As the consequences of Brexit and global political uncertainty unfold, efforts to revive the seed diversity that allows agriculture to thrive are key, says Gaia’s Tom Takezoe, sharing his reflections from the UK’s biggest seed exchange.
Brighton never fails to provide a lively welcome to visitors and my last weekend there did not disappoint, introducing me to Siberian White Russians, District Nurses, Patty Pans and the Fringe Headed Drunk Woman. But before you jump to conclusions, I wasn’t there to attend a fancy dress party.
In fact, these playful titles are the names of some of the many varieties of seed I encountered at the UK’s biggest and oldest seed swap; Seedy Sunday Brighton, the UK’s heartland of resistance to the corporate takeover of seed.
(Some of the interesting seeds to be found at Seedy Sunday. Land Seaweed and Patty Pan Scallopini seeds. Photo: Joe Lambert, The Gaia Foundation)
That said, the weekend was a party of sorts: a great celebration of seed diversity! Every year people flock to Brighton from all over the UK to get involved in this ancient tradition of grower-to-grower exchange. Seeds change hands, advice is given and diversity expands and thrives. As I arrived on Sunday morning, the place was brimming with people chatting enthusiastically about their seeds and feasting on healthy local produce.
Swapping seeds may seem like a small act of reciprocity, but in today’s political and agricultural context it is a powerful act. Seeds have been exchanged since farming began 11,000 years ago, but in the last 100 years the powerful link between many farmers and their seeds has been badly severed due to the privatisation of seed.
(Shelves of open-pollinated, heirloom, locally adapted seeds in Brighton. Photo: Joe Lambert, The Gaia Foundation)
Over 70% of the global commercial seed market is now controlled by just ten corporations, who are attempting to expand aggressively and break up traditional farmer-run seed systems. We have now lost 75% of global genetic seed diversity because most seeds made available to farmers by these companies are hybrids, which cannot reproduce, not open-pollinated varieties.
Since the 1990s, when Sharon Rempel set up the first ‘Western’ seed swap event in Canada, home growers and small farmers have been pushing back against privatisation and defiantly resisting the corporate takeover of seed by sharing their own. Each year, more seed swaps crop up across the world in places where these exchange practices have been lost or badly damaged. In others, where seed exchanges still function as they have for generations, the struggle is to keep them going. For example, in Africa 70-80% of seed is still managed by farmers.
(In African nations like Burkina Faso, up to 80% of seed is exchanged as part of farmer-managed seed systems. Photo: Andrew Esiebo, We Feed the World)
The seeds swapped at these events, wherever they occur, are not barren hybrid commodities. They are living and evolving beings that will go on to produce offspring for growers to enjoy for generations to come. Each seed shared serves to maintain and increase the biodiversity in our fields and gardens, the knowledge in our agri-cultures and the resilience of our food systems.
Initiatives like Seedy Sunday are moving us in the right direction, but in the context of Brexit Britain, the future of our open-pollinated seeds is uncertain. A chummy relationship between May and Trump could result in trade deals that fast track GMO cultivation, threatening our seed diversity. Just this month, a new GMO wheat was authorised for experimentation in the UK. On the other hand, leaving the EU may be an opportunity to be more flexible with the sale and exchange of heirloom varieties, and to reform agricultural subsidies to support small farmers using open pollinated, locally adapted seeds.
This uncertainty means those of us working for seed and food sovereignty in the UK and worldwide have much work to do. Despite the challenges we face, wandering around the hall speaking to enthusiastic home growers and small farmers planning their year of cultivation, I encountered a sense of determination; a resilience and a willingness to support seed initiatives, including our own.
(Gaia’s Joe Lambert (L) and Tom Takezoe (R) hand out briefings and information at Seedy Sunday. Photo: The Gaia Foundation)
This year The Gaia Foundation will launch a new initiative, the UK & Ireland Seed Sovereignty Programme. Drawing on our years of experience working to revive seed systems alongside farmers across Africa, the project aims to restore a biodiverse and resilient seed system in the UK and Ireland. We are delighted to be collaborating with the Soil Association, the Seed Cooperative, the Irish Seed Savers Association, South West Seed Savers, Beyond GM and others on this pioneering effort.
Our inspiration for this work comes directly from the many inspiring seed guardians around our living planet who are doing their best to conserve seed diversity. Recently photographed for the Gaia-hosted We Feed the World photographic project, Argentinian farmers Remo and Irmina are just such guardians. On their biodynamic farm Naturaleza Viva, the couple are cultivating 15 rice varieties that you can no longer purchase anywhere else in Argentina. According to them, planting a seed is “the most revolutionary act”.
(Remo Vénica with his heirloom rice crop. Photo: Jordi Ruiz Cirera, We Feed the World)