Katie Hastings, Seed Sovereignty Coordinator for Wales, and Gerard Miles, both co-founders of Llafur Ni, feature in a new video from the Financial Times on the increasing need for crop diversity.

The Financial Times (FT) investigates the downside of our drive for increased yields from monocultures suited to industrial farming. The devastation of diversity, from plant genetics to wildlife in our fields, has left homogenous crops vulnerable to chaotic climate change and new diseases. FT reporter Neville Hawcock asked Dan Saladino, who opened our 2023 Seed Gathering, to explain:

“Imagine putting all your life savings into one company or a single investment, and that’s what we’ve done with the food system…we’ve gone down a path in which focus more and more on yield. We’re now seeing more fragility, because of the homogeneity that’s spread around the world.

There are real-life examples in which uniformity has created risk in the food system. For example, the globally traded banana, of which there is only one, the Cavendish, is now susceptible to Panama disease. And once that plant is attacked it can spread to another plant, because they are genetically uniform. And farmers’ incomes are being impacted. Food production is suffering. And these risks will only increase with climate change.

We need diversity in agriculture. We need the diversity of crops…It’s possible to go to parts of the world where farmers are growing a crop with seed that has been passed down through the generations.”

One such farmer is Gerald Miles, who the FT visits at his farm, perched on the Pembrokeshire coast. Our Welsh Coordinator Katie Hastings has been accompanying Gerald on his search for heritage grains. Katie recounts:

“Having looked into what diversity we might be on the cusp of losing in Wales, oats had revealed themselves as a low hanging fruit. Oats grow well in Wales – they don’t mind the wet, or poor soils. On the mixed farms of the past, oats were regulars in the fields. They fuelled horses, and horses worked the land. But people ate oats too. Oat crops appeared on Welsh tables as oat bread, oat cakes and laverbread. Searching in the genebank records, we found hundreds of varieties stashed away. With names like ‘Hen Gardie’, ‘Ceirch Llwyd’ and ‘Radnorshire Sprig’, these oats painted a picture of the regional diversity that used to be abundant. Why was no one growing them anymore?”

Gerald Miles, Katie Hastings, Owen Shiers and Iwan Evans (members of Llafur Ni) © Andy Pilsbury

Together they founded Llafur Ni (Our Grains) a network of like-minded individuals, and have been on a quest to bring diversity back to Wales, starting in the soil and ending on plates. The star of the show has been the Welsh black oat – last grown by Gerald’s grandfather but lost in a storm. Gerald says:

“Everybody was growing black oats when I was about 10. Everybody, you saw it everywhere. Now, we have modern varieties that are about 9 inches tall that suits the industrial mode of farming we’re in…

It means a great deal. I’ve got a passion for ancient varieties. Black oats was the start of it. Reviving the seed is like the very first step – you revive the seed, then you revive the crops, and by reviving the crops, you revive the food.”

The quest revealed riddle after riddle – where to find the seed, how to process the oats without any small oat mills left in the UK, how to cook with an ingredient that hadn’t been tasted in living memory. With a band of seed savers, academics, artists, farmers, engineers and chefs, they solved the puzzle and broke black oat bread together for the first last year. Along the way they realised the value of seed diversity to more than the security of our food systems, as chef Jacqueline Morgan comments:

“In every farmhouse kitchen you used to find a wooden chest especially for oatmeal. Oats were a staple in Welsh food and events such as the ‘Shimli’ were made in appreciation of them – a farmer would hold a noson lawen whilst their oats dried through the night on the kiln floor.

Alongside these forgotten ways of working with grain, there is a lost art of Welsh heritage cooking: working with minimal, limited and seasonal produce to sustain an entire family through all seasons. Oats and grain played a specific role, giving a wealth of nutrients and energy.

As a country, 80% of our diet is grain based and it’s imperative we start to understand where this all comes from, how it is grown and how best to cook with it; for our own health and that of the environment.”

Seed Sovereignty Programme oat feast
The search for the lost Ceirch Du (black oats) culminates in a feast © Jason Taylor

Four companies – Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge, Cargill, and Louis Dreyfus – known collectively as ABCD, control over 70% of the global grain trade. As Dan Saladino explains:

The seed companies that now control the vast majority of seed production and distribution in the world began as chemical companies following the green revolution. So what we see is a consolidation in supply chains from the 1960s to the present day. These companies want to sell the seeds and the chemicals to as many different countries around the world.

Llafur Ni have joined forces with the Institute of Biological, Environmental and Rural Sciences in Aberystwyth, to trial a variety of crops from their 30,000-strong seed bank. The world has lost 75% of plant genetic diversity since 1900 (UN Food and Agricultural Organisation), leaving food supplies vulnerable to a rapidly unraveling world. Here in the UK, supermarket shelves have already been left bare by pandemics, war and climate change. Dr Catherine Howarth explains:

“When we started breeding oats here in Aberystwyth in 1990, yield was the most important thing to improve. Whereas now, there are traits, characteristics, that we will need for the future. Drought tolerance, resistance to higher temperatures, more nutrient density – all of these properties have disappeared from many of the commercial, mainstream, modern crops.”

Gaia’s UK & Ireland Seed Sovereignty Programme is nurturing a more equitable, accessible, abundant system that maintains a farmer’s right to save, share and grow their own seeds – as humans have done for millennia. As the Welsh black oats have shown, this seed is locally adapted and also locally loved – lying at the heart of healthy communities, human and more-than-human.

To give the final word to Dan Saladino:

“One thing that we should all be doing is seeking out diversity, whether it’s a variety of apple that you haven’t tasted before… or there are now bakers using unusual types of grains to bake bread. So we can all be active players to support these new supply chains, these producers, who are celebrating diversity in the food that they’re producing.”