From farming

Saving your own seed

I have been pondering this recently, as I just got an allotment (more on this later). How did we cope before seed companies?

40 years ago most people would be saving the seeds of their favourite crops to reap the successes in subsequent years.

I came across this text on the Real Seeds site today, which sums up my thinking better than I could put it ;)

Why Save Your Own Seed?

Until recently, every gardener in the world saved their own seed. And every gardener was, therefore, a plant breeder. They simply saved the seed of the plants that did best for them, and which they liked most. Although simple, this was efficient.

Each gardener was maintaining a slightly different strain of each vegetable, and this made for a huge living genebank that was very resilient against disease or climate change. If things changed so that your cabbages didn’t do well, someone down the road had a slightly different one that would cope.
This has worked very well for the past 11,000 years. That includes the Bronze Age, the building of the Pyramids, the rise and fall of all the major empires. Every year, without even thinking about it, millions of people added to the achievements of their ancestors to maintain and improve the previous years’ varieties. Because their seed was real, open-pollinated seed, every seed was a bit different, so it was widely adapted, but also adaptable – it could cope with all sorts of change.

Now, we have thrown this all away. In the past 40 years, almost all these adaptable local strains have been lost. Gardeners have forgotten how to save their own seed. They are sold hybrids, where every seed is identical, in every packet, year after year – no adaptability for different soils, or for changes in climate over time.

And because these hybrid seeds are all the same in every field in every country, people have to bludgeon the environment into some sort of ‘standard’ growing medium with fertilisers and chemicals, to grow their standardised seeds. Should the climate change, or the supply of cheap oil (to make all these chemicals) dry up, then these hybrids will do badly, and there will be no real seeds left to breed from.

Profits for the seed companies now, but disaster in the future . . . real farming is a project that has been ongoing for millennia, but now in the height of our tiny period of cheap oil, we think we know better and have turned it into just another industrial process. Peoples food should represent stored sunlight and water, but 90% of its calories come from oil these days – for the ploughing, spraying, fertiliser, transport. When the oil runs out, who will have the real seeds that can grow without it?
Seed-saving is easy. You’ll get better seed, better food, and help preserve 11,000 years of work for the future! Read more

Plan Bee

Plan Bee logo

Bees pollinate a third of the food we eat. They are essential for farming and if we wanted to do the pollinating work ourselves – it would take a workforce of 30 million. And that’s just for food – bees also pollinate most wildflowers.

In the United States over a million hives have been lost since 2006 due to Colony Collapse Disorder – a very mysterious condition. Apparently, we don’t have it in the UK yet – but even so, 2008 was the worst year for bees in the UK – with up to 30% of hives not surviving the winter.

I can’t begin to imagine a world without bees. Or some of this stuff:

Alfalfa, Allspice, Almonds, Apples, Artichoke, Asparagus, Avocado, Blackberries, Blueberries, Broccoli, Brussel sprouts, Cabbage, Cacao, Cantaloupe, Caraway, Cardamom, Carrots, Cashew, Cauliflower, Celeriac, Celery, Cherries, Chicory, Chives, Cinnamon, Citrus, Coriander, Cranberries, Cucumbers, Currants, Dill, Fennel, Garlic, Gooseberries, Kale, Leek, Macadamia, Mango, Mustard, Nutmeg, Onion, Parsley, Parsnip, Passion fruit, Peaches, Pears, Plum, Pumpkin, Radish, Raspberries, Squash, Sunflower, Tangerine, Tea, and Watermelon to name a few. Not forgetting honey and beeswax of course.

There are things we can do – the Co-op has taken the initiative and set up a campaign called Plan Bee, along with a website that provides lots more information, and a couple of videos if you prefer to watch than read. (hopefully they will enable embedding at some point)

I applaud what they are doing, and attempting to do, and strongly encourage everyone to see what they can do to give the bees a hand whenever I can, so I thought I would take this opportunity too :)

Through Plan Bee:
1. The Co-operative Food will temporarily prohibit the use of neonicotinoid-based pesticides on own-brand fresh produce. These are Acetamiprid, Clothianidin, Dinotefuran, Fipronil, Imidacloprid, Nitenpyram, Thiacloprid and Thiamethoxam. To find out about The
Co-operative’s market-leading policy on pesticides, please see our latest Sustainability Report (p.95).

2. £150,000 will be made available to support research into the demise of the honeybee, with a particular focus on UK farming, pesticides and gene-diversity. This is the largest ever private contribution to bee research in the UK.

3. Over three years The Co-operative Farms will trial a new wildflower seed mix that will be planted alongside crops on our farms across the UK.

4. The Co-operative Farms will invite beekeepers to establish hives on all our farms in the UK.

5. The Co-operative will engage our three-million members in a campaign to protect and nurture the bee population in the UK, with advice and tips featuring on our website.

6. Members were invited to attend one of 40 screenings of a special preview from a forthcoming film that addresses the decline of the worldwide bee population and the significance of the bee in food production. In addition, The Co-operative has also commissioned a new bespoke documentary on the decline of the bee population in the UK.

7. The Co-operative will partner with RSPB’s ‘Homes for Wildlife’ team and empower members to garden in ways that are honeybee-friendly.

8. An initial 20,000 packets of wildflower seed mix will be distributed to members free of charge at membership events throughout the UK.

9. Bee boxes are being sourced and made available to The Co-operative members at discounted prices. Find out how to get hold of a discounted bee box.

10. The Co-operative will support our members and colleagues to find out more about amateur beekeeping and will encourage links between local beekeepers and members. Find details of your nearest beekeeping association.

Also – there is a documentary worth watching called “Who Killed the Honey Bee” showing on BBC4 starting on Thu 23 Apr 2009 at 21:00, with repeat showings. It will also be available on iPlayer.

Fossil fools

I am sure I am not the only one who found last nights episode of Natural World – A Farm for the Future incredibly important and somewhat frightening.

If you didn’t see it – do have a look – it is available on iPlayer (for those in the UK at least) until 7:49pm Tuesday 17th March 2009.

You may recall the name Rebecca Hoskins? She was the wildlife documentary maker (one of only three female wildlife documentary film makers in the UK!) who went to Hawaii and was moved to tears by the impact our carrier bags are having on the marine environment. She came back and became the ‘bag lady of Modbury‘.

In May 2007 she convinced all the 1,500 residences and traders of her home town of Modbury to stop using plastic bags in favour of more sustainable long lasting alternatives. This made Modbury the first town in the Europe to become plastic bag free.

Here’s the synopsis from the BBC:

“Wildlife film maker Rebecca Hosking investigates how to transform her family’s farm in Devon into a low energy farm for the future, and discovers that nature holds the key.

With her father close to retirement, Rebecca returns to her family’s wildlife-friendly farm in Devon, to become the next generation to farm the land. But last year’s high fuel prices were a wake-up call for Rebecca. Realising that all food production in the UK is completely dependent on abundant cheap fossil fuel, particularly oil, she sets out to discover just how secure this oil supply is.

Alarmed by the answers, she explores ways of farming without using fossil fuel. With the help of pioneering farmers and growers, Rebecca learns that it is actually nature that holds the key to farming in a low-energy future.”

Are we really going to bury our heads in the (oil) sands right up till the day where we are 9 meals from anarchy? I really hope not.

There is still a chance of turning it around, but we won’t find the answer at Tesco – or even at Waitrose!

Be very prepared for change. It’s just a question of whether we can make the steps to transition before it is too painful.