Seeds may be tiny, but they really are the basis of life, playing an essential role in our food supply and future food security. Did you know that the ten largest seed companies in the world account for over 70% of the seed market worldwide, and their market share is growing all the time. With the massive increase in genetically modified crops, we are seeing a severe reduction in the availability of old heirloom seed varieties of fruits and vegetables. Old heritage varieties of plants offer important benefits for human and environmental health.
At the turn of the 20th century we had thousands (yes, thousands!) of varieties of apples and yet today in most supermarkets, you can only get a small handful of varieties. Most people wouldn’t recognise the old apple varieties with exotic names like Calville Rouge d’Automne, Saint Edmund’s Pippin or Chenango Strawberry. You can see some more of the old varieties profiled on this website devoted to apples. Many heirloom seeds from fruits and vegetables have been saved over time because they were simply the best performers in home and market gardens and gardeners loved to save seeds of their favourite plants. Historically we weren’t interested in shipping food hundreds of miles like we do today, so varieties that tasted good and had optimal nutrition were favoured.
A lot of the genetic programming of crops focus on commercial interests – such as increasing durability in transport or to enable early harvesting and in the process they sacrifice flavour and nutrition. The commercialisation of seed varieties also means that local varieties of plants that have adapted to local growing conditions are lost. When I first moved to Noosa I was given seeds from an old variety of lettuce, called First Fleet lettuce, from a local because she said they were the best for this area. It was originally grown at Farm Cove in Sydney and was a lettuce variety that came with the early settlers. This locally grown one though had adapted over a number of years to the subtropical climate of the Noosa hinterland, and grew well despite the vastly different climate to its birthplace of England.
With a pursuit of profit the big agricultural giants are also making it increasingly difficult for farmers to use the age old technique of seed saving. Across the world, people in all cultures always knew that seeds and plants belonged to everyone, so the thought of companies now owning patents on plants and controlling who can obtain them is both both strange and concerning. Nature is not a commodity that anyone should own and I argue that safeguarding our future food security is a basic human right. We also need to maintain the number of crop varieties which are available to stop shrinking the genetic base which ensures health in plants and humans.
The True Food Network is one group that educates and advocates about the risk of genetically modified crops. This national network has harnessed the diverse voices of well-known chefs and health advocates alike who are concerned with genetically modified foods.
Local permaculture groups such as Permaculture Noosa can help you to grow your own food and they usually have an active seed savers arm that helps create local seed banks. You can read an article on how to save seeds in your home garden here.
I personally, also support Alliance Eliant, an organisation that promotes diversity in agriculture and nutrition, medicine and health care and education. They are also known for supporting European artisan food producers under threat by draconian EU health and safety regulations.They have recently launched a new initiative aimed at saving old varieties of seeds and increasing awareness of biodynamic agriculture methods.
So get active today and ensure the future of our food for many generations to come! And don’t forget to be adventurous and seek out some unusual vegetable or fruit varieties next time you are at the farmer’s market.