seed sovereignty

Feb 24, 2018

The turning of the New Year has seen an exciting programme spring into action. The UK and Ireland Seed Sovereignty Programme is being hosted by the Gaia Foundation and will see partners such as the Soil Association, The Seed Cooperative and the Land Workers Alliance working together to strengthen the movement of agroecological seed producers in the UK and Ireland. Katie Hastings, a WWOOF UK trustee, is their seed coordinator for Wales and explains how the programme will work.

Recent years have seen a huge surge in activity around Food Sovereignty, with people reawakening to questions of where their food is produced, how it is produced and what impact this has on the planet. But we cannot talk about food without talking about the seed that is the start and end of any food plant. According to John Navazio’s history of the agricultural seed, saving seed was an integral part of farming right up until around 100 years ago.* He explains that seed ‘was woven into the fabric of the farm’ until we started to hand our seed production over to commercial companies after the second world war.

With the commercialisation of seed production has come the huge increase in F1 hybrid seed being created. While this seed could offer new varieties with enticing traits such as disease resistance, the seed from these plants could no longer be saved and grown ‘true to type’. Farmers passed on the delicate art of producing their own locally adapted varieties to the seed companies, losing many local crop varieties in the process.

Organic issues are also at the forefront of seed sovereignty. Currently only 3% of all seed available to grow on the UK market is organic. That means the majority of the ‘organic’ products we purchase and consume are grown by organic methods, but not from organic seed. While food growers across the UK are thinking twice before spraying chemicals in the field, is enough thought being put into the production of the seeds that we are bringing into our ecosystems?

The good news is that seed sovereignty is taking root in the UK and Ireland food sovereignty movement. Inspiring seed companies such as the Seed Cooperative and Real Seeds are producing open pollinated seed in ecologically sound ways.

So how will this ambitious programme be practically realised? The Seed Sovereignty Programme aims to remain profoundly local, with regional activities being informed by geographic area and the ideas of those in those locations. Here is a roundup of some of the regional activities that WWOOF hosts can get involved in:

Wales: As the regional coordinator for Wales I am currently engaged in recruiting professional growers and market gardeners in a seed production training programme. Working in partnership with Real Seeds, growers are being invited to two training events at Real Seeds headquarters, as well as being offered ‘technical intensives’ with author of Back Garden Seed Saving, Sue Stickland. Those able to produce high quality seed will be able to move on to producing seed for sale in the Real Seeds catalogue. I am also supporting the establishment of a Welsh Seed Hub in which seed producers can share seed and knowledge.

Scotland: Scottish Coordinator Maria Scholten says ‘we start the seed programme with small-scale trials in 2018, to investigate seed production under Northern agro-ecological growing conditions: a short growing season with long summer days. If you have suggestions for crops or varieties to trial, want to offer land, or just be informed, get in touch’.

West England: Coordinator Ellen Rignell is supporting the set up of a seed producers co-operative. Looking to the future, Ellen is wanting to connect with more growers in the Western region, particularly in Cornwall.

East England: Coordinator Page Dykstra has been working with several regional groups of the Land Workers Alliance to discuss possible trainings and events around seed production, particularly in the East Anglia and North East (and West) regions. She is also discussing possible London-based activities with the London Freedom Seed Bank.

Ireland: Wayne Frankham is working in Ireland through a dynamic partnership between Irish Seed Savers and the Gaia Foundation to run variety trials looking at how hybrid and open pollinated seed perform in thefield.

*The Organic Seed Grower, John Navazio, Chelsea Green Publishing Co., 2012

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