Friday, August 20, 2010

Dialogue around Seed Banks...

Image via Permapoesis

From Civil Eats:
"As droughts threaten the wheat harvest in Russia, resulting in a ban on exports there this year that is driving up prices abroad, something entirely different now threatens one of the world’s most extensive collection of fruits and berries at the Pavlovsk Experimental Station, a seed bank 19 miles southeast of St. Petersburg: development."

Yesterday I posted on an story I'd found firstly at Civil Eats (click to read more) last week and then again at Permapoesis yesterday.

In May I posted on an outstanding book I'd found by Gary Paul Nabhan "Where our food comes from" which connects to yesterdays post because both refer to the work of Nikolai Vavilov:

Civil eats cont. :

"Perhaps one of the oldest in the world, the seed bank was started 84 years ago by Nikolai Vavilov, who died of starvation in one of Joseph Stalin’s labor camps in 1943. His seed bank was famously guarded by 12 scientists who eventually starved to death during the 900-day Siege of Leningrad, despite the fact that they were surrounded by edible seeds.

a court will decide on Wednesday if the “priceless” collection of 4,000 varieties from all over the world–which includes 1,000 types of strawberries, and 100 varieties each of raspberries, gooseberries and cherries–will be handed over to the Russian Housing Development Foundation to be cleared for housing.

Unlike the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway, which maintains an immense dormant seed collection, Pavlovsk Experimental Station is an field seed bank, which means that all of the seeds must be regularly planted and saved. Currently, tens of thousands of plants are in the ground, and scientists argue that it would take years to move without the risk of losing varieties.

The erratic weather in Russia, as well as in much of the rest of the world, should be a wake up call reminding us why seed banks are so important: they give scientists the genetic material with which to develop varieties that can thrive in our planet’s changing climate.

campaign is underway to bring attention to the potential loss. Dr. Cary Fowler, director of The Global Crop Diversity Trust, a Rome, Italy-based organization that has focused in on the seed bank’s plight, had this to say to the BBC:
Norman Looney, president of the International Society for Horticultural Science, based in Leuven, Belgium, agreed the collection was unique. He said that with world food production likely to move north as a result of climate change, “these genetic resources will become even more important”.
Jim Hancock of Michigan State University, one of the world’s leading strawberry breeders, said the collection housed many Russian varieties that were exceptionally hardy and disease-resistant. “It would be a major tragedy if the collection were lost,” he said.

I was very pleased to have artist and blogger Nicola Moss respond to this post with thoughts and questions about Seed banks and Seed-saving rationale and processes.
After a year of dialogue with Jason Halford at the Seed lab at Brisbane Botanic Gardens who works on the 'Seeds for Life' project in conjunction with the Millennium Seedbank Project I am just starting to grasp the ways in which such seed banks can be seen as effective as well as hear opposing views or qualifications on aspects of the work.

Jason recently gave a talk on the subject for almost 2 hours, including question time, at the Open Studio Week I conducted in July at the Gardens. With an intensely engaged audience asking probing questions Jason put forward the idea that it takes a great many different measures at this time ... different responses to different challenges to begin to address the complexity of the situation. Many times in the Seed Lab he has repeated this idea to me.

This input has been slowly digested and helped along with significant reading where possible to become better informed - and the book above on Vavilov which I was unable to read at length still proved highly worthwhile and led to a series of further reading on related topics.

Prompted by Nicola's questions I wrote earlier today;

"I urge you to read about the Russian Seed Bank.

 If you go to the Civil Eats article it makes the point that unlike the Norwegian Seed Vault, MSB etc this Experimental Station 19 kms from the city is a "Field" seed bank - where all the seeds are regularly planted and saved. Currently tens of thousands of seeds are in the ground and scientists have argued it would take years for this to be moved without losing varieties.The reason for planned closure of this critical housing development. It has come to the worlds attention and there is now a global campaign in place to try to avoid the closure.

The fight to maintain our seed heritage is hugely complex because of factors like global warming- the need to have a certain stable climate to ensure species survive and so on. Research is critical to better undertstand this. Botanical Gardens, Zoos etc may have started, in part, as colossal vanities for the housing of colonial exploits. However many have no doubt been transformed into serious research centres focusing on highly critical issues.

I think this story from Russia underlines the vulnerability of maintaining long term projects like this active kind of seed bank you speak of... the whim of a govt or other bodies can irrevocably alter the future of such a venture. The fact it survived 900 days of Nazi occupation of Leningrad back in the early 1940's reminds us of the vulnerability of such programs.

Also having seen first hand the reality of attracting ongoing funding to Qld's Seed bank project with the MSB my question would be where would funds come from to manage the much more complex model of seed saving like this Russian model. What would it take for it to be identified as essential? Its become an intense political emergency in some places to regain the right to save seeds... Transnationals having come in and  upturned centuries of tradition and heritage.... the poorest countries on the planet are dealing with this right now.

The MSB and Norwegian models for seed banking may strike some as highly problematic. What I have been noticing though is seed banks have been cause to grab the publics attnetion ....they seem to be the one thing that has reached broader public consciousness of the critical problem with our planet's seed heritage.

Imagine if people of vision had chanelled their funds away from, say, purchase of a $200 million dollar Picasso painting for example and instead into setting up a foundation for a version of the Russian model! Many appear to direct their wealth to personal vanities and statements that run counter to what would benefit the planet or its population in any way.

Replicating the individual venture of saving seeds in our back yard to national and global models... now that would be something! Thanks for prompting this dailogue Nicola... we need vastly more community dialogue on this!!!"


Nicola Moss said...

Hi Sophie,
Thank you for bringing my attention to the fact of the seed bank being a field seed bank. I hadn't 'read more' as you have gathered. Around the world we see consumption of land occurring for purposes other than traditional food production. Be it mining, housing or other, land formely used for farming is being converted to other uses often considered to be of 'higher value'. But where will our food come from? And what kind of common denominator will we end up with? I can't help but look at the big picture, population growth and social change. What we 'value' today determines in many instances how our environment changes. If everything is judged on a dollar value, perhaps it won't be until real food costs the equivalent of ??? (a mortgage?) or if food shortage became a real threat that social awareness would change to value this most essential living commodity.

My thinking on the seed bank, even though it is a field seed bank, is that it is still vulnerable. That seed collections held in one place could still be at risk as seems to be the case here. I am being idealistic, hoping that such collections could be 're-distributed' out in communities to be grown and saved by many. There are people at the grass roots level doing this, they are perhaps less obvious than the larger seed banks. I will continue to sow, eat, dry and collect seed from my garden for the next year; and treasure all the small, large, beautiful and ugly varieties the natural world has to offer.
Diversity of life, people (scientists) are still 'discovering' new species every week.
You know my thoughts already on this. Plants could survive in some form without animals, but animals cannot not survive without plants.

sophie munns said...

Hi Nicola,
I was so glad you wrote because I realised that my various posts on Seed Heritage vulnerability are too inaccesible....small type - long stories - few comments!!! Not enough underlining!
I do know people visit and take things away to chew on even if they dont comment...I have had conversational feedback on it is not going un-noticed.It is only through dialogue of some kind that any of us know how we are communicating or whom we are reaching....or what others are aware of or how its all connected. Its tremendously important to exchange.

So... after your comment yesterday Nicola I realised how inaffective it is to use small text to put out headlines... The Russian story is currently a MAJOR global story that brings a whole lot of issues to notice. It is rallying voices. It is highlighting how whole countries or Global-based interest groups might need to mobilise for food security.

Unfortunately the solo backyard effort at food sustainability and hope that everyone else will do so is sadly not ensuring a sustainable future....especially on a planet where there are so many 'have nots' and so many 'haves' who dont think to share what they have. I connected Monday night with a recently formed initiative SUSTAIN QLD which brings together a range of individuals and project spokespeople to determine what THE central issues might be in QLD. All were involved in community enriching endeavours - from agriculture, permaculture, academic research, Health sector, Govt and Non-G professionals, business, educational or citizen work and projects. A brilliant cross-section. All are welcome!

What became obvious during this vital 2 hour meeting which focused this week on Schools was no single initiative would fulfil all needs. Setting up a brilliant school canteen in one school with a supportive community does not equate with canteens that have closed in low socio-economic areas due to lack of volunteers. We discussed that in Australia not everyone is privileged, lives in their own home OR with a garden, nor are all kids privileged with parents in their orbit, or with carers able and capable of providing regular healthy meals and what we wish all children to have. Quite a few present have worked/ work at the coal-face with the children who are at risk for all kinds of reasons. Suddenly conversation about middle australia - the haves - is not remotely relevant.

The conversation deepened from...."if we all just got into/access to permaculture gardening" to " do we identify the massive sector who are living in a vacuum for whatever reason....and find ways in our schools and communities to re-animate the possibilities for these people...educate and promote ways to cope...ways to break cycles.

Its a time for "we" measures not "I"....I think you would love to be involved with this group Nicola... more people who care like you do are needed at these forums. I'll post meeting dates for this group when I get more information.

Anonymous said...

I have two comments:

When I lived in Seattle, my friend had a home in a lower income neighborhood. He turned his whole yard into a garden that contained food and medicinal herbs. His was the only garden in the whole neighborhood. He would often say, that he couldn't understand why these people had homes on land and they were wasting this valuable resource to grow grass (which I might add, goes dormant in the summer in that area, due to drought conditions). He felt like they were surrounded by abundance and an opportunity to take control of their lives but, didn't get it.

Next comment: I think you will find this website interesting. It is in northern Iowa and pertains to this post.

Cheers. Mary

sophie munns said...

Hi Mary,
interesting they are based in Iowa... seedsavers. I put a story about that org. in the sidebar a few months ago...if you scroll down to the heading Heritage Seed Saving. There a photo of Russian Dolls and Heirloom tomatoes and I added text from their site about tips for seed-saving for beginners.
Under that is also material from the Australian organisation Seed-Savers who are very well-respected here.
That scenario you describe is replicated all over. There are I think complex reasons for that... as much as it may seem a shame... the fact is all neighbourhoods can do with those members who maybe go against the grain and practice the art of cultivation and sharing no matter what - I have more than once in my time been the "go to" house for the neighbourhood children...the place they could come and learn how to make jam, dig or paint or create something.
Each time I left these neighbourhoods, even if they were not grand, I was sad to say goodbye to the kids because of the rapport... and also their enthusiasm.
There's always the children who are eager!
Much thanks for commenting,

Tantantara said...

Hi Sophie,
While saving the Pavlovsk Station's collection is certainly a worthy cause, there are perhaps more local issues that you should be highlighting:
"Australia's seed banks are tumbling like dominoes."
From: Parlous Times for Seed Banks Spell Trouble for Australian Agriculture. Elizabeth Finkel.
In: Science 24 Sept 2010: 329:5999, p. 1591

At Pavlovsk Research Station, an extension until the end of October is in place, while the situation is scrutinized...


sophie munns said...

Hi Tantantara,

Over the year I have sought contributions from visitors to the blog to add to this dialogue around seeds....with good response from people sharing info via email. So its something of a shame to hear from someone not available for open dialogue or given to declaring one's background interests. The only other anonymous emails to this blog are from viagra suppliers who target posts on seed labs...( to the great amusement of people from the seed-lab) so I'm not terribly keen on anonymous emails here I must say!

I need to point out my capacity to highlight anything via the blog at the moment is greatly restricted by other commitments - hence the suggestion to share information you consider important. Currently my efforts have shifted dramatically into work for the completion of the residency and some critical preparation for the following year. Such is the way with non-funded work!

However there are various public events and forums I will attend this month coming related to the future of agriculture and I will attempt to post on this material. Perhaps you could, or should, submit a complete article for posting to me via email ... you may well have more time than I do at the moment ... so I would be extremely grateful.

The Seed Lab I have been working with at the Gardens is also currently closed due to lack of funding. I was to document the latest seed collection and include that in my final work. This is very disappointing for a host of reasons - personally because the collaborative work has halted and the access to material I was to use may not be possible for the remainder of the residency.

Feel free to email me...

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