Our food plants originate in areas of the world where the poorest people now live. They domesticated wild plants over the last 10,000 years. Let’s honour, assist and join those who continue to develop and maintain the genetic diversity of tomorrow’s food.
We all need to act either in concert or as individuals. Governments alone cannot be entrusted with this richness. This was evident in the latest international controversy (July 2010) about a large Russian in-situ collection of berry and fruit plants threatened with obliteration, and the destruction of a collection of coffee trees at the Australian Alstonville Department of Agriculture Research Station in 1997. Similarly the colossal permafrost seed bank (Svalbard in Norway) does not allow for seeds needing to adapt to climate change.
Who are the Guardians of the Seed?
This film clip above shows some of the guardians of the seed in Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, India, Taiwan, Italy and France.
As ninety year old small-scale Italian farmer/seed saver, Ennio near Orvieto, says, “People come to me for seeds when they have lost theirs.” We recorded him by his cherry tree and in a very modest tumble-down shed where he keeps his precious seed collection. In the film we also see Ilia, an eighty year old who supplies the Orvieto weekly market with an enormous array of greens and vegetables grown on steep terraces at the base of the fortified city. She maintains the seed of all her varieties. No chemicals.
The Erosion of Local Varieties
Local varieties are those that are adapted to any one region’s climate, culture and cuisine. An example in the film is Joseph, a small-scale farmer in the northern Pyrenees, France, who grows just a few rows of grapes to make wine for his family’s consumption. They are the “Madiran” variety that suit his highland region, and the wine his palate. Customarily pink roses are grown at the end of rows of vines to act as indicators of fungal disease and you’ll see them next to Joseph.
The danger is the erosion of these varieties. We use rice as an example through the device of an animated map. It shows how the number of rice varieties in India has reduced from hundreds of thousands to a sorry situation now where just four varieties dominate industrial farming’s rice production. All is not lost, but as little as one family are the guardians of any one of those varieties. The message is: we need to act soon.
Centres of Diversity
It is interesting to consider where food plants originate, for there you will find the wild relatives and therefore the greatest diversity. There the cultivated interacts with the wild. The eight recognised centres of diversity of domesticated crops are animated on a Gene Libraries map with just a few examples of crops that originate in each:
South East Asia – mandarin, banana, sugar cane
East Asia – orange, soya bean, tea
South Asia – rice, cucumber, eggplant
Middle East – onion, apple, wheat
East Africa – coffee, watermelon
Mediterranean – pea, lettuce, grape
South America – potato, tomato, bean
Central America – corn, squash, chili, cocoa
From these centres domesticated plants spread across the globe.
Seed Collecting and Replanting
Leaving plants go to seed is only part of the natural process, as Dr Saviana Parodi, an Italian gardening microbiologist, explains. Collecting and cleaning seeds is also fairly simple. We see a peach seed sprouting into a seedling (grown in the vineyards of the northern Pyrenees), rice heads in India, the collecting of broccoli seed capsules and the shaking of small black onion seeds from a seed head.
Included in the definition of “seeds”, are propagules, that is cuttings, divisions, roots and tubers, of plants propagated vegetatively. We see sweet potato tubers, a PNG woman diving into a pile of compost with a cutting of sweet potato.
Good Seeds are the Basis of Good Food
Only good seed can produce nutritious, delicious food. We see coffee raked in India, broad beans picked in a small garden in Italy, bamboo shoots being steamed in Taiwan, choko tips going onto a pot on a fire in PNG, and an earth oven with sweet potatoes, bananas, taro, chokos and ferns.
We spent time with all these seed guardians while filming. They often take part in projects we work with. We visited their gardens and ate the food they produced from them – Anna’s broad beans (by the way originating in the Mediterranean area), Emilio’s lettuce, Ennio’s tomatoes, Ilia’s zucchini, traditional rice from a wheelbarrow in a Hindu snake temple, at Subramania, India, delicious local food from the PNG earth oven and we tasted Joseph’s wine and peaches. The best!
As the former Minister for Education and for Agriculture of the Solomon Islands, the late Joini Tutua, says, “After every quarrel or tribal fighting, only food brings our people together.” In the Pacific, on these festive occasions, sharing food can lead to sharing planting material, especially when vegetatively propagated, like exchanging yams or taro.
Know the Guardians of the Seed
The guardians of the seed can do many other things as well. They include