Have you ever saved seeds, joined a local seed swap or contributed to a seed library? The majority of us are so used to buying seeds from shops that it’s easy to forget they were once freely exchanged and as abundant as other natural resources, like air, soil and water.
Peter Brinch, founder of Open Pollinated Seeds and director of workshops on seed saving, frequently comes across people’s bemusement at the origin of seeds. “The skills of how to save seeds are no longer utilised because we are totally reliant on seed companies. Where does carrot seed come from?” Many people, it seems, no longer have a clue.
This fundamental lack of awareness about seeds and saving them reflects the gradual shift through the 20th century from small-scale farming – which saved natural open-pollinated seeds – to large-scale monocultural farming, which depends on controlled hybrid varieties that cannot be reproduced. As a result, there has been a staggering decline in seed diversity in the past hundred years. The US Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that since the 1900s we have lost 75% of genetic diversity in plants across the globe: in this period, farmers have come under economic and legislative pressure to grow high yielding and genetically uniform hybrid varieties over more genetically stable landraces – locally adapted, traditional species – made up of many closely related varieties.
Michael Sligh, programme director of the US-based Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), highlights the risks inherent in the current agribusiness model. “Major crop varieties that are planted on vast acreages are becoming woefully uniform, which is a huge risk. If we plant too much of the same genetic material on such a wide area we are creating vulnerability. We need diversity at a regional level to build resilience.”
Despite legislative encroachments on seed diversity by regulatory standardised testing and Intellectual Property patenting, there is a vibrant counter-resurgence of localised, pop-up seed-swapping events and seed-saving workshops, seed libraries and small ‘mom and pop’ seed breeders, according to Sligh. RAFI is working at all levels across policy, practice and education to reinvigorate government support for the next generation of plant breeders, from co-ordinating seed summits, to offering mentoring and training in seed saving and setting up seed libraries, as well as assisting farmers to start cultivating locally adapted varieties. “There is a renaissance of re-regionalisation and re-adaptation of seeds, which is opposed to the industrial model of ‘one seed fits all’,” says Michael.
Artist Amy Franceschini, founder of FutureFarmers, has directly experienced the effects of this type of monocultural farming, growing up on an agro-industrial farm in the San Joaquin Valley, California. “We used to get paid to have bees in our orchards, but now the same farmers are flying bees in from Australia. I have seen the quick stripping down of biological diversity and its effects on the soil and environment.” This has compelled her to explore the value of landraces and their cultural heritage. As lead artist of a cross-cultural public art project called The Flatbread Society, based in Oslo, Norway, Amy is focusing on the individual stories of ancient grains and small-scale farming practices through the baking of flatbreads. “The seeds we have been collecting since 2012 have deep stories of resilience, social relations and commerce.”
One extraordinary story she has unearthed captures the significance of saving even one single seed. To escape the Bolsheviks, the Lykov family lived completely isolated from human contact in the Siberian Taiga from 1936 until they were discovered by geologists in 1978. In that time they had no knowledge of the Second World War, the invention of television or that a man had landed on the moon. All they took with them when they fled was a handful of seeds, a loom and spinning wheel, and a Bible. They lived off the berries and nuts they could gather in the forest and what they could grow in a small garden. Throughout the late 1950s they lived on the brink of starvation, and in 1961 heavy snow throughout June ruined their crops and the mother died of hunger. They resorted to eating their shoes and the bark of trees. But the following spring one miracle shoot of rye sprouted in their pea patch. They built a fence around it and watched over it day and night so they could harvest its grains to plant the following year. They managed to save 18 grains from the single head of rye and from this rebuilt their rye crop.
This astounding story of endurance enabled by one humble seed epitomises how essential seed saving can be for survival. “The only reason we have a robust seed stock is due to a long lineage of hand-to-hand seed sharing and tending by humans. The edible food we have today comes by way of thousands of years of knowledge. This knowledge was shared and due to this open sharing, people all over the world can grow healthy and safe food,” says Amy.
One organic farmer who has paid heed to the value of pure-bred, whole grains is Bob Quinn, based in Montana. He first trialled a locally adapted ancient variety of Khorasan wheat, originally from Mesopotamia, in the 1970s. Now more than 250 organic farmers grow it across North America under the family trademark KAMUT, and there is increasing demand because of the health benefits. “Published research in peer-reviewed journals has demonstrated that it is an anti-inflammatory and significantly improves one’s antioxidant capacity when eaten. It is higher in protein, contains many minerals, and has a much better taste and texture than modern wheat, especially when eaten as a whole grain.” He acknowledges there are challenges with growing ancient varieties, which generally have a lower yield, but farmers receive more money per bushel, because of its qualitative nutritional value.
Hilary Kass of Hilary Eats Well specialises in creating a range of food products that incorporates ancient whole grains like Khorasan wheat, after identifying a plethora of health benefits. “I wanted to find wholefood gluten-free alternatives. What I found was amaranth, buckwheat, millet, sorghum, quinoa and teff. All beautiful, colourful, often with strong flavour and nutrition to match.” She refers to a National Academy of Sciences publication called “The lost crops of Africa”, which shows how people gave up their nutritious, indigenous grains for the Westernised, highly processed white wheat flour. “Only recently, and because of growing support for health and economic well-being, have people in less industrialised nations gone back to growing and eating their traditional foods,” comments Kass.
It seems that more and more farmers and producers are responding to this small but growing shift in consumer food choices that are healthier for our bodies and, due to the increased diversity, better for the environment. Kristina Hubbard, director of advocacy and communications at US-based Organic Seed Alliance, which trains hundreds of farmers each year in seed saving and production, emphasises the responsibility farmers have as seed stewards. “A farmer’s decision to plant certain varieties or to engage in seed saving impacts the quality and integrity of the food we eat. These decisions also affect the health of our soil, water and other natural resources.”
For the amateur growers among us, saving seeds and sharing your bounty at local seed swaps is the perfect political act, according to Ben Raskin from the Soil Association. Ben is currently running a Seed Survey to map what both professional and amateur growers are planting. “It satisfies a personal, social and global function. The grower regains control of their production system, connects to their local environment and plays their part in increasing global biodiversity.” This is of paramount importance, reiterates Peter Brinch, who advocates plants’ natural capacity to adapt to a specific region through open-pollination, which cultivates resilient and stable yields within that locale. “The culture has gone out of agriculture and it is now agribusiness,” he says. “The act of seed saving is returning culture back into its rightful place.”
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