Shoots of Hope
2020, the Year of the Seed. Okay, of course 2020 will forever be synonymous with the Coronavirus pandemic, but if we could re-brand it, the Year of the Seed may be apt, and certainly infinitely more uplifting. Covid has largely eclipsed all other news stories over the past 11 months, but in the shadow of this global crisis, shoots of hope have emerged and we at The Gaia Foundation’s Seed Sovereignty Programme experienced them first-hand.
Empty supermarket shelves during lockdown in the UK and Ireland last year inspired a wave of home growing and a huge surge of interest in locally produced seed. So much so that suppliers of UK-grown ecological seed like Real Seeds, Vital Seeds, and the Seed Cooperative saw a staggering 600% year-on-year increase in orders, and many community groups have come together to start seed libraries and organise seed swaps as a grow-your-own boom took place.
Not all Seeds are Created Equal
Sinead Fortune, the Seed Sovereignty Programme Manager says: “We’ve been incredibly inspired seeing the uptake of interest not just around food growing, but about precisely which kind of seed people want to grow, because not all seeds are created equal. Buying local really does matter, not only because it supports your local producers as regional economies, but because by buying seed that has been grown locally, you’re buying seeds that have already adapted to your climate, weather, and growing conditions. What’s more, seeds that have been grown in an agroecological way – free of chemical fertilisers and pesticides – are better for the ecosystem in which they are grown and are stronger, more resilient seeds that in turn need less inputs to thrive.”
As the world slowed, closed its doors, and watched anxiously, the networks and communities that our UK & Ireland Seed Sovereignty programme works with have leapt into action; rare oats have been sown in Wales, bere barley was spread around the Highlands of Scotland, and seeds were delivered by bicycle to participants of community seed banks. As small-scale market gardeners pivoted quickly and gracefully to provide produce for their communities rather than restaurants; home growers and community groups have begun looking beyond the food to the seed and asking promising questions – about provenance, vitality, diversity, resilience.
For the burgeoning seed sovereignty movement here in the UK and Ireland, these are exciting times.
Celebrate Seed Week with Us
We’re delighted that throughout this week, from 18th to 22nd of January, we celebrate our fourth Seed Week since starting the programme. Through story, articles, videos and podcasts, Seed Week highlights the essential work of organic and agro-ecological seed producers and sellers selecting and growing the finest seed across the UK and Ireland.
As David Price from the Lincolnshire-based Seed Cooperative rightly says, “People crave connection. They want connection with other people and connection with the planet, and growing and saving seed is a way of getting both.”
You will find fresh content on the website daily throughout seed week and can follow and join the conversation online using any of these hashtags and handles! #SeedWeek #SeedSovereignty @SeedSov @GaiaFoundation @NorthernSeedSov @WalesSeedSov @SEEnglandSeed @SWSeedSovUK @IrelandSeedSov @ScotlandSeedSov
Highlights from the Programme…
We at Gaia believe that a food revolution starts with seed and are proud to share some of the successes of the Seed Sovereignty Programme over the last six to twelve months…
- More Regional Representation and Capacity – In the summer the programme matured into its second three-year phase and expanded its team of dedicated coordinators. Charlie Gray joined to represent the seed growing communities of northern England, Richie Walsh joins Maria Scholten to cover Scotland, and Helene Schulze represents South Eastern England from her London base. This means the Seed Sovereignty Programme has seven regionally based coordinators webbing up seed networks from the highlands to the coastline of the UK and Ireland.
- Northern Networks – The first Northern Real Farming Conference made its debut in September with the Seed Sovereignty Programme offering two sessions to reach out to the northern seed networks for the first time. ‘Why is Seed Sovereignty important?’ gave us a chance to gauge current levels of knowledge, activity and action across the network and over 50 individuals came forward as active seed savers keen to get involved.
- The Llafur Ni Grain Network were determined to continue to bulk our rare oats despite travel restrictions. Seeds were posted to three growers in the network and the seeds were sown in isolation on farms, with updates shared with others farmers in the network via zoom and email. The seed bulk was hit by drought, storms and pests. A notoriously terrible arable season played out on our nursery plots and sadly quantities were barely increased. Katie’s trials and tribulations can be seen here on her Oat Quest vlog. Despite this, the network is growing in strength with new members joining and a vibrant peer to peer information sharing network emerging. You can watch the heart-warming story of how the Llafur Ni network rediscovered a rare black oat through Welsh folk music and two farmers quietly committed to keeping the ancient varieties alive.
- South West Seed Production Ramps Up – Our 4 South West commercial seed producers managed to produce 11 seed crops successfully, generating 35.5kgs of seed for UK seed companies. Having committed to growing 20 seed crops, these seed growers have experienced some crop failures but hearteningly they all plan to continue to grow seed for an expanding list of seed companies.
- Full House for the Oxford Real Farming Conference – There was huge interest in our seed related sessions at this years online Oxford Real Farming Conference. Our ‘Great Grains’ session – featuring heritage grain growers from Wales, Zimbabwe, and China – was a whistlestop tour of some of the most exciting grain revival work going on globally. And our Community Seed initiatives discussion – intended to be a small, informal roundtable chat – had 316 people sign up! testimony of the buzz around seed right now, and as a result we are now creating a Community Seed Forum to communicate with and support community seed groups.
- Uncommon Grains – Our first network-based conference is coming up in February: ‘Uncommon Grains’ will bring together the oat growers of our Welsh network and the bere barley growers of our Scottish network to share cultures, experiences, and challenges. We will present the research on human-scale harvesting equipment we have been undertaking for the past 6 months, and with the participants decide which pieces are most beneficial to take forward to prototype stage. By harvest this year, we aim to have the designs available for the whole network to build and use with their communities. We will also be exploring some of the novel uses of these ‘uncommon’ grains, and finishing with a cultural exchange through an online ceilidh.
- We have been working closely with allies the Landworkers Alliance, the Organic Growers Alliance and the Community Supported Agriculture Network to guest-host two Farming the Future webinars. We’re delighted that the Seed Sovereignty Programme as co-collaborator on these events ensures seed is a key element of the agroecological movement in the UK. When growers are thinking of the main issues, inputs, and challenges affecting our movement, seed needs to be at the forefront of these discussions and this helps to ensure that it will be.
- Herbs Spice up the Programme – Until last year, the vast majority of organic herb seed was sourced from one seed supplier in the US, but in 2020 they had to cease shipments to the UK due to increased difficulties with legislation. Access to organic herb seed has been heavily impacted and this is being felt across the network from herb growers to herbalists. We highlighted this issue in a publication of the Royal Botanic Gardens Edinburgh’s Herbology programme and as a result have connected with a burgeoning herb seed network. There are exciting plans afoot for the coming months to develop this work and strengthen our herb seed sovereignty here in the UK and Ireland. Watch this space and contact us if you’d like to get involved.
If you’re inspired by the work of the Seed Sovereignty UK and Ireland Programme please consider supporting us by making a donation through The Gaia Foundation. Huge thanks for any support you can give.