Biodiversity as a theme has gained much wider currency in recent years, being the new buzz-word for those interested in protecting our environment. Farmers can tap into this movement through the REPS scheme which encourages and rewards them for helping to increase the natural biodiversity on their land, for instance by replanting hedgerows with native Irish shrubs or by planting native Irish broadleaf trees on their land. But our biodiversity is about more than just the wildlife – be it plant or animal – that is native to this island. It encompasses the whole spectrum of living things, from the wild to the cultivated. Our agricultural biodiversity often gets forgotten in the debate around preserving our native genetic resources. It’s time we examine the issues surrounding agricultural biodiversity, and why its loss could adversely affect us far more than we might imagine.
Firstly it is worth looking at how saving heritage seeds can help secure our present and future food security. There have been many examples of how biodiversity in a food crop has ensured it continues to be grown against the setbacks posed by pests, disease or drought. The rice fields of Asia in the 1970s were devastated by the grassy-stunt virus, which decimated the crop and led to severe food shortages in a continent heavily-dependant on rice. It took four years and the screening of 17,000 different samples before a strain of rice was found that was resilient against the disease. Unfortunately the lessons of history are rarely learnt. Up to twenty years ago India grew over 30,000 different strains of rice across its fields. Today only ten varieties are widely grown, the seed of which are owned by large seed companies. Such a huge loss in the diversity of crops means that farming has become much more vulnerable to any pests and diseases that may affect the crops. The solution is in the hands of the farmers who must once more take up the seeds that they so quickly dropped and nurture them back into healthy living strains.
The seed companies are far from innocent in all of this. In the past century over 75% of all cultivated varieties of plants have become extinct. This decline has been inversely matched by the increase in size and power of large seed companies who control more and more of the market in seeds. Their power was greatly increased in the 60’s and 70’s with the advent of the “Green” Revolution which attracted farmers with its promises of bumper yields using the newly-developed hybrid varieties. Not only do these hybrid varieties require high chemical inputs to grow well, but they also fail to produce viable seeds making farmers dependant on the seed company for their continued supply.
Companies wielding this sort of power tend to control their market and are now pushing genetically modified crops which they exclusively own as the next phase of agricultural “development”. Power and profits are the only forces motivating these multi-nationals who are trying to wrest any autonomy from individuals in supplying themselves and their families with food. The attitude that the saving of seeds is a form of theft is an insult to human intelligence and decency.
European biodiversity was dealt another blow on the 30th March 1980 when the seed lists from all the EC member states were amalgamated into one common list. This short-sighted attempt at tidy book-keeping resulted in the deletion of over 1,500 varieties of seeds from the national registers. Not being on the list doesn’t destroy a seed but it does mean that it is no longer officially considered as being a legitimate variety with the result that seed not on the list cannot be legally sold. Seed companies claimed that the deleted varieties were simply duplicates of ones on the list – a claim that has been discredited by the Henry Doubleday organisation which found that only 38% of the varieties could in any way be considered duplicates; the rest were simply “undesirables” which were not owned by anybody nor were they particularly suited to large-scale commercial production. We now know them as heritage varieties and among them are some of the most valuable and interesting species of vegetables and grains that we possess.
We need to remind ourselves just why it is that heritage seed varieties are so valuable to us. For countless generations, farmers have been selectively breeding plants, improving the varieties from year to year by saving the seeds of those plants with favourable characteristics. These plants which have been nurtured and improved naturally are still descendants of an original wild species and are still able to reproduce themselves. This is in sharp contrast to the new wave of seeds that are now available to buy from conventional sources. Hybridised seeds are the result of a cross between two different strains of the same species to produce a vigorous plant in the first generation. If allowed to flower and produce seeds, the offspring of this plant are almost never like the parent plant, a result of the inbreeding that has occurred to produce its parent. Genetically modified (GM) seed goes a step further with the introduction of the terminator gene (the patent for which is now owned by Monsanto). This gene, when inserted into the gene sequence of a seed variety, results in sterile seed being produced by the plant as it matures. This will mark the end of any form of plant improvement in the general population – in the future the only food available will be that which Monsanto wants to provide. This unthinkable scenario can be avoided by holding onto the democratic technology of open-pollinated varieties that can be worked on in the laboratory of a grower’s back garden.
There are more reasons than ever to grow out these living strains of plants. Given the indications that our climate is changing, we need now more than ever to grow varieties that are able to respond to the changes in their environment and pass on any adaptations to the next generation. The European Seed Directory requires that a seed variety be distinct, uniform and stable. Many heritage varieties were deleted from the official register because they didn’t conform to this – being inherently unstable. But it is this instability that is so valuable to growers as it means the plant is able to change itself to suit its growing conditions. Any new seed variety must satisfy the DUS requirement, meaning that we are developing a stock of seeds that have all their adaptability bred out of them. In light of the changes happening in our environment, this is madness.
We cannot hope that a new hybrid or GM strain will have inbuilt climate chaos resilience, particularly in a resource-scarce future. Crops that require chemical fertilizers to grow will no longer be useful when the fossil fuel resources needed to feed them become exhausted. If we are committed to developing the organic food sector then we should be working on crops that have been grown organically for millennia, as these are the ones that are most suited to organic growing methods. In terms of the local, small-scale food movement, they have a huge role to play. This will be discussed in more detail later.
Usually when designing a sustainable system we examine the inputs, outputs and characteristics of our system. If we examine the inputs into the food we consume, we often neglect to include the seed that grows it and tend to focus exclusively on the inputs needed to grow the plant. This is even true of the organic movement, which doesn’t require that organic seed be used if a case can be made that for economic reasons the use of conventionally-produced seed is necessary.
Ireland has in recent years been termed unsuitable for the production of seeds because of our damp climate. So the question arises, where does our seed come from? The majority of seed sold in Ireland is produced in Britain and Holland. It transpires, however, that most of this production just involves packaging the seeds in these countries – the seeds themselves come from much further afield. Most of it is imported from drier countries in Africa and the Far East. Not only are the growing conditions far different in these countries, the standards of growing are in many cases appalling. There is little or no control over the amount of chemicals used while growing these plants, particularly since the plants themselves are not for human consumption. It is often claimed that the growing conditions have no effect on the quality of the seeds produced – a similar argument was made by tobacco companies when the question of pregnant women’s smoking habits was being debated.
So we see that it’s far from sustainable to import seed from far-flung places that rely on heavy chemical use to grow the seeds.
Permaculture has as one of its principles the cycling of energy and nutrients within a system. This is a principle that has been derived by examining nature at work and realizing that in nature there are no such things as waste products. The outputs of one process become the inputs of another, allowing energy and nutrients to flow through an environment many times. There is surely no better way of practicing this principle than to allow a plant to complete its life-cycle and renew it the following year. In this way, seed once more becomes a local resource.
Seed Savers is also committed to sustainable practices onsite. We’re a wholly organic organisation that practices biodynamic growing to invigorate and nourish our soil. We’re committed to building soil fertility using some of our own-produced compost and liquid preparations, and we rely on natural biodiversity to take care of many of the pests that can sometimes affect our crops.
Education is also a vital part of what’s being done at Seed Savers. We work with local school-children to educate them about issues such as conservation, growing food and caring for their environment. Our site is open to the public six days a week and we offer guided tours to interested individuals.
So far I’ve looked at the importance of conserving our agricultural biodiversity for our survival, but it’s worth noting how important it also is for our revival.
People often consider seed-saving to be difficult, or not worth the trouble. Certainly, if you were to aim to save seed for all the crops you were growing it could occupy a lot of time and space, since many of the popular vegetables are biennial and only flower in their second year. Also, if space is limited it might not be feasible to save the seeds of many varieties if enough plants to ensure cross-pollination can’t be accommodated.
All these challenges lead one to the natural conclusion that community links need to be fostered to provide a support network as well as an efficient division of labour so that as many seed varieties as possible are saved and then shared between local groups of growers. The resurgence of farmers’ markets in recent years has provided a perfect forum for local growers to meet and co-ordinate who saves what seed each year. There is also much scope for celebration, with the possibility of food days, seed-swapping festivals and all manner of story-telling as plants and their seeds become embedded in the local tradition once more. Community gardens could provide the setting for many of these gatherings, as well as a focal point for the seed-swappers to meet and compare notes.
Community seed-saving not only fosters links between people; it also re-connects people with their local landscape, including the natural environment in the concept of community. It is very important for people to renew their connection to the natural world – the saving of seed from that world with which to grow their food is a very powerful way of doing this.
There has been much discussion concerning the options for setting up an alternative money scheme which promotes the prosperity of a community. The saving and swapping of seeds strengthens a community by bringing real economic autonomy back to the people and away from multi-national corporations. What could be a more vibrant currency than seeds? How about LETS SWAP SEEDS?
The community-growing of heritage varieties would also lead to the re-emergence of local plant varieties as the strains become adapted to a particular region. In time, an area may become known for a plant that has developed there, a common occurrence in the past. Apart from hardier plants in the vegetable plot, a cultural cohesion would result from the shared stories about varieties that have ties to the area.
So to sum up, it’s well-understood that the most meaningful and lasting responses to Peak Oil require a community response. Activities like shared seed-saving could provide the sort of community bond needed to overcome the challenges ahead.