The role of community seed banks in protecting seed diversity
Global food supply is almost entirely reliant on seeds but seed diversity is under threat. The loss of seed diversity means that our food system is becoming increasing vulnerable, for example, to extreme weather conditions and pests.
I became aware of the threat to seed diversity through the work of London Freedom Seed Bank, a network of food growers dedicated to saving, storing and distributing seed. I was inspired by their commitment to creating a local supply of seed for London and became involved with their activities.
In 2015, I received funding from the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust to undertake a 10-week research trip to seed saving ventures in North America and Canada. The aim of the research was to understand the relative impact of different community seed projects, in terms of how they protect seed diversity, in order to support community seed saving practices in the UK.
I visited a range of seed saving projects including seed banks, seed libraries, independent seed companies and community farms in order to observe their practices and understand their aims. America and Canada were chosen as destinations for this research as both countries have a greater number and diversity of seed saving projects than the UK, and offer an excellent opportunity to gather case studies and examples of best practise.
I visited 23 projects across 9 states in urban and rural settings. I gathered evidence about the size and diversity of the seed collections, profile of the seed savers, their seed saving practices, and the main challenges they face in their day-to-day activities.
This map shows all of the projects included in the research:
I discovered that community seed saving projects have played an important role in protecting seed diversity in the US and Canada. ‘Seed diversity’ embodies both the number of different varieties being grown in farms and gardens across each country, and also the range of places in which each variety is being grown.
A new generation of seed savers has been created. In some states, the right of individuals to save and exchange seeds has been enshrined in law. Countless varieties, including many heirlooms*, have been saved from the brink of extinction. Gardeners in different regions have exchanged seeds, helping to increase the genetic diversity and resilience of specific varieties. Networks of gardeners and small-scale farmers have provided the means for individuals to share seeds, skills and other resources. A growth in interest in the history of seeds and the stories of individual varieties has paved the way for the creation of numerous independent seed companies, providing a financial incentive, to practise and improve seed saving skills.
The report identifies six main ways in which community seed saving projects in US and Canada are helping to protect seed diversity:
- EDUCATION: Raising awareness of seed issues and teaching seed saving skills
- LEGAL: Protecting the rights of individuals to save and exchange seeds
- RARE SEEDS: Identifying and raising awareness of rare and unusual seeds
- LOCAL SEEDS: Encouraging the development of locally adapted varieties
- NETWORKS: Creating networks of gardeners, farmers and seed savers to share skills and resources
- MARKETPLACE: Helping to create a marketplace for local seed
The research shows that community seed saving projects have played an important role in maintaining, and protecting, seed diversity in the US and Canada by: bringing back an awareness of the importance of saving seed; re-skilling gardeners and farmers; and disseminating open-pollinated seeds more widely. There is a huge diversity of different kinds of projects, including seed banks, seed libraries, seed swaps, grower networks, and independent seed companies.
The case studies featured on this website provide new ideas that may be useful to existing seed projects, such as the London Freedom Seed Bank, and can also be used to inspire and inform a greater diversity of seed saving ventures in the UK.
There is great potential to expand the work of community seed projects in the UK. We need community seed banks in cities and counties throughout the country, seed plots in community gardens, and regular seed swaps in local communities. The London Freedom Seed Bank can play an important role by assessing who is already saving seed in London and what seeds are being saved. Going forward, LFSB should concentrate on saving and storing the varieties that have been identified as rare or not generally available, in order to develop a collection that is unique and representative of London.
This research has been funded by the Winston Churchill Memorial Trust. The Trust awards Travelling Fellowship grants to UK citizens to carry out research project overseas. These projects are designed to exchange ideas and best practice, and build greater understanding between peoples and different cultures, in order that communities in the UK can benefit from these shared experiences.
A full copy of the report is available here. For enquiries or to give feedback, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
* Heirloom: a seed variety that has been, or is worthy of being, passed down through generations (Definition of the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary, Ontario, Canada)