It may seem as though a festival devoted to seeds would only be of interest to gardeners; but this would not be taking into account the vast number of issues surrounding seeds in our world today (see my article here for more). Indeed, as it is no exaggeration to say that everything we use comes from seeds, then if seeds begin to be controlled, modified or restricted, these become issues for everyone. With these issues in mind I participated in the Great Seed Festival (1) at the Garden Museum (2), London, to find representation from a wide diversity of groups and projects, all with seeds as their common interest.
The Garden Museum used to be a church and provided a beautiful backdrop to the issues being explored.
Sowing seeds of awareness
The festival – the first of its kind in the UK (3) – is organised by the Gaia Foundation (4), who put on a number of events and publish numerous reports in their work to help “local communities to secure land, seed, food and water sovereignty” (4). At the Gaia Foundation stall was some interesting literature about their work in Colombia and a representative from one of the networks which farmers have put into place for seed sovereignty in that country. As well as this, the stall featured some interactive explorations into African grains; sacks of which you could plunge your hands into in order to literally get a feel for the seeds.
The interactive aspect of the festival, indeed, was quite high, ensuring that a celebratory and interesting atmosphere prevailed throughout. Just a few examples were the bread baking demonstrations put on by Dusty Knuckle bakery (5), seedbomb workshops by Josie Jeffery (7) and chocolate making workshops by Rococo Chocolates (8) which meant that there was plenty to make (and taste!); if you wanted to know more about compost you could check out Capital Growth (8), and Ben Raskin (9) was present to help shed light on the sometimes tortuous legal world of seeds.
There was representation on the stalls from a wide variety of organisations. Caring about seeds, in many ways, has to go along with caring about your food. If you value eating food as a celebratory experience which can be valued and considered carefully according to impact on your body and on the world around you (and, if you wish to be a healthy person in a healthy world, this seems a fairly good idea), then you will probably at some point begin wondering about where the food you eat comes from. Perhaps you reside in a country where labelling of genetically modified organisms (GMOs) is not mandatory, such as the USA (10), in which case you may become concerned about the effects which GMOs may have on you or your environment. Even in the EU there are many ways in which GMOs can make it into our food, such as in animal feed which then becomes your milk, cheese and eggs (11); and which may well concern you. To help address these concerns the GM Free Me (12) campaign was on hand.
The Slow Food (13) organisation highlights awareness of seasonal produce and provides education on how people can best celebrate their food.
Also present was some heirloom wheat, available to get really up close with if you wish.
I was volunteering with the Heritage Seed Library (HSL) (14), who collect varieties of thousands of different strains of vegetables and sell or swap the seeds in order to encourage more biodiversity in food. This is important as we have lost around 70% of food varieties since World War Two (15) (for more on this see my article here).
Through the entire day the seed table was bustling; many people brought their own seeds to exchange and we received a huge amount of interest from a variety of age groups. This is always encouraging to see; at some seed saving events I have been to the average age has been veering around the 60 mark, and although I’m sure this has a lot to say about wisdom and knowledge, it does not necessarily bode well for future generations of seed saving. Luckily, the HSL table at the Great Seed Festival went against this trend.
I learnt a lot about the best ways of storing seeds – HSL recommend kilner jars with hermetically sealing lids, and a cool dry place to keep them with a faint current of air. It was also a highly encouraging and inspirational experience meeting so many fellow seed enthusiasts, and being able to share with them, even with such a small gesture.
Seed swapping is a very ancient way of keeping seeds viable; I learnt from the HSL of an old English tradition where you as a grower would post a selection of your saved seeds to a fellow grower who lives at least twenty miles away. This grower would in turn send a selection of their seeds to another one who lives twenty miles away from them; and so on, in a circle, meaning that every year you also receive a selection of seeds from a grower who lives at least twenty miles away from you (16).
The idea of this, apparently, was that you could grow the other people’s seeds for them, making them more adaptable and diverse, just in case something were to happen with their crop which meant that they could not keep their seeds safe. As you were passing the seeds around in a circle of growers, as well, then eventually your own seeds would make it back to you, seven or so generations on. The variety may well have changed in that time and this was seen as a beneficial way to preserve biodiversity and stability of food varieties.
It seems there has never been a better time to engage in actions such as these. With reports such the UN’s ‘Wake Up Before it’s Too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now’ (17) showing that the need for efficient and diverse (rather than high-input and monocultural) farming is no longer a niche idea being touted by hippies and indigenous groups, but is being pushed by international pan-governmental organisations, it seems only fitting that we all begin contributing to feeding abundant change.
Seeds of change
The organisations mentioned in this post represent just a small selection of those present at the Festival, which is not to asy they were the best, simply that they were the ones I managed to encounter. If you missed the festival but are still interested in who was involved, you can look at the programme here.
Seed saving and swapping seems to me to be an excellent way of helping facilitate more stable food systems and resilience in agriculture and gardening in general. It is therefore with great enthusiasm that I shall be helping out with the organisation of the UK’s largest seed swap event, Seedy Sunday in Brighton. The event, held on the first Sunday of February, brings together a variety of different seed-related groups and a seed-swap table for people to come and exchange seeds. In this respect it is very similar to the Great Seed Festival, and I fully expect the atmosphere to be just as inspirational, educational, and (of course) celebrational.
- Great Seed Festival, 2014. ‘Great Seed Festival’. http://www.greatseedfestival.co.uk/ – retrieved 11/11/14
- Garden Museum, 2014. ‘Home’. http://www.gardenmuseum.org.uk/ – retrieved 11/11/14
- Rhoades, Hal, 2014. ‘The Great Seed Festival: Helping Save Colombia’s Indigenous Seeds’. http://www.gaiafoundation.org/blog/gsf_saving_colombias_seeds – retrieved 11/11/14
- The Gaia Foundation, 2014. ‘About Us’. http://www.gaiafoundation.org/about-us – retrieved 11/11/14
- The Dusty Knuckle Bakery, 2014. ‘The Dusty Knuckle Bakery’. http://thedustyknucklebakery.blogspot.co.uk/ – retrieved 11/11/14
- The Seedbomb Laboratory, 2014. ‘Welcome to the seedbomb laboratory’. http://www.theseedbomblaboratory.com/ – retrieved 11/11/14
- Rococo Chocolates, 2014. ‘Rococo Chocolates’. http://www.rococochocolates.com/ – retrieved 11/11/14
- Capital Growth, 2014. ‘London’s Food Growing Network’, http://www.capitalgrowth.org/ retrieved 11/11/14
- Ben Raskin, 2014. ‘About Me’. http://benraskin.com/aboutme.htm – retrieved 11/11/14
- Byrne et al, 2014. ‘Labeling of Gentetically Modified Foods’. Colorado State University, 10/14. http://www.ext.colostate.edu/pubs/foodnut/09371.html – retrieved 11/11/14
- GMO Compass, 2014. ‘Genetic Engineering: Feeding the EU’s Livestock’. http://www.gmo-compass.org/eng/grocery_shopping/processed_foods/153.animal_feed_genetic_engineering.html – retrieved 11/11/14
- GM Free Me, 2014. ‘GM Free Me: Put Yourself on the Map’. http://www.gmfreeme.org/ retrieved 11/11/14
- Slow Food, 2014. ‘About Us’. http://www.slowfood.org.uk/about/about/ – retrieved 11/11/14
- Garden Organic, 2014. ‘What is the Heritage Seed Library?’ http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/hsl – retrieved 11/11/14
- Bifurcated Carrots, 2007. ‘Biodiversity Begins at Home’. http://www.bifurcatedcarrots.eu/2007/10/biodiversity-begins-at-home – retrieved 09/10/14
- Cunningham, Sally, 2014. Seed Saving Course. Garden House, Brighton, 18/10/14
- UN Conference on Trade and Development, 2013. ‘Wake Up Before it’s Too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now’. UNCTAD: Geneva. Available as PDF here: http://unctad.org/en/publicationslibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf