|Saving the Seed - Genetic Diversity and European Agriculture (GRAIN, 1992)|
|4. Salvaging in silence|
Enter the Court of Eden
Contrasts, like diversity, can be very potent. They feed the imagination and open up new spaces to move within. The Dutch genebank in Wageningen is not an unpleasant place to visit. Their collection is small for one of the top breeding countries of Western Europe - some 25,000 holdings of lettuces, spinach, cabbage-related crops and cereals - but their staff team is full of youthful energy and good spirits to make the best of it. Budget cuts mean that, in their new surroundings where all the Dutch plant research agencies are stuffed together, coffee is available for only 15 minutes a day, first in the morning and then after lunch. But they take it in their stride with a healthy dose of humour. They have to, for they know that the important thing is to run a respectable genebank.
Just a 20 minute train ride from the white walls, high-tech seed storage units and widespread multiplication fields of Wageningen is the urban bustle of Utrecht. Who would believe that just behind the central railway station is the Court of Eden: a tiny, four-storey house filled with more seeds from more countries in the world than the government's glossy genebank 40 kilometres east. Gus Lieberwerth is only 30 years old but he has been collecting and conserving plant genetic diversity since 1979 - six years before the Netherlands even had a national programme. His seed collection of 30,000 samples is probably the biggest private holding in all of Europe, and certainly surpasses Wageningen's.
Gus is critical of people who tell stories of what is going on at the grassroots level. There is not much grass in Utrecht and he hates to be called part of the 'informal' sector, but his work is an outstanding example of how people take the responsibility to care for diversity into their own hands. 'The danger with the stories,' he says, 'is that the seeds wilt be lost. If people see others doing it, they will say "Look, there it is being done!" and won't bother to do anything themselves.' There is obviously some truth to that. Yet if we don't tell stories, no one will see anything at all and the seeds may also be lost. We almost cannot afford not to take the chance.
Gus knows the staff and the scene at Wageningen but he is not too impressed. 'Oh, they are very nice people, but what they are conserving is not diversity. This Jaap Hardon, he has lots of lettuces, including so-called wild species. But have you ever seen them growing out? They're all the same! look at my lettuces - they're all different! And those wild plants he says he's got are not wild at all. They have been domesticated to live in his genebank.' Diversity is clearly in the eyes of the beholder.
Gus's living room is full of seeds. Only the chairs where we are sitting are not occupied by plants. Colanders filled with different, colourful beans are on the floor under the coffee table. 'These are landraces from Ethiopia. See how each of them is different? No two seeds are the same. I exchange lots of interesting materials with the genebank staff in Addis. They're doing wonderful work.' On top of the coffee table there are heads of grains from last year's grow-out and all over the shelves and between the books, jars and jars of seeds. 'Do you want to see my genebank? It's a living genebank.' This was a slight understatement. What Gus is running is a live-in genebank, starting with the living room.
We walk down a dark narrow hallway cluttered with old Dutch bicycles, boxes and muddy boots. 'This is the kitchen, but we can't eat here.' His girlfriend smiles from across the room, but it's not clear whether the look on her face means this is terrific or she's had enough. For indeed, there is more food in the form of plantlets, dried vegetables, seeds, herbs and grains in their kitchen than could feed an army. Every shelf, table, countertop, cupboard and chair is littered with stocks of food plants in one from or another. But this is not for eating. It's for saving and growing and letting live. There is literally no room to put a sandwich down.
We go upstairs. 'This is the bedroom, but we can't sleep here.' The bed is covered with cloths - not sheets and blankets - delicately holding tiny seeds drying slowly under the warm air blowing out from an electric heater, which is perched where a pillow should be propped. We climb another flight of twisted wooden stairs and reach what is starting to look like a very busy laboratory. One room is filled with plants that don't set true seed, growing under big lamps. Most of them are tropical plants from the Andes over to Tibet. 'Do you know Ulluco? It's what they call a "minor crop" but it's a major crop of the folk in the Andes. Actually, I'm specialised in minor crops. They're more interesting.' Gus exchanges seeds with more than 600 'collaborators' in 100 countries around the planet. Some of them are official people from genebanks and research institutes, others are village people and friends of his who travel around and take seed to others on his behalf in exchange for something requested in return. African crops are his major gap right now.
The further we move up flights of stairs, the more boxes there are. Finally we reach the heart of the operation: the incoming and outgoing seeds. One room just holds the seeds that were grown out this year. They are carefully packaged in scaled envelopes to survive a few years in storage before hitting the soil again, and labelled with fine details for data processing. In the adjacent room, are the seeds that will be grown out in the next season. Despite the amazing quantities and sheer pandemonium of diversity all over the place, everything is meticulously organised. 'I have seven helpers growing out the seeds with me. One of them works full time at the computer, keeping all the information up to date.'
It is quite a job. Each year, about 12,000 to 18,000 seed samples are regenerated in the outskirts of Utrecht. To maintain the integrity of the different varieties, Gus and his helpers grow the plants in little plots among the fields of small scale farmers in the region. In total, the area available to them amounts to 1.2 hectares. But his point is to save seeds so that they flourish in the field, not to grow them so that they can be stored in the house.
The only reason Gus is doing this is because he wants to. He is paid by the State to be permanently unemployed, by their definition, but he works seven days a week. To pay for some of the costs he also runs a non-profit seed company called Exclu-Seed. Each year, Gus and his associates offer a selected range of rare and unusual plant varieties to whoever is interested. Most of the clients are old people, who know plants, have time for them and remember what diversity used to be. Some of the seeds are very old cultivars, others are landraces and others yet are the Court of Eden's own creations. For example, this year the catalogue offers gardeners a chance to try a Nepalese lettuce landrace that is extremely variable. Gus asks his customers that if one particular plant in the heterogeneous batch is especially appealing, to please not eat it all, but let the plant go to seed and send the seeds back to the company so that they can multiply more seeds of that lettuce for other people to enjoy.
How so many tropical plants could survive in Utrecht leaves a lot of people perplexed. Gus's approach is straightforward: just don't interfere with them, let them do their own thing. His criteria for choosing which plants he takes on board are that they must be different, they must be natural and they must work for themselves, he is not going to work for them. But that doesn't mean he just sits back and whistles. If anything, Gus is a great observer and one of his keen interests is in crop development, crossing plants and creating new varieties. Nor is the point to be bundled up in Utrecht and prevented from living in his own house. The Court of Eden is trying to find the money to move to somewhere better suited to grow this diversity and show it to others. A 100 hectare plot of land in southeast Spain, where the microclimates are abundant, would be ideal. Would he mind if it were next to a Mitsubishi factory? 'All the better!' Gus cried. ' We can do it with Mitsubishi!'
Breeding diversity biodynamically
Over in Mainleus, Germany, not far from Bayreuth and the old East German border, Martin Bossert is very grim. It's been hard going and it's just getting worse. For years now Martin has been working with the Association for the Promotion of Research and Education for Plant Breeding, an independent biodynamic research organisation set up in 1983. Otherwise known as the Pflanzenzuchtverein Wernstein, this group has taken on the vital but awesome challenge of breeding diversity back into German agriculture and helping scientific creativity thrive again outside the numbing grip of big business.
For Martin and his colleague Peter Raatsie, many of the problems associated with modern agriculture - the decline of food quality, of peoples' independence and of biological diversity - boils down to the seed. As farmers and gardeners give up seed saving and opt to purchase technical packages from an anonymous industry, they are giving up a lot more than just their seeds. 'Today, the knowledge of how to avoid a reduction in yield through adapted cultivation practices no longer exists is becoming lost as well d Martin and Peter have been trying to reverse this trend, by breeding plants and developing farming systems that are sustainable and fertile, rather than simply high-yielding.
In their breeding work, carried out with farmers and horticulturalists in the region, they emphasise yield security, genetic variability, food quality, storage, taste and wholesomeness, and improved resistance. To do this, they have been collecting and conserving a broad range of genetic diversity in the form of old folk varieties from all over the region. They are currently maintaining several hundred varieties of more than one hundred species. As these crops were developed locally by farmers before chemicals were around, they are being tested as regional varieties for ecological agricultural production. They are also being conserved and improved for the future.
One important goal of their work is to revitalise seeds that have grown 'tired' through static and careless reproduction. For example, fundamental research on selecting rye through the so-called 'ear-bed' method of Martin Schmidt has allowed them to strengthen the vigour and fertility of other cereals and vegetables too. The ear-bed method involves sowing seeds in a row in the order they grow on the head of grain where the most mature are on the top and the youngest on the bottom. When you grow out the seeds respecting this order, the plants in the middle of the row will grow the tallest. Not only do yields increase, but these plants are also stronger and more resistant to stress than those at the edge of the row .
Martin and Peter have also been doing applied research to increase the nutritional value of food crops, the baking and storage qualities of grains and their health-enhancing properties. But all this intensive breeding and crop improvement depends on the availability of a good store of landraces and old cultivars. Their collection of varieties has been 40 years in the making and is composed of cereals, potatoes, beans and other vegetables, running into the hundreds. Every year, a fair portion of this diversity has to be grown out on a land area amounting to no more than one hectare. Last year, Martin sowed more than 25 different pulses alongside grains and vegetables to regenerate the seeds and keep the collection going.
But despite all this promising work, their efforts are constantly on the verge of being wiped out by the apathy of the authorities and the absence of financial resources to keep the operation alive. Everyone is pleased to admire the fine things they are doing, but few are pitching in to help. Last year when he came to Barcelona to join in a European network meeting of folk dedicated to genetic resources, Martin swore that he was about to bale out and just throw his whole collection of seeds into the fire. No one believed him; his commitment to keep fighting seemed too strong. But sustaining this work is impossible without resources and support. Would it help if he were allowed to sell his seeds and recoup some of the costs, despite German law prohibiting this? Martin is clear in rejecting this option. 'I am not interested in selling the seeds. I don't want to imitate the system that I am trying to find a way around.'
The destiny of Noah's Ark
A lot of folks who save seeds in Central Europe know Nancy Arrowsmith. Nancy is something of a minor monument on the scene. She has stubbornly lent her voice and muscle to help people in their struggle without ever hinting at giving up. Despite her frank and fierce complaints that she's sick and tired of the stories of how important genetic resources are and what a great thing grassroots conservation is, she buckles up and fights on.
Nancy lived in several countries, including Italy, the USA and Germany, before settling down in northeast Austria, not far from what was then the barbed wire of the Czechoslovakian border. Fascinated with the diversity of the landscapes and microclimates around her, she took on gardening 'with a vengeance,' as she puts it, and founded a magazine for fellow organic gardeners called Kraut & Rüben. This work, and the people around her, especially the elderly Austrian women who know something about saving their old varieties, got her going to conserve genetic diversity. For it took only a look around to see that there was a real problem. The seed business in Austria is not healthy. A full 95 per cent of the vegetable varieties come from foreign companies, which has the country in a state of great genetic dependence. As Nancy explains, the decline of Austrian plant breeding is not so much owing to takeovers and mergers, but to the wholesale wiping out of small businesses, which cannot keep up with competition from multinationals.
While this is already a problem, Nancy fears more for the imminent threats of tomorrow: Austria's integration into the European Community and entrance into the UPOV club of countries that provide Plant Breeders' Rights. Both of these changes are bound to take a heavy toll on whatever diversity farmers and gardeners are still enjoying in Austria, as can be seen in those countries that are already part of the systems. So one of Nancy's primary strategies in getting her seed work going has been systematically to collect the nonhybrid varieties still around but threatened by integration into the EC.
Today Nancy runs a network of seed savers in the German-speaking countries of Austria, Switzerland and Germany. She gave her organisation the biblical name Arche Noah or Noah's Ark from the idea of trying to load the boat with as much diversity as possible before the flood of erosion wipes it out. Today, there are more than 350 members in the network, collecting, maintaining and exchanging seeds through all sort of mechanisms: 'swap stands' at local markets, Arche Noah's publications or sympathetic health food stores. Nancy herself devotes 50 hours a week to her own seed saving of vegetables and keeping the organisation alive. Every year she publishes a catalogue of who is conserving what in the network and how to get hold of it. It offers hundreds of traditional varieties of cereals, vegetables, fruits, flowers, herbs and industrial crops. She also put together a listing of all nonhybrid seeds still available in Austria as of 1990, so that gardeners and farmers can save them before they are dropped from the market and disappear for good (6).
At the helm of Noah's Ark, she has a hard time smiling about it. ' We are not taken seriously by official institutions and have a long way to go before our organisation will be efficient enough to serve as a serious tool for the preservation of our plant heritage.' (7) She herself has benevolently dumped plenty of her own private resources into the operation, while she desperately tries to get a grant from the government. The paperwork takes a lot of time and the results have not been encouraging. Until Noah's Ark can stand on its own feet, the work will remain a desperate battle against the demise of local diversity and people's legal liberty to save seed, even if it is patented. 'At the moment, our major role is that of a catalyst - to make farmers aware that they are losing their birthright, make consumers aware that they are losing valuable and delicious food plants, and make government officials and ecologists aware that there is a problem involved.'
Nancy is particularly vigilant about the situation in Eastern Europe, which is going through faster changes than her adopted home state of Austria. Over the years, she and her assistant Ursula Mitterbauer have gone collecting genetic resources in Czechoslovakia and Hungary, coming home with stocks of vegetables and fruits. They report, 'Parts of the Czechoslovakian countryside are so ravaged [by pollution and environmental damage] that nut even potatoes will grow well. Mutations in leaf and in fruit forms are increasing in industrial areas.' (9) The federal government's policy of industrial development repressed any option other than what it dictated as the only solution. The Czech seed supply has been the monopoly of the State and only officially accredited varieties are available to farmers and gardeners. In tact, usually only one variety per species was allowed to be grown in any given year.
Nancy also mourns what is happening in the former East Germany. Like other NGOs, she considers the genebank at Gatersleben to be one of the best in world, and praises its 'hands-on, practical approach to seed saving' practised by no other (10). Yet its integration into West Germany's priorities will likely change all of that. Worse, in her view, is the demise of excellent grassroots conservation work apparently tolerated by the Communist regime and actively supported by the Gatersleben staff. Jürgen Reckin's Society for Ecological Plant Breeding and Soil Development stands out among the others. For years now, Jürgen and his team of eight dedicated scientists have been collecting, conserving and carrying out dynamic farming systems research with more than 300 varieties of grains, vegetables, amaranth, comfrey, legumes and forage crops. Nancy admires his work tremendously. He has developed wheat with good baking qualities and high protein content, potatoes resistant to frost, free-threshing spelt for small farmers, barleys that don't need chemical fertiliser and dozens of other local innovations to promote sustainable agriculture in East Germany. Yet the West German authorities have told Jürgen to shut down operations, as they consider this 'bad science'. As Nancy puts it, sadly, 'The excellent work of this group may he relegated into oblivion as quickly as the Berlin Wall." (11)
Nancy sees the rebuilding of local economies in the East as hinging upon the possibility of salvaging the old seeds that were at the heart of people's cultures and fight for independence. Much of this will have to come from the seed savers outside the region - refugees of the Ceausescu regime, Polish emigrants and others who fled from hardship with their seeds sewn into skirt linings and hidden in hat bands. Getting the local resources back into the tired and exploited villages is the kind of aid these regions need, not massive shipments of unadapted Western hybrids. Noah's Ark is more than willing to help transmit the seeds of the future back to these people. In so doing, Nancy and her friends would truly bring a legend to life.
Fighting for options in the UK
'I know it will happen again. I don't know what the next problem will be, I just know there is going to be one.' Jeremy Cherfals is a biologist, gardener, seed saver and journalist based in Bristol. As his main source of income is as a freelance science writer, he is usually never sure of much, starting with where his next paycheque will come from so he can pay the mortgage and keep the roof over his head. But he is sure of one thing: that the genetic uniformity of our crops is setting us up for another major harvest loss that could make the Irish potato famine of the 19th century look like a minor event.
Jeremy is a member of the US-based Seed Savers Exchange and the UK's Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA). As his contribution to grassroots conservation Jeremy collects and maintains members of the onion family, with an emphasis on rare multiplier onions. He doesn't have time for more, although he would like to. Over the past couple of years, the little extra time he could squeeze away from writing articles has been invested in trying to revamp the HDRA's legendary vocation in sowing the seeds of diversity. Like any NGO, HDRA has had to make tough decisions about where to focus its emphasis and limited resources. Most of their work has been directed to developing a viable basis for organic gardening in the UK and overseas. But both the success and the sheer magnitude of this work has meant that attention has drifted away from genetic resources and the collection built up by HDRA's founder, Lawrence Hills. As Jeremy puts it, 'The HDRA's Heritage Seeds Programme and Heritage Seed Library had become a little like our seeds - slightly moribund.'
It did not take Jeremy too long to convince today's leaders of the HDRA, Jackie and Alan Gear, that the genetic resources aspect of their programme needed a vital revamping. An independent review of the collection of 200 vegetables bring conserved at Ryton Gardens near Coventry was carried our last year. The panel included staff from the Vegetable Genebank at Wellesbourne, and other scientists from the National Institute of Agricultural Botany. The review concluded that HDRA was indeed holding on to a heritage that was worth saving. But it had to be done fast.
The HDRA still doesn't have enough money to help Jeremy pay his mortgage by giving him a full-time job as their Head of Genetic Resources. The priority is to start growing out the seed collection and getting the newborn programme in action. While the seeds are revitalised in Coventry and backed up in cold storage at Wellesbourne, HDRA is trying get more people involved in their Seed Guardian scheme. Today there are about 40 Seed Guardians throughout the UK growing old varieties from the HDRA's Seed Library. They are responsible for producing enough seed for exchange within the network on a voluntary basis. Part of what prevents people getting involved in the programme is that many British gardeners, spoiled by instant products from commercial catalogues, have forgotten how to harvest and conserve seed from their crops. So HDRA is developing training courses and teaching materials of easy to learn techniques for what Jeremy calls 'saving backyard biodiversity'.
Another important part of the programme is raising public
awareness about genetic diversity and why it is vital to use and preserve our
rich gardening heritage. A display of illegal varieties at this year's Chelsea
Flower Show certainly did that! Not only did it attract almost 500 new members
for the Heritage Seed Programme, it also attracted a bronze medal from the
stuffy Royal Horticultural Society. 'At last, people are beginning to take some
notice,' says Jeremy.
To HDRA and other UK organisations working to promote sustainable agriculture, an important feature of the old varieties is that even if they don't yield as much as fancy hybrids and other modern strains, they don't demand the external inputs that are poisoning Britain's environment, water and food supply and costing farmers an arm and a log. If those concerns don't stir British citizens, their shopping basket might. ' Consumers are being ripped off.' Jeremy is emphatic about this point. 'Taste, if it figures at all, has generally been low on the list of priorities in the development of modern varieties. Shoppers are beginning to resent that.' These wider costs of today's food production system are only slowly starting to be calculated and felt.
But people in Britain are mostly moved by the genetic uniformity argument, and probably for a good reason. The UK is one country where NGOs have hit hardest on their government to take a more responsible role towards managing the resource base of agriculture. And the UK is one country where the government has not done very much. Wellesbourne is one example. But what about Brogdale? Great Britain's - and probably the world's - largest collection of fruit trees nearly died a few years ago because the government could not care less. Through private efforts, involving the HDRA's royal patron Prince Charles, the collection was saved from extinction and is now run as the Brogdale Horticultural Trust. Had no one batted an eye when the government sold off the UK's historic Plant Breeding Institute to Unilever, their genetic resources collection, long built up as a public heritage, would have been sold off with it. And only now is the government starting to contemplate something in the range of a national policy on genetic resources. By all accounts, the British have narrowly avoided losses as their administrators have persisted in believing that if the sacrosanct market doesn't value the country's genetic heritage it should be scrapped.
But HDRA is mostly worried about the future of Britain's food security. Saving seeds is not just for the pleasure of growing something different in your garden. NGOs and individuals have a major role to play in decentralising the conservation effort and multiplying what is in effect an insurance premium against crop wipeout. As Alan Gear puts it, 'The history of agriculture is littered with epidemics of disease and outbreaks of pest; in almost every case, salvation was found either in an old variety or in a wild relative of the crop.' (12) To contribute to this effort, HDRA has just published a new version of The Vegetable Finder. A catalogue of catalogues, it lists all vegetable varieties legally available in the UK today: 1,973 open-pollinated types and 829 hybrids. This is not quite the abundant and secure offering of diversity it seems. Nearly 60 per cent more than 1,000 - of the non-hybrid vegetables are being maintained by one solitary supplier and are marked with a special symbol.
Of course, seed-saving in the UK would be a lot more efficient if people could sell heirloom varieties, but this is restricted by the law, as in many other Western European countries. The standards for uniformity set a high barrier to enter the seed market and effectively keep folk varieties off the shelf. Even if a scientifically competent organisation like HDRA went into plant breeding, it would need considerable funds to compete with the top companies. It costs £1,800 these days to register a variety on the National List and another £400 each year to keep it there, whether it sells one hundred packets or one hundred thousand. So an NGO like HDRA doesn't - and can't - 'sell' seeds. 'I give you the seeds, and you give me a donation,' Jeremy explains. ' We don't like loopholes, but that's the way it has to he.' Until the regulations are changed, the right to compete on the seed market will be a right reserved for the already rich.
Meanwhile, Jeremy and other British groups are set to continue the fight to raise awareness, bring the grassroots actors closer together and create a new demand for diversity. 'Not in a simple-minded nostalgia of "Gee, weren't the apples better when we were kids," 'he stresses. 'That's not the point. But we hare to get everyone to realise ultimately that the diversity we are trying to preserve is going to feed them in the future.'
Recovering the future of Tuscany
Giovanni Cerretelli is deeply worried about where farming is going in Italy. Not just the pesticide problem and people leaving the land. He is mostly concerned about the loss of local varieties and with them the heart and culture of the people who nurtured them as a bridge to tomorrow. In a race against the loss of the future, he has spent the past couple of years visiting old farmers and gardeners in Tuscany, talking to them about the seeds their families grew, the history of how and why different varieties were developed and handed down, what they were valued for and how they were grown. The past is rich, but the future is uncertain.
'We can collect the germplasm, hut unless young people learn how to save seeds again and keep the links intact, this diversity will not thrive.' Giovanni is an agronomist and wants to help farmers develop more sustainable production systems. Together with Francesca Castioni and a few other colleagues, he set up a cooperative in Florence called Il Bigallo Verde, with the aim of offering to local farmers services, advice and training on biological agriculture. The value of traditional varieties became evident to him. Generally well adapted to local conditions, they could provide resistance, nutritional value, taste, self reliance and a stability of yield under low input practices that the modern varieties can't match.
In 1986, Bigallo Verde started a project to rescue old crop varieties in Tuscany with the support of the regional government and the Agricultural University of Florence. Before collecting, a lot of research went into figuring out where to go and what to look for. This meant talking to local farmers to get a first-hand picture of the map of the region's agricultural history. Once the field trips got underway, it became clear that while a lot of diversity had been lost, especially in areas of intensive industrialised farming, there was still a range of traditional cultivars being grown, especially among small farmers and the elderly. To date, more than 200 samples of crop plants have been collected, mostly local vegetables, cereals, pulses and forage crops.
The collecting work opened Giovanni's eyes to the eminently social and human dimension of seeds and the critical lack of a good conservation system in the region - one in which farmers are directly involved. 'On many occasions, we were able to become aware of the extent to which the cultivation of local plants is tied to a precise local culture on its way to extinction, or, unfortunately at times, recovered only in its more aesthetic forms.' (13) Most of the material collected came from elderly small-scale farmers who have maintained their rural traditions and for whom reproducing their own seed was one of the most fundamental activities on the farm. But as these people are dying out, someone has to safeguard their seeds for them.
Culturally, politically and technically, Italy's national genebank in Bari is too far away. Tuscany needs a regional approach to managing its genetic resources or it won't work. 'The local varieties collected have to continue to circulate as the wealth of the farmers.' (14) If the seeds are cut off from the people, they will lose their real value as a local heritage. What sense and benefits will Tuscan farmers derive by shipping their seeds to a central storage unit down south? Giovanni says it again and again: the imperative is not conservation as such, but utilisation, putting diversity to work in local economies.
Giovanni and his colleagues from the official sector are firm about moving forward. Collecting must continue but conservation begins with what has already been salvaged. The first task is to multiply the seeds so that there is more to work with. Then the seeds have to be safely preserved for the future. Tuscany is set on creating its own regional genebank but only in cooperation with farmers. While cold storage is vital, they feel it is just as vital to provide farmers with the proper incentives and opportunities to keep the local varieties alive by growing them within sustainable production systems. Given the circumstances today, this will mean identifying the varieties with good forms of resistance and integrating them into low-energy production systems that don't need pesticides and can improve the quality of food and the environment.
The task ahead is tremendous and Giovanni can't count all the hurdles to overcome. Probably the biggest and most important to him is getting this diversity back into the farms and the villages so that people can relate to it again. For that to happen, people will need to learn how to save, reproduce and select seeds so that they can really work again with plants and use the possibilities offered by local cultivars for a more ecological and self-reliable approach to producing food. But at the same time, consumers will have to learn to demand this kind of diversity in their quest for higher quality products and a cleaner environment. The bottom line is clear: we can't move into the future if we are not armed with the past.
A full-time conservation group in Switzerland (15)
Switzerland is one of the few European countries where the national genebank has actually put some of the old varieties it collected from farmers back into production, mainly rustic mountain cereals donated to biological farming organisations. But relations between the official and non-official sectors are not always so harmonious and trusting. In the late 1970s, some sceptical people did not believe the government's claim that there was not much more to do to conserve the old breeds of Swiss farm animals; what was gone was gone, it was said. The sceptics went out and scoured valley valley, valley, stable after stable identifying what was really left They found many breeds that were said to be extinct. Somehow, the State had not been very efficient!
In early 1980, these diversity-hunters founded a private non-governmental organisation and named it Pro Specie Rara (PSR). The idea was to develop an independent and participatory approach to maintaining the genetic diversity of Swiss plants and animals. Rather than acting as a club or a network, PSR functions as a kind of trust fund for endangered animals. Its finances comes from its own shareholders, patronage and grants. With its working capital, PSR buys the last individuals of a breed and 'rents' them out tree of charge to interested farmers. The farmer has full use of the animals while PSR maintains the right to buy the offspring and enlarge the herd. PSR manages the herdbook and directs mating strategies. When the breed is out of danger of extinction, the foundation relinquishes its rights over the animals and, as PSR staffer Hans-Peter Grünenfelder puts it, 'a free market takes place'. The idea of this controlled procedure is to spread the animals out in small and decentralised breeding groups to avert any risks and keep the highest number of males, to guarantee a wide genetic base.
Much of PSR's success and experience has been with animals: cattle, sheep, goats, pigs and also fowl, such as chickens and geese. They are really best known for this original and popular work. For a few years, however, they have also been working with plants, collecting and multiplying old varieties through a parallel network of participating gardeners and horticulturalists. Their priorities are limited to crops adapted to high altitudes and the rigours of Swiss mountain climates. Rustic potato cultivars, such as the Eight-Week Potato and old farmers' varieties of legume crops and cereals have been collected and are available for growing.
Pro Specie Rara has enjoyed a lot of success at home. Rather than conserving species in one special place so they don't die out, they offer people a chance to get involved directly, either by adopting a breed financially, housing some animals or growing out traditional varieties. Today nearly 400 Swiss farmers are involved in their animal rescue operations, while 250 fruit and vegetable growers maintain the plants they have collected. Amazingly, this organisation has survived and carried out all its work without any funding from the government. A rare feat indeed.
PSR is growing - and eastward bound. They are not becoming another Swiss multinational, but because of their location in the centre of the 'new' Europe, it was impossible for them to ignore what was taking place in nearby East European countries. Their fears that economic restructuring of the former communist regimes would bring about the rapid loss of traditional animal breeds, fruit stocks and crops not 'profitable' enough for the future market economy - have all too quickly materialised. In 1989, PSR sent staff into Czechoslovakia to search out the indigenous breeds and found that the dramatic end to the lives of many had begun. Many a rare animal finally tracked down through local farmers was found hanging up on a butcher's hook. In one desperate move, they tried to export some specimens of the famous wooly-backed Mangalizza pigs into Switzerland for safety and reproduction. The pigs were held at the border for quarantine, and it turned out that they were infected with a virus. The pigs sat there for a year, while PSR nervously put up the money, until it was known whether the offspring were healthy.
The agricultural genetic wipeout in the East is so serious and violent that PSR has set up an office in Prague to instigate and coordinate emergency conservation projects - with just the money they can spare from their Swiss activities. Another office is being established in the former Yugoslavia. Together with other grassroots conservation organisations in Central Europe they are trying to set up an umbrella Euro-Fund or Euro-Association that will link up animal and plant heritage groups throughout the region to capitalise jointly on the little available funding and increase cooperative activities. With the clock ticking so fast, equally rapid action to salvage the backyard breeds of generations of private farmers and gardeners in the East is urgent. The pleas for help coming from the official sector may fall on deaf ears in the West. Let us hope that concerted NGO action can make up for this and result in something effective for the future.
Quality and competence at Le Biau Germe
Sylvia Schmid is a petite women with silvery hair and a gentle voice. Neither an ageing hippie nor a newborn ecologist, Sylvia abounds with common sense and simplicity. When she talks about the old varieties of tomatoes and peaches that farmers and gardeners cultivated in France decades ago, she seems mesmerised by their qualities and defects, the panorama of different breeds that suited different climates and uses, and the opportunities they offer to keep on experimenting and developing new types. -
We first crossed paths with Sylvia in the early 1980s when she decided to go into the seed business. It wasn't the typical seed business, however. Sylvia wanted to cater to a commonsense clientele of people who could appreciate regionally adapted varieties that were grown without chemicals. She wanted to rescue the best of France's wealth in local varieties from oblivion - but without getting nostalgic or folklorish about it. From the moment she started, the law was against her. With her starting batch of traditional varieties, she went into small scale production and began announcing that the old seeds were back on sale and would work wonderfully on organic farms. She couldn't afford to advertise in any broad fashion like the mainstream merchants of grain. But she did manage to slip her message through the local press and into biological farming circles.
Thus her fight of common sense against reality began. The authorities threatened that what she was doing was illegal. Her varieties were not registered on France's national list of seeds that could be legally sold. But how could she possibly comply with the regulation? The law held that varieties had to be unique, uniform and stable, which no landrace or old farmer's variety possibly could. And she could not afford to try to register anything, even if it were possible. She was warned to shut down operations or risk legal action.
It was then that, shocked by disbelief; Sylvia contacted us for confirmation that it was true that she was doing something unlawful and for advice on what to do. She could not believe that in a democratic country such as France it was illegal to pursue another type of agricultural development than the one farmers were coerced into by the chemical industry. Nor could she believe that the genetic heritage painstakingly developed by farmers and gardeners and handed down over generations was barred from survival by government decree and had to be relegated to underground channels and misfit adventurers just to stay alive.
We did not have to argue anything in return, we only offered our
support if any of the threats against her integrity materialised. Yes she was
breaking the law, but if that was the only way to demonstrate the foolishness of
the law, it was up to her to take the chance. Sylvia stuck with her belief in
the value of the old seeds and the interest they offered for the development of
sustainable agriculture and in the ten years since her perilous start, the
enterprise has bloomed into one of the most well-respected and appealing
biological seed companies in France.
The Biau Germe is implanted in southwest France, where the soils and climate are not too bad for seed production. The operation is run by Sylvia, her brother, Rene, and his wife, Annie, now assisted by one other couple, Pascal and Veronique Naudin. Together, they have four hectares of land for seed production, spread out to avoid cross pollination. Biau Germe has two principal objectives. First, to produce seeds whose genetic potential has not been altered by chemicals and can therefore continue to maintain and develop their natural vigour. Secondly, to participate in the management of our genetic heritage by producing seeds of old varieties, with a particular emphasis on those cultivated before the First World War.
Sylvia and her gang work hard to produce the finest quality seed for amateurs and gardeners. They carry out very strict germination controls to deliver a potent product and take great care in adjusting production to changing demands. For example, oriental vegetables are becoming popular now in many countries of Western Europe: Chinese cabbages and greens, edible chrysanthemums, and so on. The Biau Germe tests them out for truly dependable results under small farm conditions in temperate climates and cautiously advises their clients on how best they grow. When there is time, they also do some breeding and selection to improve crops and develop them further. But their favourites are the old time classics that bring farming and gardening down to its real nature: a true art in juggling the complex factors that work on and off each other in a diversified environment. For example, they take pride in keeping available the tall Red Wheat of Bordeaux, a very old and rustic landrace that is well adapted to low-input farming practices, returns a lot of straw to the soil and produces an exceptionally nutritious grain without chemicals. They also offer well-prepared and well-tested varietal mixtures of a number of horticultural and ornamental crops - something unknown to the mainstream seed market geared towards uniformity!
Despite her success, Sylvia is still in limbo with the law. Due to pressure from grassroots organisations, France did create a special parallel registration system for old fruit varieties in the mid-1980s - the only European country to do so, but also the only European country with any registration requirement for fruits. The standards are less rigorous and the fees lower. But what about the rest? Sylvia has been negotiating with other organic seed producers to form a trade union to defend their rights to exist on the market. But in the meantime, the French authorities are starting to realise that the system doesn't make sense. If there is a demand for traditional varieties and people are willing to produce them on a commercial scale, why shouldn't they be allowed to do business? Her sheer obstinacy may win Sylvia the satisfaction of seeing the laws rewritten to recognise the value of our genetic heritage. And of the common sense behind people's drive to work with diversity and let it thrive, for our own pleasure and that of generations to come.
Seed saving in Sweden
SESAM is a small non-profit organisation in Sweden, working to maintain a pool of local crop varieties well adapted to the Nordic climates. With nearly two hundred members participating in the network, SESAM is reviving and revitalising the art of cultivating seeds for the future.
The main activity of the organisation is teaching people how to grow and save seed crops of local varieties in the different climates of Sweden. When a member of the group has proven that he or she has mastered the art of managing a certain species, that person is commissioned to grow out an old variety for the benefit of the others. One senior member is responsible for overseeing training and management of the collection for each crop group: peas, beans, carrots and so forth. A minimum number of plants per variety have to be regularly grown out to ensure long-term maintenance and availability of seeds. At the same time, part of the overall collection is backed-up in cold storage compartments as a safety measure.
SESAM Chairperson Thomas Levander explains the limits of this approach. 'All work within the association is done on a voluntary basis and in our spare time. We are strictly amateurs at the grassroots level. So far we have no sponsors or any financial support for our work.' On the positive side, Thomas is certain that this kind of work is an invaluable contribution to keeping alive well-adapted varieties that are suited to the region. If everyone just turned their backs on genetic erosion and let the country's crop heritage disappear, how would Swedish farming survive in the future?
Take the potato. Over the years, SESAM has developed a broad collection of old potato landraces that have long worked well in Sweden's diverse agro-ecosystems. However, most of them are now suffering from virus plagues and reduced vitality. Thomas and his colleagues managed to raise some money to pay a research institute to do meristem culture of their infected stock and start cleaning up this heritage collection so that new clones will ensure its survival. In the meantime, they are figuring out how to develop a virus-free environment to be able to continue growing these folk varieties that are well-appreciated and worth saving.
The SESAM network has proved to itself that there is a job to do and its membership is qualified to do it. They would even like to grow and link up with similar groups engaged in seed saving of Nordic cultivars in Finland and Denmark. The problem is the lack of resources and time to further the research. The starting basis is there, but developing adequate techniques for different species in different zones takes quite some effort. And though they would like and need to, there is simply no time to investigate characteristics like pest resistance, cropping systems and other features that would help reinstate farmers' varieties into today's production systems. Even describing the old cultivars can be a headache.
Until there are resources available to give this work deeper foundations, the first priority is to link up with other organisations and learn from each other. SESAM's members have taught themselves a lot and learned how to conserve genetic resources at the farmer level the hard way. They are really keen to share their experiences with other groups and build on their achievements in a solid and sustainable manner.
Managing the genetic heritage of Provence
Cooperation between the formal and informal sectors is not only necessary, it is also possible. This, at least, is the lesson to be learned from what is probably Europe's only adventure in mounting a fully fledged regional genetic heritage programme that involves a wide range of actors in an incredibly full spectrum of activities.
PAGE PACA is the name of the initiative born in 1983 and hopefully here to stay and grow. PAGE stands for 'PAtrimoine GEnétique' (or Genetic Heritage) and PACA for Provence-Alpes-Cotes d'Azur which is the name of the region in the southeast of France, comprised of six administrative departments and covering nearly 31,500 square kilometres of extremely diverse ecosystems. The climate is Mediterranean but the topography ranges from the sandy shores of St Tropez to the upper Alps, passing through plains and lower mountain chains, prairies, orchards and small river valleys.
The genetic and cultural diversity of the area is rich but underexploited and ill-preserved. Recognising this, a whole range of activities were springing up from different circles to conserve and utilise the resources of the region: national parks, organic farming organisations, schools, research institutes and NGOs. Agriculture was going through rapid transformations. For example, the region has become specialised in fruit production and early vegetables, exported throughout the country. But the local orchards were ripped up and re-planted with varieties from California. Honey production has also been an old vocation of the region and earned farmers, gardeners and private individuals a bit of extra income that never hurt. Yet the indigenous Black Bee of Provence, so well adapted to the climate and flowers of the zone, was being sacrificed to the spread of imported hybrid races that yielded well but did not really integrate into the ecosystem.
People from all corners of the region were getting concerned about the decline of their heritage in the face of easy solutions that might not be sustainable. The problem was not just agricultural, nor just environmental, but really had to do with valuing and utilising the wealth of traditional knowledge long generated by centuries of working with local resources. Rather than work in a fragmented way, the different actors sat down and forged a plan for cooperation that won the support and encouragement of their regional government, as well as from Paris' Ministry of the Environment.
PAGE PACA brings together more than thirty agencies, from grassroots NGOs and biological farming organisations to the State's agronomic research institute, INRA, and national parks. Their main goal is not only to conserve but also to foment sustainable economic development in the region by harnessing local knowledge and resources. As an umbrella organisation for the multiple partners, PAGE PACA lends logistical support to local initiatives or else designs new programmes at the regional level which different members will take up and carry out.
In the first years of its work, the programme has focused on a vast range of species, activities and industries. As fruits are a major cash crop of the region, PAGE PACA has inventoried the traditional fruits of the zone, collected what could still be found and is preserving and studying the old types for reintegration into the economy. For example, rare and valuable varieties such as the Blood Peach of Manosque, with its ruby red flesh, or the Snow Peach, which bears unusual white flowers, have been recovered from near extinction against the onslaught of modern hybrids. Local figs, almonds, plums and cherries have followed the same path. Many have found their way into the orchard being set up at La Thomassine, PAGE PACA's demonstration and research farm, near the village of Manosque. Doubles of many materials are backed up at the National Botanical Garden run by Louis Olivier on the island of Porquerolles.
Many of these cultivars are exceptionally resistant to diseases and pests and provide succulent fruit. But of course they lack the hard skins that would make them transportable over long distances - an end for which they were not developed by earlier farming families. One answer to this problem is to develop processed goods based on these and other unique local fruits: jams, juices, syrups and pastes. But that demands setting up relations with local industrialists willing to help find novel ways of processing the raw materials into adapted products. Another is to encourage direct local consumption of the region's heritage through schools, markets and restaurants.
Provence has also long been a grazing land of goats and sheep that fed superbly on leguminous forages like sainfoin. As this grass is well adapted to the climates and soils, PAGE PACA has collected old ecotypes and is experimenting with farmers on developing its production once again. It can be intercropped with cereals and used as a green manure or cut and ted to sheep. Other experiments have been carried out with local breeds of clover, alfalfa and vetches, which are compared with modern commercial varieties in on-farm trials. The difference is generally the same: local ecotypes are less demanding and better adapted to the complexities of the Provençal region. The drawback is that there is no source of seed nor distribution system for the indigenous varieties.
In the area of vegetables, aromatic and medicinal plants, a lot of collecting has saved many old varieties from dying out. The same goes for animal breeds, honey flowers and indigenous bees. But once the problem of setting up inventories, collecting materials and getting them into active maintenance is resolved, the real challenge is utilising them in viable economic circuits. This is not just a problem of supply but also of demand. Raising public awareness about the value and utility of local genetic resources has been a major activity of PAGE PACA. Campaigns with slogans like 'Our Genetic Heritage is Everyone's Business' or 'Resources of the Future, Jobs for Tomorrow' have been launched to teach the public and help them understand that responsibility for managing local diversity has to be collective, not just dependent on the State or anyone else.
But perhaps most of all, the greatest success of the programme thus far has been in bringing very different actors together to work towards a common goal in a concrete setting. Philippe Barret' NGO member of the Board of PAGE PACA, is proud of this fact and cherishes the good relations he has with members from INRA and the formal conservation circles. ' We have different perceptions and different priorities, but we have learned to work to,gether and respect our differences.' If diversity is to thrive, it can only really do so in such an environment.