Tuesday, 6 January 2009

Seeds and food biodiversity

Different types of Asturian maize; for seed and for cooking.

This is the time of year when we start sowing seeds for the vegetable garden. So I thought it opportune to talk a little about the importance of seeds, food biodiversity and what we are doing on the farm with respect to local varieties.

Seeds are a gift of nature, which have been saved and used by past generations and diverse cultures. They are the first link in the food chain, the embodiment of biological and cultural diversity, and the repository of life’s future evolution. We should therefore think of it as our responsibility to protect and to pass seeds on to future generations.

The free exchange of seed among farmers over the millennia has been the basis of maintaining biodiversity as well as food security. Today the diversity and future of seed is under threat. Of 80,000 edible plants used for food, only about 150 are being cultivated. The erosion of diversity has been propelled by industrial agricultures drive for homogenization.

The criteria for selecting plant varieties under modern industrial agricultural systems are very different to those for small mixed farms. Varieties for modern industrial agriculture are chosen for characteristics such as their ability to ripen simultaneously and withstand harvesting equipment; for a tough skin that can survive packing and shipping; for an ability to have a long shelf life in the store. Only a handful of hybrid varieties of each fruit and vegetable meet those rigorous demands, so there is little genetic diversity in the plants grown, and locally adapted seed varieties are dwindling very fast. We are witnessing unprecedented impacts as a result of food being seen primarily as a commodity. In contrast, locally develloped food systems that value sustainability and balance have the potential to reconnect us to each other and to the land as well help preserve local varieties and food biodiversity.

Small local mixed farms grow a huge number of varieties to provide a long season of harvest, an array of eye-catching colours, and the best flavours. Many varieties are heirlooms, passed down from generation to generation, because they taste good. These old varieties contain genetic material from hundreds or even thousands of years of human selection; they may someday provide the genes needed to create varieties that will thrive in a changing climate. Local food preserves genetic diversity

So if we are interested in preserving food biodiversity we can help in a simple way, by purchasing food directly from local producers and processors. We can encourage restaurants and grocery stores to buy locally and directly from farmers by asking for local products.

Our local food market at Cangas de Onis, a show of food biodivesity.

The slow food movement through the slow food foundation is a major defender of food biodiversity. If you are not familiar with the movement do have a look at their web page to get an idea of the tremendous work they are doing. Their “Ark of Taste” project aims to rediscover, catalogue, describe and publicize forgotten flavours, and you can find out what products they have recognised from different countries.

At Posada del Valle not only do we supporting local producers but we are maintaining local varieties of maize, beans, peppers and onions through a cycle of growing and seed-collection. Our onion variety came from Mari-Jose’s family vegetable-plot in Collia, where they have grown and selected it for over forty years. It is well adapted to local conditions and consistently out-performs marketed hybrid onion varieties. Maize is a very important part of the traditional Asturian and we grow and produce seed of two local varieties. Beans were also an important part of the traditional diet and we grow trial and produce seed of different bean varieties. We are also producing our own seeds of lettuce, chard, parsley, chervil, coriander, basil, and other herbs.

Onion seed heads ready to collect the seeds, a gift from nature, growing in our vegetable garden.

The freedom of seed and the freedom of farmers are threatened by property rights and new technologies that are transforming seed from a common resource to a privatised “pay-per-view” commodity monopolized by corporations. Many people argue that patents and property rights are necessary to provide an incentive for the large companies to invest in research and investigation and obviously some type of incentive for investigation is necessary. However something must be going wrong when companies can patent plants which have been selected and developed over generations by indigenous farmers and then forbid those farmers from saving and using the seed from these “patented” plants unless they pay the company a royalty. The current struggle over seed rights is considered one of the most important issues in world agriculture.

If you are interested in this topic you may find the following small book interesting: “Manifestos on the future of food and seed” edited by Vandana Shiva featuring essays by; Prince Charles, Carlo Petrini, Micahel Pollan, Jamey Lionette and Vandana Shiva.

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Hotel Posada del Valle is a small hotel in Asturias Northern Spain surrounded by its own organic farm and where we are passionate about organic farming, food, and sustainable livelihoods. In this Blog those of us who live and work at Hotel Posada del Valle open a door to share with all of you who are interested in what we are doing.