By Jessica Kirby —
“I don’t think we have the option of despair. Hope is a duty. It is something we cultivate with daily consciousness through our actions.” —Vandana Shiva, environmental activist
There are more than 1,000 seed vaults around the world—places where natural and heirloom seeds are stored, saved, and studied in a global effort to preserve them. They are both a symbol of hope and of worry, but most importantly, they introduce tangible acknowledgement of the importance of biodiversity.
Seeds vaults are as diverse as their regions. The Millennium Seed Bank Project, located at the Royal Botanical Gardens, Kew, United Kingdom, currently stores samples of the country’s entire native plant population, including several hundred endangered species. The oldest seed bank in the world is the Vavilov Institute of Plant Industry in Russia. It was established in 1894 in St. Petersburg and is named after Nikolai Vavilov, a Russian biologist and plant breeder who was one of the first scientists to understand the importance of crop diversity.
The Berry Botanic Garden in Portland, OR, houses seeds from endangered plants of the Pacific Northwest; the International Center for Tropical Agriculture in Colombia holds cassava, forages, and beans; and The International Potato Center in Lima, Peru is home to various potato species. The International Institute for Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria preserves groundnut, cowpea, soybean, and yam, and the International Rice Research Institute in Los Banos, Philippines, is a place for preserving—you guessed it—rice.
The world’s largest and most famous seed vault is Svalbard Global Seed Vault on Spitsbergen, part of Norway’s Svalbard archipelago, and it may one day save our lives. Millions of seeds representing more than 930,000 varieties of food crops are stored in this incredible building, constructed in an abandoned Artic coal mine.
“Inside this building is 13,000 years of agricultural history,” said Brian Lainoff, lead partnerships coordinator of the Crop Trust, which manages the vault, in an article in Time magazine.
The Vault was built a decade ago as a safeguard—if a nuclear war or global warming, for instance, threatens specific crops, governments will be granted access to seeds from the vault to restart their agricultural industries. In 2015, researchers withdrew seeds from Svalbard to create seed banks in Morocco and Lebanon after the region’s central seed bank in Aleppo, Syria, was damaged during the country’s civil war. The seeds have since been regrown and were redeposited at the Vault in 2017.
Closer to home, in April 2019, a labour of love with seeds at its heart began a new chapter in Southern Ontario. The Heirloom Seed Sanctuary, tended for two decades by the Sisters of Providence of St. Vincent de Paul, holds nearly 300 varieties, some of which date back to the 1500s.
Its seeds are being gifted to the Kingston Area Seed System Initiative (KASSI) and to Ratinenhayen: thos—which in Mohawk means, “They are farmers of seeds”—based in the Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory west of nearby Napanee.
The Heirloom Seed Sanctuary began in 1999 at the Sisters of Providence property in Kingston, Ontario, with a collection donated by Napanee farmers Carol and Robert Mouck.
“Now it is time for the sisters to cease this ministry, to let the descendants of the original seeds to move again to responsible and caring organizations,” said Sister Sandra Shannon at a ceremony during which the seeds changed hands.
“We have confidence that the seeds have found, once again, good homes in which they will be treasured for the future,” said Shannon in a story in the Kingston Whig Standard.“It is with pleasure that we pledge that we will pass these seeds on.”
Cate Henderson is head gardener at Sisters of Providence and the lead on the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary for 11 years. She is also as a founding member of KASSI.
“What drew me to this ministry was the knowledge that I am a seed,” Henderson said. “And in fact, we are all seeds. We are each a cell in the vast body of life, distinct, yet intimately bound up with all living beings. We cannot exist without others, and they are affected by everything we do. Therefore, all living beings are important, and their happiness and freedom are also important. This is the wonder of creation. This is why this ministry has been so important to me.”
As the importance of preserving seeds spreads across the globe, the political world is listening. The United Nations approved the Declaration on the Rights of Peasants and other People Working in Rural Areas on December 17—the product of nearly two decades of diplomatic work led by the international peasant alliance La Via Campesina. It formally extends human rights protections to farmers whose “seed sovereignty” is threatened by government and corporate practices.
According to a news release from the United Nations, “As peasants we need the protection and respect for our values and for our role in society in achieving food sovereignty,” said Via Campesina coordinator Elizabeth Mpofu after the vote.
The challenge moving forward will be to mobilize and empower small-scale farmers to claim those rights and take action against rich-country crop breeding regulations adopted into less developed countries, where the vast majority of food is grown by peasant farmers using seeds they save and exchange.
Eco-activist Vandana Shiva has been called an environmental hero for her actions in support of her mission to fight genetically engineered foods. She created Navdanya or Nine Seeds, an organization that has established over 100 seed banks in India. She also lives on her own farm where she saves seeds and has cultivated more than 250 species.
Vandana Shiva spoke to Mary Hines on the CBC’s Idea Tapestry about the state of the earth and the power of individual actions to make a difference. Despite the world having lost 60 percent of its wildlife species since 1970, Shiva finds hope. “Ninety-three percent of our cultivated species have been lost since 1970, but saving seeds has reversed the trend,” she says. “Natural trends are irreversible, but trends caused by human irresponsibility can be turned around.”
This optimism and reverence for the earth and its bounty are the premise of Shiva’s work, which is so vast it spans a Canadian degree in mechanical engineering to small plot farming in India. To say she is knowledgeable is an understatement, and to buy into her critics’ view that she is romanticizing farming is naive.
It all begins with the seed—literally and figuratively. We may look at the world’s state with despair, but there is beauty in small action, Shiva says. “Seeds are small. Saving seeds is a small action. But as a global shift from the idea that GMO seed is inevitable and patentable, that monoculture is inevitable, that little seed brings a mind shift of celebrating biodiversity and becoming co-creators and co-conservers.”
The secret is creating beauty, which is not found in the work of drudgery. “The creation of beauty to regenerate the earth—to do that we have to shift from the idea of work as money and engaging in destruction and towards the creation of beauty that nourishes us and the earth,” Shiva says.
No matter what happens, we have responsibilities to each other and the earth, including the preservations of joy and flowing with the paths that are laid out for us, she says. “We can look at collapse in despair and say, ‘Oh my god, we are going over the precipice!’ or you can take that one seed and plant it, and ask everyone around you to plant seeds—seeds of joy, love, and hope. “People like Steven Hawking say there are only two options: extinction or escape. But there is a third option: caring for the world.” -GG
Jessica Kirby is a freelance editor and writer covering the environment, lifestyles, and the built environment for publications across Canada and the United States. She can usually be found among piles of paper in her home office or in the Vancouver Island wilderness enjoying nature’s incredible bounty.