“I realised that what was…under threat was something deeper — the connection to a sense of cultural identity. The songs women would sing in the fields. Phrases, even the words we use.” — Vivien Sansour, founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library
The world lost 94% of its vegetable seed varieties in the 20th century.
Now, scientists and others have begun to realize that maintaining genetic diversity — lots of crop varieties adapted to lots of unique and challenging local growing conditions — will be crucial to keeping the world fed in the face of threats like spreading pests and climate change. The chemical use, monoculture and unjust seed patent laws that have lately been promoted — and, in some countries, introduced by force — have been disastrous for ecosystems, for human health, and also for something more.
The ways human beings have cared for and cultivated their seeds throughout the centuries has been as profound for our cultures, our languages, our identities as it has been for landscapes and biodiversity — a history that has twined human and plant life into one community.
Fortunately, people the world over are recognizing the importance of saving our remaining seeds before it is too late.
This is Part I in a series describing just a few of the many inspiring projects that are dedicated to keeping local seeds and the cultures they feed alive today.
Palestine Heirloom Seed Library // Palestine
The Palestinian West Bank is one of the regions where agriculture was first practiced. In these dry hills, farmers have had thousands of years to cultivate crop varieties that can survive an extreme climate: a short spring and a long, hot summer broken only by the occasional rainstorm. In Arabic, the Palestinians’ traditional allotment-style garden plots are called “pieces of paradise.”
But lately, Palestinian farming culture has fallen under threat. As Vivien Sansour, founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library says in an article in The Guardian, “That threat came from several things. From agri-companies pushing certain varieties and farming methods and from climate change. Places, too, where people would forage for edible plants — like the akub thistle — have come under threat because of issues like the spread of Israeli settlements.”
Sansour adds, “I realised that what was also under threat was something deeper — the connection to a sense of cultural identity. The songs women would sing in the fields. Phrases, even the words we use. So it is about preserving the local biodiversity, but it is also about the importance to Palestinian culture of traditional agricultural methods.”
Sansour sums up the central role of farming in Palestinian culture by quoting an old saying: “‘He who does not eat from his own adze cannot think with his own mind.’”
The Palestine Heirloom Seed Library was launched in June 2016 in collaboration with the Walid and Helen Kattan Science Education Project. As well as preserving rare seeds, the project will encourage students and teachers in Palestinian schools to discuss the importance of traditional farming practices.
One teacher, Inam Owianah, said that at first, “I wasn’t even sure what an heirloom variety was. And then I understood! It wasn’t just about the seeds, but about an intimate connection to our heritage. And the students started to understand that civilisation is not just about buildings but about a way of life …. I started asking my students to ask their grandparents and parents about the stories and sayings associated with the plants.”
In a part of the world with such a long agricultural history — and where so much is changing so quickly — it seems that the stories and the seeds might be of equal value. One example Sansour mentions is jadu’I, a rare species of giant watermelon once grown in the northern West Bank. “Before 1948, it was exported around the region. It was famous in places like Syria. It has almost disappeared. One of the most exciting discoveries so far is that we found some seeds for it. They are seven years old, so we need to see if they are viable.”
Vrihi & Basudha // India
Indian farmers once cultivated as many as 110,000 distinct varieties of rice. Tragically, after fifty years of ‘Green Revolution’ agricultural development, the country has lost nearly 90% of its traditional, locally-adapted varieties. Alarmed by this massive erosion of agro-biodiversity, ecologist Dr. Debal Deb set out to help conserve the remaining seed diversity before it vanished forever.
In 1995 Deb began in earnest to gather and document traditional rice seeds from farmers throughout eastern India. Two years later Deb and his organization, the Centre for Interdisciplinary Studies (CIS), decided to create the first non-governmental rice seed bank for farmers, called Vrihi (the Sanskrit name for “rice”).
Vrihi was established to collect, save and distribute heirloom rice varieties, and to encourage the non-commercial exchange of seeds among local farmers. After nearly 20 years, Vrihi is now “the largest folk rice seed bank in eastern India”, with over 940 endangered varieties in its collection, each with important characteristics selected by farmers for hundreds of years. Vrihi’s collection includes varieties that are naturally high-yielding, drought or flood tolerant, or that can withstand high levels of soil salinity from coastal flooding: precisely the characteristics needed to maintain food security in the context of climate change.
In addition to the Vrihi seed bank, CIS has established a conservation farm, Basudha, to help conserve their collection of seeds in situ, that is, to grow out each of the hundreds of varieties of rice every season, as well as to demonstrate the efficacy of traditional ecological farming practices. Basudha (‘Earth Mother’ in Bengali) also serves as an interdisciplinary research farm where sophisticated ecological studies are conducted to evaluate the differences between chemical versus ecological farming systems.
Part of Basudha’s research is devoted to protecting indigenous crop genetic material from being patented by seed corporations like Monsanto. They do this by scientifically documenting dozens of properties for each traditional seed variety, and then publishing and copyrighting the information in the name of the community of farmers who donated the seeds to the seed bank. By doing this, the unique properties of each seed become “prior public knowledge” that cannot be patented. Dr. Deb describes this as something like ‘copyleft’ for farmers and researchers, and copyright against corporations, preventing private interests from claiming the exclusive right to profit from the genetic material documented by CIS.
In 2014 CIS launched a separate Biotechnology Laboratory for Conservation to scale up this important work (to protect it from possible sabotage, the laboratory’s location has not been disclosed). Taken together, Vrihi, Basudha and the laboratory are helping to ensure food security, promote sustainable agriculture, and protect local food sovereignty against the corporate control of food systems around the world.
Learn more about these inspiring initiatives by listening to Local Bites Episode 5, “Seeds of Resilience, Seeds of Sovereignty”, or by watching one of these short films by Jason Taylor of The Source Project: “The Farmer, the Architect and the Scientist” and “Food Web Theory.”
Dream of Wild Health // USA
When people lose the land they have lived with for generations, they also lose the food traditions shaped by that place. As Sioux master gardener Diane Wilson, director of Dream of Wild Health farm in Hugo, Minnesota, explains, “Our people became disconnected from the land. Once you lose that, you lose your relationship with the food. It’s central to our culture: Traditions, song, ceremonies, all were connected to food.”
The destruction of Native food traditions was a central part of the colonization process. Native people who were confined to reservations, many of which were far from their original territories, often became dependent on government rations of sugar, lard, canned goods, and flour. Today, the rates of diabetes and heart disease in Native communities can be twice the national average. As Arapahoe activist Ernie Whiteman, cultural coordinator of Dream of Wild Health explains, “We lost our traditional ways of raising our food and we became dependent upon a totally foreign food that is killing us to this day.” At Dream of Wild Health, he says, “we’re doing a recovery process.”
Dream of Wild Health is a 10-acre organic farm described as “a place of learning, a place of celebration, a place of being, becoming and belonging” for the Native community. It is home to three main programs: the organic farm itself, a seed bank, and educational programs for local youth. The farm sells produce at farmer’s markets and through a CSA, accepting trades and EBT (food stamps) in the effort to support a broader community.
The seed bank at Dream of Wild Health started in 2000, when Potawatomi elder and Keeper of the Seeds Cora Baker heard about the farm and sent in her carefully-kept varieties of indigenous corn, squash, beans, sunflower, tobacco, and medicinal plants. After that, word spread. “Seeds began arriving in the mail. Some came knotted up in a handkerchief, with a note saying, ‘My grandmother wanted you to have these.’ Another family donated Cherokee corn seeds that were carried on the original Trail of Tears.” Today, Dream of Wild Health has more than 300 seed varieties in their collection.
The youth programs at Dream of Wild Health are similarly working to keep Native food traditions alive, as well as keeping local kids and teens healthy. Each summer, Dream of Wild Health runs camps for American Indian families and teens. “The families start each morning in circle with staff, learning to smudge and pray with tobacco. We don’t allow cell phones, video games, or any electronic devices. The families learn to plant, grow, harvest and cook fresh, organic vegetables. Some of them have never seen corn growing in a field or tasted a fresh picked green bean.” Teens also learn how to market produce, in the hope they might consider farming in the future, and do their part to keep their cultural traditions alive. “At Dream of Wild Health, we believe that children are sacred, wakan. They are the future, just like the precious seeds in our collection.”
Learn more about the programs here at Dream of Wild Health.
Quotes come from Saving Seeds in Indian Country, by Judy Keen.
For information on related subjects, check out Decolonizing Diet. and Eating Indigenously Changes Diets and Lives of Native Americans.
More on wonderful seed saving initiatives coming soon!