The Ecologist

Ripe poppies awaiting harvest near Winchester in Hampshire. Photo: Neil Howard via Flickr.

Trillions of ripe poppy seeds awaiting harvest near Winchester in Hampshire. Photo: Neil Howard via Flickr.

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Celebrate the seeds that feed us!

Rowan Phillimore

3rd October 2014

Seeds are essential to our food and our entire lives, writes Rowan Phillimore. So join in celebrating and sharing them at a series of events this month in London, Bristol, Devon, Oxford, Lancaster, Herts - and begin the fightback against corporate domination of seeds and oppressive government regulation.

Farmers', growers' and gardeners' rights to save, breed, exchange and sell seed are under threat as corporations, governments seek to enforce 'seed laws' that criminalise practices that were the foundation of agriculture.

The UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) estimates that in the last 100 years alone, the diversity of crops around the world has fallen by 75%.

What's more, this loss is on the increase and the FAO states plainly that "loss of biodiversity will have a major impact on the ability of humankind to feed itself in the future."

As the origin of all crops and crop diversity it is ultimately the loss of seed that will have a profound impact on our lives and our future.

Pushing back against the loss of seed diversity, this October the UK will play host to The Great Seed Festival - Celebrating the seeds that feed us.

The festival will bring together artists, chefs, food growers, farmers, speakers and activists, seeking to put seed back in the hearts and minds of the British public by elevating awareness of its importance and why it's under threat.

Why is the little seed a big deal?

The importance of seed in all our lives cannot be over emphasised. Seed is the source of all our food, and not just the obvious - fruits, vegetables, wheat for our bread - but also the grass and grain from which livestock is fed, from where our milk and meat then comes.

It is also the source of vitality for the natural world. The trees, flowers, shrubs and grasses that cover hillsides and heathlands, mountains and marshes all came from seed. They provide the world's web of living species with food, habitats, oxygen and much more.

Despite this, ask most people in the UK where their food comes from and the response will largely be 'the supermarket' over 'the seed' or 'the farmer'.

Our disconnection from the natural world, from food growing practices and our agricultural heritage is part of a problem that has seen us squander knowledge of seed - and tacitly allowed 75% of the world's crop diversity to disappear. We have forgotten about seed- the very source of all that sustains us- and our duty to protect it.

Agriculture to Agribusiness

Over the last 50 or more years agri-culture has been transformed into agri-business and the farming agenda has shifted from feeding people to profiting from our basic need to eat. As part of this trend seed has become an increasingly powerful commodity for control of the food sector.

Large agri-business corporations have been lobbying farmers the world over to turn their backs on millennia of intelligent, locally adapted plant breeding for seed diversity.

Instead they are encouraged to buy into a one-size-fits-all food production system based on the use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers alongside a few 'super high yielding' hybrid and genetically modified crops that the companies themselves 'own'.

As a result seed diversity has plummeted, and with it the resilience of our food systems. We are now relying on fewer and fewer seed and crop varieties to feed ourselves, even as we begin to feel the effects of climate change.

The complete history and failings of this industrial agricultural system are not the remit of this article, but suffice to say, the same narrative continues today.

Farmers', growers' and gardeners' rights to save, breed, exchange and sell seed are increasingly under threat as corporations and governments seek to enforce 'seed laws' that criminalise practices that were the foundation of agriculture.

The curators of diversity, and 'us'

Though they are under threat, small farmers growing food in traditional and agroecological ways around the world continue to enhance and keep seed diversity alive as they have for thousands of years.

Generations of farmers across the globe have been observing, selecting, nurturing, breeding and saving seed for millennia so that with every generation, agricultural diversity has increased.

Diverse crops that are rich in nutrients, well suited to the soil, resilient to pests, disease or unpredictable weathers, meet the needs of both the field and the home and offer us the vital resilience we require to weather the storms of climate change that lie ahead.

The longer story of seed in farming reveals the loss associated with seed diversity in the 20th and 21st centuries to be a novel phenomenon. It could yet, with commitment and determination, be turned into a (large) blip in our farming history.

All of us, as descendants of our seed-selecting ancestors, are living proof of the successful knowledge and diversity that farmers have enhanced and bequeathed to each generation. The first step towards reviving seed diversity and reclaiming our common heritage is to reconnect with the importance of seed.

The Great Seed Festival

The Great Seed Festival is a UK-wide celebration that will connect seed to food to you! It's an invitation extended to everyone, from all walks of life and all ages to find out more about the seeds that feed us.

Through family activities to films, workshops and talks, it's a positive, people-centred way to connect with the ways in which the little seed is a big deal.

The SoS for our time is 'Save Our Seed!'



Rowan Phillimore is Head of Communications at The Gaia Foundation. The Gaia Foundation's founding Director Liz Hosken will be speaking at the festival and the film Seeds of Freedom narrated by Jeremy Irons will be screened.

The Great Seed Festival takes place throughout October across the UK.

London events include Charles Eisenstein on 'Seed and the Economy of Gift' on Tuesday 7th, the premiere of GMO OMG on Friday 10th October. There will be a weekend of activities for all the family at the Garden Museum from Saturday 11th to Sunday 12th October.

On the evening of Saturday 11th there will be a ceilidh on Battersea Barge, and finally on Thursday 16th, a Great Seed Feast will be held in collaboration with pop-up restaurant the Art of Dining.

Additional events are taking place in Bristol, Devon, Oxford, Lancaster, Hertfordshire.



The Great Seed Festival has been coordinated by The Gaia Foundation, Beyond GM, the London Freedom Seed Bank, Heritage Seed Library and the UK Food Group.

The Gaia Foundation works internationally to restore cultural and biological diversity. For almost 30 years Gaia has been accompanying local partners and communities to reclaim and revive their seed, water and food sovereignty.

Beyond GM is a new, independent initiative in the UK. Its aim is to revitalise GM campaigning and re-engage the public with an issue that directly affects their daily lives, their health and well-being.

The London Freedom Seed Bank Savers are a network of London growers, growing seed organically in their gardens, farms and allotments and donating a proportion of that seed to the London Freedom Seed Bank in order to protect and sustain the diversity of seed that is useful to London growers.

The Heritage Seed Library aims to conserve and make available vegetable varieties, mainly of European varieties, that are not widely available.

UK Food Group is the network of around 50 development, environment, farmer and academic groups in the UK working on global food and farming issues.


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