Three corporations sell 75 percent of the worlds seed; if we all start sowing open source, organic seed, we can grow a democratic food system.
The wild and domesticated plants, animals and fish that form the foundation of our food systems are under severe threat, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) warned earlier this year.
The FAO’s State of the World’s Biodiversity for Food and Agriculture report reveals that plant diversity in farmers’ fields is plummeting particularly rapidly.
Just nine plant species of roughly 6,000 cultivated for food globally account for 66 percent of total crop production. This means that we are far too reliant on a very small number of crops, and any threat to them through disease or extreme weather conditions means a threat to our food security.
Much of this decline is down to the influence of the industrial food industry, which seeks corporate control of food through seed patenting, and uniformity of production through chemical and fossil fuel intensive monocultures.
This week marks Seed Week 2019 in the UK and Ireland- an opportunity to celebrate the farmers, gardeners and others who are protecting and growing back the diversity of seed that is our heritage and our future.
Their work provides us with a crucial reminder that diversity and local adaptation bring us nutritious, healthy food and give farming and food systems resilience to the shocks - from floods, to drought to new pests- that climate change is bringing with it.
Over the past three years, a new UK and Ireland Seed Sovereignty Programme has been helping kick start the process of growing back the diversity of locally adapted seeds and crops here in these islands.
The programme’s unofficial slogan is “a food revolution starts with seed”, and its focus on seed sovereignty involves growers, gardeners and citizens reclaiming our common seed heritage, and therefore our food system, from corporate control.
"Only three corporations sell 75 percent of the worlds seed - if we all start sowing open source, organic seed, we can grow a democratic food system," says programme participant, David Price of the Seed Cooperative.
Coordinated by UK-based NGO The Gaia Foundation, the programme has brought together a network of small-scale growers, seed specialists, organisations like the Irish Seed Savers and movements like the Land Workers Alliance.
These partners are now working together in regional networks to both increase the availability of open-pollinated, locally adapted seeds, and to revive the knowledge and skills required to effectively grow, process and save the seeds that lie at the heart of our food system’s diversity.
Regional trainings for commercial growers have been taking place to build back seed skills, in which participants have learnt everything from how to effectively plant, nurture and harvest a seed crop, to how to make a seed cleaning machine out of scrap wood and a vacuum cleaner
There is much still to be done, but Programme Manager Sinéad Fortune says she is seeing signs of a meaningful revival underway after three years of work.
“We have lost so much in such a short amount of time. The seeds that once had personal significance to families and communities around the UK and Ireland are all but lost.
But right now there are still traces of these seeds and their importance which can be followed. Traces like this exist in every part of the UK and Ireland; we aim to seek them out, to find those who have living memory of these heritage varieties that could provide an answer in terms of resilience and food nutrition”, says Sinéad.
"For example, Gerald Miles of Caerhys Organic Community Agriculture and Llafyr Ni (Our Cereals), a group formed with Wales Regional Coordinator Katie Hastings and other growers, talks of black oats.
Gerald spent 25 years searching for the black oats that his grandfather once grew on the land, to no avail. But a rugby trip to Northern Ireland put him in touch with a farmer who was still growing them, and now the heritage oat grows once again on Gerald’s land.
Better for the soil, more resilient to the weather, and more nutritious, the black oat was a great loss to the biodiversity in Wales that has now been reinstated.”
Seed Week - celebrating seed custodians
Seed Week 2019 provides an opportunity to celebrate the work and achievements of the people driving this seed revival so far, and the knowledge and expertise of those who have been stewarding the diversity of our food system for years.
One of the week’s key aims is to encourage gardeners and growers looking ahead to next year’s planting to consider buying seed from seed sellers who are already producing a diversity of open-pollinated, organic seed adapted to different climes around the UK and Ireland, such as:
- Vital Seeds, Devon.
- Real Seeds, Wales.
- Irish Seed Savers, County Clare.
- Brown Envelope Seeds, West Cork.
- Seed Cooperative, Lincolnshire.
A series of short films produced by the Seed Sovereignty programme introduces these seed producers for those who wish to learn more and introduces some useful information about, for example, the difference between hybrid and open-pollinated seeds.
“We are lucky to work with a handful of dedicated, passionate seed growers who are fighting to keep open-pollinated seeds in production and to spread their knowledge and skills so that more growers will join in.” says Sinéad.
“Supporting these growers is vital so that they can continue to grow themselves, and so that they can encourage other growers that producing seed is viable. Every seed packet you buy from a local, open-pollinated independent producer is a vote for a more equal, resilient, and diverse food system.”
Now in its third iteration, Seed Week is also an opportunity for commercial growers to find out more about the programme, connect with their regional coordinator and learn how to incorporate seed production into their business.
Liv and Henry of Down Farm in Devon started down the path of seed production for personal and commercial use after attending trainings put on by the programme’s West England network. As a result, they’ve found there is both a business and ecological case for growing back seed diversity.
‘‘Seed production is important to us at Down Farm as it helps make us more resilient in an unstable environment and provides us with another income stream whilst learning a skill that is in danger of being lost amongst western people. Without seeds we can’t grow any food!”
As more growers like Liv and Henry begin building their knowledge, regional seed networks, and the variety and quantity of open-pollinated organic seed, the potential for a new, more diverse seed system in the UK and Ireland grows stronger.
“We can create a thriving agriculture in this country – one which stewards our countryside brilliantly, which puts a high value on biodiversity, has at its core the production of healthy food for local communities, and has the potential to bring thousands of people into meaningful, healthy work.
"This can and should all start with the seed, which has been lost to the large companies, and now needs taking back”, says Dan Burston, a market gardener with Chagfood in Devon.
Hannibal Rhoades is head of communications at The Gaia Foundation.
If you are a grower and want to help realise this vision for seed sovereignty, healthy food systems and local economies in the UK and Ireland, connect with the programme’s regional coordinator in your area via this interactive map.
For more information about the UK and Ireland Seed Sovereignty Programme, visit the website. Read regional blogs from the programme’s coordinators throughout Seed Week here. Keep up with #SeedWeek on social media, follow: @GaiaFoundation, @IrelandSeedSov & @IrishSeedSavers, @EEnglandSeedSov, @WEnglandSeedSov, @ScotSeedSov, @WalesSeedSov