Preserving Biodiversity: How Farmers Are Building Resilience through Seeds
By Savannah Kuang, CUESA Staff
In the United States, it has been estimated that we’ve lost more than 90% of our fruit and vegetable varieties over the last century. Seeds, which are the foundation of our food system, are being controlled by major corporations—with significant impacts to our climate, farmers, and communities. How can farmers and eaters help preserve biodiversity to strengthen our food supply?
Last Monday, CUESA hosted a talk called The Food Change | Seeding Resilience with farmer Kristyn Leach of Namu Farm, journalist Mark Schapiro, and moderator Tiffani Patton of Real Food Media to dig into these questions and how we can build resilience through seeds.
The Corporate Seed Market
In his latest book, Seeds of Resistance: The Fight to Save Our Food Supply, Mark Schapiro explains that three corporations now control more than half of the seed market. These corporations are privatizing the use of seeds through genetic modification and engineering in order to farm on an industrial scale.
These practices led to the reduction of heirloom seeds in the market. “Steadily, agrochemical companies started buying up local seed companies and taking those local seeds out of commission and replacing them with blockbuster seeds that can be grown across thousands of miles in multiple ecological zones,” said Mark at CUESA’s talk. “How? With the support of chemicals that actually sustain what they did not have in their interior genetic composition. [This is] compensated for by the application of herbicides and pesticides on a massive scale.”
The consolidation of the seed market led to less choices and higher seed prices for farmers. Major agrochemical corporations also accelerated the process of patenting seeds, which impacts farmers that are doing sustainable, small-scale farming.
The consolidation of the seed market has also had environmental and climate impacts. The use of chemical pesticides and fertilizers in the cultivation of genetically modified crops results in soil depletion and reduced carbon sequestration. Lastly, this affects our overall health because without healthy soil, we won’t have healthy foods to nourish us.
Mark said that we should think of the Earth as an organism. “The patterns that have essentially sustained this beautiful organism are…significantly disrupted by climatic shifts,” he said. “It’s no accident that we have a food system that is ecologically corrosive.”
Preserving the Earth and Culture through Seeds
Some farmers are reacting against this industrial paradigm to build resilience through seed saving and using sustainable agricultural practices. On her one-acre farm in Winters, California, Kristyn Leach, the founder of Namu Farm, uses organic, biodynamic, and permaculture practices without using any chemical pesticides or fossil fuels. This includes using natural fertilizers to build organic matter in the soil, in order to provide full nourishment for the crops.
For Kristyn, seed saving is a means of environmental, culinary, and cultural preservation. Many of her heirloom seeds are from Korea by way of the mother of the Lee brothers of Namu Gaji restaurant. Other heirloom seeds Kristyn grows come from Oakland-based Kitazawa Seed Co., the oldest seed company in America that specializes in Asian vegetables. Kristyn also grows heirloom seeds in collaboration with Kitazawa Seed Co. through a project called Second Generation Seeds to help preserve and improve heirloom Asian foods.
Preserving and sharing seeds is a vital part of Kristyn’s farm practice. “Nothing has taught me generosity in the way that seed saving has,” she said. She believes saving seeds changes her long-term relationship with her crops and community. “As seed savers, we understand the threats to biodiversity,” she said. “I care about farming because it’s always about taking care of the people around me, and I would take the community I have over crop insurance.”
From Seeds to the City
With the sweeping impacts of climate change and the corporate privatization of our food system, the diversity of crops is rapidly disappearing. So how do we, as urban dwellers, get closer to seeds and support farmers in their efforts to build resilience and biodiversity in our food supply?
Home gardeners and urban farmers can be part of the movement by supporting rare seed companies and saving their own seeds, while participating in local seed exchanges can build community networks around seed saving. We also recommend checking out these seed sharing tips to learn more.
If you are not a gardener, you can support farmers who are dedicated to preserving biodiversity and seeds. Kristyn encourages being open to trying less-common produce varieties over more popular ones, so that farmers have an economic incentive to grow those foods and bring them to market.
“Talking to other farmers [about growing heirlooms], it can be great for them agronomically and it can be great for them in their crop rotation, but if there’s no pathway for how it’s going to get off their farm, it’s a really hard sell,” she said. “If something takes up a certain amount of space on your farm, you want it to feed people. So that means people being adventurous and trying a new thing every season.”
Watch the full talk on Facebook. To learn more about seeds and biodiversity, join us on our Butterflies, Bees, and Broccoli di Cicco: Biodiversity at the Farm tour on March 16.
Featured photo by Namu Farm.