Seeds of Dissent

[Food sovereignty] ... goes beyond the concept of food security. It is also the capacity to have control and sovereign decision-making throughout the food chain, from production to consumption. The farmer must maintain control of three basic elements of production: the soil, water and seed. Who controls these elements is in control of food. -- Committee on Food Security, UN FAO

The issue of seeds has the potential to be a very big wake-up call. The confused mindset that blasts foreign genes into seeds, that patents seeds, that kills seeds, is clearly one that would destroy the very garden that feeds us. -- Dan Jason, Salt Spring Seeds

The most sought after trait for corporate researchers these days is the ability of plants to withstand applications of poisons produced by their corporate bosses. -- Dan Jason, Salt Spring Seeds

There is so much opposition in the world to any further releases of GM crops that the only way that remains to go ahead with them is to contaminate. -- Dale Adolphe, Canadian Seed Growers Association

Under this ruling [Monsanto v Schmeiser], spreading GM pollution appears to be recognized as a viable corporate ownership strategy. -- Pat Mooney, ETC Group

It's embarrassing, isn't it, to come from a country with a bad food culture? -- Joanna Blythman

... efforts to create a better world begin with how one grows one's food and end with how one consumes it. -- Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food

Nature is very generous and food plants provide us with plenty of seeds. One squash or one melon contain hundreds of seeds. A tiny cherry tomato contains around 70 seeds. A lettuce going to seed may produce up to 10,000 seeds. -- Kokopelli Seed Foundation

Everybody can grow or collect seeds. All the gardeners and farmers of the world were doing it for thousands of years before the emergence of chemical agriculture. -- Kokopelli Seed Foundation

Seeds are the very beginning of the food chain. He, who controls the seeds, controls the food supply and thus controls the people. -- Dominique Guillet, Association Kokopelli

Traditionally farmers have sown seed, grown crops, collected the best seeds, and have done so for generations. This has led to natural selection, seeds best suited to the farmer's particular growing circumstances. This has led to many tens of thousands of domesticated seed varieties. At least that was the situation up to a century ago. Since then we have had mass extinction of domesticated seed varieties.

Several factors have led to this mass extinction, but in the main the green revolution and seed registration.

Across the Third World the Green Revolution has eliminated regional and genetic diversity. Everyone grows high yielding varieties. High yielding is something of a misnomer, as the yields are lower than traditional varieties unless the farmer applies generous applications of water, fertiliser and pesticides. The latter usually being from the same suppliers as the seeds. Very often the seeds are F1 hybrids, which means the farmer has to buy fresh seed for each and every growing season.

Sam Mutisya, director of BIDII, Kenya:

The green revolution treated everything the people knew as rubbish – but it led to problems. The 'miracle' seeds needed fertilisers, pesticides, water. The experts told the farmers what to do, but the farmers didn't have the resources. Then the apathy crept in.

Farmers who bought into the green revolution found themselves on a treadmill: yields go down, more inputs are needed, pests increase, leading to increased pesticide use, the soil is depleted, the yields go down, the price obtained, controlled by global commodity markets, goes down, the price of the inputs goes up.

Seeds have to be registered to be recognised. While this has some merit, as we need to have trust in the reliability of a variety, the high registration costs have eliminated all but a handful of commercial varieties.

In the UK, the annual listing costs is £300 per variety per year, plus over £2,000 for registering a new seed variety.

These prohibitively high costs have eliminated all but the big seed companies.

Within the EU, it is illegal to sell non-registered seeds.

Then HDRA director Lawrence D Hills summed up the situation two decades ago when he wrote in the introduction to the HDRA 1985 Heritage Seeds catalogue:

The past decade has seen a catastrophic decline in the number of traditional vegetable varieties offered for sale. Under the double onslaught of commercial pressures and punitive government seed legislation the older varieties have been steadily whittled away – over 1,000 gone in the last six years. Every six months a few more old friends join the vegetables that may not be sold or even catalogued without risking a fine.

Does is matter?


First of all, do we wish to see a commodity as valuable as our seeds to be in the hands of Big Business?

Second, we are narrowing the gene pool.

Potato blight, which led to the Irish Famine, was a direct result of a narrow genetic base. We are still reaping the political repercussions today.

The situation can only get worse. We are facing two major threats: genetic engineering, and the power of global supermarket chains.

Genetic engineering is rapidly reducing the genetic base. It is recognised the limitations of varieties to disease, especially if we limit ourselves to only a few commercial varieties, but instead of increasing the number of varieties, a high tech solution is being used which not only introduces alien genes into the gene pool with unknown consequences is also at the same time simultaneously reducing the genetic diversity.

Seed companies can now obtain patents, claim the new varieties as their own, and demand royalty payments for use of 'their' intellectual property. Very often they have done little work at all, simply riding on the backs of traditional farmers who over generations have selected out the best characteristics. The characteristics selected out by Big Business will be of little value to the end consumer – ability to travel, long shelf life, tolerance to biocides. Very often the seed companies have done no work at all, simply stolen traditional varieties from native people and claimed as their own, an act of biopiracy.

Global corporations have resulted in the loss of over 95% of our traditional seed varieties. They do though occasionally take an interest in a traditional variety when they see it to be of commercial value to themselves. They then take out a patent, and claim it for themselves as their intellectual property.

Monsatan, for which they have been awarded the Captain Hook Award 2004 for Worst Corporate Offender, have taken out a European patent on soft-milling, low-gluten wheat that is derived from a traditional Indian wheat variety, Nap Hal. Nap Hal has been traditionally used for making chapatis, the flat bread traditional to northern India. Nap Hal has less gluten than other wheat varieties, which gives it lower viscoelasticity, meaning it expands less during baking. This makes it ideal for crisp breads such as chapatis. Monsatan's patent (European Patent No. EP0445929B1) claims intellectual property rights not only for the low-gluten wheat, but also the flour, dough and edible products (biscuits, cake, etc.) produced from it! Greenpeace, the Research Foundation for Science, Technology and Ecology and the Indian farmers' organization, Bharat Krishak Samaj (BKS), are opposing Monsatan's patent at the European Patent Office.

Indigenous people, traditional farmers, may have spent centuries developing a traditional variety, which is held in common for everyone, then along comes a global corporation, steals it, and claims it as their own.

How did we arrive at this situation? Did we blindly stumble into it, or was it some carefully laid out corporate plan? According to Jeffrey M Smith (author of Seeds of Deception) it was designed by Anderson Consulting. Remember Anderson, the people who helped cooked the books at Enron?

... a master plan that had been crafted by corporations determined to control the world's food supply. This was made clear at a biotech industry conference in January 1999, where a representative from Arthur Anderson Consulting Group explained how his company had helped Monsanto create that plan. First, they asked Monsanto what their ideal future looked like in fifteen to twenty years. Monsanto executives described a world with 100 percent of all commercial seeds genetically modified and patented. Anderson Consulting then worked backwards from that goal, and developed the strategy and tactics to achieve it. They presented Monsanto with the steps and procedures needed to obtain a place of industry dominance in a world in which natural seeds were virtually extinct.

Integral to the plan was Monsanto's influence in government, whose role was to promote the technology worldwide and to help get the foods into the marketplace quickly, before resistance could get in the way. A biotech consultant later said, "The hope of the industry is that over time, the market is so flooded that there's nothing you can do about it. You just sort of surrender."

The anticipated pace of conquest was revealed by a conference speaker from another biotech company. He showed graphs projecting the year-by-year decrease of natural seeds, estimating that in five years, about 95 percent of all seeds would be genetically modified.

While some audience members were appalled at what they judged to be an arrogant and dangerous disrespect for nature, to the industry this was good business ...

To implement their strategy, the biotech companies needed to control the seeds - so they went on a buying spree, taking possession of about 23 percent of the world's seed companies. Monsanto did achieve the dominant position, capturing 91 percent of the GM food market. But the industry has not met their projections of converting the natural seed supply. Citizens around the world, who do not share the industry's conviction that these foods are safe or better, have not "just sort of surrendered."

Supermarkets claim to offer choice, but they don't. They only want a handful of varieties on their shelves, and these varieties are then sourced worldwide.

As Felicity Lawrence wrote (see Not on the Label):

There may be any number of unusual fruits and vegetables in supermarkets today that were rarities just a few years ago – the flat peach and purple carrot to name just two. But on a trip to the municipal market in the small Spanish town of Cartagena recently I was reminded of how much our choice has also been narrowed. On sale on a dozen stalls was an enormous range of fruit and vegetables of different qualities and therefore of different prices. You could buy local tomatoes in six different grades. They came as top-quality ones at top prices for salads, and right down through the grades and prices, from slightly misshapen ones, or slightly marked ones, to those that were fantastically cheap and a fraction of the price of the best offer in the local Carrefour – the slightly unripe ones for pickles or the slightly overripe ones which are perfect for cooking the same day.

It was the last day of August and the end of the day. At least it was the end of the day for the fruit and vegetable stalls at the local market which close earlier and earlier, ironically because the town centre is being trashed to make way for an unwanted superstore. The market, like the few remaining independent retailers, is now suffering due to the lack of shoppers. I could have bought three punnets of strawberries for less than the price of one in the local supermarket. I bought one. Unlike what was on offer in the supermarket, these strawberries were misshapen and an assortment of sizes. When I tried them once home, they were delicious, even more so with lashings of Greek yogurt. On offer in the supermarkets, Everest, a firm-fleshed variety, that tastes disgusting, as though it is out of a GM laboratory.

On the same day, on another stall, peaches, with a few blemishes, were being offered at the bargain price of only £1 for the box. There were no takers.

When we see cosmetic perfection it should raise questions as to how it was achieved: the chemicals used, the 'waste' graded out, the exploited illegal migrant workers who grade and wash and pack the fresh produce.

The supermarkets wield enormous power over both growers and consumers, it is they who determine what is grown, what we eat.

Wal-Mart is now the world's largest company, it is also the biggest retailer by sales, four times that of its nearest competitor. In 2002, its global sales were bigger than all but the world's 30 largest national economies. Ten global players dominate the world retail market.

On a tour of the West Country at the height of the foot and mouth crisis, Tony Blair accused the supermarkets of having an 'armlock' on farmers. He was soon whipped back into line by the supermarkets.

2.5 billion people worldwide depend on agriculture. What will they do, where will they go, when global warming and the downward pressures of supermarket pricing forces them off the land?

Over the last century we have witnessed a dramatic erosion in genetic diversity in our domesticated seeds:

An apple trail used to run through Kent, once known as the Garden of England. It doesn't run any more as most of the orchards have been grubbed up. The same is true of Hereford and Worcester, like Kent, once important apple growing areas.

Nearly two-thirds of English apple orchards have been lost in a period of less than 30 years. Growers are paid an EU subsidy to grub-up their apple orchards

There used to be around 6,000 varieties of dessert and cooking apples, many hundreds of cider varieties. Nearly all have been lost, or if they do exist, it is as specimens in the National Fruit Collection at Brogdale in Kent.

On a supermarket shelve you will only see a handful of varieties, and these will be imported, even at the height of the English growing season.

There are thirty-two varieties of plums grown in the UK, which can provide a supply of plums from mid-July until the end of October. If you are lucky, you will see on sale Victoria plums in a brief two week period. And even this excellent plum is disliked by the supermarkets as it does not handle well.

organic tomatoes var classic We take tomatoes for granted, we expect them with our salads, we would be surprised if we did not find them in our salads. Tomatoes are tasty, which is good, as tomatoes are good for us. As I write, I have before me an illustration of 36 varieties of tomatoes, not a single one have I ever seen in a supermarket. I do a little bit better with an organic grower from the Isle of Wight who I find with a stall on local farmers markets. At least what he has are tasty, if at times a little overripe, but again, none of the varieties which I have illustrated before me.

organic tomatoes var campari on the vine Between 1903 and 1983, we lost 80% of our tomato varieties.

Tomatoes have been listed internationally for the last quarter of a century as our most endangered food crop. There are many causes for the tomato's threatened extinction, including pollution and land clearance, but the main culprits are the near criminal activities of big business and big government acting in collusion to eliminate all but a handful of commercial varieties.

At least 19 diseases and disorders of tomatoes – leaf mould, tobacco mosaic virus, nematodes – have been minimised if not eliminated by cross breeding with wild strains. In the future we may not have that luxury.

Cornwall, up until the 1940s, grew a Cornish variety of cauliflower. This was displaced by a French variety that had denser, whiter curds. The French variety is vulnerable to fungal ringspot, the Cornish variety which was resistant to fungal ringspot has long been extinct.

At a time of rapidly changing climate, when we most need genetic diversity, we are narrowing the genetic base.

Global superstores and fast food chains demand a standardised input. Nature's vagaries are seen as a nuisance, not a blessing. Fast food chains treat food as an industrialised commodity, their workers, deskilled, poorly paid, production line monkeys. It is not only our seeds and our food we are destroying, we are destroying our culture too.

Eric Schlosser (author of Fast Food Nation) described it thus:

... the homogenisation of culture, both regionally and worldwide; the malling and sprawling of the landscape; the feeling that everywhere looks and feels the same; a low-wage, alienated service-sector workforce; a low wage, terribly exploited meat-packing workforce; a widening gap between rich and poor; concentration of economic power; the control of local and national government by agribusiness; an eagerness to aim sophisticated mass marketing at children; a view of farm animals as industrial commodities; unspeakable cruelty towards those animals; the spread of factory farms; the extraordinary air and water pollution; the rise of food-borne illnesses; antibiotic resistance; BSE; soaring obesity rates that have caused soaring rates of asthma, heart disease, early-onset diabetes; reduced life-expectancy; a cloying, fake, manipulative, disposable, plastic worldview, the sole aim of which is to make a buck.

The global food corporations spend $33 billion annually on promoting their products, much of which is spent on promoting snacks, junk food and soft drinks, which are of no nutritional value. This works out at $100 per month per head of population in the US. This is more than what two-thirds of the world population spends on buying food, more than two billion people in the world earn each month. In the western world, one of the major health problems is obesity. In the US, the cost of diet-related illness is running at $70 billion a year, a mere 1% reduction in saturated fat intake would result in 6,000 fewer cases of heart disease per annum.

Workmen are employed beneath the streets of Leicester Square in London clearing the sewers of blocked fat that has accumulated from the fast food restaurants above.

A viable farm is a small mixed family farm. Small farms are far more productive than large farms. Up until the end of the Second World War, there were 500,000 farms in the UK, the vast majority of which were small mixed farms. Farmers were then seduced by subsidies, guaranteed prices and guaranteed markets. The farmers then lost the plot, they lost sight of markets and consumers. They went into monoculture industrialised overproduction which forced down real prices. With the withdrawal of subsidies, farmers now find themselves at the mercy of global forces over which they have no control. They are now little more than feudal peasants accountable to feudal overlords. 50 years ago, 50-60p in every £1 of what we spent on food in the UK went to farmers, today only 9p. The payback to farmers in poor countries is far less.

In the 12 months to June 2003, 17,000 farmers and farm workers left the land in the UK, 5% of the workforce.

The rural landscape has suffered: we have lost 60% of our ancient woodland, 97% of our species rich meadows, 200,000 miles of hedgerows. Our animals suffer from inhumane conditions, our watercourses are polluted, our food is adulterated and contaminated.

This rural tragedy has been repeated all over Western Europe and is about to be repeated worldwide.

The Great Rift Valley in Kenya was to the first white settlers the Garden of Eden. Man once again is despoiling the Garden of Eden. Around Lake Naivasha, one of only two freshwater lakes in Kenya, is the horticultural industry supplying fresh produce to the UK. Acres and acres of greenhouses. The lake is shrinking due to over extraction of water, the southern end suffering from algal blooms. The migrant workers employed in the industry are deforesting the surrounding land for firewood.

On present trends, the area around Lake Naivasha will be unsuitable for farming in 15 years time. Kenya used to be self-sufficient in food, now it has to import basic foodstuffs, as the most productive land is used for export.

Work carried out by Christian Aid through partner NGOs with poor communities across the Third World shows that sustainable small scale agriculture is far more productive than industrialised monoculture agriculture – Deccan Development Society (DDS, Andhra Pradesh India), Development Communication and Services Centre/Sustainable Agriculture Network (DRCSC/SAN, West Bengal India), Prepare (India), Uluguru Mountains Agricultural Development Project (UMADEP, Tanzania), Benevolent Institute for Development Initiatives (BIDII, Kenya), Causananchispaj (Bolivia).

Deccan Development Society (DDS, Andhra Pradesh India) encourages seed saving and has helped develop a community seed bank. Through this one initiative alone, the variety of crops grown has risen from around 25-30 to over 60.

Deccan Development Society:

Safe food and a variety of options are on the women's menu. A changed circumstance than before. Forgotten foods from the past like Korra (Foxtail millet), Aargulu (Kodo millet), Bailodlu (dry sown paddy) are back in their kitchen. So are more pulses (read protein) and more vegetables (read vitamins) ... Many people have started approaching the sangham [project group] women for seeds. This process helps people move away from the organised, externally controlled market and re-establish a self-reliant seed economy ... Marginalised crops have started moving centre stage defining a new relationship with people. Low status foods which have greater nutritional value but were forced to recede in to the background ... are gaining new strength ... Agricultural processes have become internalised. No external input is being sought ... There is also a process of strengthening the community against the new seed colonialism replete with TRIPS and IPR regime ....

Farmers in West Bengal, working under the auspices of DRCSC/SAN, are growing a much wider variety of crops. Integrated techniques are used, trenches around the paddy fields for fish and ducks, trees and bushes on the bunds for shelter. By selecting seeds from the best performing crops, they are now outperforming 'high-yielding' varieties without the need for expensive inputs, and their produce commands a higher price at the local market. The farmers are now organising community seed storage, and other farmers are coming along to buy the seeds, recognising their local advantage.

In Kenya, under the auspices of BIDII, farmers are growing a wider variety of crops. One of the problems is that local varieties have become genetically contaminated. New seed has been brought in, the farmers encouraged to label the best performing crops and save the seeds for sowing the next season.

Lucia Wayua, Kenyan farmer who has benefited from BIDII:

Before BIDII came we didn't use manure properly, we just scattered it – but now we dig it in. We didn't make proper terraces and we grew only maize and bean and pigeon peas – to eat ourselves. We had few livestock and didn't know how to look after them so many died. We suffered when the rains failed because we had no food and no good livestock to sell to buy food ... Now with the new techniques we get good production and there's no need to buy food even in the dry season. We have more food now.

Chilma is a rural village in the mountains of southern Bolivia. The village used to only grow maize. With the help of Causananchispaj and reintroduction of Inca cultivation techniques, the village has managed to diversify. A wide diversity of crops is now grown, leading to self-sufficiency. The diversification has led to marked improvements in soil quality. The introduction of maize varieties developed from local varieties has increased yields.

When farmers grow cash crops they move away from local self-sufficiency. They lock themselves into a global market over which they have no control. When there are huge disparities between rich and poor, there can be no such thing as 'fair trade'.

M Diallo, a Senegalese farmer, commenting on the inequities of 'free trade':

Why can't we sell our products? We are producing and importing the same things – onions, potatoes, tomatoes – but we cannot compete with imported produce ... They say there should be trade between countries, but if they export to our country they should let us export to them ... I have some crops which I've not been able to sell in the last two or three years.

Another Senegalese farmer echoed similar sentiments:

The situation is unfair – we have to buy expensive inputs from abroad, then, when we produce rice for example, the same product is imported at a cheaper price.

To achieve food security, we have to achieve food sovereignty, seize control of the food chain, wrest control of the food chain from global corporations.

Final Declaration of the World Forum on Food (Cuba, September 2001):

Food sovereignty recognises agriculture involving peasants, indigenous people and and fishing communities with links to the territory: primarily orientated towards satisfying the needs of the local and national markets; agriculture whose central concern is human beings; agriculture which preserves, values and fosters multifunctionality of peasant and indigenous forms of production and management of rural areas. Likewise, food sovereignty entails the recognition and appreciation of the economic, social, environmental and cultural advantages of small-scale, family-based, peasant and indigenous agriculture.

In Canada, oil seed rape (canola) and Percy Schmeiser shows what the future has in store for us, unless we seize control of our own destiny.

Oil seed rape, like all brassicas, is sexually permissive, it will cross breed with almost anything. There is now multiple resistance to herbicides.

Percy Schmeiser found his oil seed rape was contaminated with mutant strains from Monsatan, or rather Monsatan found it was so. Monsatan then took poor old Percy to court for theft of their intellectual property. Percy lost.

SchNEWS described it thus (SchNEWS 455):

Imagine you’re a gardener who likes to keep things neat and tidy, while your next door neighbour’s idea of paradise is a bit more on the wild side. Their weed seeds drift across the fence and plant themselves in your soil and start to germinate. You lose the plot, and threaten to call the Council to get them to issue an anti social gardening behaviour order. But before you know it, the neighbours take you to court for stealing their seed! Ridiculous? But that’s just what’s happened in Canada.

Monsatan are sending private detectives into farmers' fields to sample their crops, in effect, trespassing. If the farmer complains, Monsatan says they will run the farmer through the courts and ruin him. If GM contamination is found, Monsatan claim the farmer has stolen their intellectual property, send threating letters seeking $100-150k in compensation. The letters also state the farmer will be sued if they reveal the threats to anyone else. The Mafia ain't got nothing on Monsatan.

Monsatan are also subjecting farmer's fields to aerial bombing raids with their toxic herbicides. If the crop is destroyed, that's okay, if it withstands the aerial attack, the farmer must have stolen their intellectual property to have been able to withstand the attack. Once again Monsatan threaten to sue. That criminal damage has taken place, that aerial spraying is illegal in Canada, is all deemed as irrelevant by Monsatan, who are a law unto themselves.

The latest ploy by Monsatan is to encourage farmers to grass on their neighbours who may be growing canola.

All brassicas are sourced from cliff top brassicas in Europe and the Mediterranean. GM contamination could eliminate the wild strains we may need one day to draw upon. GM contamination is already doing this to wild and primitive strains of maize in Mexico.

free trade

Nafta was the first trade agreement to spark a revolution. The first post-modern revolution from which the Zapatistas were formed.

Trade should be free, only there is no such thing as free trade between rich and poor.

Guyana grows rice, tomatoes and rears chickens. In the local markets can be found rice from the US, tinned tomatoes from Italy and chicken from Holland.

Guyana would like to impose import tariffs, but the IMF will not allow.

Within the rich world there are mechanisms to write off bad debts, but not between the rich and the poor. There is irresponsible borrowing but not irresponsible lending.

Nafta is devastating maize strains in Mexico and putting farmers out of business.

The US, under Nafta 'free trade' rules, is flooding Mexico with cheap maize. The price of maize has halved. Nafta came into being in 1994, by 2003 1.3 million Mexican farmers had gone bust. The farmers then form a cheap pool of migrant labour in the US. Their land is bought on the cheap by big farmers who grow food for export. They can only compete with US farmers by moving into industrialised agriculture. Mexican farmers who remain are forced onto ever more marginal land leading to soil erosion. The elimination of small farmers is eliminating the many varieties of maize they once grew. GM maize is polluting wild maize from which all domesticated maize is derived.

In 1970, a fungal disease devastated the US maize crop. They were able to draw upon Mexican varieties to breed a resistant variety. We may not have that luxury in the future.

In Argentina, the third biggest grower of soya after the US and Brazil, Monsatan have pulled out of selling GM-soya, as they are losing money due to the black market in seeds.

In Brazil, Luis Inacio Lula da Silva, populist President of Brazil, elected on a platform of participatory democracy, has been awarded the Captain Hook Award 2004 for Worst Betrayal for his government's December 2003 proposal in Montreal to allow field tests of Terminator/GURT technologies through the Convention on Biological Diversity (CBD). There is widespread opposition in Brazil to GM crops and yet in September 2003, Lula overruled popular opposition to GM crops and legalized the planting of transgenic soybeans. The decision threatens biodiversity in the unique cerrado ecosystem and the Amazonas as it opens up the region to the planting of GM soya.

Seeds banks store seeds but they are of limited functionality. What if there is a power failure or terrorist attack or civil unrest or war?

There is though some good news. 90% of biotech startups have crashed. As have most of their GM mutants. We do not have to follow the corporate agenda, we can grow our own varieties, swap the seeds with our friends. We can resist and dissent.

a minor digression

Walking in various parts of the countryside brought home to me the damage farmers were doing to the countryside. This was more than two decades ago when farmers were riding high on EU subsidies. An example was the North Downs in southern England, traditional sheep grassing country, where the pastures were being ploughed up, only chemical inputs and massive capital expenditure and artificially high prices, allowed the farmers to grow on the steep slopes. The soil is very fragile and already the chalk was starting to show through. Talking to a Cornish farmer a couple of years ago, a founder of a small and family farmers group, he told me that most of the farmers in Cornwall (southwest England), where I used to walk, had long since sold up and got out of farming.

About the same time I read Diet for a Small Planet by Frances Moore Lappé which led me to read Food First by the same author, and How the Other Half Dies by Susan George, which led me to see all was not well in the world of food production.

Two decades on and not a lot has changed, if anything the deterioration is accelerating.

For me, out walking, reading these books, tied everything together – food production, environmental degradation, people starving. I was not alone in thinking this way.

Twenty-five years ago Carlo Petrini recognised the loss of regional diversity. He could have set up a campaigning organisation, and as a former militant student, Petrini was no stranger to campaigning, but he didn't, he, together with some friends, opened a restaurant. And so the Slow Food movement was born. Slow food is the antithesis of fast food. The Slow Food movement now has nearly 100,000 members across five continents and is a UN FAO partner.

Protaras is a strip of a place, a holiday resort in Cyprus. At one end a McDonald's, the same the world over, at the other end, Nicolas Tavern, serving delicious kleftico, lamb cooked for several hours very slowly in a traditional wood-fired clay oven.

A meal in Nicholas Tavern is never a hurried affair. It is an experience to be enjoyed. An experience which his regulars enjoy night after night.

In Puerto de la Cruz in Tenerife there is a McDonald's overlooking the sea in the hideous new part of town, hidden away in the old colonial part of town, dozens of excellent restaurants. But better still, go out into the mountains, where you will find hidden away seemingly nondescript restaurants, which on a Sunday are packed out with Tenerifans and their friends.

We are what we eat. What we eat determines what we grow.

Carlo Petrini, founder of Slow Food:

... we quickly realised the flavours we wanted to save were closely connected to the work of people – of farmers, who with their ancient knowledge are the true custodians of biodiversity and the land. We had this fundamental realisation of the connection between sustainable agriculture and gastronomic culture ....

... when one loses a flavour, one loses a recipe. When one loses a recipe, one loses the knowledge of the use of a natural product. And when one loses this knowledge, one loses the ability to cultivate that product. As a result, we are slowly losing animal breeds and varieties of vegetables, and this means communities lose the capacity to maintain themselves – the whole fabric of society disintegrates and the scene is set for dependence upon multinational products.

The prestigious and highly coveted Slow Food Award is awarded to those who have gone out of their way to safeguard or reintroduce traditional methods and varieties.

Corby Kummer (author of The Pleasures of Slow Food):

Slow Food looks for people who are betting on themselves and their ability to overcome the obstacles of the modern world, so that they can grow and share the food of a land to which they feel passionately connected.

Concern for the environment and the dwindling reserves of the genetic diversity that keep plants and animals healthy are a Slow Food building block. The Slow Food award is a way of focusing attention on the people who preserve this biodiversity.

The Slow Food Award is the Nobel Prize of biodiversity. It does not only recognise worthy achievement, it brings the achievement to world attention.

Raúl Antonio Manuel, leader of the Rancho Grande, and indigenous community in Mexico, was awarded the Slow Food Award for his work with vanilla. Of recent years the people had become too dependent on coffee. Manuel has re-introduced the tradition of growing vanilla, a tradition that was almost extinct. Vanilla likes warm moist conditions, it also likes shade and needs tree cover. The growing of vanilla has helped protect the forests.

Haydar Alogöz, a Kurd living in Turkish occupied Turkey, has been awarded the Slow Food Award for the re-introduction of native apricot trees on the Igdir Plain.

In the rainforests of Brazil, the Kraho, an indigenous tribe, have been awarded the Slow Food Award for their role in the reintroduction of native maize. During a period of westernisation in the 1970s, they lost their dignity and nearly all their indigenous plants. Now both are being restored. Researching their roots, they happened upon a Kraho axe, with its characteristic half-moon shape, in a museum. They requested and got its return and it has now become their symbol. They also rediscovered in a seed bank a strain of maize that has religious and symbolic importance for the tribe. They were allowed only a handful of seeds, five for each of 16 Kraho villages. From these seeds, they have slowly, slowly been able to restore the maize.

In Guinea, Boubacar Camara and Mamadou Bailo Diallo have been awarded the Slow Food Award for their work in protecting the sounagala, an important forest tree. Male trees are highly prized for their timber and are extensively logged. The seeds of the tree can be used to make a local drink, sintin. Local people have been encouraged to make the drink which is a valuable source of revenue when sold on local markets. This has given the local people a powerful incentive to protect not only the sounagala trees, but also the forests. Following processing, the seeds of the sounagala are scattered in the forest, encouraging regeneration.

The Slow Food Award, is not the only activity of the Slow Food movement. They maintain a directory, known as the Ark, of endangered foods, organise convivium where foods are discussed and if necessary action taken to either protect them or bring to a wider audience, provide practical help and advice, an annual convention or Salone, where foods from around the world are available to savour, and of late an education programme starting with school children and ending with the Master of Taste.

In the French Pyrenees, sheep farmers and the local community see a connection between agriculture, landscape, tourism and food. Local people fully participate in how public money is spent. Public money is being spent to establish a local abattoir, as the people see its importance to the locality. Part funded by public funds, part funded by local farmers. A delegation of sheep farmers from Cumbria (northwest England), who expected to see abuse of EU funding but could find none, were surprised at the degree of cooperation and support from the local community.

In Nicolas Tavern in Cyprus, in the ski resorts in the French Pyrenees, you have a choice, you can eat fresh local lamb, not tired lamb flown half way around the world from New Zealand.

We don't have to eat in fast-food restaurants or shop in superstores. We have choice, and should exercise that choice.

Before the First World War, large houses had a vegetable garden, the head gardener was master of all he surveyed.

Lawrence D Hills:

The 1914-1918 War brought an end to vegetable gardening in the grand manner, when all the Heritage varieties, together with the hundreds now lost, were grown in the great walled vegetable gardens. Head gardeners of this period commanded as many men as sailing ship captains. They organised everything from orchid and pineapple houses to the pony-powered mowing of mighty lawns. Their vegetables had to feed not only the family and staff, in residence and at the Town House and the Shooting Lodge, but also great house parties when guests brought grooms, valets and ladies' maids to stately homes in all their glory, blazing with gas light far into the silent and unpolluted night.

Whereas we do not wish to reintroduce the social inequities of pre-WWI, which once again seem to on the rise, we would do well to reproduce how the food was grown.

farmers market at Farnham We can all attempt to be self-sufficient on a smaller scale, on a larger scale we can supply local shops and farmers markets.

In Farnham in Surrey, a greengrocer sources wherever possible fruit and vegetables from local growers. The same is true in Yeovil in Somerset, where the local butcher not only sources from local farms, he has a board proclaiming where his meat has come from.

Farmers markets have sprung up all over England from nothing in the mid-1990s to become a multi-million pound business and a lifeline to growers and farmers.

family greengrocer in Farnham On a farmers market in Guildford (first Tuesday of September), I got some plums. These were delicious, like nothing I get from supermarkets or even off local market stalls. From the same stall and a nearby stall I got three varieties of apples, Katy, Discovery and the name of the other slips my mind. The second stall mainly sells apple juice. On yet another stall, I got some tomatoes, Golden Cherry, that were delicious. The same stall, an organic grower from the Isle of Wight, also had Golden Midi-Plum, Classic, Santa mini-Plum, and some very tasty red cherry tomatoes. What was also interesting was a young boy at the close of day asking if he could try the various varieties of tomatoes, commenting how good they were and his mother buying a bagful. Not a sight one sees in the local supermarket. I also got a very tasty cucumber from the tomato stall and off yet another stall, what I knew would be very tasty, free-range tomato and basil pork sausages from Hunts Hill Farm. From the same stall as I had got the excellent plums, I also got a small punnet of strawberries that were definately not Everest, the disgusting variety on sale in local supermarkets. When I mentioned Everest to the stallholder, he was horrified I should even contemplate he would wish to grow Everest!

There were over fifty stalls that day I was told, fifty-eight expected next month (first Tuesday in October). There used to be a very good organic vegetable stall, Organicks, but Nick is now concentrating on Hampshire, and an excellent cheese stall that I have not seen for some months.

Guildford farmers market is held once a month, the first Tuesday of the month. There are plans afoot to hold it fortnightly.

Seedy Sunday at Ambient Picnic in Guildford We, as well as supporting these local growers, should be insisting that they in turn grow traditional varieties using traditional methods.

Seed swaps are one of our most powerful weapons. Think of it as guerrilla gardening. Direct action down on the allotment.

Set up a stall at the village fete or at your local green day or follow the example of Seedy Sunday at the Ambient Picnic in Guildford.

When is food organic?

Organic was sustainable agriculture. Is food organic when it is shrink-wrapped in plastic and airfreighted to the UK? Is food organic when it is monoculture intensive agriculture? Is food organic when it uses F1 hybrid seeds, grows in heated greenhouses?

Intensive organic monoculture agriculture is little different from petrochemical intensive agriculture. Instead of petrochemical inputs we have as inputs waste products of the food industry, blood-meal, bone-meal, feathers, all heated to destroy pathogens, imported Third World biomass, guano, castor-oil meal, coco fibre.

Organic and sustainable were once synonymous, interchangeable, but no longer it seems.

Association Kokopelli, was established to safeguard endangered seed varieties. They now have tens of thousands of varieties. They seek your help to adopt a vegetable. Since its foundation, Association Kokopelli has seen the need for food security and the development of sustainable organic agriculture in the Third World. To that end, Association Kokopelli has not only donated seeds, it has also been at the forefront establishing seed workshops and seed networks in Third World countries.

Across southeast Asia there is a shortage of seeds. A hundred years ago there was tens of thousands of varieties of seeds, now all that is available is sourced from multinational seeds companies. Working with Association Kokopelli, Annadana, based in Auroville, is trying to remedy this situation. They are encouraging a network of organic gardens using traditional seed varieties. The growers are encouraged to save a portion of their seeds for redistribution to help spread the network.

How you save your seeds depends upon their intended purpose. If you are saving them for yourself, to resow the next season, it does not matter too much how you do it. We used to save runner beans from one season to the next by simply collecting what had been left and gone to seed. If you are saving to retain the variety for seed swaps you have to be a little bit more persnickety to eliminate cross-contamination – stagger the growing season or have sufficient separation between plots.

If several people are involved it becomes a lot easier. If you are growing one variety of tomatoes, your mates can grow a different variety and so on. Five people, and you have five varieties. It helps that many seeds keep for several years, as different varieties can be grown in the intervening years, adding yet more varieties.

And remember, seed swaps are still legal.

Something you may notice, is a new variety being thrown up. If so, carefully breed it on, by selecting for its characteristics. This used to be quite a rare occurrence, but anecdotal evidence suggests it is happening more often. Nature reacting to a rapidly changing world?

Two bean selections in the Salt Spring Seeds' catalogue, Child's Delight and Mansell's Magic, were the result of selecting out throwforwards.

You can even create your own varieties. Cross-fertilise your selected varieties. Sow the seeds with the selected desired characteristics, pick out the desired characteristics, sow the seeds again. After a few seasons you will find the seeds grow true to type without any further special selection.

If you are going to distribute seeds, then there are a few publication that are worth having: Henry Doubleday Research Association Heritage Seed Catalogue, Save Our Seeds Save Ourselves by Dan Jason (Salt Spring Seeds) and The Seeds of Kokopelli by Dominique Guillet (Association Kokopelli).

If you are half serious about saving and distributing seeds, then The Seeds of Kokopelli is a must have.

If a valuable Old Master is squirreled away by a private collector, we can view a reproduction. If an exquisite composition is no longer performed, we may if we are lucky find it on CD and unless we are very unlucky the score will be somewhere waiting for someone to bring it back to life. If we allow our traditional seed varieties to become extinct they are lost forever.

Something we can all do is adopt a variety. We then have seeds to distribute through Seedy Sunday or Association Kokopelli.

As Association Kokopelli say, the best way to fight the multinationals is to bypass them!

The development of the family garden, and seed autonomy, is one of the fundamental prerequisites of the revolution to come: the best way to fight the multinationals is to bypass them!

Happy guerrilla gardening!


worth listening to

Veg Talk, BBC Radio 4

The Food Programme, BBC Radio 4

reference and further reading

Alexandra Abrahams, Adopt a Veg, The Ecologist, October 2003

Christine Ahn, Shafted: Free Trade and America's Working Poor, Food First Book, 2003

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

Jose Bove and Francois Dufour, The World is Not for Sale: Farmers Against Junk Food, Verso, 2001

Dan Box, Farmers Markets, The Ecologist, June 2003

Paul Brown, Mexico's vital gene reservoir polluted by modified maize, The Guardian, 19 April 2002

Kevin Bundell, Forgotten Farmers: Small Farmers, Trade and Sustainable Agriculture, Christian Aid, June 2002

Charles Choi, Monsanto wheat patent disputed, The Scientist, 5 February 2004

Charles Clover, 'Worst Ever' GM Crop Invasion, Daily Telegraph, 19 April 2002

Ronnie Cummins, Exposing Biotech's Big Lies, BioDemocracy News, May 2002

Hilary Davies, Cheese Smuggling, The Ecologist, June 2003

Brian Donahue, Reclaiming the Commons: Community Farms and Forests in a New England Town, Yale University Press, 1999

Food Programme, BBC Radio 4, 15/16 August 2004 {Cumbrian sheep farmers report on sheep farmers in the French Pyrenees}

Edward Goldsmith, Percy Schmeiser: The Man Who Took on Monsanto, The Ecologist, May 2004

Susan George, How the Other Half Dies

Susan George & Nigel Paige, Food for Beginners, Writers and Readers, 1982

Greenpeace and Indian farmers raise objection against patent on Indian wheat, Greenpeace press release, 27 January 2004

Dominique Guillet, The Seeds of Kokopelli, Association Kokopelli

Brian Halweil, Home Grown, Worldwatch Institute, 2002

Colin Hines, Caroline Lucas and Vandana Shiva, Local Food, Global Solution, The Ecologist, June 2002

How Green are Our Apples?, Safe Alliance, 1999

Solomon Hughes, McLabour Exposed, The Ecologist, March 2004

Interview: Carlo Petrini, The Ecologist, April 2004

Dan Jason, Save Our Seeds Save Ourselves: Means and Methods of Embracing Our Seed Heritage, Salt Spring Seeds, date unknown

Brian John, Why GM maize should not be grown in the UK, The Ecologist, April 2004

Andy Jones, Eating Oil: Food Supply in a Changing Climate, SUSTAIN,2001

Andrew Kimbrell (ed), Fatal Harvest: The Tragedy of Industrial Agriculture, Island Press, 2002

Corby Kummer, The Pleasures of Slow Food, Chronicle Books, 2002

Corby Kummer, The Pleasures of Slow Food, The Ecologist, April 2004

Felicity Lawrence, Not on the Label, Penguin, 2004

Mark Lynas, 'If they plant them, we'll pull them up', The Ecologist, April 2004

Caroline Lucas, Stopping the great food swap: Relocalising Europe's food supply, The Greens/European Free Alliance, European Parliament, March 2001

Caroline Lucas, Michael Hart and Colin Hines, Look to the Local: A Better Agriculture is Possible!, 2002

Richard Mabey, Common Ground, Arrow Books, 1981

John Madeley, Hungry for Trade: How the Poor Pay for Free Trade, Zed Books, 2000

John Madeley, A People's World: Alternatives to Economic Globalisation, Zed Books, 2003

Erik Millstone and Tim Lang, The Atlas of Food: Who Eats what, where and why, Earthscan, 2003

Monskanko!, SchNEWS, issue 455, 28 May 2004

Frances Moore Lappé, Diet for a Small Planet:, Ballantine Books, 1971, 1975

Frances Moore Lappé & Joseph Collins, Food First: A new action plan to break the famine trap, Abacus, 1979

Frances Moore Lappé, Joseph Collins and Peter Rosset, World Hunger: 12 Myths (2nd Ed), Food First Books, 1998

Frances Moore Lappé & Anna Lappé, Hope's Edge: The Next Diet for a Small Planet, Tarcher Putnam

Marc Lappé & Britt Bailey, Against the Grain: Biotechnology and the Corporate Takeover of Your Food, Common Courage Press, 1998

Marion Nestle, Food Politics: How the Food Industry Influences Diet and Health, U-Cal Press, 2002

Marion Nestle, Safe Food, University of California Press, 2003

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Think global ... Eat local, The Ecologist, September 2002

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Todd Merrifield & Steven Gorelick, Bringing the Food Economy Home: The social, ecological and economic benefits of local food, International Society for Ecology and Culture, October 2000

Helena Norberg-Hodge, Todd Merrifield & Steven Gorelick, Bringing the Food Economy Home: Local Alternatives to Global Agribusiness, Zed Books, 2002

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, Globalisation - the role of corporations, September 2000

Keith Parkins, Localisation: A Move Away From Globalisation, November 2000

Keith Parkins, North American Free Trade Agreement, September 2003

Keith Parkins, Ambient Green Picnic – August 2004, Indymedia UK, 3 August 2004

Keith Parkins, Sowing Seeds of Dissent, Indymedia UK, 6 September 2004

Pauline Pears (ed), HDRA Encyclopedia of Organic Gardening, Dorling Kindersley, 2001

Carlo Petrini, Slow Food, Columbia University Press, 2004

Michael Pollan, A flood of US corn rips at the heart of Mexico, The Ecologist, June 2004

The Poor Wars, BBC World Service, 27 August 2004

Charlie Pye-Smith and Chris Rose, Crisis and Conservation: Conflict in the British Countryside, Penguin, 1984

Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, Penguin/Allen Lane, 2001

Eric Schlosser, Fast Food Nation, The Ecologist, April 2004

John Seymour, The New Complete Book of Self-Sufficiency, Dorling Kindersley, 2003

Marion Shoard, The Theft of the Countryside, Temple Smith, 1980

Jeffrey M Smith, Seeds of Deception, Yes! Books, 2003

Survey of Apples and Pears in UK Retailers, FoE, November 2001

Augustin Thyssen, Pigtales, The Ecologist, June 2002

Brian Tokar (ed), Gene Traders: biotechnology, world trade, and the globalisation of hunger, Toward Freedom, 2004

Colin Tudge, So Shall We Reap, Penguin, 2003

Kathryn Tulip and Lucy Michaels, A Rough Guide to the UK Farming Crisis, Corporate Watch, May 2004

John Vidal, McLibel: Burger Culture on Trial, The New Press

Bill Vorley, Food Inc, UK Food Group/IIED, 2004

Gaia index ~ genetic engineering ~ biopiracy ~ localisation ~ direct action
(c) Keith Parkins 2004 -- September 2004 rev 2