Food Sovereignty Starts With a Seed
When we picture food sovereignty, many of us think large-scale. Our minds wander to agroecological growing practices, community-based food systems, and healthy and culturally appropriate foods. Yes, these are all certainly aspects of food sovereignty, but we might have to squint a little to see where it all begins: in a seed.
In recent years, land and power have been the focus for many food sovereignty activists. But for some, seeds are where food sovereignty stopped for many people—and they’re also what can bring it back.
We can’t have food or food sovereignty without seeds. But, given the general discourse around food security and sovereignty, you’d think that seeds were unnecessary. In fact, in the UN Food and Agriculture Organization’s (FAO) working document on food sovereignty, seeds are only mentioned a handful of times in the 33 pages.
In many cases, seeds actually present themselves as the antithesis of food sovereignty. Like in Africa, where organizations like the Cornell Alliance for Science, which consistently defends genetically modified seeds, is at odds with organizations like the Alliance for Food Sovereignty in Africa, which promotes diverse, agroecological growing systems, and seeds that are free from corporate interference.
So then, how can these tiny little carriers of genetic secrets help to further biodiversity, cultural knowledge, climate change resilience, and, ultimately, food sovereignty? First, we need to understand how ‘feeding the world’ has come at the cost of seed diversity.
A Shift in How We See Seeds
Sovereignty means to be autonomous, or free from external control. To grow and consume food in such a way that is free from outside influences absolutely depends upon seeds—which means challenging how they’re distributed, promoted, and controlled.
Hybrid seeds, global trade agreements, and patents have contributed to diminished seed diversity. More than 93% of our global seed diversity has been lost since the early 1900’s. In 1903, more than 500 varieties of lettuce were grown and consumed, with similar high numbers for tomatoes, cabbage, and other vegetables. Fast-forward to the 1980s, and we’ve saved just 79 varieties of tomatoes—the biggest loser in our world of dwindling diversity.
Our focus on yields has yielded an utterly depressing 75% loss in agricultural biodiversity. Intellectual property rights prevent many forms of seed saving, hybrid varieties saturate the market, and most eaters don’t think twice about the fact that their crunchy peppers, juicy watermelons, or healthy bunches of kale started out as something much smaller than a fingernail.
But this is all changing.
Planting the Seeds of Sovereignty
Voices like Dr. Vandana Shiva and Indigenous Seed Steward Rowen White have brought seeds to the forefront of food sovereignty. In an interview with Emergence Magazine, Rowen speaks of the value of seeds—which extends far beyond the food they transform into:
“There are inherent memories, and inherent knowledge and wisdom, encoded in these foods and seeds… They offer a set of guiding principles and offer a set of core values that really guide the way in which I move in the world, which is vitally important at a time when there’s so much disconnection, and there’s so much confusion on the Earth.”
Seeds can offer a way we can reconnect with some of the knowledge and wisdom of the plant world. They help us to remember ancestral practices and ways of being in touch with the earth. Perhaps most importantly, they’re the best chance we have to preserve current levels of plant diversity, support a resilient food system, and promote food sovereignty.
We all have a role to play in seeding food sovereignty. Here’s what you can do to get help:
- When buying seeds for your own garden, consider open-pollinated varieties. Also, support the work of organizations like Global Seed Savers, Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Native Seeds SEARCH, and more, who are all doing wonderful work to supply farmers, gardeners, and sustainable foodies with rare, native, heirloom, land race, and organic seeds.
- The Indigenous SeedKeepers Network (ISKN) is a great resource for anyone wanting to learn more about how seeds are vital for food sovereignty, and how they can be used to support related movements across Turtle Island (North America). Similarly, Sierra Seeds is a movement to support reconnection to the land and seed rematriation (restoring the feminine seeds back to the lands and communities of origin).
- You can also save seeds yourself! The Seed Savers’ Handbook and similar guides are excellent resources. Consider hosting or joining seed swaps to learn more about seeds and their stories, and how they can help to facilitate connection and education. Don’t know where to start? Look for a seed library in your local area.
- Eat a diverse diet! Even if you don’t have a green thumb, you can still indirectly promote seed diversity. Seek out new varieties of fruits and vegetables at farmer’s markets, or consider joining a CSA.
We hope this article planted a seed in your mind for how you can support a more just, vibrant, thriving, and tasty food system! When you’re ready to host a seed swap or place an order from one of these seed companies, use WeAct to get your fellow activists on board.