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Opinion: Homegrown seed is the kernel of a food revolution

Irish Seed Savers outline how support for organic heritage seed is the key to ensuring long-term food security on our island.

Barry Foley and Jennifer McConnell

AT THE HEIGHT of the Covid crisis panic buying was at the fore, with supermarket shelves cleared of their stock. Fruit and veg suppliers could not supply stock quick enough as people stockpiled out of fear that there would be no food for tomorrow.

When buying food, how many give second thought to its origins? Not just the food crop but the seed from which it originates?

While the Global Food Security Index cites Ireland as the second most food secure country in the world,  the reality is very different. This index focuses on affordability, availability and quality and safety, but fails to consider domestic production for domestic consumption.

  • Read more here on how you can support a major Noteworthy project delving into how we can create ethical, local, sustainable food networks.

Ireland may have some of the most fertile land in Europe, the majority of our farming practices are for beef and dairy. As a nation, we actually import more fruit and vegetables than we produce and export.

In 2018, we exported €574 million worth of fruit and veg compared to the €1.3 billion that we spent on imports. One-third of this is coming from the UK, including potatoes, onions and cabbage.

Alongside our reliance on food imports, the seed supply chain that supplies many small-scale organic producers in Ireland is also under strain with 95% of vegetable seed imported and either grown or transported through Europe.

To truly become food secure we must first become seed secure as without seed there won’t be any food for human and animal consumption. The impact of the coronavirus crisis put this problem into the spotlight.

Irish Seed Savers A section of Irish Seed Savers 20-acre farm in Clare Source: Irish Seed Savers

Spotlight on seeds

The level of seed orders during the Covid-19 lockdown was unprecedented and has been so high that seed producers across Ireland and the UK have had to limit their online offering to keep up with demand.

At Irish Seed Savers, our online orders increased by 225% in March alone. During this time, two things became abundantly clear to us. One, there was a fear that seeds would no longer be accessible, and two, there is a general lack of understanding that seeds are not readily available and must be first grown..

Worldwide, large seed companies that have vast resources at their disposal have created a reliance on commercially farmed or hybrid seeds that are often farmed in countries with different climate to ours, such as Europe, North Africa or even China where it is much cheaper to mass produce.

In a lot of countries such as Ireland it’s not  legally required to state the ‘country of origin’ on the seed packets, so even when you think you are buying seeds from a reputable company, it is often not clear from where the seeds were produced.

Irish Seed Savers3 Irish Seed Savers staff educating the public on how to save seeds Source: Irish Seed Savers

Producing seed and protecting nature

At Irish Seed Savers, we promote organic practices (not industrial), open pollinated (not commercial), and rare Irish heritage varieties (not cross breed hybrids) that are grown in Ireland. All of this results in us protecting Ireland’s biodiversity whilst producing certified organic seed that’s grown and suited to our Irish climate.

Seed is the most regulated food item in the world and new European organic regulations from 2021 look set to strengthen seed production and offer greater opportunities to reduce reliance on derogations for non-organic seed use by commercial growers.

Still, more needs to be done to implement country of origin labelling on seed packets so that growers are aware of the seed origin and support local seed and food production.

It is also important for us as a nation to find opportunities to strengthen local seed production through seed trials, research, training and recognition for seed sovereignty.

The time to bring seed to the fore of conversation and consideration in the food cycle is now. So how can you get involved?

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First, consider from where you source your seeds:

  • Are they grown in Ireland or merely Irish supplied (i.e. imported)?
  • Are they F1 Hybrid or Open Pollinated? Open Pollinated are true to the parent type and can be saved to create your own collection
  • Are they organic? Organically grown food ensures that you are not ingesting chemicals from pesticide use and is healthier both for humans, animals, insects and the wider biodiversity

Next, grow and share seeds amongst your friends and family. This gives a great opportunity to try something new and keep seed secure within local communities, thereby avoiding panic should any disaster appear in the future which may affect our food supply.

Help us protect our food source, the seed, for now and future generations. When you grow your own food from Irish grown seed you are helping to close the cycle to keep food security safe and protect food and seed sovereignty for the future.

A food revolution starts with a seed.

Barry Foley joined Irish Seed Savers in 2014, working on Marketing and Sales. Jennifer McConnell is a long-standing supporter of Irish Seed Savers and became General Manager in 2017. Since 1991, Irish Seed Savers has researched and protected, as well as educating the public about, rare, heritage and adapted open pollinated food crop seeds and fruit trees at its 20-acre farm in Clare.

REAPING THE HARVEST Investigation 

Do you want to know more about the ins and outs of the horticultural sector?

The Noteworthy team wants to do an in-depth investigation to examine labour conditions in the sector and what can be done to ensure food security for our island as well as create local, sustainable supply chains that benefits the community, farmers and labourers. 

Here’s how to help support this proposal>

About the author:

Barry Foley and Jennifer McConnell

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