Seeds: Sustenance and Sustainability
—by Alana Krug‐MacLeod, Age 17, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan
While seeds’ value is dispersed around the world in virtually every single biome and niche, whether disturbed or at rest, nowhere is the importance of seeds more obvious than on small farms. Using a series of vignettes from daily life, I reflect on what each encounter with seeds reveals about seeds’ value in those settings and also to small farms.
A young chipmunk stands, tail outstretched, front paws raised in begging position. Comically, around its mouth in a perfect halo that gives it the appearance of a lion, emerge the fluffy ends of an entire thistle head. Metres away, a sibling scurries along—hastily stuffing its expandable mouth full of seeds from a low-growing plant.
Just as seeds maintain life for these chipmunks, seeds nourish and sustain the lives of subsistence and small farmers around the world. Wild creatures gather seeds and use them for their own consumption. The beauty and wonder of seeds is that they can be stored until required, with both their nutrition and their latent reproductive potential intact. Through farmers’ labour—given the right environmental conditions—seeds multiply to provide nutritious food for farmers’ families, and sometimes for livestock and wildlife. In a sense, then, for farmers, seeds sown are even more valuable than the seeds foraged by wild creatures. Seeds also demand that small farmers stay “in tune with” their natural surroundings in order to find suitable growing conditions to ensure success in multiplying the seed stock. Thus, for small and subsistence farmers, seeds are “noteworthy” because they heighten environmental awareness.
Students at school plant seeds as part of a hydroponic system in a classroom redesigned as a grow room. They produce fresh, nutritious produce to be consumed directly, to donate to the cafeteria, or to sell to individuals. Profits can be used to fundraise for social projects or to expand the facility so that more can be grown in the same space.
In this setting, seeds produce nutritious food, but they also provide a source of income, much like they would for small farmers. As in this school growroom, small farmers make an income in a way that encourages sustainability. Using seeds as their base, small farmers provide healthy food for society. They also circulate the wealth within their communities so that its value is realized locally rather than as profits that are whisked away or used to serve large corporations or the extremely wealthy. Small farmers reinvest their profits into their farms and generally contribute to the social projects in their communities. None of this could happen, if it were not for seeds and the natural resources of land, water and minerals that make them grow. On small farms, and in the communities in which they are located, these values and connections are evident.
After thirty-five years of experimentation, a Saskatoon couple successfully creates a variety of lemon tree that can grow in the prairies, specifically in confined space under low-light conditions. Using both heated space in already warmed homes and excess carbon dioxide, these trees can allow prairie dwellers to grow food inside and at the same time improve indoor air quality.
Although the lemon tree developed after decades of experimentation is not necessarily grown directly from a seed, and eventually will be designed to produce seedless fruit, seeds are responsible for its root stock and genetic origins. The story of the prairie lemon tree highlights the history of small farmers breeding seeds that meet their farms’ unique requirements and environmental conditions. Seeds, and control over what happens with the seeds they grow, are both imperative for small farmers. This combination is what allows small farmers to produce and reproduce seeds unique to their particular needs and suitable for microclimates and local environmental conditions. It is also what allows farmers to be responsive to change as climate and other conditions evolve or natural disasters occur. Just as potato farmers in the Andes grow hundreds of varieties of potatoes each year, farmers who have full access to seeds are able to choose which ones are best suited to their farms’ capacities and needs at any given time. Seeds—and the range of diversity preserved in, and exhibited by, them—are essential for long term sustainability on small farms because they allow for diversification and responsiveness.
On Seedy Saturday, individuals who have connections to seeds gather to share their resources and/or to fill their needs. Seed savers and individuals who are committed to preserving heritage seeds sell their stock to those who wish to grow unique varieties of their own.
At the Seedy Saturday events that take place in much of the world, independent seed savers sell heritage and locally produced varieties they have collected or reproduced, and many of them do so in part to generate income. In this way, seed savers contribute to food security by protecting the diversity of seeds so the right kind of seeds or the genetic diversity stored within them are available when conditions change. Small farmers have an essential role in ensuring that the genetic diversity of seeds is retained. Because they work on pieces of land that they know intimately, small farmers are able to grow and save seeds suited to the specific conditions of their land. It is critical that their right to develop and save seeds, and to generate income from these activities, is preserved. Seeds are vital to small farmers and a means to ensure long-term sustainability not only for farmers, but for the rest of the world.
For small farmers, seeds are a source of sustenance and of income; a means of raising environmental awareness; plus a route to sustainability and to food security. Tiny things with a huge role, seeds are a resource with the power of survival encapsulated within their protective shells; the potential to become, to give, and to sustain, life. To retain seeds as accessible property is an essential act. Protect them and they will protect us, and life itself!