Seeds of change
As ever more varieties of food crop die out, seedsavers are stepping in to rescue endangered plants
Will Bonsall considers his Scatterseed Project to be the Noah’s Ark of edible plants. Through it the American has saved thousands of varieties of vegetable from possible extinction. “The first time I saw bean collections I thought it was like a jewellery store. They lit up, and I’ve been dazzled by diversity ever since.”
The ethnobiologist and nature writer Gary Nabhan says that “the diversity of our seed stocks is as endangered as a panda, a golden eagle or a polar bear right now. We have the largest seed shortage in history.”
Bonsall and Habhan both feature in Seed: The Untold Story, an American documentary shown at the Guth Gafa international documentary film festival in Kells, Co Meath, this month.
“All seed keepers are positive, because they see the renewal of life as their connection to the planet, but it’s a David and Goliath struggle of people’s resistance to hybrid-seed manufacturers,” says one of the film’s directors, Taggart Siegel, who was a guest at the festival.
In Seed: The Untold Story Matthew Dillon of the Organic Seed Alliance explains the history of seed production in the United States. “In the 1890s over a billion packets of seeds were distributed free to farmers, to feed the rising immigrant populations, but the American Seed Trade Association hired the very first lobbyist to stop this ‘federal giveaway’, as they called it. They saw seed as a commodity to be quantified, measured, bought, sold and traded on stock markets.” Dillon says that this was a significant point in the development of the hybrid-seed industry. Hybrid seeds are produced to give bigger and better yields in ideal conditions but are unsuitable for seedsaving, because they won’t reproduce identical seed for the next season. Once farmers were using hybrid seeds, they began to take for granted that they needed to buy seeds for each harvest rather than saving them from year to year.
More than 80 per cent of food-crop diversity has been lost in the past 100 years, as ever fewer varieties of seed have been used. But the past two or three decades an international movement against industrialised seed production has gathered momentum.
Environmentalists and activists such as the Indian scientist Vandana Shiva are promoting seedsaving around the world. Her organisation, Navdanya, has helped to conserve more than 3,000 rice varieties at 60 seed banks across India.
An American, Anita Hayes, first brought the importance of seedsaving to public attention in Ireland 25 years ago, when she and her husband, the musician Tommy Hayes, set up the Irish Seed Savers Association. The association, which is based in east Co Clare, has built up a collection of 800 heritage vegetable varieties, 48 types of grain, more than 50 kinds of potato and 140 types of apple.
Although it is funded by the Department of Agriculture, the association struggles to survive with a skeleton staff.
“I understand the need for hybrid seeds, because food is valued at such a low price and farmers’ margins are so tight that they can’t deal with loss of crops,” Jo Newton, the association’s seed-bank and garden manager, says. “But hybrid crops will perform only when you have good soil, good weather and fertiliser. Certain varieties of open-pollinated seeds” – which is to say seeds collected from plants themselves – “will thrive when conditions aren’t ideal. For example, all the hybrid leeks failed in Belgium during a very cold winter recently, but an open-pollinated variety survived.” Newton is excited about the association’s new seed network: up to 25 organic market gardeners now grow seeds as a crop for the organisation’s bank. Fresh open-pollinated seeds need to be dried and stored all the time, to replenish and replace ageing seed stocks.
“A lot of growers are hard pushed to make a living, so it’s been inspiring to see how they’ve taken to saving seeds. That’s quite a breakthrough for us, and it came about after a visit from Matthew Dillon,” she says.
The importance of seed banks is probably best represented by the Svalbard Global Seed Vault. This huge deep-freeze, in a remote Arctic archipelago, stores the world’s widest collection of crop varieties. Although the facility was built by the Norwegian government, the open-pollinated seeds that it stores stay in the ownership of whoever deposited them.
Hans Wieland of the Organic Centre in Rossinver, Co Leitrim, says that people in Ireland aren’t particularly interested in seedsaving. “We run a workshop on seedsaving every year, and it’s hard to fill it. But when you talk about empowering people, about taking food production into their own hands – if you don’t know how to save seeds, there’s a missing link.”
Every year when Wieland returns to his native Germany he buys varieties of tomato from a seed bank in Munich to grow in Ireland. The Organic Centre is also one of four locations taking part in a trial to breed a new blight-resistant potato. This will involve saving and replanting seeds from 12 varieties.
Madeline McKeever, the founder of Brown Envelope Seeds, near Skibbereen, in Co Cork, believes that awareness of seedsaving has grown as a reaction to industrial agriculture.
However, the Grow It Yourself (GIY) movement doesn’t really embrace it – although its founder, Michael Kelly is keen to emphasise his support for organisations such as Irish Seed Savers and Brown Envelope Seeds.
“I share the concerns about the takeover of our food by the biotech industry, and it’s hugely valuable to teach people the life cycle of plants, but the vast majority of amateur growers love the process of buying seed each year, and disease and pest problems have been bred out of F1 hybrids,” says Kelly.
It would be naive to think that everyone is going to start saving seeds, but perhaps we need to respect – and fund – seed banks to a greater extent.
As Will Bonsall says, “I may discover 10 years from now that a seed in my seed bank is in huge demand because it has in its genes some resistance to some disease which is only now evolving.”