The pandemic has galvanised a new movement of growers and seed-savers: could this be the start of a fresh era of seed diversity?
“You can feed a whole city from the seeds of one plant”, says Stroud Community Seed Bank seed guardian Annie Page, whose polytunnels will soon heave with vivid red tomatoes and sickle-shaped runner beans. Page is talking about open-pollinated seeds, which are richly diverse, well adapted to local conditions and therefore more resistant to climate change.
As lockdowns have forced many of us to spend much more time in our homes, gardens and on our allotment plots, evidence suggests that there are more hands in the soil now than there have been for years. The more that people grow, store and share organic and open-pollinated seeds, as Page does, the more likely we are to see diverse food on our plates. Every new person who grows in this way represents another small chipping away of the extremely narrow genetic basis of the global seed trade, 60 per cent of which is controlled by four agrochemical companies. And those in the seed game are excited about the shift they see.
“Last year was busier than I have ever known it in 20 years,” says Kate McEvoy of Real Seed, a seed supplier based in Wales that specialises in organic seed for the home market.
Sinéad Fortune, programme manager of the Seed Sovereignty UK and Ireland Programme, says the shock of empty supermarket shelves at the beginning of the first lockdown galvanised a wave of new growers and created unprecedented demand for seed. “For the first time, your average person – who maybe isn’t very connected to the food system or thinking day-to-day about where their food comes from – walks into the supermarket and the shelves were bare.”
People had a very visceral reaction, Fortune suggests. “They started growing food because the food wasn’t there. We work quite closely with a lot of producers of open-pollinated seed in the UK and they all saw their sales skyrocket – up 600 per cent, 700 per cent. We were wondering whether seed was the new toilet paper, but sales of seeds have stayed constantly much, much higher. There’s a groundswell going on. That’s very exciting.”
These green shoots of a grow-your-own revival being witnessed around the world may signal a timely reversal in fortunes for plant crops, which the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization estimates to have declined in genetic diversity by 75 per cent since 1900. The sharp drop is linked to the rise of industrial agriculture, which has seen the copyrighting of genetic material, strict rules imposed on the saving and sharing of seed and a narrowing of available varieties that has favoured those best suited to mechanical methods of harvesting.
Alongside this there has been a trend towards the use of F1 seed, which does not evolve or specialise and doesn’t produce healthy, viable seed for the next generation.
“What we have to do to combat the very narrow genetic basis to our seed is to get as many people as possible growing as wide a diversity of seeds as possible,” says McEvoy. A big part of the challenge, she notes, is educating people about the relative merits of types of seeds and encouraging them to reconnect with the food system at the same time.
“What is important about open-pollinated seed is that, over generations, they become adapted to local growing conditions when they have been saved in the same area,” says Helene Schulze, co-director of the London Freedom Seed Bank, who also works on the Seed Sovereignty UK and Ireland Programme. “This means they become particularly suited to growing there. In the context of a rapidly changing climate, it is really important that we are growing stuff that is best suited to our area and best suited to adapt to these continually changing circumstances.”
‘Jane’s chard, Richard’s peas’
The London Freedom Seed Bank is one of hundreds of local initiatives to concentrate efforts on growing local varieties, in order to save the seed and redistribute it in the community. In doing so, they help free local growers from the chain of dependence on the agrochemical giants.
“If you control seeds – one of the most crucial inputs to producing food – you control the food system from the real beginning,” says Schulze. “It’s like owning water, soil or sunlight. We should all have control over those stocks and how they are used.”
Schulze’s is one voice in the increasingly vocal movement calling for seeds to be publicly owned. “It never really occurred to me that I could save my own seeds. I wasn’t sure that they would grow properly or even that I was ‘allowed’ to. That shows how disconnected we’ve become from growing,” says Page, who is one of around 30 seed guardians in Stroud. The group formed in 2016 with a mission to form a community of growers, reliant on only each other for productive and varied vegetable crops. “We are trying, in our small way, to increase the biodiversity within our plots and within Stroud generally,” says Josie Cowgill, another of the guardians.
By doing so, many have found a sense of peace in their gardens, and a comfort in connecting with one another. Page describes her garden as a sanctuary. “One of my main reasons for being involved is the feeling of community,” she says. “I garden more or less by myself and have done for 20 years. So, I really like that when I pick some chard I’m picking Jane’s beautiful rainbow chard or Richard’s early Oskar peas and I remember what they said about them. It’s good for the soul.”
Within weeks of the first lockdown, the Stroud seed bank’s stocks were in high demand. “We had an influx of people who were quite scared and asking why they couldn’t get hold of seeds. I think that early panic maybe changed the priorities of what people think is important,” says Beth Richardson, the seed bank’s coordinator.
Fortunately, for the past few seasons, the group had worked hard in their various community growing spaces to bulk out some of their favourite varieties. The Cherokee Trail of Tears, a climbing French bean with dark purple fruits, originally from the Smoky Mountains of North America, is one variety that has been grown by the guardians specifically to redistribute around Stroud. It was chosen due to the ease with which it can be saved, the low risk of cross pollination and for its rich history of being highly prized and passed on around the world, particularly in times of crisis.
The Thrupp Parsnip, another favourite, has its origins closer to home. A local guardian has developed her own variety by repeated cycles of growing and saving of seed. Page explains: “Thrupp is a village just outside of Stroud, and the lady who saves the seed has been doing it for years. It grows really well in our area. It’s adapted to the above average rainfall here and the fact it can be warm and humid compared with other parts of the country, so it’s going to be slightly different to parsnip seeds anywhere else in the world.”
For most of the ‘seed guardians’, a key priority is that the seed they save be accessible to all. Some ask for small donations in exchange for seed, but only if people can afford it. “We are trying to take back some power. We don’t do this to make money but because we realise how vital it is to survival,” says Cowgill.
Though much of the joy is in the savouring of lovingly tended homegrown produce, there is undoubtedly a political aspect to much of the work of the seed savers.
The London Freedom Seed Bank is a community of more than 80 growers who save, store and share open-pollinated seed in London. Richard Galpin, custodian of the group’s physical bank of more than 120 seed varieties, says: “Seed is quite abundant: it’s very easy to grow more than you need, so sharing it can be an act of solidarity with others.”
“These are all varieties that we have grown in London; they are suited to the often-complex challenges of growing food in an urban context,” adds Helene Schulze, who works with Galpin.
What of a lack of access to growing space, a clear barrier for those who might want to grow their own food, particularly in urban areas? “You can do quite a lot in quite a small area,” notes Schulze. “There are certain varieties you could be growing and saving seed from even on a balcony. That’s part of the strength and power that is connecting in seed networks. We don’t have to all be totally self-sufficient in our seed and food production: we can link together someone who produces chilli seed and another who produces squash seed, for example. There’s an interconnectedness, a shared responsibility and shared stewardship. A collective self-sufficiency.”
Fortune agrees: “To anyone without a garden or access to land who would love to get involved, but feels it is impossible, I would urge them to see what is going on in the community. Some really great organisations are trying to reach out to people without those opportunities. There are brilliant ways to be involved going on in every single city.”
Digging deep for a more resilient food system
Within the first few weeks of the lockdown, the London Freedom Seed Bank had given out all but a sample of the seed that it has been saving and storing since the project began in 2013. Much of it went to local growers, while some was donated to emergency box schemes to help feed hungry people affected by coronavirus. Since Covid, there have been renewed efforts to increase local food supply, including for box schemes and deliveries focused on emergency or short-term food insecurity.
One of the most popular varieties to have been given out is a red speckled lettuce developed by Galpin: a cross between a Syrian Bloody Cos and a popular English variety, Marvel of Four Seasons. Its title? The Bloody Marvel.
Galpin notes that the seed bank’s stocks have been well and truly replenished after a record growing year: 2020 saw the number of growers registering with the seed bank, as well as requests for training and support, double. And all this despite the fact that the team normally operates via face-to-face events, which had to be cancelled. “We saw the biggest ever donation of seed in autumn 2020,” Galpin says.
He enthuses about the variety that becomes possible when growing beyond the limited options available on supermarket shelves. “Once you get more small-scale production by local growers then there are some kinds of crops and varieties that you can produce much better than mass-scale industrial agriculture can. Soft fruit is a good example: you only see gooseberries in shops for two or three weeks a year because they are really hard to pick and store, but super easy to grow yourself.”
Being able to come together and do something so simple is really quite powerful
After the year we have all faced, Schulze reflects, now more than ever, hope is to be found at the end of a garden fork. “Food is about community. Food is about people. It’s about how we connect to each other and how we nourish and nurture each other. Feeling a part of that is really important from an emotional standpoint, especially when we’ve faced real isolation over the past year.
“Being able to come together and do something so simple as sharing seed or sharing food? It’s really quite powerful.”
Know your onions: seed terms explained
Open-pollinated seeds breed ‘true’. After pollination by natural means – either an insect, bird, wind or human hands – with another of the same variety or by self-pollination, the offspring will be roughly identical to its parents.
People who are committed to growing and saving seeds. The term can also refer to a person who has taken on a responsibility to grow a specific variety in order to preserve it. For example, for Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library.
Cannot be saved for use in future years because they are genetically unstable and are protected by seed and patent laws. This ties the farmers who use them to chains of dependency.
Agrochemical food growing
The use of chemical products in agriculture. In most cases, agrochemical refers to pesticides including insecticides, herbicides, fungicides and nematicides, and sometimes also synthetic fertilisers, hormones and other chemical growth agents.
Main illustration: Giacomo Bagnara for Positive News