One Seed at a Time: Saving, Sharing and SelectingJanuary 9, 2012
Following a short sabbatical in the US, Rainforest Alliance trainer and auditor Noah Jackson is preparing to return to his work with farmers around the globe. Here, he talks about the importance of saving, sharing and selecting the right seeds.
In North America and Europe, this is the time of year when bright seed catalogs begin to arrive in the mailbox. Full-page spreads highlighting green gardens and colorful harvest baskets lighten up the farm workshop while rain, mud or snow pile up outside. For any farmer, these catalogs are eye candy.
At my desk, I’m rifling through papers on seeds available to farmers. In addition to seed catalogs, these papers include literature from extension services and nongovernmental organizations in Ghana, Madagascar, Vietnam, Thailand and China — all places where the Rainforest Alliance works and is building relationships with farmers.
In both sets of documents, there are a high number of seeds that offer improved yields, resistance to diseases and pests, and offer long term storage. I pause at this. Many of the seeds are hybrid seeds.
The farmers that we visit often grow crops to sell (cash crops) and crops to consume (subsistence crops). The crops that feed families vary by location. In Ghana, it’s mainly maize (or corn), cassava and cow peas. In Madagascar and Vietnam, it’s rice.
As I look through these documents and think about the need to extend and strengthen food crop production, I’m struck by the realization that although these seeds may be high-yielding, they’re not necessarily a panacea for small holder family farms.
Most of the farmers that work with the Rainforest Alliance are charismatic, well-organized, and give freely of time and resources. Many of these farmers are seed collectors and traders. In places such as Ghana and Côte d’Ivoire, it is common for farmers to have their own work-trade programs, exchanging labor for maize seeds that can be grown out on small family farms.
Hybrid seeds are crossed between two “parent” seeds. This allows for traits like disease resistance and, sometimes, attributes like better yields. The disadvantage is that these seeds, if saved, cross pollinate with other neighboring crops. The resulting seeds don’t have the same traits.
Many of the farmers we work with realize this. However, I’m still amazed by the number of our farmers who purchase these seeds to grow to sell as market crops. When farmers speak with me about this, I explain that we believe in minimizing and monitoring risk for our farmers. In addition to purchasing seeds, especially when leading farmer training sessions, we talk about maximizing food security by allowing enough food garden space for growing, sharing and saving local varieties of seeds.
One consultant friend takes only gifts of seeds; another farmer friend keeps mason jars full of seeds in his basement, his homage to protecting our global seed stock. During my upcoming travel, I plan to share seeds from around the world with the farmers I meet.