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What's Growin On: the History and Politics of Seed Saving

“We do not own seeds, we borrow them from our children” 
Rowen White

The story of seeds is also the story of us. Over millennia, humans and seeds have co-evolved together, as people throughout history and across cultures have practiced the act of selecting and saving seeds from the plants around them. As indigenous seedkeeper Rowen White has described, both plants and people have each given up a bit of our wildness, becoming domesticated through our reliance on each other for both sustenance and care. Here in the Americas, for example, indigenous peoples co-created corn through the selective breeding of wild grasses over multiple generations. 

This process of saving and selecting seeds over time is how many of the food plants we’re familiar with today came to be. Foodways in the US have also been deeply impacted by the resilience and determination of kidnapped Africans who braided seeds into their hair before crossing the Middle Passage (read more in The Cooking Gene and Farming While Black: Soul Fire Farm's Practical Guide to Liberation on the Land). And everyday farmers, gardeners, grandmothers, cooks, and botanists carried on the legacy season after season.

In the mid 1800s the story of seeds takes a dramatic turn, as a series of government based programs, policies, offices and associations were formed, discouraging everyday folks from saving their own seeds. These practices culminated in 1980, when the US Supreme Court determined that living organisms and their genetic material could be patented, making it illegal to save seeds from patented plants. The commodification and patentability of seeds has resulted in not only a loss of knowledge and cultural practices, but also the loss of countless varieties of plants - studies estimate that number is close to 75%. This kind of loss or lack of diversity results in weakened food systems that are susceptible to collapse. 

However, not all is lost! There is a growing movement to bring seeds back into the commons. In the last 20 years alone, over 450 seed libraries have been established around the world - 3 of them can be found in Denver Public Library branches (with more on the way)! Other efforts to subvert the monopoly of the global seed market include returning seeds to their indigenous stewards through a process known as seed rematriation, farmworker protests across India, La Via Campesina, and the establishment of organizations like Rocky Mountain Seed Alliance and Native Seeds/SEARCH - just to name a few. It’s vital to acknowledge that much of the current trajectory of this story is inextricable from work led by Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color, and people from the Global South.

Each of us can write ourselves back into the story of seeds, which is also the story of our collective future. By saving seeds from healthy plants in our gardens, we can be active participants in creating a hyper-localized food system with plants that are well adapted to our particular growing conditions. We can grow health, community, culture, and diversity from our very own backyards, urban farms, and community garden plots - it all starts with a single seed.

If you’d like to learn more about how to save seeds yourself, countless resources exist. Get curious, explore! 

Join us at our upcoming Seed Festival where we’ll be swapping and cleaning seeds, learning about vermicompost and bees, and more! 

~written by Amelia Eckles

Written by heidi.e on September 22, 2021

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