I do recall seeing it advertised somewhere. I will pay attention next time.

Geri's answer: Okay, hulless barley and NAKED oats. The tough hulls that adhere to barley and oats have made them nearly impossible for self-sufficiency folks to grow for their own food UNTIL the hulless varieties became more widely available again. For a long time, they seem to have disappeared, though it is thought that they were commonly available a long time ago. I grow both. I have recommended a hulless oat variety to many of you who have had me work up Personal Food Security Programs. These are great seeds. You can literally rub the hull off between two fingers

Now, I'll share a big secret with you. Go to a good health food store. Go to the rack that sells commercially bagged grains. Arrowhead Mills is an example. You will find hulless (really "naked", Avena nuda) oats, hulless barley, rye, etc. Turn over the bag and see if it says "organically grown, nitrogen packed" Bingo!!

Your grain storage worries are over IF you store them in an airtight/rat proof container. In the freezer is best. If you want them for seed as well as eating, test-germinate a few. Sprout 100 seeds between sheets of moist paper towel on a plate tucked into a loose plastic bag on top of the fridge. After all that are going to sprout do so, count them. If 86 sprout, its germination rate is 86%. That's good. Store them well.

And one last gem from Geri concerning freezing grains and an easy way to tell how dry your seeds really are.

The IDEAL way to store grain for both retention of nutrients and for viability as seed is to freeze it. The key qualifier here, though, is that it must be DRY. How dry? Ideally down to 8% moisture. Ten percent is still good. Don't fret about needing instruments to measure this. Longer seeds should snap smartly, cleanly in half when bent if they are this dry. Wheat and corn seeds should shatter and powder when hit with the head of a hammer (That's the Geri Guidetti Dry Seed Test--you won't find it in a book. It is very reliable,though.) Beans, peas and other large seeds will shatter.

The low moisture levels are so critical because, as you know, water is an unusual molecule in that it expands when frozen. If there is much water left in the cytoplasm of a seed's cells, the expanding water will alter the structure of molecules containing water and can even rupture the cell walls. This effectively kills the seed. You CAN still use it for food, but it will not be viable. Poorly-dried, defrosted grains would not be candidates for grinding in mills, but would be better eaten boiled whole as rice substitutes, in chowders, soups, etc....Geri Guidetti