A food revolution starts with a seed

| 1st August 2018
Photograph of a sprouting seed

Growing plans for seed sovereignty 

An ambitious new seed sovereignty programme takes root in the UK & Ireland, reports ROWAN PHILLIMORE.

The art of completing the growing cycle on-farm by producing the seed for the next crop is somehow being lost, and the growers I was meeting wanted to change that.

Global losses in seed diversity pose a significant threat to the health and stability of our food systems. The Gaia Foundation is working in partnership with the Soil Association, the Landworkers Alliance, Irish Seed Savers Association, and the Seed Cooperative to address this threat with a three-year long programme. 

Neil Munro, seed sovereignty programme manager and former head of the Heritage Seed Library at Garden Organic, argued: “In the UK, self-sufficiency in food production is currently at 62% and is estimated to fall to less than 50 percent by 2080.

"Seed security and diversity underpins food security. Producing and saving seed through ecologically sound and sustainable methods not only protects our agricultural heritage and biodiversity, it makes our food system more resilient, improves the condition of the land and benefits small-scale farmers.”

Building resilience

As the UK and much of Europe experiences a drought that has left farmers and growers everywhere at risk of low yields and crop failures, initiatives to increase seed diversity here around the planet have never been more important.

Ben Raskin, head of horticulture at the Soil Association explained: “Creating a more diverse seed system in the UK and Ireland is critical in the bigger picture of climate change. It is part of an ecologically sane approach to agriculture which supports the entire ecosystem, from the pollinators to the birds to the soil microbe, all of which have been gravely threatened by chemical agriculture”.

The UK and Ireland Seed Sovereignty Programme employs five experienced regional coordinators, based in Wales, Scotland, Ireland and east and west England, who are working closely with farmers, seed producers, horticulturists and commercial growers to conserve threatened seeds and to breed new varieties for future resilience.

The art of completing the growing cycle on-farm by producing the seed for the next crop is somehow being lost, and the growers I was meeting wanted to change that.

Maria Scholten, coordinator for Scotland said: “In Scotland, proud testimony of local seed production are the landraces grown by crofters on the Outer Hebrides and Northern Isles. Here, crofters keep seeds available for other crofters; these are truly islands of seed sovereignty.

"The landraces are locally adapted to tough conditions and contributing significantly to biodiversity, particularly along the Machair. Many more examples of these local low-input production systems will make our food system far more resilient.”

Lost arts

Travelling to every corner of the UK and Ireland, the programme’s coordinators have observed that the loss of seed diversity goes hand-in-hand with the loss of knowledge and skills necessary to select, save and breed seed. 

Katie Hastings, coordinator for Wales said: "One of the first things the growers told me is that despite knowing a great deal about land management and vegetable production, many of them didn’t have the skills to produce seed. The art of completing the growing cycle on-farm by producing the seed for the next crop is somehow being lost, and the growers I was meeting wanted to change that."

Identifying and working with enthusiastic farmers and growers, the coordinators are working to undo this loss. 

Katie added: "With a strong market for Welsh-grown seed and a burst of energy from growers keen to learn, my work is to bring these two worlds together". 

Organic seeds

The programme is specifically focusing on increasing the supply of organic seed, produced without the use of harmful pesticides and herbicides, to create the basis for a more revolutionary shift towards a healthier, ecologically sound food system in the UK.

Munro said: “At present it is estimated that just three percent of the seed produced in the UK is organic. A large proportion of produce grown by organic producers isn’t grown from organic seed in the first place; there simply isn’t the quality and quantity available to do so.

"But across the UK there is a growing market for home-grown organic seed and an appetite to support and foster a more ecologically sustainable food system through the entire cycle of agriculture. That means starting by addressing the lack of organic seed, and that’s exactly what we’re doing."

This Author

Rowan Phillomore is deputy director and head of communications at The Gaia Foundation. More information about the Seed Sovereignty UK & Ireland Programme can be found at the dedicated website: www.seedsovereignty.info

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