Seed savers' quiet revolution

London seed saver Olcay among sunflowers at her allotment.

Andy Pilsbury for The Gaia Foundation
Networks of seed savers across London are sowing a brighter, fairer food future.

Most people across the UK and Ireland live in cities. What happens with seed in urban areas matters.

A quiet revolution is underway. And it’s sprouting where you might least expect it. In old baths and window boxes. In reclaimed parking lots and allotment plots. This is an urban seed revolution.

Londoners are rising to the interconnected challenges of climate change, food poverty, entrenched inequality and our nation’s mental and physical health crises by reviving one of the oldest human activities of all - sowing, saving and sharing seeds.

Their remarkable efforts to coax life from city soils are explored in a new short film from The Gaia Foundation and award-winning photographer and filmmaker Andy Pilsbury.

Resilience

Released during Seed Week 2022, A Quiet Revolution (8-mins) profiles London's urban seed savers and the London Freedom Seed Bank, a network of more than 72 growers caring for over 150 seed varieties. It highlights the many benefits of seed saving in urban environments

Many of the seed varieties in the London Freedom Seed Bank's collection are rapidly adapting to London’s unique growing conditions. This is thanks to years of diligent seed selection, saving and sharing by growers like Richard Galpin from Walworth, South London. 

"The crops that we seed save are noticeably more resilient than commercial seed I've bought. That's because we've necessarily chosen to save from the plants and varieties that have done well here. What we're doing is is purposefully creating a wider gene pool of locally adapted varieties," says Richard.

As the climate changes, having a diverse array of locally adapted seed varieties available represents an important source of resilience for London's urban food systems and other who their seed could be shared with.

"As we face increasing climate uncertainty our food security is profoundly threatened. Suddenly, this collection of seeds that we have, becomes extremely valuable. A lot of them have been saved in London for maybe five, maybe seven, maybe even ten years now, and they're actually acclimatised to our conditions here", says Charlotte Dove of Sydenham Community Gardens.

Community

“Food growing, as well as sharing food and eating together, cooking together, I think is probably the greatest tool in terms of breaking down barriers. It doesn’t matter whether you’re black, white, rich, poor, can’t speak English, speak English, whatever your age, it breaks down barriers”, says Dee Woods of Granville Community Kitchen in South Kilburn.

Granville Community Kitchen (GCK) grows a wide array of crops from seed for a radical veg box scheme that provides culturally appropriate food for the local community. Every Wednesday fresh, organic fruit and veg is prepared at the kitchen to feed households all over Kilburn at variable rates according to what those households can afford.

GCK is just one example of how London-based seed savers are feeding multicultural communities across the capital, many of whom suffer from a lack of access to fresh, healthy fruit and vegetables. 

"Three of us grow food here for the local pantry, which is like a food bank where local people struggling to afford food can buy good food for very little money. Local residents are able to buy £15 worth of food for £4.50," says Ann Gumuschian of Glengall Wharf Garden in South London.

"Unfortunately there's plenty of need for food aid at the moment. It's very important for us to be able to create systems of solidarity and systems that give people access to food, and in particular to good, healthy food. We make a point of only growing organically and to harvest our crops just an hour before delivery so people do get the best vegetables possible."

Well-being

It is well documented that global climate breakdown and social inequity are key causes of poor mental health around the world. Here too, seed saving offers solutions. 

“Seed saving is a slow process, and it’s quite a meditative process that’s very different to the crazy, busy world out there. I think people really appreciate the chance to come here and just slow down, and just do something which is very focussed on being here”, says Dove, who helps lead Sydenham Gardens therapeutic gardening work.

Seed saving and sharing can also offer a sense of connection to land and new, ready-made communities to those who have chosen, or been forced, to uproot their lives and move to new, often unfamiliar urban surroundings.

"I love to come here and meet with my friends, to dig, or plant, or pick something. I think we feel much happier when we get some stuff from working with our hands. It is so nice to watch flowers and bees, butterflies. It reminds me my of where I grew up, as well. When I touch the soil I feel I am in my childhood or in my country", says Olcay Colak, an allotment holder and seed saver from South London who grew up on a farm and learned the art of seed saving from her father and grandmother.

Urban

Across the UK and Ireland, The Gaia Foundation’s Seed Sovereignty Programme is supporting networks of food growers to gain expertise in seed saving, encouraging them to save their own seed, and to grow open-pollinated, locally-adapted seed for sale.

The aim is to build resilient, abundant and diverse seed systems that in turn enable the emergence of a more resilient food web. A food web free from the corruptive influence of the handful of agro-chemical corporations that own the majority of the formal seed market.

With 83 percent of UK citizens and 64 percent of Irish citizens living in urban areas, many of them wanting food from ethical sources, a strong urban seed sovereignty movement is vital to achieving this goal.  

“London's green growing spaces and the seed networks that connect them give us the chance to grow crops that are most relevant to where we are, which are the most delicious and well-adapted to our local growing conditions. That’s something that companies very far away just can’t offer us”, says Helene Schulze, Seed Sovereignty Programme Coordinator for London and South East England.

"The reality is that most people across the UK and Ireland live in cities. What happens with seed in urban areas matters."

This Author

Hannibal Rhoades is head of communications at The Gaia Foundation.

Watch A Quiet Revolution now.

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