Resilience begins with a seed

As we move through the pandemic, we are thinking about how we can #BuildBackBetter and embed food citizenship thinking as we build and strengthen resilient food systems moving forward. Helene Schulze is co-director of the London Freedom Seed Bank and regional coordinator for the Seed Sovereignty Programme of the Gaia Foundation. Here she unpacks the role of community seed banks and small seed commercial producers in building resilience.

The UK is peppered with seed savers, connected in formal and informal networks across the country and the world. These are growers on farms and allotments, in school playgrounds and on balconies, who collect seed from their crops at the end of the growing season. These can be sown again the following year or distributed to others who may wish to grow that variety themselves.

For many, the growing season kicks off with seed swaps, lively gatherings where seeds are exchanged for those of a different variety, a small envelope of cherry tomatoes for some butternut squash. You are encouraged to bring seed to share (though are not turned away without any) and invited to take seed home too. It is a sort of sharing economy for flowers, fruit and vegetables and a wonderful way for people to get growing.

Access to seed is a crucial way to ensure longer-term access to homegrown food on a household and community level. Equipped with the skills to save seed, these do not need to be repurchased year-on-year (and this can be pricey) but rather can be sown again, gifted or exchanged, free of charge. This is a cornerstone of food citizenship since it creates non-market access to growing (and therefore food).

These networks of exchange also foster a sense of community and belonging. They are an opportunity to gather (in non-pandemic times), to share experiences, stories and skills, thus serving as means for disseminating knowledge and expertise. Feeling connected with collaborators has been shown to ease the learning process.

At the beginning of the UK lockdown measures, seed libraries as well as commercial seed producers noticed a sharp spike in interest, with individuals and organisations across the country wanting seed to grow their own food. Sinéad Fortune, Programme Manager for the Seed Sovereignty Programme in UK and Ireland, notes that some seed producers saw a 600% increase in demand for seed on last year.

“The recent circumstances of the pandemic have really shone a light on what a crucial role seeds have to play in a resilient food system,” Sinéad notes. “Empty supermarkets have made many people question, perhaps for the first time, where their food comes from and what happens if it runs out or supply chains break down. But to ensure the safety of our food system, we first need to safeguard the diversity and resilience of our seed stock.”

At the London Freedom Seed Bank (LFSB), the increase in demand was such that we distributed all surplus seed stock within the first few weeks of the pandemic, prioritising organisations and projects working directly with vulnerable or food insecure people. We are a network of food growers and seed savers, working to make open-pollinated seed accessible to all wanting to grow in London. Our members donate seed at the end of the growing season, which we distribute free of charge at community events across the city, along with seed saving training and support. Thereby we increase the amount of seed saved in the city, year-on-year, as well as pass on the skills to save seed, making food growing at the household and community level more accessible to more people.

The increasing corporate consolidation of the food system has meant that increasingly seed is owned or controlled by agricultural giants. Seed sovereignty is a movement reframing seed as a common good, arguing that growers should be able to breed and distribute seed freely. These seed networks foster a sense of agency and control over the food system, allowing communities to untangle from a reliance on large corporations for their food, from ‘big ag’ to large supermarket chains. They cultivate a degree of community self-sufficiency.

Access to diverse, open-pollinated seed stocks, whether through seed libraries or commercial seed producers, is thus essential for food sovereignty and food justice. It is also crucial in building resilient food systems. When more people and groups can grow their own food, we diversify our sources of food, relying less on a single source (currently dominated by large corporations). This diversity makes us less susceptible to shocks to our food systems, like a pandemic, for example. We are seeing a positive shift towards smaller supply chains, organised in networks of production, distribution, and knowledge transfer, which are able to better adapt to the current pandemic, and other external shocks in future.

This network- and relationship-building approach is what we are creating in London at the LFSB. On a larger scale, it is what the Seed Sovereignty Programme is linking up across the UK and Ireland.

“With concerns about supply chain disruption, lack of growers and workers in seed, and other uncertainties raised by COVID19, now more than ever we need more people growing seed, saving seed, swapping seed, and selling seed,” says Sinéad. “If we want our future food system to be local, diverse, resilient, and agroecological, we must start with our seed!”