The UK seed conservation movement
by Helene Schulze
‘You have in your drawer since Candlemas Day,
All the seed packets you daren’t throw away,
Seed Catalogue cometh as year it doth end,
But look in ye drawer before money you spend..’
Bernard chuckles as he reads me the poem over lunch with his partner. We had spent the morning traipsing through his flourishing garden not far from Guilford, whilst he told me stories of his favourite plants and the various journeys they have been on with him. Bernard is an avid seed saver, and for longer than he can remember he has meticulously collected the seeds from his plants at the end of the harvest each year.
This practice of collecting seeds is likely as old as agriculture itself. The seed may be sown the following spring, a portion saved as a foodstuff, or used as a form of insurance policy for future failed harvests. Drought, pest, forced displacement, and a host of other unpredictable events may cut a farmers’ yield drastically or completely. A store of seeds at the very least ensures that the following year she may sow again and hope for better luck. These seeds are precious goods.
This simple ancient system of sowing, harvesting, collecting and storing seed has been disrupted. Over the course of the 20th century, with the expansion of industrial agriculture, increasingly powerful agrochemical firms have promoted chemical-intensive monocropping practices across the world. Rather than a food system made up of diverse farms, growing many varieties of crops, rearing livestock and performing a range of environmental services, today we see the hegemony of large agribusinesses growing limited crop varieties en masse. This chemical-intensive agriculture degrades soil and contaminates and depletes water reserves, threatening wildlife and emitting high levels of greenhouse gas.
Increasingly powerful agrochemical firms have promoted chemical-intensive monocropping practices across the world.
Additionally, biotechnological developments have produced genetically modified (GM) seed. These tend to be high-yield varieties, which are unable to reproduce naturally and therefore need to be repurchased annually or every two years. They cannot be saved. Crucially, GM seed is owned by the corporations which produce it. Seed here is no longer configured as a common good, but as a commodity. Currently, over three quarters of the global seed trade is dominated by just ten companies. Before merging with Bayer, Monsanto alone owned a quarter of all seeds traded. Local seed varieties struggle to compete with these desirable, high-yield varieties, and farmers are pulled into vicious cycles of dependency. Without the insurance stock of seeds from before, farmers are forced to repurchase seeds annually, irrespective of how the harvest has gone, and how their associated cash flow fares. Many simply cannot afford it.
Equally, it has meant that we have lost a vast swathe of plant species. Today, over 90% of human caloric intake is derived from just 15 crop varieties. This is despite the fact that we know of over 50,000 plant species which may be safely consumed by humans.
Anthropogenic climate change and deforestation, along with the corporate-dominated global seed trade, has placed many of these ‘unpopular’ and non-GM varieties under threat of extinction. Currently over 70% of plant species are threatened.
This corporate seed regime is simply unsustainable. It pillages the environment, endangers human resilience to climate change and profits only a select few companies. A growing awareness of these issues has led to concerted international seed conservation efforts since the 1960s.
One response has been the proliferation of local, national, and international seed banks as an ex situ conservation strategy. Seeds are cleaned, dried and stored in a humidity and temperature-controlled room. Their ability to lie dormant is harnessed and the seeds may be safely stored for potentially many years. This means that, should seed reserves of a particular plant variety ever dwindle, seed samples may be taken from the collection and reintroduced into the wild.
The flagship seed bank is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, commonly referred to as the Doomsday Vault. Built into the permafrost on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, it is designed to resist natural and man-made disasters such as nuclear war and climate change. The underground bunker has a futuristic, post-apocalyptic aesthetic and protects the 850,000 seed samples inside with a 1-meter thick steel wall. Most 1,460 of the national seed banks worldwide store a certain portion of all their varieties at Svalbard, in case their own seed storage is damaged or destroyed.
There are many reasons why the seed storage may need to be tapped into. A particularly tough drought may seriously reduce a region’s wheat harvest for several years running. Frequently, wheat varieties (of which there are around 200,000 globally) or wheat-alternatives are able to produce higher yields in these drier conditions. These can be sourced from a seed bank. Climate change will highlight our need for such seed storage. Increasing temperatures in some areas and increased salinisation in others will leave farmers across the world facing severe challenges. Access to other crop varieties, most frequently older, local ones which are better adapted to these new conditions will continue to be important sources of individual and regional food security.
Seed banks even hold the potential to entirely rebuild a food system ravaged by disaster, whether natural or man-made. Wars in Iraq and Afghanistan effectively demolished their respective seed banks in the early 2000s. Amid the fighting which has killed thousands and displaced millions, the Syrian civil war has forced the country’s main seed bank to scale down operations. Previously based in Aleppo, scientists have rebuilt the International Center for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas (ICARDA) in a dispersed manner, with staff spread over eight neighbouring nations. Svalbard opened its vaults for the first time in 2015, to return to the Syrian scientists some of the seeds they had previously kept there for safekeeping. They provided drought-friendly wheat and barley varieties, to try to stay ahead of the growing food insecurity in the war-torn nation. These seed banks are vital in national and international plant conservation efforts. They have and will continue to be immensely valuable reserves of genetic information which may prove crucial in the decades and centuries to come.
Outside the conventional international narrative of conservation exists an entire network of other actors in seed conservation. Across the world, farmers, gardeners and hobbyists collect seeds from their fields, allotments, back gardens, balconies and school gardens. These seeds are stored and saved, as living collections for reuse in the following years. While individual impact is small, collectively these savers keep many plant varieties alive and in active use.
They form part of a so-called movement of ‘seed sovereignty’. Vandana Shiva, Indian professor and activist, is frequently seen as the godmother of this now international movement. Seed sovereignty, she says, concerns ‘the farmer’s rights to save, breed and exchange seeds, to have access to diverse open-source seeds which can be saved [...] and which are not patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled by emerging seed giants. It is based on reclaiming seeds and biodiversity as commons and public good’ (emphasis added).
They form part of a so-called movement of ‘seed sovereignty’.
These seed savers often work in solitude and do not necessarily recognise their own activities as conservation work. Accordingly, it is difficult to find them referenced or studied in UK conservation literature. Who are these seed savers? What are their motivations? And why are they not more widely acknowledged to their contributions to food sovereignty and plant conservation?
I decided to find out for myself and travelled across the UK, guided by organisations like the Heritage Seed Library (HSL) and the London Freedom Seed Bank, to meet with these seed savers in their homes, gardens, and greenhouses. Over many hours and cups of tea, we talked about their seed saving activities. Increasingly, I have come to regard these savers as the unsung heroes of the seed movement. Through seemingly mundane, daily practices of tending to plants and collecting seed, these savers are enacting a form of what Laura Pottinger has termed ‘quiet activism’. While less headline-grabbing than roaring street demonstrations, this infrequently acknowledged activism does not just criticise the seed regime, but proactively creates the kind of regime they would like to see instead. The savers I spoke to all grow food and position themselves within these larger seed saving networks, such as the HSL. They collect the seed from their own gardens, dry them, and store them. Frequently, they send large bulks of the collected seed to institutions like the HSL or other seed sharing networks. Frequently these distributions are non-monetary exchanges, one packet for another or as a gift. Whilst there is still much demand for commercial seed, seed saving on a smaller level supports a micro, non-capitalist economy. This is based on the philosophy of seed as a common good, to be shared and not owned.
These networks enable savers to have other ways of accessing seed providing an alternative to dependence on corporate seed monopolies. It is not only a matter of resilience but resistance. As one saver told me: ‘I love the idea of thumbing the nose to the bad seed companies.’ In so doing, they not only reject the patented seed offered by agribusinesses, they also keep alive older crop varieties which may have otherwise disappeared.
In a less overtly political manner, I was struck by how these savers also seem to advocate a way of relating to the natural world founded on ethics of care. It is not easy to save seed. It requires prolonged attention, observation and curiosity. Each seed and plant requires specific conditions to germinate in terms of sun intensity, soil moisture and air temperature, for example. These conditions, as well as the requirements for collecting and storing the seed at the end of harvest, are learned over time, in the daily, repetitive tending to the garden.
Anthropologist Anna Tsing speaks of the ‘art of noticing’, how attentiveness to a species, space or phenomenon may yield fruitful, unexpected and rich understandings of the webs within which that thing is embedded. Through observation of changes in their plants, seed savers adapt their own practices of nurturing, for example by removing pests, watering less, or bringing a struggling plant indoors. It is almost a form of ‘tuning in’, learning with and through seeds and plants. One saver, Louise, told me that it is a practice which ‘connects me with the Earth, the plants and the cycles’.
‘Caring’, Donna Haraway writes in When Species Meet, ‘means becoming subject to the unsettling obligation of curiosity, which requires knowing more at the end of the day than at the beginning.’ This seems to apply to the practice of saving seed. It is an immersive engagement with the natural world with affective, ethical, and practical implications. Savers passionately involved with the task of saving seed feel a duty of care for the natural world and for the potential flourishing of future generations. The act of caring goes beyond a verbal expression of concern, extending to taking action in the form of seed storage. In this way, whether due to criticism of the corporate seed regime or a fear of global plant biodiversity loss, savers are actively engaged in the task of imagining and enacting a better future for the planet.
Fostering concern for seed preservation is essential for the potential thriving of human and non-human life on Earth. By supplementing national and international seed banking networks, individual and community seed saving initiatives are taking this important conservation work into their own hands. Paying attention to the practices of individual seed savers should not serve to diminish the important role of large seed banks. They do, however, elucidate the ways that resistance to corporate domination and resilience to climate change play out on a smaller scale. It can be seen even in the way we refer to savers: these stewards, guardians and protectors are keeping alive crop varieties and practices for the future. They advocate through example rather than rallying-calls, engaging with the natural world on foundations of passionate emotional engagement and willingness to learn. These qualities on individual and collective levels can help us confront and meaningfully deal with the myriad of issues facing future life on Earth.
Illustration by Megan Rose Jones
Helene Schulze received her MSc in Nature, Society and Environmental Governance from Keble College, University of Oxford in 2017. She is a writer on all things soil and seeds.