by Rowan Phillimore, Gaia Foundation
As seed and potato fairs and ‘Seedy Sundays’ take place up and down the country, dormant gardens, allotments and fields are about to spring back into life with another growing season. At The Gaia Foundation, a newly appointed team of Regional Coordinators are connecting with established seed producers, budding amateurs and ambitious entrepreneurs each with the aim to increase the quality, quantity and access to organic seed varieties here on home soil.
The Gaia Foundation’s UK & Ireland Seed Sovereignty Programme took root last year and will run until summer 2020. It is designed to increase the amount of agroecological – organic - seed available in the UK and Ireland. The programme is the result of a number of years’ groundwork including the Great Seed Festival in 2014 and a year-long Feasibility Study in 2015, both supported by the A Team Foundation.
The programme will help to web up the UK and Ireland’s existing organic seed sector by connecting growers and encouraging new initiatives and growers to emerge through up-skilling in seed saving and production. There will better access to resources and equipment that support organic seed production, and these will be disseminated through the Regional Coordinators as well as a new dedicated website.
The final Regional Coordinators, each of whom brings with them a wealth of experience and expertise, are Maria Scholten (Scotland), Katie Hastings (Wales), Ellen Page (Western England), Page Dryksta (Eastern England) and Wayne Frankam (Ireland). Wayne will be working under partner organisation the Irish Seed Savers Association (ISSA), who will be actively involved in the programme’s delivery in Ireland, where they are already well established and respected.
Through this team, led by Neil Munro, the former head of the Heritage Seed Library at Garden Organic, regional ‘hubs’ will emerge where best practice can be shared and replicated. There will also be plant variety trials to assess which seeds grow best locally, across our own diverse landscapes - from the highlands to the lowlands – and conditions. Participatory plant breeding will follow.
Story of Origin – Learning from Canada to spread seeds of change
It was during the Great Seed Festival in 2014 that the idea for the programme was first conceived, as an audience dedicated to seed and food justice heard Jane Rabinowicz, the then head of The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, present the story of their inspiring programme. The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security is now in its fifth successful year and offers a blueprint for taking seed multiplication and revival to scale.
The Canadian programme is guided by four aims: To increase the quality, quantity and diversity of ecologically grown Canadian seed; to promote public access to seed; to facilitate collaboration within the seed system; and to respect, advance, and promote the knowledge of farmers in seed production. Through these objectives, USC Canada has sought to create “a seed system in Canada that provides a solid foundation for food security, climate resilience and community health and wellbeing.” It achieves this through coordinating trainings and networking, through a small grants programme, through public access to seed through cooperatives and libraries, and through a web extension service offering advice and a database of varieties.
Upon hearing about the Canadian programme, there was a resounding echo of interest in rolling out something similar in the UK. A feasibility study was conducted and analysis of the information collected at each stage saw key themes emerge, with perceived potential barriers, challenges and opportunities becoming easily identifiable. The study revealed that there was huge appetite for a UK wide programme and the findings facilitated the design of the programme. The need for regional representation in seed production came out of the study with over 90% citing it as an important aspect. The study also showed 85% of respondents felt training was important, as was the establishment of an online space (89%) and a database (91%).
The Seed Sovereignty UK & Ireland Programme was born.
The programme has identified three overarching objectives within which all of the activities have been organised. They are:
- To support and cultivate regional and national connections and collaboration to provide coherence across the food and seed sector.
- To support farmers and growers with further skills, resources and information.
- To foster a more supportive environment for a biodiverse and ecologically sustainable seed system to thrive, leading to an increase in genetic diversity.
Much like its Canadian counterpart, it will deliver this through trainings, regional hubs connecting with local initiatives such as seed cooperatives and libraries; through the development of a database and online service, the establishment of a Legal Working Group to demystify seed legislation and opportunities, and support with equipment and expert knowledge wherever deemed useful.
This is the first time that Gaia have been part of such a large-scale programme in the UK and the A Team Foundation are pleased to have supported them to be working alongside such a diverse group of partners from across the food movement – from the Landworkers Alliance to the Seed Cooperative; the Soil Association to the Irish Seed Savers. The food and seed sovereignty movement in the UK is teeming with enthusiasm and experience, and through this programme there will be more support and cohesion – strengthening its resolve and resistance in these challenging times.
"Building on well-founded experiences in Canada this initiative
could be catalytic in improving the availability of good diverse
seed for growers in the UK, I believe, as well as challenging the
dominant mantra in favour of industrial seeds. It is important that
the momentum is maintained. As we have all recognised, the barriers
to the availability to good diverse organic seed is a severe limitation to
healthy, localised food systems in the UK. I think those leading this programme
have the convening power, aptitude and competence to help
steer a process that could help resolve this."
Patrick Mulvany, former Chair of the UK Food Group.