See it, save it, sow it

Meet the seed savers growing our future with a rainbow

Seeds are where life begins | Image by TOPIA

Rainbow corn and medicinal rice, towering peas and kaleidoscopic kale; the world’s seed savers share how they’re keeping seeds alive in all their rainbow-coloured diversity

Each of our lives are uniquely different and a mirror of the seeds we carry.

Jessika Greendeer

It’s late spring in Denmark and Louise Windfeldt’s garden already feels crowded. New leaves spill over onto its narrow walkways, the sun brightening their many shades of green.

She is guiding me to her allotment’s furthest corner, where tall willow stakes, tied with string, form neat triangles that reach up beyond the height of the surrounding hedges. She squints as she points upwards and explains that the beans that will grow on them will reach four metres high.

Louise’s garden only grows vegetables that can’t be found on your average industrial farm. One is a tiny, tasty shallot – called Læsøløg – that comes from a stormy Danish island and can remain fresh for a full year after it’s harvested. Another is a large, tumbling bush of green and violet leaves, appropriately named kaleidoscopic kale.

Louise Windfeldt in her garden | Photo by Sten Valling

All are grown from heirloom seeds. These are seeds that, like your great grandmother’s pearls, are passed down from one generation to another because they are considered valuable. As Louise puts it, “there is a reason why the old varieties are still here. They taste good, and they perform well.”

Despite their flavour, their performance, their vibrant colours or extraordinary height, these are not the vegetables that end up on most of our dinner plates. Industrially-farmed vegetables are grown from ‘hybrid’ seeds, which are useful for growing vast crops of reliable, uniform vegetables, but are bad news for the planet. They replace diversity with scale, and leave less room for the strange and wonderful varieties like those in Louise’s garden. And if a plant variety isn’t grown, it soon disappears. A worrying 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost over the last century, and three quarters of the world’s food now comes from just 12 plants and five animal species.

Three quarters of the world’s food now comes from just 12 plants and five animal species.

Mahan Chandra Borah noticed this dwindling of diversity in the fields around his home in Assam, north east India. Throughout his childhood and early adulthood, he watched as his local farmland came to be more uniform, its patchwork of crops bigger and less varied. He decided to save the heirloom varieties that were left, and in 2002 began collecting seeds first from his grandfather and then from farmers in surrounding villages. They handed over not just the seeds, but the knowledge that goes with them: how the seed grows, the conditions it likes, the pests it’s resistant to.

This was the beginning of what would become Annapurna, north east India’s first indigenous seed library. “Most people talk about having a seed bank,” Mahan explains, “but that concept is very narrow. A seed library is just like a book library – it contains data and knowledge. You can borrow from me for free, and learn information about how to grow any of these seeds.”

A seed library is just like a book library – it contains data and knowledge.

Mahan Chandra Borah

His seed-collecting took Mahan first across Assam, and then to travel India’s vast length and breadth. He speaks quickly and passionately as he tells me how his library has grown, the smile never leaving his face. His work is both urgent and methodical; his drive to discover new varieties and keep them alive has only intensified over the 20 years since he collected his first handful of seeds from his grandfather. His library now contains more than 400 seed varieties that he stores in carefully labelled jars. Each year he plants every variety on his small farm, slowly filling each jar so he can give more away to each farmer. 

Rice farmer Mahan Borah set up northeast India’s first seed library

He grows his library of seeds organically, without the fertiliser that is destroying India’s soils and the pesticides that are toxic to other life. Indeed, unlike the vast monocrops of hybrid varieties, the indigenous seeds don’t need these chemical interventions. As Mahan says, “we have limited land to feed people. We can’t go to the moon to grow crops. The land belongs to young people, and we must take care of it so they can grow from it once we’re gone.”

Included in his shelves of seeds are many types of rice. Some are aromatic (Kon Joha, Jira Joha), others sticky (Kokua Bora, Maku Bora), another black (Krishana Bora). Some have extraordinary properties, like Dolkochu that can cure a fever or jaundice, and Kola Sali that make you feel full for longer. Some grow well on flooded land, others survive unexpected droughts. All are valuable, thanks both to their individual properties and to their collective diversity. 

While many plants thrive quietly in their various landscapes, others dazzle with their difference. Jessika Greendeer is a farmer and Ho-Chunk Nation tribal member farming at Dream of Wild Health, a Native American-led farm just outside Minneapolis. Amongst more recognisable beans, beets, carrots and kale, she grows varieties of corn whose deviation from the supermarket norm is plain to see. They are, as she puts it, “every colour of the rainbow”.

Jessika Greendeer, Seedkeeper and Farm Manager | Photo by Matika Wilbur

At Dream of Wild Health, indigenous youth spend time learning how to grow varieties that have been part of their culture for centuries. They eat multi-coloured popcorn: translucent orange, deep red, speckled black. Describing the Winnebago (Ho Chunk) Mixed variety, Jessika’s eyes light up: “I couldn’t ever pull a crayon or marker to match the colour of purple that came out of that corn. It’s just stunning.”

This one beautiful, incredibly diverse, and culturally-significant crop has changed my life forever. As I marvel at her selflessness blowing in the breeze, I am incredibly blessed to watch her grow from seed-to-seed.

Jessika Greendeer

Varieties like these are also saved in the world’s seed vaults. From the Arctic Circle to Africa, there are over 1,700 of these huge, cold, plant Noah’s Arks that keep thousands of seeds literally frozen in time. Linda Black Elk, an indigenous ethnobotanist and activist who teaches  at United Tribes Technical College in North Dakota, points out that this approach cuts seeds off from their environment – an environment that is, thanks to the climate crisis, changing fast. “Those seeds, unfortunately, are stuck in time. They are not adapting to our changing world. I would be willing to bet that if we took those seeds out of those vaults 100 years from now, when our climate is very different, they won’t do as well as seeds that have adapted over time and been loved and appreciated and spoken to and prayed over.” 

Future generations also won’t hold any firsthand knowledge of how to grow these frozen seeds. The stories held within each one won’t be passed on as they are when Louise, Mahan and Jessika hand the year’s seed harvest to another farmer or family. Trapping seeds in vaults severs the relationship between people and the natural world we are part of, Linda explains: “Western colonial cultures have always tried to preserve spaces by removing people from the equation, instead of thinking of us as part of the system.” 

Sharing, swapping and selling heirloom seeds is essential to this continued relationship and the seeds’ very survival, but there are legal restrictions in many countries. That means the end of the road for strange, wonderful, allotment-friendly varieties. “That is actually the consequence,” Louise says from her bright Danish garden, “if you say you cannot swap them and you cannot sell them”.

Happily, Denmark now has a very liberal interpretation of the EU’s seed legislation. This is in part thanks to Frøsamlerne, the Danish Seed Savers Association, a seed-swapping organisation that Louise works for as secretary and partakes in enthusiastically. Their popup seed swap events and government negotiations for more seed freedoms helped lead to a change in Danish law in 2015.

But restrictions continue in other countries, making seed saving and sharing a radical act. And in a truly dystopian turn of events, patenting laws mean that corporations can ‘own’ a seed and the genetic traits associated with it. This, Linda says, is “theft”: large companies can patent a seed, then restrict its use and distribution.

Denying everyday people’s access to seeds undermines their ability to access food. And, as Mahan points out emphatically, “everyone needs food. You could have money, you could have a big house, you could have cars, very nice cars – but you can’t eat them.”

Mahan is describing the importance of ‘food security’, or having access to sufficient food. But the work that he, Louise and Jessika do to save and share seeds goes beyond supporting food security to enable ‘food sovereignty’. This is the idea that the people should have access to nourishing, culturally relevant food, and have control over how it’s grown. Linda explains: “we came to realise that food security isn’t enough. We need to feed people food that’s going to nourish them not just physically, but mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. We need to help people make that connection between soil, Mother Earth, and the stuff that’s on their plate. That’s really what food sovereignty is: having a say in where your food comes from, from the seeds all the way to the plate.”

We need to help people make that connection between soil, Mother Earth, and the stuff that’s on their plate.

Linda Black Elk

For Jessika and Dream of Wild Health, a concept central to food sovereignty is rematriation. Food is as much about relationship as it is about nutrition, and bringing seeds back into the communities that historically grew and ate and shared them rekindles an important bond. Jessika has travelled far and wide and scoured seed collections to reconnect people with plants, such as the Oneida nation with a particular type of Hubbard squash. “You might have a long lost relative that you’ve never seen with your own eyes,” Jessika explains, “and you might hear stories about them. And then one day you finally meet them. That’s what it’s like to be reconnected to some of our varieties: you find out you’ve had this relative living a life outside of where home is, and you have all of this catching up to do.

“The best way to talk about rematriation,” she continues, “is to say, if you’re going to be a new mother, you want to make sure you at least have a carseat to get the baby home from the hospital, or maybe you want to paint the nursery. It’s the same thing that we’re doing with our seeds and working with youth – so they understand why it matters. That’s us painting the nursery. We’re getting ourselves ready, so we have a place for those seeds to come home to.”

So it is that Mahan, Louise, Jessika, and the many networks of seed savers around the world hold the future, literally, in their hands. By sharing seeds and telling their stories, they are keeping the strangest and most wonderful of our planet’s harvest alive, even as changing temperatures and weather patterns make growing food more challenging than ever. We must not forget that, as Linda says, “seeds adapt over time. If we grow them every year, the seeds will help us adapt as well.”

Further reading

1 – Seed Sovereignty, Food Security, Vandana Shiva (Frog Ltd, 2105)
2 – The Seed Keeper, Diana Wilson (Milkweed, 2021)
3 – Braiding Sweetgrass, Robin Wall Kimmerer (Milkweed, 2015)
4 – The Seed Detective, Adam Alexander (Chelsea Green, 2022)
5 – Seed to Seed, Suzanne Ashworth (Chelsea Green, 2002)
6 – Eating to Extinction by Dan Saladino ( Jonathan Cape, 2021)
7 – The Third Plate: Field Notes on the Future of Food, Dan Barber (Penguin Random House, 2015)

What’s so good about this?

What came first, the chicken or the egg? Neither – it was a seed; the egg of the plant world, and the source of all life on Earth. Seed savers are heroes with many capes: they support biodiversity, food security and food sovereignty, and keep traditional knowledge alive. Seed saving is urgent and crucial as climate change disrupts growing conditions and extreme weather takes hold. Yesterday’s seeds can feed us all tomorrow.

Meet the writer

Becca Warner is a London-based writer who’s as obsessed with words as she is with all things green, growing and grubby. Which means she probably spends too much time looking down – although she always keeps one eye on the future. She writes, among other things, about solutions to the world’s biggest problems, covering topics like farming, fashion and forests. She also writes poetry, and DJs good music very badly. 

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