Friday 26 December 2014

Protecting seed varieties preserves our Irish heritage

As corporations take over the ownership of our seeds, the diversity of our food tastes, shapes and sizes is being lost in the interest of profits

Saving a variety of fruit and vegetable seeds provides a diverse range of tastes and nutritive values. Photo by Thinkstock

Many amateur food growers will have tried saving seeds from their own produce at some stage. Last year, our kids grew sunflowers and were able to harvest the seeds from the flowers, not only to eat but also to save over winter and use for sowing the following year.

Over the years, I've also saved seeds from tomato varieties that I particularly like, and from other vegetables such as runner beans, squashes and pumpkins.

I am no expert on the subject, but whenever I save seeds, I am always struck by how much the process can teach us about the cycle of growth, maturity, decay and regrowth that's so essential to life on this planet.

Before Christmas, I had the pleasure of having lunch with a remarkable lady, Anita Hayes, who founded the Irish Seed Savers in 1991. Worried by how traditional and often rare varieties of Irish grain, fruit and vegetables were being lost, she began to identify and conserve these for future generations.

The Seed Savers organisation as we know it, based at Capparoe in Co Clare, was to come much later – at the beginning most of the work was done by Anita herself at her farm near St Mullins in Co Carlow.

So, why is this important? Well, basically, man has been cultivating food for about 10,000 years. For the vast majority of that time, seed varieties were kept alive by being passed on from generation to generation.

It's only really in the last 100 years that seed ownership has effectively passed into the hands of corporations – in that time in Ireland more than 90pc of seed varieties have disappeared.

This is grim news because it means that the very things that give us such immense joy in our food – the abundant diversity of shapes, sizes, colours and tastes – are being lost in the interest of yields and profits.

Sometimes a particular variety of vegetable, fruit or grain simply doesn't cut the mustard. Its yield is poor, or its taste is terrible.

A sort of consumer-led natural selection occurs and a seed variety dwindles in popularity or dies out entirely.

Oftentimes, consolidation of seed varieties occurs because manufacturers are selecting a small number of favoured varieties because of their propensity to store or travel well. Specific varieties are then being promoted not because of their taste or nutrition value, but that they work better in a global supply chain. A great example of this is what has happened in the global apple business, where just a handful of varieties now dominate.

The work that the Irish Seed Savers do is very valuable, and largely unsung. Protecting our food heritage is as important as protecting our cultural heritage, and our native seed varieties are just as important as our native songs, poetry, art and historical artifacts.

The Irish Seed Savers' successes have been notable. Since 1991 they have created a native apple collection containing more than 140 distinct varieties and a seed bank containing more than 600 rare and endangered vegetable varieties.

When we met for lunch, Anita kindly provided me with a tray of seed packets containing some of the seed bank's gems. Wonderful, evocative names are here such as Londonderry Broad Bean, Lucky Leprechaun Tomato, Daniel O'Rourke Pea and O'Driscoll Climbing French Bean. This year I will also grow Delaway Cabbage, a cut-and-come-again variety saved for generations by the Hughes Family in Co Mayo.

To save seeds, you have to use them. You have to sow them, grow a plant to maturity and then save the seed from that plant again. It is relentless and laborious work. That means Irish Seed Savers need to employ expert staff and have an income. Their very survival, and the survival of this incredibly important piece of living history, is now under threat.

Our Government should be supporting them (and it does), but to my mind, it's far too easy to say that it's someone else's problem. There's a potentially sustainable social enterprise there if we support them as consumers.

Each of us can support their work by donating or buying seed. Purchasing seeds from them is the more powerful action – taking their work and turning it into a living, breathing act of conservation in your own garden.

Irish Independent

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