The world’s forests are shrinking. Biodiversity is suffering. The climate is changing.
The world of tomorrow will not be the same as the world of today and we need to find ways to survive. If we are going to follow the Earth Charter’s call to “protect and restore the integrity of Earth’s ecological systems, with special concern for biological diversity,” and to “control and eradicate non-native or genetically modified organisms harmful to native species,” at the same time as we move toward the future, we need to start saving our seeds.
The Red de Guardianes de Semillas (RGS, in English: “Network of Seed Savers”) of Ecuador started with just that goal in mind. During the 20th and early 21st centuries, the world lost 70% of its traditional seed varieties – today, we continue to lose heirloom seeds at a rate of 5 varieties per day. We talk of developing organic agriculture, permaculture, agro-ecology as ways to adapt to the future, and yet if we don’t have the flexibility of traditional seed varieties, there is no way we can do it. As Javier Carrera of the RGS puts it, “It’s impossible to develop a true organic or agro-ecological agriculture with [industrial seeds] because you will always have to buy them from industry and so you’ll always be dependent. And also because they’re so uniform you can’t adapt them to your productive system.”
The RGS concept is beautifully simple. Anyone with a garden can participate, no prior knowledge or experience needed. If you have a little bit of space, even a balcony, you can plant at least one species, and then let it grow to produce seed. When you harvest the seed, you bring it in to the local seed bank, and give them whatever seeds you don’t want to keep for yourself. In exchange, you have access to the varieties which other members have produced in other areas, all coded by climactic zone, altitude, and other important details about the plants. Today there are networks all over the world working in similar ways to preserve heirloom seeds, often with specific varieties at risk of disappearance that they are desperate to see planted.
From 4 friends in a cafe outside Quito, today the RGS has grown to stretch from southern Colombia into northern Peru. Javier estimates that there are around 80 families of seed savers in the network,but no one really knows exactly how many people benefit or participate in their work – seed savers in other parts of the world have faced harsh legal and political pressure from agribusiness in recent years, and so while Ecuador has been free from such problems in the past, the RGS maintains no official list of its members as a precaution. Still, Javier estimates that from 1,500 to 2,000 people benefit from the work of the network.
The way we look at it though, that number is way too low. While maybe 1,500 to 2,000 people interact specifically with the RGS, the truth is that all 7 billion of us benefit from preserving the incredible wealth of genetic diversity that seeds represent. Each heirloom variety is the result of years, sometimes centuries, of work by farmers throughout the world, to preserve it is essential to all of our futures.
So next time you’re cooking organic, heirloom variety vegetables, scoop out the seeds and put them to the side. If you have a garden, or even a window box, you can be a seed saver too, you can help save the planet!