Sowing Season: Seed Swaps and the Future of Food

Sowing Season: Seed Swaps and the Future of Food

 Every February Brighton’s green domed Corn Exchange becomes a Mecca for all those passionate about seed, food and agri-culture in the truest sense of the word. Host to the bustling stalls of ‘Seedy Sunday’– the UK’s largest community seed exchange- the giant hall is transformed into a space to celebrate the diversity of open pollinated, heritage seed varieties and the expert knowledge of the growers who care for and, well, grow them.

I travelled to the storm-battered south coast to see how a blossoming community has put down annual roots, and explore the vitality of their work.

The hall was already full when I arrived. Beneath the great bowed ceiling people shuffled between rows of colourful stalls laden with seeds- from broad beans to Birdsfoot Trefoil, sat in bowls, in printed paper bags, in hands- stopping here and there for a chat, to swap and buy. Others sat on the floor enjoying sandwiches amongst a jungle of legs and pot plants, talking animatedly with their mouths full. A hubbub lay curled in the room, warm, welcoming and at ease.

Founded in 2001, Seedy Sunday has been a growing success, bringing larger numbers of people together year by year to share in a celebration of seed and its sanctity largely lost from these isles. Welcoming over 3,000 visitors in 2013, Brighton’s flagship seed swap has also inspired sister events to emerge around the nation.

With the energy and passion I saw amongst the stall holders it’s no wonder the event has soared in popularity. Whether selling or sharing high quality, locally adapted seed, offering people the chance to re-skill in seed saving, or inspiring and educating others on how to grow their own fruit and veg, they showed an aptitude for inspiring, hands-on ecological action all afternoon.

However, I suspect there is another, less cheery reason behind Seedy Sunday’s success. Namely the increasingly hostile, corporatized context growers of organic, open-pollinated, ‘traditional’ seed find themselves working in today.

We are living and acting in a time when, thanks to corporate controlled, industrial agriculture, 75% of global plant genetic diversity has been lost since 1900; climate change threatens to devastate agricultural systems whose seed diversity and resilience have beenundermined; and when growers, peasants and small scale farmers, who produce 70% of the world’s food, face a harsher political climate than ever before, as corporate friendly trade pacts, seed directives, ‘harmonisations’, and extractive projects loom or dig their claws in.

Speaking to stall holders and attendees a-like I discovered that awareness of and resistance to the EU’s new proposed Seed Directive, one of the most pressing threats to UK food and seed sovereignty, permeated the crowds. Food has never been free from politics and, no matter how abstract it may seem, decisions made in the white halls of Brussels will translate to allotments and fields.

The EU directive has the potential to severely limit the freedom of all growers to save, grow, sell or swap their seeds. Indeed, if passed it could render the very existence of Seedy Sunday an act of civil disobedience.

Unsurprisingly a number of growers told me about their own opposition to the legislation, describing how their livelihoods could be impacted. Those tuned in to the food sovereignty movement delighted at how the issue is being fought at the policy level, with some success so far (recently both the Environment and Agricultural committees rejected the legislation). All felt strongly that any assault on seed, our common heritage, must be resisted robustly as whoever owns seed, owns life.

The impassioned voices of growers and the food sovereignty movement were joined by a host of others working on related campaigns. Frack Free Sussex were making some noise about fracking’s impacts on farming; an emerging consideration as we learn about the true costs of the US ‘dash for gas’ and its impacts on the food system.

Making use of a set of excellent food puns including ‘Kale not Shale’ and ‘Fracking? Good Gourd No!’, the group’s ‘Food not Fracking’campaign is an excellent example of joined up thinking about our delicately interconnected ecosystems. If we don’t have clean air, clean soil and clean water, healthy farming cannot continue and produce healthy food. Fracking is not simply an energy issue.

As the threats the extractive industries pose to food sovereignty become ever clearer, collaborations between groups like Frack Free Sussex and the food movement are increasingly vital. Creating a united front saying ‘Yes to life’, and pooling our energies to say no to its parasites- whether they be fracking or GM monocultures- can benefit all.

Sharing Gaia’s films, Seeds of Freedom and Seeds of Sovereignty, I engaged those I met with the stories of our African partners who are their reviving seed diversity with incredible tenacity and spirit. In terms of difficulties experienced and aims shared, each conversation I had turned to the similarities between the work happening here in the UK, in Africa and beyond.

It seems to me that difficulties- the expansion of the extractive industries and repressive seed laws- act like glue, binding people together in a common cause of resistance. But without a shared vision, an aim for the future that tells us what we are for, not just what we are against, this bond is weaker, and environmentalism risks being reduced to fire fighting and wandering in the woods.

Fortunately a broadly shared vision is emerging, spanning the continents. One of food sovereignty in healthy, resilient ecosystems; with local communities empowered to provide themselves with nutritious food through a respectful relationship to the land. Such a future necessarily excludes any extractivist relationship to Earth.

It was intensely reassuring to hear whispers of that future from the people whose honest engagement with the land is informing their own attitudes, and those of others. As Seedy Sundays around the UK usher in the sowing season we should look to events like these, and the work being done, as glimpses of a future we can believe in and be a part of.

Take up your trowels:



Now sow seed that belongs

To no-one

Hand over hand into crumbling Earth so

Long after the frosts

Have left it

And the golden gates rot

On their hinges

The fields sing with life