Dec 19th 2019

How gardeners are reclaiming agriculture from industry, one seed at a time

by Helen Anne Curry

 

Helen Anne Curry

is Peter Lipton Senior Lecturer in History of Modern Science and Technology, at the University of Cambridge

 

Agriculture has changed significantly in the past century. Bigger machines, bigger farms and bigger budgets allow fewer farmers to produce more food. Changes in science and policy have also resulted in an industry in which power over what we grow and eat is increasingly held by very few.

Consider one of agriculture’s most basic inputs: the seed. Although there have long been farmers and merchants who specialised in growing and selling seeds, it wasn’t until the 20th century that people started talking about seed production as an industrial process. Thanks to changes in farming, science and government regulations, most of the “elite” seed that is bought and sold around the world today is mass produced and mass marketed — by just four transnational corporations.

This transition has made many people uneasy. As a result, a new movement is growing, one that aims to wrest power back through the renewal of an age-old agricultural task: setting aside some seeds from each season’s harvest to plant in the next. Community gardeners, home growers and small-scale farmers increasingly insist that seeds should be something they produce themselves, or get from a friend or neighbour, rather than something they buy off the shelf.

For some, seed saving is a way of keeping history alive, for example by growing the vegetables their grandparents enjoyed. For others, it’s a way to save money, or to connect with their community. And today, it is increasingly a political statement – a choice that allows consumers to avoid fruits, vegetables and other foods produced at an industrial scale. Depending on the grower, it may even be all of these — and more.

Seed saving. Eddgars/Shutterstock.com

Many seed savers are motivated by the idea that their actions contribute to keeping diverse crop varieties from disappearing, especially those ignored by industrial farms or commercial seed companies in their pursuit of profit. Organisations such as the Heritage Seed Library (UK) and the Seed Savers Exchange (US), and the growers they represent, routinely connect the individual acts of growing, storing and sharing seed with a global conservation mission. In cultivating awareness of this connection, they have transformed a timeless task into a powerful political act.

So how exactly did this transformation occur? New historical research shows that concerned citizens and organisations worked hard to make it happen.

Vanishing vegetables

The Heritage Seed Library, today a part of the British non-profit Garden Organic, offers a case in point. This collection of 800 or so local and rare vegetable varieties has its roots in a campaign to save endangered vegetables that Garden Organic launched in the 1970s, back when it was known as the Henry Doubleday Research Association, or HDRA.

At the time, the HDRA was well established as source of expert advice on organic gardening in Britain. Its director Lawrence Hills had founded the organisation in 1954 to encourage gardeners to experiment with natural pest deterrents, green manures and other alternatives to the synthetic chemicals that were becoming common in agriculture.

Among the many subjects on which the HDRA offered advice from its earliest days was helping “own growers” — backyard gardeners, allotment holders, and others growing food to eat themselves — to decide what varieties to plant. Hills was adamant that newer types of tomatoes, carrots and green beans lacked the flavours of earlier generations and performed worse in small-scale cultivation.

He was therefore dismayed to learn in the early 1970s that changes in British agricultural regulations would make it difficult for seed companies to sell “old-fashioned varieties”. He feared, rightly, that the small market for such seeds would not justify the price that a company would now have to pay to register these for legal sale. If seed companies weren’t stocking them – and growers accustomed to buying their seed weren’t saving them – these old-fashioned varieties would simply disappear.

Official seed packets. Caron Badkin/Shutterstock.com

In a 1975 letter to the Times, Hills announced an initiative of the HDRA intended to address this impending extinction crisis: establishing a collection of Europe’s “vanishing vegetables” at the HDRA.

From bank to library

Hills asked fellow gardeners to help him locate as many uncommon varieties as possible. Ambitious as it was, that collection was only the start.

The HDRA soon began a campaign to start a “seed bank”. Hills envisioned that this long-term storage facility would gather and preserve vegetable varieties from around the world. In this sense, it would be just like a few already existing international seed banks, which ensured that diverse seeds would be available for plant breeders in the future. Unlike those seed banks (also called “genebanks”), the vegetable collection that Hills imagined would have a public-facing component, a “seed library” that any grower, regardless of professional expertise, would be able to access.

Both seed bank and seed library eventually came to fruition, though not in a single institution. When it became apparent during planning that a government-supported Vegetable Gene Bank would mainly serve professional researchers, Hills and HDRA staff organised The Heritage Vegetable Seed Library for Research and Experiment — later shortened to the Heritage Seed Library — to serve the needs of ordinary gardeners. Launched in February 1978, the library gave away seed of its rare varieties to subscribing members.

The Heritage Seed Library was the more innovative of the two projects, and arguably the more transformative of British vegetable conservation in the long term. This was because it emphasised the need for the active participation of individual gardeners to to achieve conservation goals. The library only functioned with the help of “seed guardians” who helped keep it stocked with seed. HDRA also encouraged library users to learn how to save their own seed.

Together with other HDRA initiatives, the seed library helped cement the idea that conservation of vegetable diversity would only succeed through the commitment of ordinary gardeners to purchasing, growing, saving and circulating seeds of useful or delicious varieties.

Today, many home and allotment garderners who save seeds see themselves as protectors of endangered plants – and their gardens as repositories of important biodiversity. They believe that their stewardship of vegetable diversity contributes to the possibilities for a better, fairer global food system in the future. The history of the HDRA reminds us that there was — and still is — work involved in connecting these individual acts of seed saving to the future of the world’s food.

Helen Anne Curry, Peter Lipton Senior Lecturer in History of Modern Science and Technology, University of Cambridge

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The Conversation

Browse articles by author

More Essays

Jul 4th 2020
EXTRACT: "--- Nobody is more dangerous than he who imagines himself pure in heart, for his purity, by definition, is unassailable. --- Author James Baldwin’s words, written in the America of the late 1950s."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Numerous studies have shown that children who grow up in more deprived neighbourhoods tend to have worse physical health as adults compared to those raised in more affluent areas. This is the case even when researchers take into account family income and education, and whether or not parents have major illnesses. In order to address this health disparity, researchers need to understand how those living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods end up with worse health outcomes. Our team’s latest study has highlighted one potential way your childhood neighbourhood may influence your health for years to come. It might do so through changing how the activity of your genes is regulated."
Jun 29th 2020
EXTRACT: "Ruth Poniarski is a painter and the author of Journey of the Self: Memoir of an Artist (Warren Publishing, 2020), in which she tells the story of her decade long struggle with mental illness, a “spiraling malady” which led her into a “pattern of psychosis”. I recently had the opportunity to talk with Poniarski about her life and work, and how she eventually overcame her demons."
Jun 27th 2020
EXTRACT: "I know I’m good in a couple of things, really good in a few things, and that’s enough. My confidence is big enough that I can really let people grow next to me, it’s no problem. I need experts around me. It’s really very important that you are empathetic, that you try to understand the people around you, and that you give real support to the people around you."
Jun 27th 2020
An essay about the "the enormously influential 1940 'Head of Christ' painting by evangelical Warner E. Sallman" pictured below.
Jun 17th 2020
EXTRACT: "The diverse, non-human life forms that live in our guts – known as our microbiome – are crucial to our health. A disrupted balance of these contribute to a range of disorders and diseases, including obesity, diabetes, inflammatory bowel disease. It could even affect our mental health..... It’s well known that the microbes living in our guts are altered through diet. For example, including dietary fibre and dairy products in our diets encourages the growth of beneficial bacteria. But mounting evidence suggests that exercise can also modify the types of bacteria that reside within our guts."
Jun 13th 2020
EXTRACT: "Bonhoeffer’s life holds an important lesson for us today, regardless of our religious affiliation or lack thereof. And simply put it is this: you are called upon; you are called on behalf of your neighbor. When you are called to be responsible that is not an obligation which you can decline, discharge or acquit yourself of – it is an infinite responsibility, a “forever commitment” as Charles Blow recently put it. And we all must be prepared to make any sacrifice necessary when we are called."
Jun 11th 2020
EXTRACT: "People differ substantially in how much they’re affected by experiences in their lives. Some people seem to be more affected by daily stress, or the loss of someone close to them. On the other hand, some people seem to get through the same experiences relatively unscathed. Similarly, some people benefit strongly from counselling, or having a support system of close family and friends. Others seem better able to manage on their own. But understanding why some people are more sensitive than others isn’t just a question of how they were raised, and the experiences they’ve been through. In fact, previous research has found that some people in general seem more sensitive to what they experience – and some are generally less sensitive."
Jun 7th 2020
EXTRACT: " The root causes of anthropogenic climate change – which has led to the endangering of countless species across the globe – cannot be adequately grasped in isolation from the technological application of modern science. While Swedish activist Greta Thunberg was certainly justified in calling upon American legislators to “unite behind the science,” neither can we overlook the culpability of science in bringing about the environmental crisis. "
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The QAnon movement began in 2017 after someone known only as Q posted a series of conspiracy theories about Trump on the internet forum 4chan. QAnon followers believe global elites are seeking to bring down Trump, whom they see as the world’s only hope to defeat the “deep state.” OKM is part of a network of independent congregations (or ekklesia) called Home Congregations Worldwide (HCW). The organization’s spiritual adviser is Mark Taylor, a self-proclaimed “Trump Prophet” and QAnon influencer with a large social media following on Twitter and YouTube."
May 23rd 2020
EXTRACT: "The aim of my research for the Understanding Unbelief programme was to investigate the worldviews of non-believers, since little is known about the diversity of these non-religious beliefs, and what psychological functions they serve. I wanted to explore the idea that while non-believers may not hold religious beliefs, they still hold distinct ontological, epistemological and ethical beliefs about reality, and the idea that these secular beliefs and worldviews provide the non-religious with equivalent sources of meaning, or similar coping mechanisms, as the supernatural beliefs of religious individuals."
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Psalm 91, for example, reassures believers that God will protect them from “the pestilence that walketh in darkness… A thousand shall fall at thy side, and ten thousand at thy right hand; but it shall not come nigh thee”.............Luther was a devout believer but insisted that religious faith had to be joined with practical, physical defences against sickness. It was a good Christian’s duty to work to keep themselves and others safe, rather than relying solely on the protection of God. "
May 22nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Evidence from this study shows clearly that eating foods rich in flavonoids over your lifetime is significantly linked to reducing Alzheimer’s disease risk. However, their consumption will be even more beneficial alongside other lifestyle changes, such as quitting smoking, managing a healthy weight and exercising."
May 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "It’s possible that the answers to questions like, “how do I live a virtuous life?” or “how do we build a good society?” are not the same as they were a few weeks ago."
May 2nd 2020
EXTRACT: "Strangely, those with strong beliefs tend to be admired. The human mind hates uncertainty, so it is comforting to be told what to think, and to form settled opinions. But it is not rational. As the philosopher Bertrand Russell wrote: “The fundamental cause of the trouble is that in the modern world the stupid are cocksure while the intelligent are full of doubt.”
Apr 21st 2020
Extract: "Humans, Boccaccio seems to be saying, can think of themselves as upstanding and moral – but unawares, they may show indifference to others. We see this in the 10 storytellers themselves: They make a pact to live virtuously in their well-appointed retreats. Yet while they pamper themselves, they indulge in some stories that illustrate brutality, betrayal and exploitation. Boccaccio wanted to challenge his readers, and make them think about their responsibilities to others. “The Decameron” raises the questions: How do the rich relate to the poor during times of widespread suffering? What is the value of a life? In our own pandemic, with millions unemployed due to a virus that has killed thousands, these issues are strikingly relevant.
Apr 20th 2020
Extract: "If we do not seize this crisis as a moment for transformation, then we will have lost the war. If doing so requires reviving notions of collective guilt and responsibility – including the admittedly uncomfortable view that every one of us is infinitely responsible, then so be it; as long we do not morally cop out by blaming some group as the true bearers of sin, guilt, and God’s heavy judgment. A pandemic clarifies the nature of action: that with our every act we answer to each other. In that light, we have a duty to seize this public crisis as an opportunity to reframe our mutual responsibility to one another and the world."
Apr 16th 2020
EXTRACT: "Death is the common experience which can make all members of the human race feel their common bonds and their common humanity."
Apr 7th 2020
EXTRACT: "A crisis such as this one demands that we exercise what the philosopher Immanuel Kant called the ‘public use of reason’ – as opposed to merely the ‘private use of reason’ where, briefly put, the expert, the specialist is tasked with resolving a defined problem. The private use of reason is sufficient when we are dealing with a problem that can be solved by simply applying the appropriate expertise...............The public use of reason asks: how we are defining the problem? Is our definition – our conceptualization of the problem – perhaps part of the problem itself? Is this pandemic solely a problem of public health, or is it also a problem of extreme economic inequality? ..............Since this crisis began, the greatest failure of the administration is not the denial, the lies, the lack of preparedness, but the inability to rally and unify the nation against this common threat, the lack of genuine leadership – Trump’s utter inability to bring the nation together."
Apr 5th 2020
EXTRACT: "Rarely has an architectural experiment aroused such extremes of ire and admiration. One side is convinced the house is a masterpiece. The other expresses brutal condemnation of the entire project (leaky roof, danger of flooding, too-hot, too-cold interiors depending on the American Midwest weather).........Farnsworth encapsulated her personal ambiguity in her comment to a Newsweek interviewer: “This handsome pavilion I own is almost totally unworkable.” She told one journalist, “ … all I got was this glib, false sophistication. The conception of a house as a glass cage suspended in air is ridiculous.”