Slow Stories

by Cat Wheeler

Seeds for a Hungry World

Vandana ShivaIn August Bali was honoured by a visit from Dr Vandana Shiva. This globally renowned environmental activist, biopiracy warrior, quantum physicist, eco-feminist, champion of small farms and hugely inspiring speaker has been called a one-woman movement for peace, sustainability and social justice. She was brought to Ubud by Mantasa and Slow Food Bali for a dinner and seminar, which celebrated presenter Desi Anwar flew in to moderate.

Dr Shiva came to talk to us about seeds. Small objects, big subject.

The word for seed in Sanskrit is bija, and biji or benih in Indonesian. Bijah means that which arises from itself forever, that where life is held. Seeds have always represented the power to produce food, but increasingly they are being used for power of a darker sort.

“Seed is the combined intelligence of nature and human culture,” says Dr Shiva. “Farmers have been reproducing themselves and their seeds for thousands of years. Good farming with good seed takes care of universal order; it is a community affair, working with and building up Nature. In the farming cycle seed recycles seed, soil is regenerated and farmers breed more farmers — seed to seed, farmer to farmer.

Seed selection, saving and breeding increases diversity. Rice comes from just one wild grass, but thousands of varieties were co-created by farmers and Nature which were appropriate to local soil and climatic conditions.”

The ancient cycle of seed to seed, farmer to farmer is being rapidly destroyed by biogenetic engineering and the widespread use of genetically modified seed. This is a highly contentious, emotional and political issue. Believe me, I have waded through mountains and swamps of research on both sides. Should the world throw out the old model of traditional small farms in favour of industrial scale food production using genetically modified seed and chemical inputs?

In the United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) Review for 2013, the third Key Message reads, “The world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development from a ‘green revolution’ to an ‘ecological intensification’ approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional monoculture-based and high-external- input-dependant industrial production toward mosaics of sustainable regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small scale farmers.”

That sounds sensible to me.

All seeds have constantly evolved through climate change, natural disasters and other changes. Farmers everywhere bred seed through close observation, in partnership with nature, selecting the strongest plants and using their seed. Productivity is increased by constantly enriching the soil with natural organisms; the plants draw on a broad spectrum of available nutrients and minerals for optimal growth and nutrition. Genetically modified seed is typically fertilized with only potassium, nitrogen and phosphorus. “Real seed gives you food and seed,” Dr Shiva points out. “Fake seed gives poor food and no seed, or seed that does not breed true.”

This column is not a rant against GMO seed and food. It’s about the importance of ensuring that good quality, viable seed for food plants is available to Bali’s farmers and gardeners.

Why should we save seeds when we can so easily buy them in a packet? Here’s a quick backgrounder for those who may not be familiar with the issues…

Until a few decades ago, farmers were the custodians of their own seeds. Then populations exploded and food production became an industry. Plants and seeds became commodities to be tampered with, patented and traded. A handful of giant industrial chemical companies now conspire to control the world’s supply of plant foods.

Several research companies have developed a Genetic Use Restriction technology, otherwise known as ‘terminator’ technology, that produces plants with sterile seeds. This of course means that farmers are forced to buy expensive seed for each planting instead of saving their own. Monsanto has pledged not to commercialize the terminator seed, but the huge number of hybrid seeds now used around the world actually have the same result, because the second-generation seeds are inferior and unreliable. So farmers still have to buy seed each season, along with the toxic agricultural chemicals they require. And the variety of food plant seeds controlled by these companies has reduced food diversity sharply in the past few decades.

The old-fashioned kind of seed that our grandparents used to plant are called open-pollinated. These seeds are saved from one harvest to the next, pollinated by insects, birds, wind, or other natural mechanisms, and the seeds of these plants will produce new generations. These are now called heirloom seeds.

In another column I’ll discuss the ethics of making the seeds of food plants a commercial commodity. Meanwhile, it’s clearly imperative to ensure that we have the power to manage our own seed stock. If we don’t take personal responsibility for saving seed, we lose control over the food choices we can make. So if we go to the supermarket one day and find nothing there but Frankenfood, we have no one to blame but ourselves.

According to Michael Fanton who created the Australian Seed Savers Network, ”Seeds, especially of food and other useful plants, should be taken care of by the people. They are too precious for all of them to be placed under the exclusive control of the few. The more hands that hold them, the safer they will be.” He wrote that 20 years ago, and in those 20 years who knows how many food varieties have disappeared forever?

Agriculture in Bali is under threat, as we all know. Bali loses about 1,000 hectares of agricultural land to development each year. Besides losing land to development, we’re facing the challenges of climate change with much increased rain and reduced sunlight, and the fact that fewer young people want to follow the farming tradition. So saving seed is just part of the complex issue of feeding Bali ethically and sustainably.

Several local organizations in Bali – lead by Slow Food Bali and IDEP Foundation – have responded to the need for local seed by launching Benih Bali. This new local initiative, with the support of other non-profit organizations, will develop a network of better skilled Balinese farmers dedicated to organic, open-pollinated (OOP) seed self-sufficiency in Bali.

To be launched in October, Benih Bali will create coordinated island-wide seed saving networks of regionally adapted food plants which will be made easily available to growers. Collaborative programs will encourage seed conservation, along with seed adaptation and innovation.

Slow Food Bali Convivium Leader Mary Jane Edleson said, “We knew we’d be inspired by Vandana’s presentations, and felt it was important to respond with a local seed initiative in Bali. We’ll announce our first programs shortly. Benih Bali has identified three distinct agricultural areas to provide initial farmer skill enhancement programs for producing organic, open-pollinated seeds and will also work with farmers in several marginal areas of Bali to introduce a variety of millets.

“One of Benih Bali’s first initiatives will be a Festival of Millets to help recover another ‘forgotten’ food. With so many varieties of millet, including multiple colors of sorghum, we have great potential for alternatives to rice and imported wheat, including increasing food productivity in marginal areas in Bali. There’s also a ready market for organic, non-gluten flours in Bali’s large expat community.”

Seeds. Small objects, huge implications. In this rapidly changing world where food plant seeds have become a lucrative commodity, the future of food is indeed in our own hands.

Benih Bali’s website should be up soon. If you’d like to become involved, please contact

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