A call for community seed diversity during the COVID-19 pandemic – Food Tank

When the COVID-19 pandemic began to reshape the world, many people turned to gardening and orchard maintenance as both a private and a public pastime. Now, as the pandemic sinks deeper into summer, we are cultivating the soil out of hope and anxiety, out of desire for health, and for more control over a seemingly unstable food supply.

Since the beginning of March, sales of seeds through online catalogs have increased three to five times, while nurseries and garden stores quickly sold out. And paradoxically, COVID-19 has also made operations much more difficult for various seed saving institutions, such as Seed Savers Exchange and Native seeds / RESEARCH, both of which closed temporarily to reconfigure to meet increased demand. And while the danger of the pandemic for all agricultural and food workers is painfully evident, COVID-19 is particularly threatening for many workers in the seed supply chain.

The COVID-19 pandemic portends the coming years marked by limited access, rising prices and threats to the diversity and sovereignty of seeds. With each passing day without further action, access to community seeds – and therefore food security and even national security – is increasingly threatened.

As part of the Healing the Border project, Native Seeds / SEARCH delivered seeds to indigenous Seri communities in El Desemboque, Sonora, Mexico. Photo courtesy of Gary Paul Nabhan.

The roots of the problems of many seed companies during the pandemic reside in their physical configuration. Typically, small to medium-sized farms employ three to seven people on an assembly line: sitting side by side, they will locate the desired seeds, pack them, and prepare them for shipment. This process sometimes takes place under the same roof as the seed cleaning equipment, which periodically fills the air with dust, pollen and straw.

Now, to comply with the social distancing requirements of a respiratory virus pandemic, employees must compartmentalize work by isolating themselves in space or time. This means that fewer people can work together to flourish and speeding up the process could endanger the lives of workers. The people who work in these seed distribution facilities will never be seen by most of the gardeners who benefit from their work. But they are unequivocally workers essential to our food security, and we must treat them as such.

This restructuring of the seed supply chain in March and April, coupled with the increase in demand, generated a delay of several weeks for buyers to receive the seeds they ordered. It wreaked havoc on gardeners and farmers trying to plant their seeds in optimal weather conditions. And this change will probably be have an even greater effect on future growing seasons, if the supply of seeds continues to be much lower than demand.

In response to these challenges, some companies have chosen to exclusively sell high-value seeds in large quantities to commercial farmers. For a flooded seed house, processing a large order is faster – and therefore safer – than dozens of smaller ones. Choosing to help farmers before gardeners can be likened to giving masks to nurses first; the argument could be made that the stakes for community food security are higher if farms are not able to grow the crops they need.

However, fewer farmers keep their own seed stocks year after year than before. On the other hand, gardeners have a higher probability of retaining the progeny of the seeds they buy for future plantings. A pivot to agricultural bulk sales can ultimately affect the diversity and spatial heterogeneity of the food crops grown in a given location.

Why? A region’s seed supply might be geared more to more economically powerful customers who lack the motivation or capacity to save and regrow their seeds – people who use seeds more as a commodity. in the food economy. Geographic consolidation also makes seed diversity more vulnerable to disasters such as climatic disasters, pest invasions or epidemics. In terms of the conservation of genetic resources, it is risky to have all your eggs in one basket.

Worse yet, in order to fill these larger commercial orders, many seed houses have been forced to dip more into their basic seeds, the supplies they keep in a cold store to ensure they have sufficient quantities of them. sufficient seeds to recover from catastrophic weather conditions or prepare for years to come. . Some seed companies have admitted that it will take them until 2023 or 2024 to regenerate the stocks of seed they have sold in the past four months. This means that we can probably expect seed prices to increase, further limiting access to a wide variety of crops.

As the spikes and declines in COVID-induced seed supply now converge with existing longer-term factors, we are being pushed to a crisis point for America’s seed security.

Increasingly, large and medium-sized commercial seed companies are outsourcing parts of the seed supply chain overseas. Rather than growing their own stocks on various plots across the United States, companies rely on a complex and opaque global network of farmers and middlemen. Unbeknownst to many gardeners, their heirloom or local seeds – so called because they are part of the American geographic heritage – may come from contract growers overseas who originally purchased seeds in the United States but who export them to us now. This obscuration puts us at a higher risk of being blinded by the devastation that can spread across the world due to a single farm’s failure to control a seed-borne virus.

In fact, in the worst possible coincidence, several globalized seed sources are now contaminated with crop viruses, completely independent of COVID-19. Seed imports for nightshade crops such as tomatoes and peppers that are vulnerable to the Rough Brown Tomato Fruit Virus (ToBRFV) are restricted by the USDA due to recent outbreaks in farmers’ fields in the Netherlands, Spain, France, Greece and elsewhere.

The balance between corporate global producers and individual seed savers must be strengthened by supporting local seed operations, whether non-profit or commercial. There is still too much redundancy in the offerings of the major seed vendors. Fortunately, since the mid-1980s, the diversity of seeds grown and offered by small regional businesses on American soil has increased four to five times. Yet seed companies in all ecoregions and hardiness zones are expected to not only grow more of their own seeds, but also more diversity suited to their changing climatic conditions.

And while it remains imperative to protect seed banks from climate disasters, supply shocks and war, seed bank backup stocks should be better linked to free seed libraries that democratize seed diversity. In southern Arizona, thanks to the Pima County public library system, there are now over 25 free seed libraries who work from branch libraries and food banks to distribute desert-friendly seeds to thousands of families of all races, ethnicities and income levels. Surprisingly, about half of those who view seeds from these libraries return part of the harvest after the growing season, which is enough to replenish the growers’ library the following season.

COVID-19 is not the first global shock to seed supply chains in recent memory – seed shortages and rising prices during the 1979 oil crisis, 2000, and 2008 recession come to me in mind – and it will not be the last. As the Healing the Border Project distributed hundreds of Native Seeds / SEARCH seed packets to indigenous Seri and Hia C-eḍ O’odham communities isolated near the US-Mexico border by government blockades, we realized that the plantation new gardens are a way for communities to regain their sense of hope after the pandemic.

As the world slowly rebuilds and recovers, we all have a new opportunity to regenerate and share a greater diversity of seeds, and to honor and return the benefits to the traditional seed custodians of many crops. We would be remiss if we did not sow true seed sovereignty in every region and culture on this planet, long before a future crisis can uproot us again.

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