Curious Earth talks to Helene Schulze, co-director of London Freedom Seed Bank and a Southeast England Coordinator for the Seed Sovereignty Programme of the UK and Ireland about the practice of saving open pollinated seeds and why it is vital for food security, biodiversity and resilience against climate change. 

What does seed saving mean to you?

Seed saving is about stewardship. It’s about looking after seeds, not just about collecting and saving, but exchanging and sharing, on a community level. It’s about building resilience, looking after each other, ourselves and future generations.

What is the London Freedom Seed Bank?

LFSB is a network of London-based food growers and gardeners who are saving, storing and sharing seed in the London area for free to whoever wants it. It’s a living seed bank which means we collect seed donations from our network at the end of each growing season and distribute them in the next season. We generally focus on veg seeds but also flowers, and because most have been grown in London for several generations, they are particularly well-adapted to growing in these conditions. 

We also aim to raise awareness about the politics of the global seed regime. The fact that in 2020 after a few megamergers, 60% of the global seed trade is dominated by just four private companies is terrifying. If you own seed, you own the food system.

Why is seed saving valuable for food sovereignty?

One of our goals at LFSB is to teach people to save their own seed, thereby ‘closing the loop’ and reducing our individual and collective dependence on large seed companies to grow our own food. This is the start of community and individual self-sufficiency, resilience and the foundation of food sovereignty. 

How do people who don’t have their own green space get involved?

I’m a guerilla gardener and I think community gardens are vital to ensure all have access to the benefits that green spaces offer. They are lively spaces for coming together, fostering belonging, connection and shared learning. It’s about us all having spaces where we can play, experiment, grow and cook together – that’s how resilient communities are built. This is what we’re trying to create at the Garden of Earthly Delights in Hackney. 

Open-pollinated seeds once gave us the majority of our food, now a small number of agrochemical / seed companies dominate the market with F1 hybrid seeds which are patented and cannot be saved. Can you explain more about these two seed types?

F1 hybrid seeds are the result of cross-pollination between two parent plants for desirable traits. For example, one particularly delicious tomato crossed with another which is unusually blight resistant. This is done through controlled pollination. Resultant plants are thus delicious and blight resistant. This creates genetically homogenous offspring—every plant is exactly the same—which is great for machine agriculture. F1 varieties generally produce high yields, and are easy for large scale farmers because they mature at the same time. The problem is that any seed produced by F1 hybrids is genetically unstable and cannot be saved. This means they must be repurchased year-on-year.

Open-pollinated seeds are when pollination has occurred naturally, through the wind or birds for example. These seeds can be saved each year. They produce more genetically diverse seed and can cause greater variation within plant populations which means that plants can gradually adapt to local growing conditions. This is particularly important in the context of the climate crisis. 

Why is saving OP seed important for biodiversity?

Globally over the last 80 years we’ve lost 98% of vegetable variety, which is insane. It’s a scale that we can’t conceive. What a loss to taste!

This decline is connected to the rise of industrial agriculture, the big boom in agrochemicals and machinery and to agricultural policy, which in Europe incentivises farmers to grow monocultures on a large scale rather than the far more diverse small scale farmers that are using regenerative and agro-ecological practices. OP seeds are more able to adapt to local conditions, unlike the one-size-fits-all hybrid seeds. This is only going to get more important in the years ahead.

Thanks Helene! If any Curious Earthers are interested in finding out more about seeds and how to be part of the seed saving community in the UK, here is a selection of resources below. (There are many more!)

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