Seed saving – the foundation of a democratic food system

Preserving the Genetic Base of Tomorrow’s Food – the Bellingen Seed Savers Network

Nick Rose

First published in the Coffs Coast Advocate, 6.11.10

If a system is going to endure long periods of time, i.e. be sustainable, then it has to be able to withstand external and internal shocks, i.e. it must be resilient.

Dealing with the lack of resilience in a globalised food system structured largely around the processed products of corn and soy is one of the biggest challenges we face.

A resilient system is diverse, and that’s why diversity – and diversification – are central to the transformation of the food and agricultural system that is now underway.

One manifestation of this transformation is the recovery of the traditional farmers’ practice of seed-saving. While an estimated 1.7 billion farmers still save their seed, they’re now supported by local and national seed-saving initiatives, such as the Navdanya project in Uttrakhand, Northern India. Founded in 1984 by Dr Vandana Shiva, Navdanya has conserved over 5000 crop varieties and set up 54 community seed banks in 16 Indian states. It’s also trained over half a million farmers in seed and food sovereignty, and sustainable agriculture.

In Australia, the Byron Bay-based Seed Savers Network was founded by Michel and Jude Fanton in 1986. The SSN website lists 76 local seed saver groups around the country, including in Coffs Harbour (CROPO), and the Bellingen Seed Savers Network (BSSN).

Established in 2008, the BSSN is coordinated by Irene Wallin. Irene, herself a relative late comer to food growing, fell into the role of coordinator almost by default, when the first volunteer for the job had to pull out.

Under Irene’s guidance, the group has prospered. It now has a ‘core’ of 30-35 members, and an email list of 150 people who want to stay informed of its activities. The members come from Coffs Harbour, Dorrigo, and Valla Beach, as well as the various valleys around Bellingen.

A key moment was when a number of keen and experienced local growers and gardeners joined the group – like Peter and Beryl Judd, from Dorrigo. They were able to supply a good stock of seed to share with the other members.

The Judds hosted one of the group’s first garden visits. “It was amazing”, says Irene. “[There were] huge, long rows of everything.”

When it comes to sustainable living, the first step is simply to begin. “You’ve got to make a start”, says Irene, “and we have. Here we are, two years later, and when I think about the number of seeds that we had to share with people at the Bellingen Plant Fair this time [September 2010], we’ve made really good progress.”

The group’s main focus is to collect and share seeds. “Our main objective is to get the seeds out and moving among the community”, says Irene. “The seeds we’re focusing on are edibles, and companion plants. It’s all to do with future food security”, she adds.

The loss of diversity in edible food crops is a real concern, and a key motivation for the group.

“You can look at the catalogues of the seed companies over time, and see how the seeds have just disappeared”, says Irene. “It’s the concern about the availability of food for everybody – it’s also about finding the varieties that will grow well here, and growing them, so they will adapt to the conditions.”

The visits to members’ gardens, and the informal sharing of seeds and knowledge that takes place during them, is the cornerstone of the group, and what has made it so popular.

“The host will talk about what’s working for them, and what problems they’re having, and how they’re overcoming them”, says Irene. “We all love being in one anothers’ gardens, it’s so interesting”, says Irene.

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