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Sowing the seeds of food sovereignty [WFJ #24]
Frome’s new seed library is part of the global resistance against monopolised growing
Growing your own food is supposed to be a liberating experience. Perhaps this is less the case when you consider 60% of the world’s seeds are owned by large corporations.
Of these corporations, BASF, Bayer, Corteva, and Syngenta make up the so-called ‘Big Four’. These, by extension, control a significant portion of our food system, and not just via seeds – the Big Four are primarily agrochemical companies producing ‘crop protection products’ such as herbicides, fungicides, and insecticides.
This market dominance emerged in the 1960s, when a rapidly-growing global population needed to better feed itself, and fast. The resulting ‘Green Revolution’ succeeded in providing the calories required, but brought about a kind of globalised agriculture not without its problems.
Namely, a food complex reliant on synthetic fertilisers and pesticides; a small pool of crop varieties bred for things like yield rather than flavour; and GMOs designed to mitigate the need for agrochemicals, but in reality requiring more dependence on them.
Biodiversity, or the lack thereof, may be the most pressing of these concerns – seed corps want fruit and vegetables to look nice, yield in high quantities, grow fast, and be resistant to bruising. But a lack of genetic diversity means a lack of resistance to disease. The Gros Michel, for instance, was the world’s most widely-eaten banana before it was wiped out by a fungal disease in the ‘50s. Now Western diets are entirely reliant on another, singular variety – the Cavendish – which now too is teetering on the brink of annihilation.
This all-eggs-in-one-basket ‘strategy’ poses a significant threat to food security. And besides, having two or three varieties of apple, when there are thousands we could choose from, is a bit boring, isn’t it?
Seeking alternatives is the seed sovereignty movement, which backs farmers’ and growers’ rights to breed and exchange seeds, and protect a diverse array of seed, oats, and grain. Spearheading it over the past 30 or so years, and across multiple continents, is The Gaia Foundation. Their deputy director – Rowan Phillimore – happens to live in Frome. “Diverse and locally adapted seed means resilience,” Rowan says. “It is also a powerful act of resistance to the corporate control of our natural biodiversity.”
Over the past few months, Rowan’s collaborated with other locals to help found Frome’s Seed Library, which opened on the 15th July in the upstairs of Frome Library. Those involved include Caroline Wajsblum from Frome Field 2 Fork and coordinator of Frome’s Seed & Potato Day; Sue Palmer from the Green and Healthy Frome Partnership; and Kerry Meech, a horticulturalist who stepped up to coordinate the Seed Library after attending a Climate Action Group meeting at the Town Hall and hearing the project needed someone to lead.
Like Rowan, Kerry too is concerned about biodiversity loss. “If you go to a garden centre and see a seed display, there might be one or two different types of carrot, a few beans, three or four tomatoes,” she says. “What's been made available to us commercially by the big seed companies is a tiny drop in a massive ocean.”
At the time of writing, the Seed Library has been open for two days, with 50 seed packs distributed to locals in that time, and 35 donations received. “A lot of stuff has come in as freebies from gardening magazines,” says Kerry. “We've had some green manure, lufer seeds, cucamelons, and a lot of beans. One lady donated what felt like a meadow's worth of echinop seeds, which is lovely – they're great for pollinators. And very architectural.”
In many instances, seed libraries and seed swap initiatives operate on a membership scheme. Kerry and co, however, want to make Frome’s iteration accessible to as many locals as possible. “You can come along with seed, whether grown yourself or that you've got free from a Gardener's World magazine or wherever. You pop it in an envelope, label it, put your donated seed in the box and take away other seed. Even if you don't have seed to donate, that's fine – come along and try something.”
Another part of the project is focussed on amassing a collection of heritage and heirloom seed that has, over time, naturally adapted to thrive in the local climate, soil, and environment. Thereby offering an alternative to purchasing new seed – that’s bred in and adapted to who knows where – from a gardening centre each season. “It will make for a better crop that in the long run will be more resilient,” says Kerry.
“So hopefully, in ten years' time, we can have the lineage of Gordon's Runner Bean. And that may very well happen, because Gordon has donated from the Frome Selwood Horticultural Society,” Kerry says. “We know – because he's been growing it for however many years – that it loves Frome soil and that it's a good cropper.”
As well as providing a better understanding of what grows well in and around Frome, the library might even start to map out hyper-regional characteristics. “The tomato you grow in Keyford might do really well,” Kerry says, “but it might not do so well in Berkley.”
“In Shropshire,” she continues, “there's villages neighbouring one another that have their own runner bean, or their own marrow or whatever. And that legacy is being continued. And that's a goal of ours.”
In the UK, 90% percent of vegetable varieties have gone extinct over the last 100 years. The global monopoly over seed is a big reason why. As with Frome’s nascent seed library, pockets of resistance do exist – not just to diversify varieties and the gene pool, but as it turns out, help develop local food culture as well.
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‘Seeds of Sovereignty’ The Gaia Foundation
‘Seeds of Resistance’ The Land magazine
Frome Seed Library Instagram