Largely thanks to the rise of monocultures and GMOs, we have lost 75% of our agricultural biodiversity worldwide since 1950. Reliance on such a narrow range of cash crops is dangerous; and we know it. The Institute Vavilov in St. Petersburg – where employees heroically protected the world’s oldest stockpile of seeds while starving during the Siege of Leningrad – and the Svalbard Global Doomsday Seed Vault in Norway are the best known institutions dedicated to preserving seeds to safeguard our food future. However, not all seed banks are vaults to be called upon only in the case of catastrophe. Many are living, active projects rooted in the here and now. At Terra Madre Salone del Gusto last month, representatives from numerous seed-saving initiatives across the world met in Turin to share their stories. Here are just a few.
You can (West) bank on it: Palestine
It’s no wonder that, in the land where human agriculture started, there is an incredibly rich agricultural heritage following 10,000 years of selective crop breeding. However, thanks to the political situation, the West Bank is now one of the most vulnerable agricultural areas on Earth. Palestinian farmers’ land can be occupied or confiscated at any moment (specifically if the land hasn’t been farmed for three years – something hard to avoid in a region constantly threatened by conflict and upheaval). To make matters worse, much of the occupied land has been taken over by monocultures, grown from patented single-season seeds from multinational companies who forbid farmers from re-sowing the same seeds the following year. At its most human level, therefore, the seed bank project launched by the Palestinian Union of Agricultural Work Communities in 2003 is a way for farmers and their families to avoid expulsion from their own land. It also attempts to stem the flow of species extinction by empowering farmers to grow heritage crops, gathered from around Palestine and stored in a seed bank in Hebron. The organisation has so far managed to save 37 local species from extinction, which are being cultivated again by 30,000 farmers across the country.
Grow it, know it: Kenya
This is a living seed bank. Rather than being confined to a specialised structure, native landraces of a wide range of ancient Kenyan crops are grown on fields around the country, and the seeds are stored where they can suitably find a home – in somebody’s kitchen, on a farm, sometimes in a national government-run seed bank. Daniel Wanjama of the Seed Savers Network says that, in order to safeguard future food security, stability and biodiversity, it is important for farmers and consumers to be familiar with these heritage crops in everyday life, how to grow them and how to eat them, rather than just keeping them away for a rainy day (or a drought). This approach is especially important for food crops that don’t grow from seeds – such as staple root vegetables like cassava.
Hey, check this out! USA
Libraries are the great institutions of knowledge, and the McCowan Memorial Library in New Jersey, USA, understands that knowledge doesn’t begin and end with books and computers. Their innovative project allows library members to check out small packets of seeds, for free, the way you would a book. After growing the seeds into a plant, you simply take some of its seeds and return them (the library provides empty seed envelopes for you, and doesn’t charge late fees). The Seed Library manages their seed collection carefully, monitoring threats like cross-pollination, communicating with local indigenous leaders, and focusing on traditional and native regional plant species. They also organise classes and provide information on home gardening, how to save seeds, planning and planting a garden, and learning appropriate regional planting seasons and growing cycles.
A Himalayan here and now: Nepal
While some countries plan seed stores for an apocalyptic future, many people in Nepal are already dealing with a post-apocalyptic present. A magnitude-7.8 earthquake in 2015 – the biggest in Nepal in 80 years – killed 8000 people and displaced or affected as many as 8 million, according to the UN. A lot of farming machinery, tools, seeds and grains were lost beneath avalanches and the rubble of buildings. In a country where up to 90% of the population is involved in agriculture – a country which had already seen steady soil degradation, species extinction, and loss of biodiversity since a government-driven shift towards fast-growing, high-yielding cash crops from the 1970s – this is the kind of extreme climate catastrophe we fear.
However, all is not lost, and plenty of people are optimistic and enthusiastic about a better future — by relying on the past. One small project managed by 28-year-old farmer Dikshya Malla and her father, the Darshan Nursery Initiative, has recently started saving seeds of various native Nepalese crops. They offer the seeds, plus information, to local farmers interested in moving away from the monocultures and cash crops which they have been forced to realise are dangerously vulnerable to climate change. The project has only recently been launched, but Malla says local farmers are very enthusiastic about it, and that slowly more and more groups will be involved as the knowledge spreads. Eventually, she says, the government will have to realise that protecting biodiversity is vital for food security in a region more vulnerable to climate change than many. ‘As young people,’ she says, ‘we should do our best to save our future.’