Tag Archives: seed sovereignty

Seeds of Halloween

Halloween…

Pumpkins - A Potent Symbol of Samhain and the seeds we are carrying within us. Photo by Charlotte Haworth.

Pumpkins – A Potent Symbol of Samhain and the seeds we are carrying within us. Photo by Charlotte Haworth.

As we approach once more the mid-point between the Autumn Equinox and Winter Solstice, known by many modern cultures as ‘Halloween’ and by some pagan traditions as Samhain (pronounced ‘sa–ween’), the beginning of winter, it seems a fitting moment to be reflecting upon what we have been harvesting throughout the year, both physically and metaphorically.

Samhain, October 31st, is celebrated by some as one of the most important feasts of the year, being a time where it is said that any magic practised is more potent, when “spirits” can be easily felt, and when communication amongst ourselves is enhanced (1). Whatever your own personal opinion on this matter, if you live in the Northern Hemisphere, you probably feel at least some kind of tingling expectation – don’t you? –at the fresh chill beginning to paw at you in the morning air; at the scent of wood-smoke drifting through the trees, and the glorious red-gold-amber spectacle of gently dropping leaves.

It may be interesting for those living in Britain to note that although relatively few people in the British Isles still know the traditions of Samhain, the festival is ceebrated in Galicia, Northern Spain, as ‘Samaín’ – showing the strong cultural ties we share and the similarities in our symbologies.

Harvesting Seeds

Last week, an important step was taken for the co-ordination of growers in the UK and Ireland, as the Gaia Foundation (2) released their preliminary report on the feasibility of creating a UK and Ireland-wide seed programme, enabling increased communication, education and resource mapping throughout the UK and Republic of Ireland. The report shows that all involved feel that such a programme will be highly useful to help growers, farmers and co-operatives to network, and encourage wider participation amongst growers of all kinds in the seed-saving process (3).

Such a task has many perspectives and is not necessarily simple, especially when you take into account (as the report does) the difference between ‘organic’ (not using chemical products) and ‘certified organic’ (with a designation from a body such as the Soil Association) and the pros and cons of F1 hybrid seeds, and whether or not it is useful to produce them along with Open pollinated (OP) seeds (3).

Nevertheless, the report is clear on the fact that growers, campaigners, farmers and other interested seedy people throughout the land believe that a network can help to break the hold of multinational companies on the seed market who are contributing to a loss of agro-biodiversity, and instead encourage a community of commercial growers who are interested not only in short-term profit, but in regeneration of land, soil and ecosystem preservation, and genetic diversity.

Nurturing our Networks

For the next 6 weeks we shall be living in increasing darkness as the sun shines for less and less each day, culminating in the shortest day of Yule or Winter Solstice on the night of December 21st. It is a time traditionally for gathering around the fire and telling stories; imagining new beginnings and preparing for the return of the sun. In our modern societies such connotations are perhaps little more than metaphors, but they can be powerful ones even so.

Whether you are planning some pumpkin carving, a spooky party, a magical ritual or simply a normal Saturday night, Samhain seems an apt time to deepen connections amongst family and friends, and to begin new ones.

Whatever seeds we have at this time, if we nurture them now, they will grow strong once their time comes. There’s no need to hurry, though; the time of darkness is also a time for patience.

Happy Samhain…

Notes

If you wish to see the full report, please feel free to request it from me using the ‘Contact’ page.

References

  1. Sentier, E, 2014. Trees of the Goddess: A New Way of Working with the Ogham. Shaman Pathways: Gloucestershire, UK.
  2. Gaia Foundation, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://www.gaiafoundation.org/about-us – retrieved 17/10/15
  3. Strong, H, 2015. ‘Developing a Robust, Accessible and Diverse Organic Seed System in the UK and Ireland: Feasibility Study Report’. Gaia Foundation: October 2015

Seed Saving for Beginners

Now that spring is officially here and the balance of light has tipped towards days being longer than nights, many people are beginning to get our gardens ready for an abundant year.

One of the key parts of growing your own crops – whether for food, as companion plants or simply to look pretty – is saving seeds from your own varieties so that you can grow them again next year.

Seed saving is rewarding and very useful in terms of food security and helping plants become adapted and resilient. The techniques are pretty simple, and I have already written some basic seed saving tips here (1) which focus mainly on how to harvest seeds once you have produced them. But how do you get to the point where you have some seeds you believe are worth saving?

This Equinox, I was joined by a lovely (and coincidentally, all female) group of keen beginner seed savers at the Oasis Nature Garden (2) in Stockwell to explore some ways of growing crops to save seed. Below are the notes from my workshop.

If you were not at the workshop, hopefully the notes will still serve to inspire and guide you a little. If you feel like you need more, perhaps it’s worth considering attending a seed saving workshop of your own.

Introduction

The workshop was organised as part of the ‘Spring Re-skilling Workshop’ (ref) series run by the London Freedom Seed Bank (3). The aims of the London Freedom Seed Bank are to:

  1. Educate people to help them to save seeds properly through trainings into how to ensure biodiversity, quality and varietal purity
  2. Provide a community resource for people to utilise as a seed bank (3)

My workshop goes through the first point. After the workshop, participants could take home a variety of their choice from the Seed Bank, to grow and save seeds from which they can then pass back to the Seed Bank during the Autumn Harvest festival.

This is the workshop plan:

Workshop Plan - Design by Charlotte Haworth

Workshop Plan – Design by Charlotte Haworth

 

  1. Why save seed?

You may want to save seed to save money (so you don’t have to keep buying new seeds every year), to keep a variety which is not generally available, or to create an abundance of seeds which you can share with others. The Heritage Seed Library (4) – a great resource for any seed saver, and well worth a look – also gives these reasons why people might want to save seeds:

– To preserve a link with the past

– To assure a supply of a particular variety

– “Making a deliberate stand against current trends in the seed industry” *(we will go into more detail about this in section 2)

-To create surplus seed

– Because they have always done so….

– To stop genetic erosion and preserve biodiversity (5)

When we save seeds, we are taking our autonomy over what we are producing, preserving and consuming. It is important when we do this that we understand what open pollinated techniques are, and how they differ from commercial seed production techniques.

  1. The difference between Commercial and Open Pollinated

Most commercial seeds – whether they are for sale for farmers in the large-scale agriculture industry, or for home-growing gardeners, are produced specifically for ease of growing all crops more or less the same i.e. all of the crops will be suited to more or less the same environment, will need the same chemical inputs, and will crop at more or less the same time. For commercial growers who have to fulfil the demands of market quotas this is very useful (1). Indeed, in the EU it is illegal for seeds to be sold for commercial use which do not conform to strict criteria of “Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability” (1, 6).

F1

To this end, many commercial seeds are bred to conform to these standards. One method which has been discovered of creating seeds which produce crops that are distinctive, uniform and stable is to hybridise, or cross-breed, two different strains from the same family. The resulting offspring all contain the same genetic material and so all follow more or less identical growing patterns. This type of seed-breeding is known as “F1” as the seeds created are the “first filial” generation of the new variety.

Can you save seeds from F1 varieties?

As F1 varieties have two different parents, when you save seeds from them to plant the resulting offspring will revert to either one of the two parents, or a random mix of them. This means they will not grow “true to type”: you will not be able to save a particular variety from them as you cannot guarantee what characteristics the plants will have.

If you wish to create your own, new variety, saving seeds from F1 varieties may be a good place to start. Then you need to save seeds from numerous successive generations (at least four generations are needed to stabilise the variety), killing all of the plants which do not exhibit the varieties you are looking for, so that you can create a strain which is pure. This is the method which breeders use, but it involves a lot of trial and error, and sacrificing of plants which you will not be able to use for eating or other things. As such, saving seeds from F1 varieties is not suitable for anyone except those wishing to dedicate time and space to breeding new varieties.

If you simply wish to save seeds for use next year, it is definitely better to grow crops from Open Pollinated seeds.

Open Pollinated techniques

When seeds are Open Pollinated (sometimes shortened to OP), it means that they reproduce naturally. Seeds created using this technique are resilient, adaptable to numerous climatic and chemical changes and variable. The last characteristic is important to note as it means that when using OP seeds you need to actively preserve the varietal strain by making sure that they are not too variable.

  1. Life Cycle

This is a generalised, simplified version of the life cycle of a plant:

The Life Cycle - Design by Charlotte Haworth

The Life Cycle – Design by Charlotte Haworth

For most growers, especially commercial growers, they only reach the second stage and then cut the cycle short by harvesting all plants. Even if the plant is being grown for the seed as a crop, as with corn (zea mays) or fruits such as tomatoes (Solanum Lycopersicum) and peppers capsicum annuum), then chances are that if the seed is harvested and re-planted the plants will not grow true-to-type (see Section 2, above).

The growers then have to buy new seeds if they wish to continue growing the following year. This is very useful for commercial seed producers as they have a continuing customer base.

But how do the seeds keep being produced?

If you are interested in the life cycle, it is important to note that even with commercial seeds, someone somewhere is going through the whole life cycle – even if they are F1, they still need to keep producing parent plants for the hybridised seeds. However, the commercial life cycle looks more like this:

Life Cycle Interrupted - Design by Charlotte Haworth

Life Cycle Interrupted – Design by Charlotte Haworth

The seeds which are then available to the public will not be true to type when re-planted. When you look at who owns what in the commercial seed market (see for example seed co mind map) it is clear that there are only a few key companies. It is not in their short-term financial interests to preserve a wide variety of crops as these are more difficult to maintain, so they do not. Since the Second World War, we have lost an estimated 70% (7) of our food crop varieties.

Agropoly - Source: Philip H. Howard www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability (2009)

Agropoly – Source: Philip H. Howard http://www.mdpi.com/journal/sustainability (2009)

One more thing to note which may be of interest is that all of the major seed companies are also agrichemical companies so it is in their interest to produce seeds which rely on or are adapted to heavy use of e.g. fertilisers, herbicides or pesticides. This is true even of seeds which are not F1 – they will still have been bred to be reliant on a ‘junk food’ diet.

What do points 1, 2 and 3 mean about saving seeds?

– It is important to save seeds if we wish to have greater nutritional choice, biodiversity and food security

– Seed saving is about creating a diversity of choices in terms of numbers of varieties available but at the same time is about keeping those varieties distinct to create more adaptability and resilience

So, when we are saving seeds, we need to be thinking about the wider picture of keeping many different varieties – some of which have been bred for hundreds or sometimes thousands of years – alive. However, on a practical, individual level, it is just as important to consider the importance of varietal purity and ensuring we keep our strains from mixing with others.

  1. Cross-pollinating and self-pollinating plants

To make our seed saving as easy as possible, we also have to be aware of some more distinctions.

Annuals, perennials and biennials

Many of our garden crops are annuals – this means that they naturally die after one growing season, so their seeds are produced at the end of that growing season.

Some examples of common annual crops include

– Tomatoes (Solanum Lycopersicum)

– Lettuce (Lactuca Sativa)

– Peas (Phaseolus Vulgaris)

– Peppers (Capsicum Annuum)*

*These are annual crops in temperate regions, though in the tropics/warm environments such as hothouses, can be grown as perennials.

Many of our garden crops are biennials – this means they take two years to complete their growing cycle, so you have to care for them for this long if you wish to harvest seed from them.

Some examples of biennial crops include

– Carrot (Daucus Carota subsp. Sativus)

– Parsnip (Pastinaca Sativa)

– Broccoli, Cabbage, Kale, Brussels Sprouts, Kohl Rabi (Brassica Oleracea)

– Beetroot and Chard (Beta Vulgaris)

Many of our garden crops are perennials – their life cycle lasts more than two years and it can be a number of years before they produce seeds.

Some examples of perennial crops include

– Asparagus (Asparagus officinalis)

– Globe Artichoke (Cynara cardunculus var. scolymus)

– Blackcurrant (Ribes Nigrum)

– Gooseberry (Ribes Grossularia)

*Strawberries, though a perennial shrub, can be disregarded when it comes to seed saving as all cultivated strawberries are produced using hybridisation (of Fragaria x Ananassa) and therefore will not produce true-to-type offspring. Most crops grown in this way are clones.

Reproduction

In order to reproduce and create seeds, plants need to reproduce using flowers which have both male and female parts which need to exchange pollen for reproduction to happen(this is true for the majority of plants, and all relevant food crops). This pollen exchange can happen by wind, insects or other menas. With flowers, it is important to note two further distinctions, the difference between self-pollinating and cross-pollinating plants.

Self-pollinating

            Plants which are self-pollinating can reproduce with themselves i.e. they . These plants are also known as self-fertile.

Flowers which have the capacity for self-pollination have the male and female parts in the same flower. These flowers are known as perfect flowers.

 

Cross-pollinating

Plants which are cross-pollinating have male and female parts in separate flowers; sometimes on the same plant and sometimes on different plants. These are known as imperfect flowers.

Cross-pollinating plants have the capacity to cross-breed with any other variety in that species. For some crops, this is a huge variety; for example, your broccoli seeds can cross-breed not only with other broccoli varieties but also with any other variety in the same family (brassica oleracea) – this includes cabbage, kale, Brussel sprouts and swede!

So which plants are easiest to save seeds from?

As a beginner seed saver, or an experienced seed saver who wants to ensure the best success possible, the easiest plants to save seeds from are going to be annual crops (so that you only have one growing season before you can harvest the seeds) which are self-fertile (so that there is less risk of cross-pollination).

Great! So, er…how do I know which ones these are?

Though the botany of perfect and imperfect flowers is quite simple, it may not be possible to tell whether a plant is self-pollinating just from looking at it. These pictures are all of plants which are self-pollinating:

Phaseolus Lunatus (Lima Bean) - Drawn by Charlotte Haworth

Phaseolus Lunatus (Lima Bean) – Drawn by Charlotte Haworth

Lactuca Sativa (Lettuce) - Drawn by Charlotte Haworth

Lactuca Sativa (Lettuce) – Drawn by Charlotte Haworth

Solanum Lycopersicum (Tomato) - Drawn by Charlotte Haworth

Solanum Lycopersicum (Tomato) – Drawn by Charlotte Haworth

As you can see, the flowers are variable in shape, colour, number of petals etc. Therefore it is useful to look up whichever crop you are planning to grow to make sure it is self-pollinating. Two useful resources are the Plants for a Future database, and the HSL guidelines, which also go into more detail about the biological aspects.

  1. Seed Saving from Self-pollinating plants

Even with self-pollinating plants, cross-pollination can still be an issue, so it may be best to only grow one variety from every family you plan to save seed from.

Rogueing

      When you are growing plants for seed, you have to be prepared to sacrifice some of the plants in order to ensure varietal purity and high-quality seed. You need to keep an eye on your plants, and if any of them seem to be exhibiting characteristics which are not typical of the strain, you need to take them out and kill them before they begin flowering. The same is true of any plants which are not as strong or healthy as the others.

This practice is known as “rogueing” and it needs to be factored in to your planting plan. However many plants you want to end up with, you need to plant more to take into account the ones you may have to get rid of. The HSL guidelines go into more detail on amounts for specific species.

Some self-fertile annual varieties and tips on saving seeds from them

All of these crops are self-pollinating annuals:

– Broad Beans (Vicia Faba)

– French Beans (Phaseolus Vulgaris)*

– Lettuce (Lactuca Sativa)

– Lima Bean (Phaseolus Lunatus)

– Pea (Pisum Sativum)

– Peanut (Arachis Hypogaea)

– Pepper – Sweet and Chili (Capsicum Anuum)

– Runner Beans (Phaseolus Coccineus)*

– Tomato (Solanum Lycopersicum)

 

I will go into detail here about one variety, the Tomato (Solanum Lycopersicum) – a very easy plant to save seeds from and recommended by many as the first to try.

For detailed guidlines on the others check out the HSL guidelines.

All tomatoes are self-fertile, with 3 exceptions:

– Solanum pimpinellifolium (currant tomato) – generally thought of as the wild ancestor of the tomato.

– Potato-leaved varieties of tomato of which there are at least 400. Some examples include: Brandywine True Black and Cherokee Purple.

If unsure, you can check out www.tatianastomatobase.com (8) which has a comprehensive list of varieties

– Double Blossom Beefsteak

If your tomatoes are not one of these three exceptions then you can grow more than 1 variety at a time

– When growing for seed, bear in mind that different varieties produce different amounts of seeds and it is not always the case that the bigger the fruit the more seeds.

– The seeds are inside the fruit. Best way to harvest the seeds is to allow the fruit to ripen on the plant. Make sure the fruits you are harvesting seeds from are fully mature – even though firm tomatoes are good to eat, the seeds will not be ready until the fruit is fully ripe.

Saving – Use the fermentation method. I go into detail about how to do this here: Seed Saving Part 2 (1).

Tomato seeds need to be fermented in order to ensure viability because of the coating around each seed which inhibits germination. Fermentation also destroys seed-borne diseases.

– One thing to mention is that when using the fermentation method you need to check the seeds in the water every day and strain the water and bad seeds out as soon as the mould appears, as if you leave it too long, they may start to sprout!

Storage: Make sure you dry the seeds properly in a well-ventilated, dry space. HSL recommends a plate or sheet of glass, if you have one lying around. Then store them in a packet with the date and variety written clearly on it.

– Tomato seeds can be viable for up to 6 years when stored correctly.

References

1. Haworth, C, 2014. ‘Seed Saving, part 2: Practical ways to save seed’.  https://permaculturenews.org/2014/11/14/seed-saving-part-2-practical-ways-to-save-seed// – retrieved 28/3/15

  1. Oasis, 2014. ‘Oasis Play: Nature Garden’. http://oasisplay.org.uk/come-and-play/nature-garden/ – retrieved 28/3/15
  2. London Freedom Seed Bank, 2014. ‘About Us’. https://londonfreedomseedbank.wordpress.com/about/ – retrieved 28/3/15
  3. Garden Organic, 2015. ‘Heritage Seed Library Seed Saving Guidelines’. http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/seed-saving-guidelines– retrieved 28/3/15
  4. Garden Organic, 2015. ‘Heritage Seed Library Seed Saving Guidelines: Why save Seed?’ Available as a PDF here: http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/sites/www.gardenorganic.org.uk/files/resources/hsl/1_WhySaveSeed.pdf – retrieved 28/3/15
  5. Haworth, C, 2014. ‘Seed Saving part 1: Seedy Issues’. Permaculture News, 18/10/14. http://permaculturenews.org/2014/10/18/seed-saving-part-1-seedy-issues/ – retrieved 28/3/15
  6. Bifurcated Carrots, 2007. ‘Biodiversity Begins at Home’. http://bifurcatedcarrots.eu/2007/10/biodiversity-begins-at-home/ – retrieved 28/3/15
  7. Tatiana’s Tomato Base, 2015. ‘Main Page’. http://tatianastomatobase.com/wiki/Main_Page – retrieved 28/3/15

 

Springtime Sowing at Seedy Sunday

This past week we have gone through a key moment in the solar calendar as the balance of light begins to tip inexorably towards more light and less dark. Many traditions celebrate this time as one of the “quarter days” in between the Winter Solstice and the Spring Equinox. The exact date changes depending on where the sun is but is usually celebrated (by those who still pay attention to these things) between the 1st and 3rd of February. The festival, known most commonly as Imbolc – pronounced “ee-molk” – is a recognition of the changing of the seasons; a time when life begins returning after the winter months, and when the ground begins to warm up sufficiently for seeds to be planted.

It is fitting, then, that the first Sunday of February every year sees the return of the UK’s largest seed swap, Seedy Sunday (1), held this year on Sunday 1st February in its usual location of the Brighton Corn Exchange. Seed swapping is an important way to help you to grow more and stronger varieties, and to help to preserve genetics of existing varieties as more than one person will plant them.

The Seed Swap table. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

The Seed Swap table. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Er…why don’t I just go to the garden centre?

When you save seeds from your crops using open-pollinated methods you are preserving the variety of plant – be it flower, vegetable or other crop – and thus ensuring that the plant’s genes can continue to the next generation. By doing this you make the variety more stable and also you create a seed which is adapted to whichever environment you have grown it in, so you know it will do well there. However, being open pollinated, the seed will also easily adapt to other environments.

If you are a grower but you do not save seeds you will have to keep buying new seeds from a commercial company. There are very few commercial seeds available which have been produced using open pollinated methods; indeed, under EU regulations, it is currently illegal to sell such seeds without registering them for ‘Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability’ (2) and proving that the variety is ‘commercially viable’ (3). As open pollinated seeds are usually non-uniform and adaptable this is usually not possible; so the vast majority of commercial seeds which are available to buy will have been produced using other methods, usually hybridisation.

Such techniques are fantastic for producing a clear strain of crops which will all crop at more or less the same time and which need a specific environment to grow in, hence their popularity with farmers growing on a large, intensive scale. However, when you grow crops from hybridised seeds it is very difficult to save seeds successively from them, as the offspring of the plants will revert to either one or other of the parent genes and your seeds will not be true to type. If you want it to be worth planting your seeds – and even on a small, home scale it is still important that you utilise your energy and resources efficiently and effectively – there is little point in planting seeds which have been produced from a hybrid parent, as you have no idea how they will turn out. This, conveniently for the commercial seed companies, means that you have to keep going back to them for your seeds year on year. So seed swapping is beneficial even for no other reason than financially. For more on why it may be a good idea to save seeds, as well as practical ways to get the best from your saved seeds, please see my articles here and here .

This way for seeds! Photo by Charlotte Haworth

This way for seeds! Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Brilliant! So how does it work?

One of the main ideas of Seedy Sunday is to create not only a space for people to come and exchange seeds, but to encourage education on issues around seed saving and exchanging, as well as creating links and networks with different groups from around Brighton and even further afield. The Corn Exchange (part of Brighton Dome) is a vast hall, almost ample for the number of different organisations who came along – although this year the event is growing so much that we had to have a few stalls in the foyer and cafe. On entering the Corn Exchange one is greeted immediately by a large barrow, alluringly spilling vegetables, from Barcombe Nurseries (3); then, after purchasing your ticket, which sets you back three pounds, you walk between light-bedecked twinkling trees – very appropriate for Imbolc as a time of celebration of light – and into the hall itself.

Lights in trees greet the attendees. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Lights in trees greet the attendees. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Greeted by Abundance. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Greeted by Abundance. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

What to do?

This year we hosted around 54 different groups, from commercial sellers such as Infinity Foods (our main sponsor) (4) and Foodshed (5) to charities such as RSPB Brighton (6) and Sussex Wildlife Trust (7); gardening groups such as Craven Vale and Whitehawk Allotment Society and Moulsecoomb Forest Garden (8); as well as exciting organisations involved in work to help people become more aware of food, seeds, and their role in gaining the most from them such as Brighton and Hove Food Partnership (9) and Brighton Permaculture Trust (10). All these, as well as campaigns like Beyond GM (11), and then organisations who may be more expected at a seed swap event: people selling plants and seeds such as Pennard Plants (12) and Special Branch Tree Nursery (13).

Along with the stall-holders came a whole host of activities; things to make, such as Seed Freedom’s (14) seedbombs, things to see, such as the numerous plant varieties on sale, and even taste, such as the recipes being demonstrated by the Community Chef (15), and the large selection of honeys on the Blackman Bee farm (16) stall. Children’s activities were also on offer from the Slow Food UK (17) stall and Infinity Foods Cafe (18) were set up in the corner for anyone fancying a breather. And a breather may well be necessary; having weaved your way with fascination amongst the numerous stall holders, you still have not yet come to the helpfully signposted Seed Swap table itself.

On arriving at the Seed Swap table, first thing to do is hand over your own home-saved seeds – if you have any. In previous years the Seed Swap has accepted pretty much anything which people bring, though we have decided to become stricter on which seeds are allowed at the Swap as we realised that some are not worth swapping. For example, commercial and other seeds from hybridised plants have much less value as they will only produce one crop whereas open-pollinated seeds can theoretically be re-grown every year. If you have not saved any seeds, you can still participate in the seed swap; all seed packets are given away for a donation so even first-time growers can get started.

Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Learn, save…celebrate!

As well as the seed swapping aspect, a key part of what makes Seedy Sunday special are the talks, helping to raise awareness of issues around seeds and seed saving, and enabling people to broaden their education on such matters. This year the ‘star speaker’ was a lady from the television – oh yes, we even have celebrities! Her name is Christine Walkden and she participated in a ‘Q&A’ session on gardening tips with Steve Bustin, this year’s chair of the Seedy Sunday Committee.

For those less star-struck but still thirsting for knowledge, we had talks on how to save seeds successfully from Pat Childerhouse and growing seed potatoes from Chris Smith of Pennard Plants (12). There was also a screening of some film clips from an upcoming film on seed saving – ‘From Seed to Seed’ (13) – by Nicholas Bell and Martina Widmer.

As mentioned on the Seedy Sunday programme, the whole event has recently been under threat by the proposed, though currently politically dead, EU regulation on Plant Reproductive Material (14). Last year saw a dramatic increase in the number of seed campaigns across Europe as a reaction to the legislation, with the result that, dire as the consequences of the regulation would have been in terms of biodiversity of our ecosystems and freedom of our people, it at least encouraged many more people who were otherwise unaware of such issues to take an interest in them. For more on the proposed regulation, you can see my article from last year here and a more up-to-date one here.

Though the PRM regulation is politically dead for now, the laws of the United Kingdom and indeed of Europe and much of the rest of the world are still far from accommodating when it comes to seed saving on anything less than an intensive industrial scale, and to discuss these issues we had Ben Raskin from the Soil Association with a talk entitled ‘Why does the European Union keep trying to interfere with our seeds and what can we do about it?’

Such issues are important to maintain an awareness of if we wish to keep saving and exchanging seeds. Of equal importance, however, is the celebration of these activities as a celebration of life itself. That Seedy Sunday is held at the same time as Imbolc is no accident: this is the time when life begins returning, symbolically and also physically. I heard many Seedy Sunday-ers commenting throughout the day that they feel as though they are just beginning to wake up after spending the wintertime ‘almost asleep’: such feelings are characteristic not only because of the grim damp greyness which is the British winter but simply as a manifestation of the cycle of life. For many who attend Seedy Sunday the day is just as much a social occasion as it is for business; and to add to the air of festivity we had the Acabella choir singing periodically throughout the day, with a capella songs about plants, trees and growing.

Even the Corn Exchange decor can be seen as fitting to the event. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Even the Corn Exchange decor can be seen as fitting to the event. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Spring’s coming

So begins a new season: seeds, singing and socialising. Now is the time to start planting the seeds we have gained; both physically in the garden, and metaphorically as well. I trust all who attended Seedy Sunday this year had a thoroughly enjoyable day; any who missed it, why not consider attending next year, or, if you do not live in Brighton, finding your own local seed swap event. If there are none in your area, you may wish to consider starting one. Why not? Seedy Sunday may be the largest seed swap in the country but the whole thing is organised by a committee of just nine people, (including the newest member, me) who are all volunteers. If we can do it, you can as well!

References

  1. Seedy Sunday, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://seedysunday.org/category/about
  2. Raskin, Ben, 2014. “Using a Chainsaw to Crack a Nut”. Soil Association: Bristol. Available online here:
    https://www.soilassociation.org/blogs/latestblog/article/792/using-a-chainsaw-to-crack-a-nut
  3. Barcombe Nurseries, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://www.barcombenurseries.co.uk/about.html
  4. Infinity Foods Wholesale, 2015. ‘About’. http://www.infinityfoodswholesale.co.uk/about/
  5. Foodshed, 2015. ‘About’. http://www.foodshedbrighton.com/about.html
  6. RSPB Brighton, 2015. ‘District Local Group: Brighton’. http://www.rspb.org.uk/groups/brighton
  7. Sussex Wildlife Trust, 2015. ‘About’. http://www.sussexwildlifetrust.org.uk/about/index.htm
  8. Moulsecoomb Forest Garden, 2015. ‘About the Project’. http://www.seedybusiness.org/about.shtml
  9. Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, 2015. ‘About’. http://bhfood.org.uk/about/
  10. Brighton Permaculture Trust, 2015. ‘About’. https://brightonpermaculture.org.uk/about
  11. Beyond GM, 2015. ‘Beyond GM’. http://beyond-gm.org/
  12. Pennard Plants, 2015. ‘Growing the Dream’. https://pennardplants.com/
  13. Special Branch Tree Nursery, 2015. ‘Local Origin and Why it Matters’.http://www.specialbranchtrees.org.uk/why-local-origin.html
  14. Seed Freedom, 2015. ‘Home’. http://www.seedfreedom.net/
  15. Community Chef, 2015. ‘About’. http://communitychef.org.uk/about/
  16. Blackman Bee Farm, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://www.blackmanbeefarm.co.uk/about-us.html
  17. Slow Food UK, 2015. ‘About Us’. http://www.slowfood.org.uk/about/about/
  18. Infinity Foods Kitchen, 2015. ‘About’. http://infinityfoodskitchen.co.uk/about/
  19. Bell, N, 2013. ‘From Seed to Seed: an educational film on the production of seeds’. Civique Forum, 19/4/2013. http://www.forumcivique.org/de/artikel/seed-seed-educational-film-production-seeds
  20. Community Plant Variety Office, 2015. ‘Draft New Plant Reproductive Material Law’. http://www.cpvo.europa.eu/main/es/home/news/press-releases-and-communications/228-draft-new-eu-plant-reproductive-material-law

ORFC Day One: Planting Seeds

Today saw the planting of many seeds at Oxford Real Farming Conference (1), some of which are already beginning to sprout (if the metaphor can be stretched so far)…

The Conference began with a recognition of the importance of soil, something which surprisingly few farmers care for the health of (see for example 2), considering that without soil we would not have any farms. In the wake of the overturning of the proposed Soil Framework Directive (2) last year, there is growing concern that we need to be paying more attention to this most fundamental of things, to the extent that this year, 2015, has been declared the Year of Soils by the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the UN (3). To show this importance the first speaker in the Main Hall was world-renowned soil biologist and educator Dr Elaine Ingham (4), who flew in especially from California to attend.

From soil to seeds in the Land Worker’s Alliance area: a lively discussion of EU seed law, ‘Pathways to Seed Sovereignty’ with the Soil Association’s Ben Raskin, Kate McEvoy from Real Seeds, Peter Brown from the Biodynamic Plant Breeding and Seed Cooperative (5) and Dan Burston and Ashley Wheeler from the South West Seed Saver’s Co-op (6), was followed by a read-out of the LWA’s manifesto for policy change.

In terms of food, and linking all of these issues to actually how to get the public to change their eating habits, we had a very interesting public discussion, chaired by Vicki Hird of Friends of the Earth (7) with a panel from the Square Meal Report: Tim Lang (professor of Food Policy at City University), Dan Crossley (Food Ethics Council), Rob Macklin (National Trust), Mike Clarke (RSPB) and Philip Lymbery (Compassion in World Farming). The discussion began with a summary of what the Square Meal Report is: a report highlighting the need for “a fair and square deal for farming, people, wildlife and public health”. After a brief introduction from each of the panel, the floor was thrown open and ideas, stories and concerns began coming thick and fast. How to persuade people to buy ethical, healthy food when they cannot afford it? Who do we need to concentrate on: policy makers? Corporations? Local councils? Ourselves? Responses were wild and, as is usually the case in these discussions, many more questions were raised than we had time to discuss. One overarching theme I gathered, however, was the importance of keeping one’s integrity while allowing others to keep theirs as well. As Mike Clarke put it quite succinctly, “we need to keep an open mind…and ask questions”.

The ‘New Science of GMOs’ session run by Lawrence Woodward of Beyond GM (8) and Michael Antoniou of King’s College London, was so popular that the 80-seated capacity room was filled up with people sitting, standing and squeezing. An interesting sign of the growing level of concern about GMOs, perhaps.

In the technology department we had a discussion of ‘Appropriate Technologies’ which was very informative, though unfortunately some of the technology involved in the session managed to fail entirely; as they were supposed to be linking via Skype with Dorn Cox of Farmhack (9), a new open source community resource for farmers and growers to take control of tools and growing techniques into their own and communities’ hands; but could not get the internet to work. Nevertheless, we did get treated to Farmhack’s promo video and heard about the UK 2015 Farmhack gathering which will be happening on 15 and 16 April.

Along with these were sessions on flooding, a criticism on climate smart agriculture, a discussion of the concerns raised by TTIP when it comes to food and farming, a presentation on mental health in farming communities, and much much more, along with tasty locally-sourced food (we were told) and a wonderfully welcoming atmosphere. Tonight the Land Worker’s Alliance are organising food and musical entertainment, and the conference continues tomorrow.

References

  1. Oxford Real Farming Conference, 2014. ‘About’. http://orfc.org.uk/about/ – retrieved 21/12/14
  2. Monbiot, G, 2014. ‘The farming lobby has wrecked efforts to defend our soil’. Guardian, 5/6/2014. http://www.theguardian.com/environment/georgemonbiot/2014/jun/05/the-farming-lobby-has-wrecked-efforts-to-defend-our-soil – retrieved 06/01/15
  3. FAO, 2015. ‘International Year of Soils’. http://www.fao.org/soils-2015/en/ – retrieved 06/01/15
  4. Soil Food Web, Inc: Dr Elaine Ingham, 2014. ‘Homepage’. http://www.soilfoodweb.com – retrieved 04/01/15
  5. Biodynamic Association, 2015. ‘Biodynamic Plant Breeding and Seed Cooperative’. http://www.biodynamic.org.uk/farming-amp-gardening/seeds/biodynamic-plant-breeding-and-seed-co-operative/ – retrieved 06/01/15
  6. Land Worker’s Alliance, 2014. South West Seed Saver’s Co-op. https://www.google.co.uk/search?q=south+west+seed+savers+co+op&ie=utf-8&oe=utf-8&gws_rd=cr&ei=gDisVN-hGsm4Ud-2g6gL – retrieved 06/01/15
  7. Friends of the Earth, 2014. ‘About’. http://www.foe.co.uk/– retrieved 06/01/15
  8. Beyond GM, 2015. ‘Beyond GM’. http://beyond-gm.org/ – retrieved 06/01/15
  9. Farmhack, 2015. ‘Home’. http://farmhack.net/home/ – retrieved 06/01/15

 

The Biodiversity Web and How we can Re-Thread It

From a cursory glance into your local shop or most media outlets, it could seem that the trend of high-input, intensive farming – wherein monoculture-grown crops which are bought at low prices then transported to be sold at high prices or, in many cases, thrown away or left in the fields to rot – is the norm of today’s world (see for example 1). This has many problems, not least that this type of farming is in no way sustainable and the systems surrounding it involves an estimated 30 – 50% (1.2 – 22 billion tonnes) of food being wasted annually, before it even reaches a human stomach (2).

The factors surrounding such inefficiencies are many, but luckily, they are not the only way. Low-input, efficient and sustainable farming has been practised by many groups for centuries if not millennia (see for example 3); and though recent decades have seen the rise of large machinery, disregard for biodiversity and ecology and factory-farmed animals and crops (see for example 3), concepts such as sustainability and biodiversity are gradually becoming popular once more. Key names of the sustainable design movement of the past thirty years include Masanobu Fukuoka who recommends very low-input agricultural techniques such as ‘No-dig Farming’ (4) and use of seed bombs (see for example 5); and Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, who coined the term ‘Permaculture’ and the principles with which one can use such a design style in practice (see for example 6, 7).

The Web of Biodiversity - visible in many places if you know where to look. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

The Web of Biodiversity – visible in many places if you know where to look. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Caring for our world: not just for the minority!

These names, though well-known to people already interested in sustainable growing, may be completely unheard of to most of the public, including, probably, many farmers who are utilising what could be called ‘Permaculture’ or ‘Natural Farming’ simply through their own recognition of the holistic nature of the world and their respect for this while maintaining awareness of how to use the energies around them to create enough resources for themselves. Even in the world of what could be called ‘conventional’ farming, however, such ideas are permeating. In 2013 the UN Conference on Trade and Development published a report, entitled Wake Up Before It’s Too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now (8). This is not a bunch of alternative thinkers or unconnected-to-the mainstream farmers; but the UN, an internationally recognised and (more or less) respected organisation.  The report recommends

“A rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers.” (9)

This shift would not be possible without a fundamental reappraisal of our relationship with our environment. We need to consider what has been coined the ‘true cost’ (10) of farming; not just the price of the crop itself, which is in any case subject to the tides of the international market, but the cost to the environment of what is going into the farming. Philip Lymbery and Isabel Oakeshott, co-authors of Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat (11) refer to studies (see for example 12) which show that when looked at in this holistic way it is clear that as well as the environmental degradation and loss of biodiversity caused by high-input monoculture and factory farming, it is in fact less efficient – indeed, farmers actually lose money by utilising such methods -and worse for our health. For more details on this, see my report here (13)

When these factors are taken into account, it seems impossible to take the words of groups such as Syngenta and Bayer, who claim that large-scale agriculture with high use of chemicals in necessary for crop production (see for example 14), with much serious credence.

The joys of having many fruit varieties! Photo by Charlotte Haworth

The joys of having many fruit varieties! Photo by Charlotte Haworth

A Different Way…

There are, indeed, many groups who are experimenting with other ways of farming which take into account animal, environmental and social welfare, without forgetting the welfare of the farmers themselves. The shift is, in many ways, a subtle one and involves us all starting to look at things from a holistic perspective. We can all be conscious of the ‘web’ of biodiversity which surrounds us and connects to us; whether we are designing a farm, a home-scale garden or simply our week’s activities. As we all eat food, regardless of whether or not we have access to land for production, so somewhere we are all affecting the way in which that food is grown. One of the simplest ways in which we can become more aware of how to help create beneficial connections is just becoming aware of the different factors involved. From many years of involvement in practical projects for sustainable living I feel that these factors can be split into the following main categories:

  • Seed sovereignty – The need for autonomy and diversity of seed choice in order to create more sustainable and secure food systems
  • Critical Education – Passing on of key skills in growing, such as seed saving and sustainable, regenerative or holistic farming (otherwise known as permaculture, agro-ecology and any number of indigenous terms); but also other key skills to help society to become regenerative and sustainable, such as effective communication methods and social designs (for more on this see for example 14)
  • Food sovereignty – Linked to seed sovereignty, this involves re-integration of food networks into locally autonomous ones, and re-distribution of food surplus in the short term leading to self-regenerating food systems which create zero or very little waste in the long term. On a personal level, putting this strand into practice can be as simple as getting involved with your local vegbox scheme or food re-distribution group.
  • Networking- Creating links between different groups and individuals for mutual benefit and to avoid duplication and waste

These three come under the broad theme which it is probably prudent to remember, and which has many names though I am calling it:

Culture of Biodiversity –The need to recognise, appreciate and celebrate the need for biodiversity to benefit the heath of the planet and of ourselves, and to strive to improve this at all levels.

This can apply to many aspects of life, whether it is a diversity of currencies, such as supplementing one’s salary with work-exchange, use of LETS (15) and CSA credits (16) and local currencies; of people, such as exploration of the rich mixture of cultures which is available to us; and of plants, such as use of heirloom seeds and trees or buying odd varieties of vegetables to encourage preservation of different genes, and collection and cultivation of rare or forgotten plants which still may be of key use to us as a society.

The above list is by no means exhaustive but it seems that when we take into account the importance of seed sovereignty, critical education, food sovereignty and networking along with the broad theme of a culture of biodiversity we can begin truly cultivating a sustainable world.

Real farming

  With this in mind, it is refreshing to find so many groups who are already working towards these things. At seed level, we have events such as the Great Seed Festival (16) and Seedy Sunday (17) and the newly set up South West Seed Saver’s Co-op (18) and the Biodynamic Plant Breeding and Seed Co-op (19) (BPBSC), as well as the London Freedom Seed Bank (20), Open Pollinated Seed (21) and the Heritage Seed Library (23) who are promoting seed saving of heritage varieties.

From seed to fruit; with groups such as the Brighton Permaculture Trust (24) who can plant a heritage-variety orchard for you, and who are involved in the Orchards Without Borders cross-cultural exchange project (25) (26).

For education there are innumerable campaigns and organisations out there to hep you to decide for yourself what is right, from the Brighton and Hove Food Partnership (27) to Beyond GM (28) or Compassion in World Farming (29), as well as actual education establishments such as the Schumacher College (30), the Centre for Agro-ecology, Water and Resilience (31) and online resources such as those offered by the Soil Food Web (32). One downside to such establishments is the somewhat exclusive cost of many of the courses on offer, though this may begin to change as our culture begins to shift away from dependence on solely money as a currency, or as people become more autonomous with food and shelter and so have more money available for other things.

In terms of promoting a culture of biodiversity there are a number of groups such as the Permaculture Association of Britain (33), who promote permaculture in practice through the Diploma programme and the LAND Permaculture Demonstration Network, and the Gaia Foundation (34), which amongst other things is encouraging indigenous growing practices to promote biodiversity.

With such a wealth of actions going on from such a diverse range of groups, suddenly the future seems altogether more hopeful. Yet it is when we come together that our actions can really come alive, and that is where the networking side of things comes in.

Next week, I shall be attending an event which brings together many of the above-mentioned groups and individuals, as well as a whole host more; the Oxford Real Farming Conference (35). partly set up as an “antidote to the official Oxford Farming Conference” but mainly as a place for people to engage with positive actions and solutions, “to ask what the world really needs, and what’s possible, and to show what really can be done” (35), the Conference is now in its 6th year, with over 550 delegates planning to swoop upon Oxford this coming Tuesday.

Conference Networking

This year’s ORFC focusses on four main strands of alternative farming:

Farming Outside the Box: “fresh ideas and vibrant discussions at an event designed by farmers for farmers” (36)

Digging Deep: “economic and political trends that are shaping farming –– and at the deep ideas, of morality and science, that form the zeitgeist and underpin all our attitudes and actions” (37)

New Generation, New Ideas: “farmers and of everyone else who completes the food chain – bakers, butchers, distributors, retailers” (38)

Nuts and Bolts: “in depth discussion of all aspects of real farming” (39)

Each strand features speakers and there are also practical workshops for those who wish to get really in-depth.

The Oxford Real Farming Conference is just one of many examples of the power of networking, and I shall be reporting from it this Tuesday and Wednesday, 6 and 7 January 2015. Check this blog for inside information on all things Real (farming)!

References

  1. Collapse of Industrial Civilization, 2014. ‘Monoculture: Food Variety Tree’. http://collapseofindustrialcivilization.files.wordpress.com/2013/07/food-variety-tree-754.gif – retrieved 4/01/15
  2. Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 2013. “Global Food: Waste Not, Want Not”. Institution of Mechanical Engineers: London. Available as a PDF here: http://www.imeche.org/docs/default-source/reports/Global_Food_Report.pdf?sfvrsn=0 – retrieved 4/01/15
  3. Kirschenmann, F, 2004. ‘A Brief History of Sustainable Agriculture’. The Networker: Volume 9, No. 2. Science and Environmental health Network: Iowa. Available online here: http://www.sehn.org/Volume_9-2.html#a2 – retrieved 4/01/15
  4. Fukuoka, M, 1985. The Natural Way of Farming: The Theory and Practice of Green Philosophy. Bookventure: Online
  5. Bones, J, 1995. “On a Green Mountain: Interview with Masanobu Fukuoka, Sensei of Natural Farming”. Wildness Rus, 1995. Archived content. Available as an internet archive here: http://web.archive.org/web/20051224120427/http://www.seedballs.com/gmmfpa.html – retrieved 4/01/15
  6. Mollison, B, 1988. Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual. Tagari Publications: Tasmania
  7. Holmgren, D, 2011. Permaculture: Principles and Pathways beyond Sustainability. Permanent Publications: The Sustainability Centre, Hampshire
  8. UNCTAD, 2013. Wake Up Before It’s Too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. UNCTAD: Geneva. Available as a PDF here: http://unctad.org/en/publicationslibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf -retrieved 4/01/15
  9. UNCTAD, 2013. ‘Key Messages’. Wake Up Before It’s Too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now for Food Security in a Changing Climate. UNCTAD: Geneva. Available as a PDF here: http://unctad.org/en/publicationslibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf -retrieved 4/01/15
  10. Lamberley, P and Oakeshott, I, 2014. Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat. Bloomsbury: London
  11. Emily S Cassidy et al, 2013. Environ. Res. Lett. 8 034015. “Redefining agricultural yields: from tonnes to people nourished per hectare”. University of Minnesota: Minneapolis
  12. Haworth, C, 2014. ‘The Meat Industry and Ideas for What We Can Do About It’. Permaculture News, 15/04/2014. http://permaculturenews.org/2014/04/15/meat-industry-ideas-can/ -retrieved 4/01/15
  13. Haworth, C, 2014. ‘Scientific Research Condemns Neonicotinoid Pesticides: What More Will it Take?’ Permaculture News, 17/07/2014. http://permaculturenews.org/2014/07/17/scientific-research-condemns-neonicotinoid-pesticides-will-take/ -retrieved 4/01/15
  14. Macnamara, L, 2012. People and Permaculture: Caring and Designing for Ourselves, each Other and the Planet. Permanent Publications: The Sustainability Centre, Hampshire
  15. Letslink UK, 2014. ‘Welcome! So what are LETS?’ http://www.letslinkuk.net -retrieved 4/01/15
  16. Soil Association, 2014. ‘Community Supported Agriculture’. http://www.soilassociation.org/communitysupportedagriculture – retrieved 4/01/15
  17. Great Seed Festival, 2014. ‘The Great Seed Festival: Celebrating the Seeds that Feed Us’. http://www.greatseedfestival.co.uk – retrieved 4/01/15
  18. Seedy Sunday, 2014. ‘Seedy Sunday Brighton’. http://seedysunday.org – – retrieved 4/01/15
  19. Land Worker’s Alliance, 2014. ‘South West Seed Saver’s Coop’. http://landworkersalliance.org.uk/south-west-seed-savers-cooperative/ – retrieved 21/12/14
  20. Biodynamic Association, 2014. ‘Biodynamic Plant Breeding and Seed Co-op’. http://www.biodynamic.org.uk/farming-amp-gardening/seeds/biodynamic-plant-breeding-and-seed-co-operative.html – retrieved 21/12/14
  21. London Freedom Seed Bank, 2014. ‘About Us’. http://londonfreedomseedbank.wordpress.com/about/ – retrieved 21/12/14
  22. Open Pollinated Seed, 2014. ‘Introduction’. http://www.open-pollinated-seeds.org.uk/open-pollinated-seeds/Introduction.html  – retrieved 21/12/14
  23. Garden Organic, 2014. ‘What is the HSL?’ http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/hsl – retrieved 21/12/14
  24. Brighton Permaculture Trust, 2014. ‘Home’. https://brightonpermaculture.org.uk – retrieved 04/01/15
  25. Brighton Permaculture Trust, 2014. ‘Orchards Without Borders’. https://brightonpermaculture.org.uk/orchards/withoutborders – retrieved 04/01/15
  26. Haworth, C, 2014. ‘Orchards Without Borders: Exploring Biodiversity and Culture’. Abundance Garden, 11/12/14. https://abundancedancegarden.wordpress.com/2014/12/11/orchards-without-borders-exploring-diversity-and-culture/ – retrieved 21/12/14
  27. Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, 2014. ‘About’. http://bhfood.org.uk/about/ – retrieved 21/12/14
  28. Beyond GM, 2014. ‘Beyond GM’. http://beyond-gm.org/ – retrieved 21/12/14
  29. CIWF, 2014. ‘About Us’. http://www.ciwf.org.uk/about-us/ – retrieved 21/12/14
  30. Schumacher College, 2014. ‘About Us’. https://www.schumachercollege.org.uk/about – retrieved 04/01/15
  31. Coventry University, 2014. ‘Centre for Agro-Ecology, Water and Resilience’. http://www.coventry.ac.uk/research/areas-of-research/agroecology-water-resilience/ – retrieved 04/01/15
  32. Soil Food Web, Inc: Dr Elaine Ingham, 2014. ‘Homepage’. http://www.soilfoodweb.com – retrieved 04/01/15
  33. Permaculture Association, 2014. ‘Our Work’. https://www.permaculture.org.uk/our-work -retrieved 04/01/15
  34. Gaia Foundation, 2014. ‘About Us’. http://www.gaiafoundation.org/about-us – retrieved 21/12/14
  35. Oxford Real Farming Conference, 2014. ‘About’. http://orfc.org.uk/about/ – retrieved 21/12/14
  36. Oxford Real Farming Conference, 2015. ‘Farming Outside the Box’. http://orfc.org.uk/orfc-2015/farming-outside-the-box/ – retrieved 04/01/15
  37. Oxford Real Farming Conference, 2015. ‘Digging Deep’. http://orfc.org.uk/orfc-2015/digging-deep/ – retrieved 04/01/15
  38. Oxford Real Farming Conference, 2015. ‘New Generation, New Ideas’. http://orfc.org.uk/orfc-2015/new-generation-new-ideas/ – retrieved 04/01/15
  39. Oxford Real Farming Conference, 2015. ‘Nuts & Bolts’. http://orfc.org.uk/orfc-2015/seminars-and-technical/ retrieved 04/01/15

Orchards without Borders: Exploring Diversity and Culture

 

Enjoying the beauty of our food growing. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Enjoying the beauty of our food growing. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

With reports showing that industrialised farming contributes to more than 10 % of climate change (see for example 1), that conventional farming is highly inefficient and actually more costly than small-scale multi-input agriculture (see for example 2) and even the UN insisting that our food systems need to change drastically if we expect to be able to feed ourselves and our families in the future (3), it seems increasingly clear that we need to change the way in which we obtain and consume our food.

How?

For some, this begins at a personal level: a great way to gain more food autonomy is to begin growing your own food. With this comes the need to learn about growing methods as well, crucially, learning about how to propagate your food varieties; otherwise you may have gained autonomy on one part of your food but you are still dependent on the large seed corporations to produce it in the first place. For more on this see my article ‘Seedy Issues’ here.

For others, the change is more political; with a diverse range of campaigns from Beyond GM (4) to the Campaign for Seed Sovereignty (5) raising awareness and influencing political opinion on the complex web of rules, regulations and trade agreements which affect our food, whether we are aware of them or not.

Another angle to come at it is the health angle, and your body’s need to have access to a diverse range of nutrients. Even if you have no interest at all in gardening or in politics you may be concerned over what food you eat and how it will affect your health.

Linking the issues

It can be seen that all of the issues mentioned are interrelated. When trying to create a healthy and happy life, it is important that we choose the right food for us. This means that the more resilient and healthy our food systems are, the happier we can be. Occasionally, laws, trends and regulations can come in the way of this: from the ‘norm’ of supermarkets only accepting a tiny proportion of the food varieties available (see for example 6) to dying arts such as seed saving and fruit tree grafting causing a deficit in our ability to produce good food (see for example 7).

A key aspect of improving our own and others’ ability to have access to healthy and sustainable food is to utilise what skills and knowledge are out there and create connections which can be more beneficial to ourselves and our environment than the complex web of logistics which so often characterises our internationalised food systems. It is with this in mind that I participated in the project Orchards Without Borders last month.

Orchards without Borders: trees which please

                The project (9) is a cultural exchange between England and France (and hopefully further afield) to help provide education, information and holistic interest in orchards and their uses. Set up by the Brighton Permaculture Trust (10) and Brighton and Hove Food Partnership (11) on the English side and Collines Normandy CPIE (12) in France and funded partly by Interreg (13), the part in which I participated was a study trip to Normandy where we visited both organic and non-organic orchards, taught orchard-related lessons in a French school, learned about how to make traditional products such as pastries, cider and pate de fruits. A healthy amount of actual tree planting was also involved.

Setting off

We travelled by car and ferry from Brighton to Normandy. On the ship on the way there we saw what could have been surmised as a good omen; a taster of how the rest of the trip would go.

Rainbow from teh ship - a good omen. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Rainbow from the ship – a good omen. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Once in France we found warm welcomes wherever we went. One thing which was particularly pleasing was how celebratory every meal we had appeared. I am not sure if this is due to French culture in general or just the people we were with, but it was highly satisfying experiencing the joy of shared food with people we had just met. From many years of working to engender enthusiasm in the pure celebration and joy which can be present in every single mouthful of food which we eat, it seems that if we are to make a cultural switch in which we create more sustainable food systems which benefit both us and the planet, this cannot be possible if we do not appreciate food in the first place (see for example 13).

Something which goes along nicely with appreciation of eating food is appreciation of what goes into food. As part of the trip we learned about traditional Norman ways to use apples, including a session in a real French bakery where we were taught how to make a number of Norman baked delights.

Making apple pastries in the boulangerie. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Making apple pastries in the boulangerie. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

And learning how to make traditional Norman tarte. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

And learning how to make traditional Norman tarte. Photo by Charlotte Haworth

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

We also learned how to make pâte de fruits, a kind of sugary, fruity paste which is dried in order to preserve the good nutrition in the fruit and make a tasty sweet which is kind of healthy (if you are ok with having half as much sugar as fruit) for the winter. As far as I am aware there is not really a direct English equivalent, though we do have a very ancient tradition from long before sugar was introduced to the British Isles of making a kind of dried fruit leather (for more on this see 14). Our teacher, Josine, told how in some parts of Normandy the tradition is so important that there are whole festivals devoted to the making of this sticky delicacy. She mentioned one place, Vire, where the mixture is made in a giant cauldron which is stirred by the townspeople for hours on end while they sing traditional songs.

Though our cauldron was not that large I still had a go.

Stirring the cauldron. Photo by Stephan Gehrels

Stirring the cauldron. Photo by Stephan Gehrels

Fruity Issues

Throughout the trip, one thing which kept resurfacing as a key issue was the importance of diversity; both in our orchards and beyond. Whilst teaching eight, nine and ten-year-old children we used the newly invented ‘Orchards are Alive’ magnetic board to help illustrate the huge range of creatures and plants which are present in a healthy orchard from season to season. We visited one eating-apple orchard where they grew around thirty different varieties of apple. This diversity of life is important to keep the ecosystem in balance, but also to produce healthier fruit. Indeed, most apple varieties need at least one other type present in order to achieve pollination, and some need two (15). Pollination itself is done by insects such as wasps and bees (17) so if there is too much pesticide you are creating more work for yourself as you will endanger the creatures which will make the fruit for you.

Orchards are Alive! Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Orchards are Alive! Photo by Charlotte Haworth

Caring for orchards means caring for not just some fruit trees but the intricate web of which they are a part. There are some aspects of the web which it may be necessary to discourage; for example, any apple grower I have ever met cannot say the word ‘vole’ without a distinctly sour look – but as long as you respect the holistic nature of it then balance can be achieved, rather than simply encouraging a monoculture where ultimately you are creating a lot more work and less nutrition.

Once you start realising how important diversity is to growing fruit, it can be extrapolated outwards to include – well, everything. All plants need to reproduce in some way and most of our food plants use insects to do this. Many plants also have sympathetic relationships with each other or produce by-products which can be used by others; this mutually beneficial effect cannot be achieved if you strive to just grow one thing in one place.

The same goes for own bodies, whether we are aware of it or not. The more diverse our range of nutrients is the healthier we are; with supermarket trends towards selling only a few varieties of food this is being thrown off balance. Indeed, there appear to be a number of trends which actively discourage diversity; from the EU’s regulations on seed adaptability and resilience (see for example 17) to border controls limiting the diversity of our own human population.

Orchards without Borders is helping to redress this balance by celebrating the diversity we have and cultivating more. We brought back a number of Norman varieties of apple to grow in Sussex, and there are some Sussex apples mingling in Norman orchards. Perhaps you do not have any fruit trees to hand to swap; but there are probably a number of ways in which you can encourage biodiversity in your own life.

References

  1. Gilbert, N, 2012. ‘One-third of our greenhouse gas emissions come from agriculture’. Nature, 31/10/12. http://www.nature.com/news/one-third-of-our-greenhouse-gas-emissions-come-from-agriculture-1.11708 – retrieved 11/12/14
  2. Oakshotte, I, and Lamberley, P, 2014. Farmageddon: The True Cost of Cheap Meat. Bloomsbury: London
  3. UNCTAD, 2013. Wake Up Before it’s too Late: Make Farming Truly Sustainable Now. UNCTAD: Geneva. Available as a PDF here: http://unctad.org/en/PublicationsLibrary/ditcted2012d3_en.pdf – retrieved 11/12/14
  4. Beyond GM, 2014. ‘Home’. http://beyond-gm.org/ – – retrieved 11/12/14
  5. Campaign for Seed Sovereignty, 2014. ‘Seed Sovereignty’. http://www.seed-sovereignty.org/EN/ – retrieved 11/12/14
  6. Bifurcated Carrots, 2007. ‘Biodiversity Begins at Home’. http://bifurcatedcarrots.eu/2007/10/biodiversity-begins-at-home/ – retrieved 11/12/14
  7. Soil Association, 2014. ‘Ben Raskin’s Seedy Weekend’. http://www.soilassociation.org/news/newsstory/articleid/7458/ben-raskin-s-seedy-weekend – retrieved 11/12/14
  8. Brighton Permaculture Trust, 2014. ‘Normandy Partnership: Orchards without Borders’. https://brightonpermaculture.org.uk/orchards/withoutborders – retrieved 29/11/14
  9. Brighton and Hove Food Partnership, 2014. ‘About’. http://bhfood.org.uk/about/ – retrieved 29/11/14
  10. Brighton Permaculture Trust, 2014. ‘Who We Are’. http://brightonpermaculture.org.uk/about
  11. Collines Normandes, 2014. ‘Le CPIE’. http://www.cpie61.fr/ – retrieved 11/12/14
  12. North West Europe Programme, 2014. ‘Interreg’. https://www.nweurope.eu/ – retrieved 29/11/14
  13. Pretty, J, 2002. Agri-Culture: Reconnecting People, Land and Nature. Routledge: London
  14. Mears, R, 2013. Wild Food. Episode 2: ‘Wild Food and Foraging’. BBC: London. Excerpt available on Youtube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tZbGRWO8wnU – retrieved 11/12/14
  15. Law, B, 2014. Woodsman: Living in a wood in the 21st Century. William Collins: New York
  16. Plants For a Future, 2014. ‘Malus Domestica’. http://pfaf.org/user/Plant.aspx?LatinName=Malus+domestica – retrieved 11/12/14
  17. Sheil, S, 2013. ‘Seeds and other Plant Reproductive Material: Towards new EU Rules’. European Parliament, 10/06/13. http://www.europarl.europa.eu/RegData/bibliotheque/briefing/2013/130547/LDM_BRI%282013%29130547_REV1_EN.pdf – retrieved 11/12/14

Seeds and their complications: An Introduction

The world of gardening is becoming an increasingly complicated one; as our food systems grow to ever more convoluted global networks, and law-makers and corporations alike continually threaten to implement sets of arbitrary rules which (only just) make sense to them on their terms, but which can be completely devastating to anyone actually attempting to grow food to, say, eat it (see for example 1, 2).

Saving seeds: in many ways a simple gesture. But there are many seedy issues to be aware of too.

Saving seeds: in many ways a simple gesture. But there are many seedy issues to be aware of too.

This year the EU scrapped a proposed law which, if put into effect, would have made it compulsory for all seeds in the entire continent to conform to specific restrictions of ‘Distinctiveness, uniformity and stability’ and to be registered, at rather large expense, with the EU (3). This would mean that anyone saving seeds which are adaptable and of a varied nature would have their seeds made illegal; even though, being adaptable, these types of seeds are more resilient and so more likely to be useful for future generations (4). Even if their seeds could pass the ‘Distinctiveness, uniformity and stability’ tests, many seed banks would have had to go out of business because of lack of funds to afford the something like £3000 per variety fee (3) (for more on this see my articles here and here).

More things to be wary of

Now the law has been scrapped, thanks at least in part to the huge amount of public criticism against it. However, other factors exist which could, if allowed to flourish, be a severe threat to our biodiversity. The international nature of our world now means that even if we are residing in Europe, it is not only the laws of the EU which are affecting us. Currently being formalised in ‘secret talks’ – though there has been a fair amount of publicity about them, so they are now not so secret – are a number of Trade Treaties which, if put into practice, could suddenly restrict all kinds of activities around the world.

The four main trade treaties which have come to my attention are the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) (5) between the US and the EU; the Trade in Services Agreement (TISA) (6) between the US, EU and other parties; the Comprehensive Economic and Trade Agreement (CETA) (7) between Canada and the EU and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) (8) between twelve states across Asia. Though there has been no official release of the texts of any of the Treaties, enough concerned parties exist that there is quite a lot of information out there on what the agreements probably entail (see for example 9). One of the main concerns is that they would end up homogenising trade regulations, which in worst case scenarios could result in all of the most inefficient and bureaucratic aspects of trade staying in place while all of the actual human considerations would get forgotten.

One example which the Stop TTIP Campaign gives is the homogenisation of meat trade rules (10) which the TTIP could result in between the US and the EU. If taken to extremes this would mean that, as the Treaty is aimed at creating free trade between the two continents, then in the interest of allowing competition the US would increase imports of EU meat and exports of meat to the EU, while the EU would increase imports of US meat and exports of meat to the US (10). Apart from the obvious logistical inefficiencies which this would create, there is also the concern of the EU introducing US meat regulations to European meat. These regulations are quite different from those in place in the EU; for example, as living standards for meat chickens are generally lower in the US, it is compulsory for all factory-farmed chicken to be washed in chlorine before it can be sold (10), as it could carry diseases. The concern here is that suddenly, all European chicken would be made to be chlorine washed as well.

However, chlorine-dipped chicken may not necessarily be that detrimental; it may end up helping people to think more about their meat and where it comes from, and encourage consideration of whether or not they want to be putting such potent chemicals into their bodies. It may even stimulate a move away from factory farmed chickens to free range meat; which from the chickens’ point of view at least is quite desirable.

In terms of seeds, these agreements could make it so that there is no obligation to label food or seeds as containing genetically modified organisms (GMOs), thus making it impossible to tell if your seeds or food have genetically modified material in them. Since genetic modification is such a new science and no one can be entirely sure of the effects of GMOs this would make it extremely difficult to ensure the health of you crops and yourself (see for example 11).

It’s not just governments…

The TTIP, TISA, CETA and TPP agreements present an interesting challenge to anyone who wishes to grow food for the sake of eating it, or anyone keen on preserving biodiversity, or at least their own health. It is not only governments who create these challenges, however. When it comes to GMO labelling, there are a number of corporations who are also attempting to make it rather difficult for us to know what we are growing or eating. One example is the state of Vermont, USA, who are due to implement a law, Act 120, making labelling of all GMOs mandatory by July 2016 (12). A number of Trade Associations are currently challenging the law in court, arguing that, as the law will affect “eight out of every ten foods at the grocery store”, it is too “costly” to be worth putting into effect and will do “nothing to advance the health and safety of consumers”. If the law suit is successful, the state will continue to have no labelling for GMO-containing foods – which means if you are shopping in Vermont and have bought ten items, chances are only two of them are GMO-free; though you will never know for sure.

This is not the first time corporations have fought US government or federal policy on GMOs. In 2012 agrochemical companies Monsanto and Dupont, along with a number of other large corporations from chemical companies Bayer and Dow to ‘food and drink’ (depending on your definition) giants Kellogg’s and Pepsi, contributed to a $45.6m advertising campaign against the state of California introducing mandatory GM labelling (13). The campaign in favour of the law spent a lot of money too – $8.9m (13) – but the fact that the law was eventually voted against suggests that the corporations’ spending power may well have been influential.

Think locally…and globally?

These issues, though local to one country or continent, affect everyone, even you. When it gets to the point where a corporation or government tries to control life itself, by patenting seeds and refusing to allow consumers the ability to know what goes into their food, then that’s when the simple act of saving your own seeds can take on a whole new significance. There have, undoubtedly, been many cases of these worrying trends being overturned; not only with the scrapping of the PRM Regulation in Europe, but also with the overturning in both Chile and Guatemala, earlier this year, of the so-called “Monsanto Laws” (2) which had been put in place in those countries with severe detrimental consequences to farmer’s livelihoods and the biodiversity there. The laws were only overturned because of the vocality of the local people; also evident in stories of farmers burning seeds given to them by Monsanto on the grounds that the seeds, being genetically modified, will contaminate their own seed varieties with potentially unsafe or unstable genetic material (see 14, 15).

A particularly powerful gesture is the example of the 2010 Haitian earthquake, when Monsanto donated, as a “perfect easter gift” (14), around 400 tonnes of vegetable seeds to that island. The farmers of the island had just been through a devastatingly dramatic upheaval; many had to rebuild their whole lives; yet more than 10,000 of them felt strongly enough about the importance of their food and seed sovereignty that they proceeded to burn all 400 tonnes of the gift seeds (14).

A strong statement, indeed: and yours do not have to be quite so controversial unless you want them to be. It is important to be aware of all of the different factors involved when exploring the issues surrounding seeds, and it is with this in mind that I participated in the Great Seed Festival in London last month. Watch this space for a write-up of the festival.

References

  1. Raskin, Ben, 2014. “Using a Chainsaw to Crack a Nut”. Soil Association: Bristol.
    https://www.soilassociation.org/blogs/latestblog/article/792/using-a-chainsaw-to-crack-a-nut – retrieved 10/11/14
  2. Haworth, Charlotte, 2014. ‘Seed Saving, part 1: Seedy Issues’. http://permaculturenews.org/2014/10/18/seed-saving-part-1-seedy-issues/ – retrieved 10/11/14
  3. Gable, Ben. “All About the New EU Seed Law”. Real Seed Catalogue, 2014. http://www.realseeds.co.uk/seedlaw2.html – – retrieved 10/11/14
  4. Bowen, Pat (Seed Circles). Interview with me at Seedy Sunday, Brighton, 02/02/2014.
  5. EU Commission, 2013. ‘Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership Draft: Without Prejudice’. Ecology International, 2013. available as PDF here: http://keionline.org/sites/default/files/eu-kommission-position-in-den.pdf
  6. European Commission, 2014. ‘Trade in Services Agreement’. http://ec.europa.eu/trade/policy/in-focus/tisa/ – – retrieved 10/11/14
  7. European Commission, 2014. ‘EU-Canada.’ http://ec.europa.eu/enterprise/policies/international/cooperating-governments/canada/ – retrieved 10/11/14
  8. Trade Negotiations’. http://www.international.gc.ca/trade-agreements-accords-commerciaux/agr-acc/tpp-ptp/rounds-series.aspx?lang=eng – retrieved 10/11/14
  9. Computer World UK, 2014. ‘TTIP Update – the Glyn Moody blogs’. http://www.computerworlduk.com/blogs/open-enterprise/ttip-updates–the-glyn-moody-blogs-3569438/ – retrieved 10/11/14
  10. Stop TTIP, 2014. ‘What has it to do with chlorinated chickens, GM food, and hormones in meat?’ https://stop-ttip.org/blog/faq/what-has-it-to-do-with-chlorinated-chickens-gm-food-and-hormones-in-meat/ – retrieved 10/11/14
  11. Seeds of Freedom, 2014. ‘TTIP will sacrifice food safety for faster trade’. http://www.seedsoffreedom.info/ttip-will-sacrifice-food-safety-faster-trade-warn-ngos/ – retrieved 10/11/14
  12. GMA Online, 2014. ‘GMA Files Lawsuit’. http://www.gmaonline.org/news-events/newsroom/gma-files-lawsuit-to-overturn-vermonts-unconstitutional-mandatory-gmo-label/ – retrieved 10/11/14
  13. Flynn, D, 2012. ‘GM Food labelling in California goes down in defeat’. http://www.foodsafetynews.com/2012/11/big-setback-for-right-to-know-about-gm-foods-prop-37-goes-down-in-crushing-defeat/ retrieved 10/11/14
  14. Stock, R, 2014. ‘Haitians Burn Seed Donated by Monsanto to Protect their Native Maize Seed’. Health Impact News, 10/11/14. http://healthimpactnews.com/2011/haitians-burn-seeds-donated-by-monsanto-to-protect-their-native-maize-seed/retrieved 10/11/14