Pandemic fuels interest in the ancient strategy of seed saving

As the pandemic encouraged many more people to garden at home and thus sparked a huge rush on seed producers and seed banks in the UK and North America, many people have begun to think seriously about the resilience of our food system, with some arguing that seeds should be owned by the public rather than agrochemical companies. It is not a new debate, but it seems to have taken on more resonance as a result of the pandemic.

The seed saving movement has been quietly growing in the UK for some time, the Guardian reported. People swap seeds through networks that are both formal and informal, or through larger events such as Seedy Sunday, the UK’s biggest and longest running seed swap held in Brighton every February.

While it is hard to find stories about how widespread this interest is, there certainly have been stories popping up recently that highlight how seed sharing can protect genetic diversity, make our food supply more resilient, respond effectively to climate change, and support local farmers. 

Perilla seeds.

Take one I saw today, about collards, the cauliflower and broccoli cousin that used to be a staple food in the American South. “Many people have fond memories of a pot of collard greens simmering on the stove for hours, seasoned with a ham hock and stirred by a parent or grandparent,” Atlas Obscura says in a fascinating article about a project to preserve the heirloom varieties of the plant.

While no one is sure how these Eurasian plants wound up in the USA, the most common theory is that they came from Africa along with okra, black-eyed peas, and yams. Although southerners used to grow as many as 20 collard varieties, only five types now are common, and chefs, gardeners, farmers and seed collectors have come together in a Heirloom Collard Project to preserve that wider genetic diversity.

Two geography professors who travelled the southern US between 2003 and 2007 researching collards gave USDA seeds from more than 60 varieties they had collected, and the project was able to use some of those seeds.

Last fall, 20 varieties were grown on eight farms, including Jon Jackson’s Comfort Farms in Georgia, Jackson, a former US Army Ranger who employs veterans to grow heirloom vegetables and raise heritage animals, says the project is linking him with the work of past Black farmers. “When we talk about how to connect Black folks with our culture, the one thing that wasn’t ripped away is the food we brought with us,” he says. “That food is the bridge for who we were as a people.”

This is one of the strengths of seed saving – it connects people to their history and the specific land on which they live. And this is how saving seeds brings resilience, because those seeds have become adapted to the place where they grew.

Winona LaDuke, who lives and works on the White Earth reservation in Minnesota, tells the story of how their traditional Anishinaabe corn plants stood up straight in a windstorm when other corn plants fell over. The Indigenous Corn Restoration Project which she worked on, grew five traditional corn varieties and created saved seeds in a seed library known as the “Miinan Maakok”, which means “The Seed Box”. 

In 2011, after a long period of development, they sold their own corn varieties for the first time. Not only were they trying to address health and economic concerns by growing their own food, they also were concerned about how increased reliance on single varieties of seed can threaten food security and indigenous food sovereignty.

This is a concern in Africa, too, where there is increasing focus on reviving traditional seed diversity in order to build climate resilience – and concern that governmental and corporate promotion of modified seed over traditional seeds in attempts to increase food production might jeopardize such resilience. 

Millions of small farmers in sub-Saharan Africa, most of them women – who are mainly in charge of food crops, still supply 80–90% of all the seeds planted in Africa and their crops feed more than 80% of the population, GRAIN reported in 2018. Their ‘farmer-managed seed systems’ produce “biodiverse, ecologically resilient seeds that can adapt to the changing climate along with many other challenges,” it says. 

For example, in Zimbabwe, local varieties provide more than 70% of staple foods, and in Zambia, a maize variety called Tandanzala or ‘chase away hunger’ matures early and sustains communities while they wait to harvest higher yielding but longer maturing varieties.

The Kenya Seed Savers Network has a database of 35,000 local seed growers and has organized seed banks in 40 villages, which each hold annual seed fairs to exchange, share and sell their seeds. It encourages farming communities to develop Community Biodiversity Registers, and spreads the message of food sovereignty, food safety, and environmental conservation in agriculture as widely as possible. It’s critical of seed laws and policies that make farmer managed seed systems difficult or even illegal.

In Niger, where climate change and promises of better yields encouraged many farmers to abandon their traditional practices, Swissaid is working with local farmers in two isolated villages to reconstitute valuable peasant seeds of little black millet and white onion that date back to seed exchanges more than a century ago. White onion grown in 2015 produced more than 13 kg of seed which allowed it to be re-introduced to nine other villages and led to producing more than 50 kg of self-produced seeds in 2019. That meant people didn’t have to buy seeds outside.

The African Biodiversity Network’s program Community Seed and Knowledge focuses on supporting indigenous or ‘peasant’ seed collection and use, as does the African Food Sovereignty Network. Even the Slow Food Movement, which began in Italy, is teaching students about biodiversity and seed saving in its Slow Food Gardens in Africa.

In South America, the Rede de Sementes do Xingu seed collection network is drawing on the knowledge of Xingu women to collect many seeds of native tree species and train community members and farmers in an intensive seeding practice known as Mavuca. Their practices are much more effective than conventional tree planting methods, and have greatly reduced forest fire losses in that area of Brazil. 

Even during the record fire season in 2019, only 1,600 ha were lost to fire in the Xingu Basin compared with 100,000 ha a decade earlier. As of last year, 568 indigenous collectors had collected 249 tonnes of more than 220 species; the seeds sold have generated R$4 million for Xingu communities. The network, which won an Ashden Award for climate innovation last year, has re-seeded 6,000 acres of forest land over the past 13 years.

In the USA, the world’s largest non-governmental seed sharing network began in 1975 with heirloom tomato and flower seeds brought to Iowa from Bavaria in the 1870s by Diane Ott Whealy’s grandparents. As word spread, some gardeners began to save and swap their own heirloom varieties and donated some of them to the exchange, protecting biodiversity even as farming and gardening became more commercial and seeds came more often from packages rather than from existing plants in the garden.

And of course there is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, built into a Norwegian mountain, which has the world’s largest collection of crop diversity. “Worldwide, more than 1,700 genebanks hold collections of food crops for safekeeping, yet many of these are vulnerable, exposed not only to natural catastrophes and war, but also to avoidable disasters, such as lack of funding or poor management,” says its website. “And the loss of a crop variety is as irreversible as the extinction of a dinosaur, animal or any form of life.”

Seed saving is, at its heart, both a very individual and a very communal strategy. Helene Schulze, who co-directs London Freedom Seedbank and also works on the Seed Sovereignty Programme of the UK and Ireland, says seed saving allows everyone to be involved in the food system. 

“People crave connection,” says David Price, managing director of the Seed Co-operative. “They want connection with other people and connection with the planet, and growing and saving seed is a way of getting both.”


Seeds of the people: how communities are protecting the future of food. Positive News, Apr. 27, 2021

Blue corn and melons: meet the seed keepers reviving ancient, resilient crops. Guardian, Apr. 18, 2022