'The US has been imposing patents on life around the world through trade deals. In this case [Iraq], they invaded the country first, then imposed their patents. This is both immoral and unacceptable.' -- Shalini Bhutani, Grain
'Saving seeds might not seem much of a revolutionary act, but in a world increasingly dominated by corporate power, swapping my Lazy Housewife French beans for some exotic yellow tomato seed really does feel like you’re sticking two green fingers up to those who control the world’s food chain.' -- Seedy Sunday
The Seedy Sunday 4th community seed swap ran from 10am in the morning until 5pm in the afternoon. With a long way to come, I did not intend to arrive until around midday, although not being able to find the Old Market, I arrived at least an hour later than I had intended.
The Old Market is easy to find if you know where it is, but otherwise a problem, as no-one in Brighton seems to know where it is.
People had come from London, Yorkshire, Oxford, Wales, the South West.
I was surprised at the large numbers of stalls, seed merchants (commercial and non-commercial), community seed swaps, heritage seeds (eg HDRA), a guy with a good range of seed potatoes, local community groups (eg Brighton and Hove Organic Gardeners), and environmental groups (eg London Rising Tide).
Outside were a few stalls selling food, teas, and fresh organic fruit and vegetables.
On the hour, throughout the day, was a series of talks, on a wide range of topics, saving seeds, why supermarkets are bad, how to set up your own community seed swap, growing your own food, why big business is bad for seeds etc. Even a group of primary school kids gave a talk about their successful environment club, an example to us all.
For the full range of stalls and the talks, see the Seedy Sunday programme for the day.
I was amazed at the number of people there. Until late afternoon, The Old Market was packed. Talking to one of the organisers as the event was closing, they estimated 900 or more people had passed through their doors that day.
I found the event was well worth attending. Apart from the seeds I collected, I found it was very useful networking.
I was also able to bring some friends down from London. They went back loaded with seeds, and even more important, they are going to use their seeds to establish a community garden on a social housing housing estate – the Pepys Estate in Deptford on the banks of the Thames, a community which the local council Lewisham seems determined to destroy by selling off parts of the estate for redevelopment to private property speculators and Hyde Housing Association.
Seedy Sunday is though not just about having a fun day out at the seaside, not even about swapping seeds with our friends and in the process helping to save endangered traditional varieties of seeds, it is about corporate control of our seeds, food sovereignty and who controls the food chain, big business or the people.
In Iraq, the country is being raped and pillaged by US corporations, aided and abetted by the fundamentalist US administration. That war crimes are being committed, is being quietly overlooked. Part of that rape and pillage, is to restructure and hand control of Iraqi agriculture to US corporations. These corporations will dictate what seeds the Iraqis use in the future. This would be of concern in any part of the world, but why it is of such concern in Iraq and sounding alarm bells, is that to lose traditional seed varieties in Iraq is to lose varieties in a country where two of our principal grain crops, wheat and barley, were first cultivated 10,000 years ago.
Corporations are not just controlling the seed markets, and as a consequence eliminating traditional seeds, they are also patenting seeds, that is patenting life itself.
In Canada, Percy Schmeiser has for years been growing oil seed rape, canola, and selecting his own best performing strains. He discovered that his oil seed rape had been contaminated by genetic mutations from Monsatan. Instead of Percy being able to sue Monsatan for contamination of his crop, Monsatan sued Percy for theft of their intellectual property. Due to the perversity of Canadian patent law, Percy lost!
Big business is not though having it all its own way.
Nonsanto took out a patent on a variety of wheat known as Nap Hal, claiming as their intellectual property the characteristics that made it ideal for making chapatis. Nonsanto were challenged in the courts, and lost.
Several biotech companies have had their crops trashed and been driven out of the UK.
Seedy Sunday is not something unique or special to Brighton. Successful Seedy Sundays and Seedy Saturdays have been run in Devon and Wales.
Although lots of people are now involved in running Seedy Sunday in Brighton, it was originally the idea and hard work of one person.
To run a successful Seedy Sunday all you need is a venue, oodles of publicity, different organisations manning the stalls, and of course lots of seeds to swap. Also invite someone to serve food and tea, maybe a few stalls selling fresh organic fruit and vegetables.
The venue to host the event needs to be big enough to fit everyone in. Charge a nominal fee on the door, say a pound, kids go free, stallholders are charged a fee. Seedy Sunday Brighton do it all on the basis of suggested donations, no-one is turned away because they lack the ability to pay, all is negotiable, it can be benefits in kind.
Publicity needs to be out the previous autumn, as you don't only need people to know about the event, but you also need them to start saving their seeds.
Organisations to invite are local gardening groups, allotment societies, environmental groups, fair trade groups, seed suppliers, even national organisations like HDRA may be interested.
You may also wish to consider running a few stalls yourselves at green and community events throughout the spring, summer and autumn. What better way to celebrate harvest festival than to save seeds for the next season. If you have sufficient seeds, you can have seeds on your stall. If late spring, you could have grown runner beans, tomatoes, and other vegetables, ready for potting out. Have them on sale, clearly labelled with the variety. Ask those who buy them to save some seeds, for swap at the next Seedy Sunday event.
For seeds contact local gardeners, seed suppliers, HDRA, other Seedy Sunday organisers.
You will find old gardeners have been saving their seeds for years, if not generations within their family. They probably don't know what variety they are growing, other than it works for them Unwittingly they may have selected out a new variety, and almost certainly a strain that is suited to your local area. If grown for several seasons it will probably grow true. Label the seeds with the name of the gardener or its origin, and maybe a little potted history.
At Seedy Sunday in Brighton, a gardener turned up with a seed tray full of runner beans. Unfortunately he had no idea of the variety, other than they were what he had been growing, they were excellent beans, and had red flowers. Mixed in were a few white runner beans which he said had white flowers. These I went through and selected out.
We had a chat about the best way to grow runner beans and the best way to cook them. For me, sow each individual bean in a bog roll filled with soil (get the soil in by screwing the roll into the loose ground), when several inches high, plant out (if sown as seeds, the slugs eat the leaves as they appear). For cooking, I break off the ends and peel back down the sides (this gets rid of the stringy bits) chop into small portions (not slice into strips), drop into lightly salted boiling water (or better, add salt when cooked), and cook for around 10-15 minutes. Pick the beans when young, else they are stringy. The more you pick, the bigger the crop. The gardener I was talking to cooked his beans whole.
But that's what it's all about, local seeds, local knowledge.
Seed exchange is as simple as local people swapping their seeds. It doesn't need a high-tech company splicing alien games, to then charge a licensing fee for use of their intellectual property.
The practice of seed swapping is something farmers have done for generations, either with their fellow farmers directly or indirectly at seed fairs. This seed swapping is what safeguards seed diversity, and ensures that farmers always have the best seeds for the next season. In Peru, for example, local farming communities keep more than 250 varieties of potatoes. In Kenya, farmers swap more than 150 different varieties of local farm seeds at annual seed fairs. In Iraq, the FAO estimated that in 2002, 97% of Iraqi farmers used saved seed from their own stocks from the previous year's harvest or purchased from local markets.
It is events like the Seedy Sunday community seed swap, that are reviving and keeping alive these ancient traditions. In doing so, we are not only able to safeguard traditional varieties, but we are also able to stick a collective two fingers up to big business.
Happy guerrilla gardening!
The day's event in Brighton was sponsored by Infinity Foods, Brighton’s longest running wholefood co-operative.
Joel Bakan, The Corporation: the pathological pursuit of profit and power, Penguin, 2004
Joanna Blythman, Shopped: The Shocking Power of British Supermarkets, Fourth Estate, 2004
FAO declares war on farmers, not hunger, Grain, 16 June 2004
Growing Dissent!, Schnews 482, 21 January 2005
Dominique Guille, The Seeds of Kokopelli, Association Kokopelli
Iraq's new patent law: a declaration of war against farmers, Grain and Focus on the Global South, October 2004
Andrew Kimbrell (ed), Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, Island Press, 2002
Felicity Lawrence, Not on the Label, Penguin, 2004
Keith Parkins, Genetic Engineering - Paradise on Earth or a Descent into Hell?, September 1999
Keith Parkins, Biopiracy and Intellectual Property Rights, December 1999
Keith Parkins, Sowing Seeds of Dissent, Indymedia UK, 6 September 2004
Keith Parkins, Seeds of Dissent, September 2004
Keith Parkins, Future of Food, Indymedia UK, 24 January 2005
Keith Parkins, Iraq: Order 81, Indymedia UK, 27 January 2005
Patent, Industrial Design, Undisclosed Information, Integrated Circuits and Plant Variety Law of 2004, CPA Order No. 81, 26 April 2004
John Seymour, The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, Dorling Kindersley, 2003
Vandana Shiva, Stolen Harvest, South End Press, 1999
Jeffrey M Smith, Seeds of Deception, Yes! Books, 2003
World Food Day: Iraqi farmers aren't celebrating, press release, Grain, 15 October 2004