Originally published 02/04/2020 in The Ecologist
Times of great uncertainty and change often create opportunities to build something stronger and better than before. This is felt true for our food sector – so vital yet at the same time so removed from the majority of the population.
Now is the time to set in place a more resilient and diverse foundation for our food system, and this foundation needs to start with our seeds.
As supermarkets are stripped of essentials like fruit, vegetables, and flour, people have begun asking – perhaps for the first time – where this food comes from, who grows it and how it gets to them.
While current food shortages are temporary, they could be a sign of more serious issues to come. We urgently need to reassess how our food is grown and, crucially, the adaptability and diversity of the seed we use to grow it.
As organisations like the Landworkers Alliance shine a light on the dire situation for small-scale growers and the increasingly urgent need for 90,000 farm workers to harvest food grown here in the UK, there is also a need to think beyond crops to seeds.
Where our seeds come from, their growing conditions and the quantity available will have a huge impact on our ability to grow food and feed our communities in the future.
The impacts of this virus and increasingly unpredictable weather conditions are being felt all over the world, not just here. This means that the areas we source most of our seed from – since we import about 80 percent of our organic vegetable seed – are also be facing insecure labour due to sickness, unreliable supply chains, and general uncertainty.
While we are feeling pressure to ensure that we grow sufficient produce and have the people to harvest it, we also need to increase the number of growers producing seed that is diverse and locally adapted so that we will have seed to grow our crops next year.
Growing food is an exercise in planning for the future; growing seeds for subsequent growing seasons is even more so.
There is a small but mighty network of small-scale seed growers and companies in the UK and Ireland already. Rather than selecting seed purely for yield, shelf life and uniformity, these growers have focused on open-pollinated (OP) seed− seed that is self- or insect-pollinated and that breeds true to type, meaning you can save seed for subsequent growing seasons.
These OP seeds produce diverse, flavourful food with high levels of nutrition. Each year the seeds are grown out and subsequently saved, they become more adapted to their growing conditions, the soil they’re grown in, the climate of the area. These OP seeds are grown using agroecological methods – that means no chemicals or artificial pesticides – so they do not harm the environment.
Over the past few weeks, these seed companies have seen a dramatic increase in sales.
David Price, managing director of the community-owned Seed Cooperative based in Lincolnshire, said: “Our sales are up 600 percent on the same week last year.”
Fred Price of Vital Seeds explains: “We have seen a massive increase in demand for seeds in the last week particularly… Covid-19 top sellers seem to be: five colours chard, cucumbers, purple sprouting broccoli, and rocket.”
Kate McEvoy, founder of the Real Seed Catalogue, based in Pembrokeshire, has seen a similar surge in demand: “People are panic buying seeds the same way they are other things … It’s not necessary. Seeds do not keep so there is no point in stockpiling them.”
These seed producers have struggled to keep up with this demand. They are small, family-run businesses. With added strain from social distancing and wanting to keep their staff safe, they’re down to fewer people during their busiest part of the year.
As always, common sense and consideration is vital. Buying only what you need ensures there will be enough for others. Despite this word of caution, the seed sellers are enthused by the increased interest in their work.
David added: “We are getting some lovely comments and I certainly think people are ‘getting it’ without the need for much explanation.”
Does this represent a shift in what people value in their seed? Is it an awakening to the externalities of our food system that until now have been largely ignored? We certainly hope so.
However, an increased demand in OP seed will require increased production. Along with the LWA’s call for the establishment of a new ‘Land Army’, we need a ‘call to seed’ for new and lapsed seed producers to grow OP seed.
In this time of upheaval, there is a great opportunity to redesign our food system. We all have a part to play in making it fair, resilient and regenerative.
If you grow your own, consider the methods you use to grow and where your seeds come from. Buy locally produced, open-pollinated organic seeds where possible and save your own to use next year and share with neighbours.
If you don’t have the means to grow your own, seek out growers in your area who are using regenerative practices which benefit the land rather than deplete it, and encourage them to grow from organic OP seed. And support your growers – they work tirelessly day in and out to keep us fed!
David said: “My hope is that if people are growing more of their own food they will also grow a respect for the people who try to make a living from growing.”
More respect means a fairer, more sustainable food system for everyone.
Wondering how you can get involved? Visit our website to find out more about buying and growing OP seed. You can also support local produces by visiting the Landworkers Alliance; Community Supported Agriculture; Organic Growers Alliance; The Great British Food Hub and the Open Food Network
Think about where your seeds are coming from – buy local, open-pollinated varieties. Save your own and swap with neighbours, friends and your community.
Sinéad Fortune is the Manager of The Gaia Foundation’s Seed Sovereignty Programme. She is based in Perthshire, Scotland.
The Seed Sovereignty UK and Ireland Programme is an initiative of The Gaia Foundation and has been running since 2017. Its aim is to develop and support a seed system which provides a livelihood for small-scale growers, empowers local communities and makes our food system more resilient against climate change and other pressures. By focusing on open-pollinated locally produced seed we are facilitating a shift to more sustainable, diverse models of seed production.