The Politics of Saving Seeds

Volcanoes around Lake Atitlan, Guatemala (photo by the author)

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Editor’s note: This is the seventh in a series of articles on the 2018 Canadian History and Environment Summer Symposium. The symposium was held in Saskatchewan in early June and focused on the theme of “Prairie and Environmental Change in the Twentieth Century.”

Many years ago now, in Guatemala, I tried my hand at planting milpa, a combination of corn, beans and squash commonly cultivated in Central America. A Kaqchikel community leader patiently explained how I should use an azadón—a giant hoe—to prepare the land where his family would plant their seeds. After hours of grueling work in the hot tropical sun we took a break in the shade of nearby trees. My friend looked wistfully at the moon as it started to rise on the horizon. “When I was younger,” he said, “we waited until after the first full moon to plant our crops but no one does that anymore.” Then he looked at me and asked poignantly: “why can’t we save our seeds anymore? Why do we buy seeds from the city instead of collecting them from our own land?” I’ve been struggling to answer those questions ever since.

In May, I had the opportunity to visit Canada’s genebank as a participant in CHESS 2018. I’ve had plenty of experience working with peasants in Latin America, but I had never seen the inside of a genebank. The world’s most famous genebank is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway. This building is the stuff of science fiction: a deep freeze buried in the high artic that is designed to preserve humanity’s most important crops for generations. Canada’s genebank is an unassuming building on the University of Saskatchewan campus with a name awkward enough to make me thankful for acronyms: Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada’s Plant Gene Resources of Canada. We’ll just call it the PGRC. The entrance is understated: large glass windows give way to an airy lobby with exhibits that showcase the different pests and plagues that threaten our food supplies. As part of the summer school, we were guided through the building’s tight hallways—bursting with seed packets to be sorted and planted—by researchers who spoke passionately about the importance of saving seeds for future generations. The PGRC is a part of a global effort to preserve humanity’s food crops, which links researchers from around the world in common cause.

Seed Vault, Agriculture and Agri-Food Canada Plant Gene Resources of Canada facility, University of Saskatchewan (photo by Andrew Watson)

For generations, farmers around the world have saved the seeds from their best plants. Over time, this incremental selection process created unique landraces, or varieties of plants that are well adapted to their environment. Some farmers still diligently save their seeds, but most have abandoned this tradition because they face financial pressure to produce large volumes of uniform crops that can be sold in grocery stores. Around the world, farmers have become dependent on large companies that sell specialized seeds that, by design, cannot be saved. Modern farms now grow a narrow selection of market-ready crops, which produce prolifically but require fertilization and are more susceptible to diseases, pests and droughts. Many heirloom varieties that were well adapted to specific eco-regions have been lost in this chase for maximum yields. Genebanks—buildings designed to keep seeds in storage for decades—have taken up the cause of protecting unique plant varieties from extinction. This means that the naturally democratic act of seed saving has been replaced by a reliance on large research centres that store seeds far from the communities and landscapes that created the plant. By placing heirloom seeds and plants in large research centres, are we saving them or severing the connection between plants and the people and landscapes that created them?

Map displaying countries that requested seed from PGRC. (photo by the author)

I was impressed by the passion of the PGRC staff, but as I travelled through Guatemala in July I couldn’t shake the uncomfortable feeling that the genebank is a colonial project. Genebanks store thousands of plant varieties, but most of these were created by anonymous farmers and peasants. This crop diversity now often benefits industry. Around the world, small producers have struggled to remain competitive against industrial farms that invest heavily in increasing production and minimizing costs. These monolithic operations are always searching for new crop variants, hybrids that produce more while resisting the spectrum of diseases that are created by relentless monocropping. These desirable traits that favour commerce are often extracted from the ‘heritage’ varieties that were created by centuries of small farmers. As Michael Taussig acerbically observed, “seeds banks are booty, relics of despoliation.”[1]

“Yes to campesino maize. Yes to food sovereignty”: Anti-GMO corn sign, Guatemala. (photo by the author)

How can we rethink our seed preservation strategies so that they support peasants and small farmers? Communities have historically used the democratic exchange of seeds as a strategy for diversification and increased resiliency. In 1946, agronomist I.E. Melhus traveled from Iowa to Guatemala looking for new corn varieties that would boost the productivity of northern varieties. He found it almost impossible to keep track of maize varieties because Mayan peasants continually traded seeds between households, communities and eco-regions. [2] This is still the case. In July, I presented my research on the historic causes of malnutrition to Indigenous communities around the beautiful Lake Atitlán. Afterward, community leaders told me that they maintain local food sovereignty by actively trading seeds, just as their ancestors did. Many communities have also created small-scale seed banks where the emphasis is on sharing local seeds varieties among peasants. A community leader from the Baja Verapaz Department told me that they turned a small donation of potato seeds into a seed sharing project that had eliminated malnutrition from their community. Specialists can also help peasants by working and living in communities for extended periods of time. This creates opportunities for an exchange of knowledge that breaks down the institutional barriers that have typically separated the academy from the community.

A mural of peasants planting seeds, Guatemala. (photo by the author)

In the genebank, seeds are defined as an object with economic utility—germplasm—but for many cultures seeds are sacred because they enable social reproduction. The Maya believe that all humans are made of corn, thus the planting of a maize seed is a sacred act that binds the community to the land.[3]  Many other cultures have similar spiritual beliefs about seeds. They are, after all, the stuff of life. In Saskatoon, the askîy project run by CHEP Good Food inc. is reclaiming a brownfield in a traditionally marginalized part of the city. The project’s name comes from the Cree word for earth, and Indigenous ways of knowing are woven through the garden. There is a medicine wheel of sacred plants that are carefully tended after sacrifices of tobacco are offered up to honor the creator. Overlooking the circle there is a quote by Cree author Neil McLeod that captures the link between language, nature and belief.

“The connection Indigenous people have to the land is housed in language. Through stories and words, we hold the echo of generational experience, and engagement of land and territory…[it] grounds us and binds us with other living beings.”[4]

Planting seeds remind us that for future generations to thrive, we must take care of the earth today.

Sign posted at askîy project. Saskatoon. (photo by the author)

So how do we move forward? My visit to Canada’s genebank with CHESS helped me see the value of genebanks as repositories of institutional knowledge about seeds. These are spaces where large collections can be maintained for the benefit of researchers and, in theory, the wider public. Yet, seeds are much more than just packets of genes that can be captured and stored in collections. This approach often benefits large agri-chemical companies, while doing little to build capacity for small producers.  There needs to be a robust consultation process in place that helps peasants and farmers continue to grow unique landraces. This is especially urgent in areas of high conflict like Guatemala, where peasants are often denied access to the land they need to subsist. By working to increase their access to land and strengthening their ability to save seeds, we can create a more diverse and equitable agricultural systems. Saving seeds is the starting point for food sovereignty because it gives small producers the ability to make free choices about how they want to live.[5]

Territory in conflict: Members of the community of Choctun Basilia can see their cornfields flourishing, but they can’t tend their crops. On May 9th, a rival cooperative that wanted to expand their coffee plantations attacked and killed campesino leader Jose Can Xol near the trees pictured on the left. When I visited in July, community members reported frequent gunshots and constant intimidation.

[1] Michael Taussig, Palma Africana (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2018), 10.

[2] Irving E. Melhus, J.R. Wallin, and George Semeniuk, “A Summary of Some Maize Researches in Guatemala,” Plant Research in the Tropics (Iowa: Agricultural Experiment Station, Iowa State College, 1949), 541. For more on this north-south exchange see Tore C. Olsson, Agrarian Crossings: Reformers and the Making of the U.S. and Mexican Countryside (Princeton, New Jersey: University Press, 2017).

[3] John Watanabe, Maya Saints and Souls in a Changing World (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 66-67, 131-137.

[4] Neal McLeod, Cree Narrative Memory: From Treaties to Contemporary Times (Saskatoon, SK: Purich Pub, 2007), 6.

[5] For more about seed sharing see Seeds of Diversity at https://www.seeds.ca

 

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Patrick Chassé

Patrick Chassé is a SSHRC Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Guelph. His work examines the environmental and social consequences of the transition to modern agriculture across Latin America.

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