Great Seed Festival: Seeding a Passion
by Lucy Purdy
Image courtesy of The Gaia Foundation
Lucy Purdy, freelance journalist and keen food grower, delves into the fascinating, miniature world of seeds
From nuggets of luminous green to tiny parcels of earthy burgundy, seeds are as diverse in appearance as they are in their promises of life. There are those encircled by parachutes and some which sit within solid casings and downy beds. In packets, jars and envelopes around the world, they are waiting to unleash their paused, thrilling energy.
Our lives depend on the humble seed. Almost all of the food we eat starts out in this way – from the vegetables, fruits and roots we grow, to the bread we bake, the milk we produce and our meat, which comes primarily from animals which eat food grown from seed.
“They seem to lack all properties of life; they are still and quiet; they cannot see nor hear; they seem to have no will of their own, and are moved only by forces external to themselves. Yet, they are not only very much alive; they are the very bearers of life itself,” says conservation expert, Felipe Montoya Greenheck.
However, their importance is rarely recognised. In fact, seeds are increasingly under threat both here in the UK and around the world.
“Seed knowledge is eroding even faster than seed biodiversity,” says Matthew Dillon of the Organic Seed Alliance.
Last month’s Great Seed Festival sprang up in response to this threat. The first of its kind, it was designed to celebrate the importance of seed from the pip to the plate and to spread the word in venues across London and the UK.
So it was that hundreds of people streamed to take part in activities ranging from chocolate-making demonstrations to seed-bomb building. Through workshops, art, talks, storytelling and film, the event united audiences in an understanding of why seeds are so vital in our everyday lives, and why we should be protecting them.
Helen Strong, Festival Co-ordinator, said of the event, “The Great Seed Festival was an exciting collaboration between food justice organisations, artists, farmers, growers and chefs, all coming together to inspire audiences and highlight the connection between seed and food. October was the perfect time for the festival because it was harvest time, Food Sovereignty Month and World Food Day too.”
“Despite the central role seed plays in our daily existence, we seldom recognise its importance and that it is coming under increasing threat both here in the UK and globally. We want to change this and get more people engaged in securing the future of our food.”
So what exactly are these threats? Seeds are so numerous and widespread that they will always be, surely?
Lawrence Woodward explains why his organisation, Beyond GM, has been moved to take action.
“Today the majority of seeds that provide our food are controlled by just a handful of global corporations. For the sake of future generations, it is imperative that we work to secure a sustainable food system that is beyond corporate control. Saving seeds, understanding and nurturing them, as well as liberating their diversity is vital.”
Liz Hosken from The Gaia Foundation added that, “The seeds, the corporations don’t yet control, are now under threat from policies that seek to stop us from sowing, growing and exchanging them – practices that farmers and gardeners have carried out for thousands of years. We stand to not only lose our rights to share and save seeds, but also the genetic diversity which supports diverse farming systems, farmers’ resilience to climate change and our varied nutritional needs. Now is the time for us all to send a message to those who want to take seed from us, and to support those who understand the magic of seed and work to protect it. “
During the Festival, this message – in many different guises – was sent out loudly and clearly. Celebrations took to the river on the Battersea Barge as The London Freedom Seed Bank held their annual seed savers’ ceremony and ceilidh, mapping out the seed-saving activity going on across London. Among those taking part were young people, many of whom were saving seeds for the first time.
A Seed Feast was also held to celebrate World Food Day. The four-course meal was designed by Moro restaurant-trained chef, Ellen Parr along with set designer Alice Hodge. More than 100 people went along to see the Garden Museum transformed into an “old pagan assembly in a village hall”, as one of the diners described the scene. It featured edible soil in plant pots; seeds to be sprinkled from the packet and eaten; and a menu detailing the ingredients’ journey from seed to plate.
Fancy becoming a seed saver?
As well as being a great way to learn more about our growing heritage, seed saving and sharing encourage local production and food security. The erosion of seed diversity is to be deplored for many reasons, but one is that new varieties, while they may yield more, are often dependent on fossil-fuel based inputs such as chemical fertilisers or pesticides.
Varieties which are saved, are often older, ‘heritage’ varieties, better suited to their local growing environments, which favour taste over financial profit, and really speak volumes about place, culture and people. These are real seeds, packed full of nutrients, taste and history.
So what can you do?
1) Learn the lingo: get to know your open-pollinated seeds from your heirloom, and the difference between dry and wet seed processing, in this free seed saving and sovereignty guide (http://www.green-shopping.co.uk/ebooks/free-ebooks/a-guide-to-seed-saving-seed-stewardship-seed-sovereignty.html )
2) Collect seeds from your best plants. Consider how well the plant grew. How productive was it? How did it taste? How pest and disease-resistant did it prove?
3) Take care of your own seed collections. Label seeds carefully with the type of vegetable or flower, variety and year in which they were harvested. Store them in cool, dark conditions, perhaps in paper bags or recycled jam jars, and out of the way of mice.
4) Share with friends. Part of the joy of seed saving is in spreading the love. Swap your seeds with neighbours and friends or consider joining a postal seed pen pal scheme.
5) Experiment! Some seeds are easier to save than others. Tomatoes, beans, peas and corn are fairly straightforward, while the likes of broccoli, cabbage, beets and carrots are trickier – but perfectly possible.
6) Investigate some of the Great Seed Festival contributors:
- Heritage Seed Library http://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/hsl
- Engage children in growing vegetables with these story books with seeds www.secretseedsociety.com/
- Learn about open pollinated seeds www.open-pollinated-seeds.org.uk/
- Campaign against the reduction of seed varieties www.soilassociation.org/saveourseeds
The Great Seed Festival was coordinated by The Gaia Foundation, Beyond GM, the London Freedom Seed Bank, Heritage Seed Library and the UK Food Group.
Images courtesy of Tom Groves