Despite what I told my children when they were little, Mommy neither has eyes in the back of her head nor does she know absolutely everything about anything. My daughter recently asked me if eating the seeds I’ve been sprinkling liberally into her new vegetarian diet for protein purposes were “green,” and I had to admit that I really had no idea. But I could find out.

The philosophy in play here is that nature never intended (if we can ascribe intentions to nature, that is) every seed to become a new plant, explained Portland permaculture expert Lisa Fernandes, who works as communication director for Food Solutions New England, a regional network based at the University of New Hampshire.

“The plant world is very good at over-producing seed in order to ensure that some number of offspring are successful since many are inevitably lost to a combination of herbivores, diseases, environmental conditions (drought, flood, etc.), general non-viability or mutation,” Fernandes said.

She held up the sunflower as a prime example. One flower head yields upwards of 200 new sunflower seeds. “Even if you eat half of them, you still have 100 left to plant: 100 (times) the original crop of one seed planted. Even if only 50 percent of them survive to produce (a flower), you’ve now got …. Well, you get the idea.”

There’s no reason why eating seeds is any less sustainable than eating any other part of a plant, said Becky Sideman, UNH biology professor and cooperative extension horticulture specialist. “Seeds are very nutritious little packets and are inherently well-suited for (relatively) long-term storage,” Sideman said. But humans should only eat seeds grown for the purpose of eating and not those being held in in reserve for planting future crops.

In fact, we eat seeds all the time. Grains are seeds. Nuts are seeds. Pulses are seeds. Production and consumption of these seeds can be sustainable, or not, depending upon farming practice,  packaging, distance from the farm to your fork and serving size. The eating seeds we typically call “seeds” – chia, flax, hemp, poppy, pumpkin, sesame and sunflower – must fall in line with the same sustainability parameters we apply to all of our vegetables.

While some Maine farmers are growing sunflowers, most of the U.S. domestic crop is produced in the Dakotas and Minnesota, about 75 percent, says the Northern Crops Institute based in Fargo. Most of the seed is processed into oil with the meal used as birdseed. But between 15 and 25 percent are confectionery varieties that are raised to be eaten by humans whole, hulled, raw or roasted. Today’s no- or low-tillage sunflower farming practices, says the National Sunflower Association, help sequester more carbon in the soil than high tillage farming techniques practiced before 1990 and therefore help reduce agriculture greenhouse emissions as the demand for sun butter (a peanut-free substitute for nut betters) increases.

Sesame seeds, according to the Ag Marketing Resource Center at Iowa State University, have been growing in America since Thomas Jefferson’s test plots were planted 200 years ago. Today, most farmers who grow sesame in the United States work with the Sesaco Corporation, which is based in Paris, Texas. Ag Marketing Research Center documentation says producers could market their sesame directly to food brokers but might have trouble obtaining high-quality varieties to plant, since Sesaco is the only group developing and distributing seed in the United States. Arrowhead Mills, though, contracts with independent growers for organic sesame so buying that brand can help support those farmers.

We can all help reduce food waste by roasting and eating the seeds of any winter squash we buy. But if you want the bright green, shell-less seeds commonly called pepitas, those come from a select variety of pumpkins with names like Lady Godiva Pumpkin, Austria Oil Seed Pumpkin, Gleisdorfer Naked Seeded Pumpkin and Kakai Hulless Pumpkin. If you don’t find those varieties at the farmers market, bring your own reusable container to the bulk bin section of the local health food store to get them.

It is illegal to grow opium-producing poppies in the United States (these also produce the seeds we put on bagels and mix into lemon cake batter). Most of the poppy seeds we cook with here are imported from Europe or Asia. The sustainable step there is to use them sparingly.

So, yes, dearest daughter, eating seeds is a sustainable food choice. Just choose your seeds wisely, avoid plastic packaging where possible and store them properly — keeping them in an airtight container in a cool, dark place with a constant temperature so they don’t go rancid. Rancid seeds must be thrown out, an action antithetical to good green eating practices.

Christine Burns Rudalevige is a food writer, recipe developer, tester and cooking teacher in Brunswick, and the author of “Green Plate Special,” a cookbook from Islandport based on these columns. She can be contacted at:

[email protected]

Ready for snacking: homemade multiseed rye crackers with goat cheese, tomatoes and smoked salmon. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Multiseed Rye Crackers

In this recipe, adapted from “Breaking Bread: A Baker’s Journey Home in 75 Recipes” by Martin Phillip, the King Arthur Flour company’s lead baker, use any mix of seeds that suits your taste. I use a combination of oily sunflower seeds (3 tablespoons), bright pumpkin seeds (3 tablespoons), superfood flax seeds (1 tablespoon each golden and brown), nutty sesame seeds (2 tablespoons), poppy seeds (1 tablespoon), and fragrant caraway seeds (1 tablespoon). I serve these crackers with smoked fish, cream cheese and pickled red onions or green tomatoes.

Makes 50-70 crackers depending on how you cut them

1 cup (140g) rye flour

1 cup (90g) whole wheat flour

2 teaspoons sugar

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1/4 teaspoon dry instant yeast

2 tablespoons unsalted butter, melted

3/4 cup mixed seeds

Flaky sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Mix rye and whole wheat flours, sugar, salt and yeast in a large bowl. Add 2/3 cup warm water and melted butter and mix until the dough comes together in a shaggy mass. Turn dough onto a flat surface, and knead it until it is relatively smooth, about 2 minutes. Divide the dough in 2, shape each half into a rectangle and place both on a plate. Cover and refrigerate for 1-24 hours.

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees Fahrenheit. Line 2 baking sheets with silicon mats.

Remove dough from the refrigerator. Place 1/4 cup of seed mixture on a flat surface. Sprinkle the seeds with sea salt and black pepper and press 1 block of dough into the seeds. Turn the dough over and press the other side of dough into the remaining seeds.  Roll the dough into a square about 12 x 12-inches using a rolling pin, rotating and turning the dough over as you roll, and adding more seeds when it starts to stick.

Cut the dough into circles using a 2-inch biscuit cutter, or into rectangles or diamonds with a sharp knife. Transfer crackers to the lined baking sheet. Gather any scraps and reroll those for additional crackers.

Bake the crackers until well-browned across the top, 8 to 10 minutes, turning the baking sheet midway through baking. When crackers are browned, remove them from the oven and let cool.

Store the crackers in an airtight container for up to 2 weeks.

 


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