Seeds of Hope in Uncertain Times

Increased demand for seeds during Covid-19 shows the need for stronger, decentralized seed systems in Latin America and the United States.

October 9, 2020

Diverse maize varieties from the Caribbean Region of Colombia (Valeria García López).

Seeds are the essential input of our food system, yet we know little about how local seed systems are adjusting to the Covid-19 pandemic. Media coverage tends to ignore seed production, and to route our attention through the lens of our own personal consumption. However, seed producers’ ability to adapt to this crisis has important consequences for our agrobiodiversity, food security, and food sovereignty.

The Covid-19 pandemic has forced local seed systems across Latin America to adopt a range of diverse strategies to confront this new reality. These challenges are shared by small seed producers in the U.S., who serve as primary sources of access to quality, organic seeds for the Latinx community in the U.S. For this reason, it is informative to analyze seed systems in Latin America and the U.S. in an integrated manner. We also aim to draw attention to the diversity of initiatives available for Latinx communities interested in becoming more involved with seeds.

We approach these issues as scholar-activists working in the fields of agroecology and political science. We are active in civil society groups in Latin America and the U.S., and work in defense of seeds and for the promotion of alternative, ecologically friendly seed systems.

Responding to Increased Demand

We spoke with community groups, seed libraries, seed companies, urban farmers, and educators to understand how seed production has changed during the pandemic. For most of these organizations, the central challenge has been how to cope with the unexpected increase in demand. Many are simply not structured in a way that allows for the rapid and immediate scaling-up of operations. This has created new stresses on internal operations. For example, Semillas Colibri (Colibri Seeds), a seed bank and garden-school in Guadalajara, Mexico, said:

“During this time, our orders have increased by 80 percent compared to other years, in both the amount of seed requested as well as demand for training to build gardens, including family gardens, community gardens, and commercial gardens. We have also increased our seed donations. The amount that we have traditionally donated each year we are now donating each week.”

A similar phenomenon is taking place with small seed companies, many of them family-owned farms with limited resources. In this context, many producers have been working to meet demand by developing new policies to work safely, and by working extra hours to meet the increases in orders. Even with these changes, most producers still fell behind at least one to two weeks. Here is an account from High Mowing Organic Seeds in Wolcott, Vermont:

“Operationally, we had an overnight increase in orders. To manage inventory and send requests on time was a challenge. We came up with expanding space for work equipment, and implemented two shifts in order to limit the amount of people present. We were working seven days a week.”

A seed guardian displays a treasured variety of native maize from the Caribbean Region of Colombia (Valeria García López).

Organizations have been working extra hours to meet high demand for seeds. Many producers are already looking toward next year and believe it may be even more difficult because of this year’s scarcity. Eloheh Farm and Seeds in Yamhill, Oregon shares:

“More of our seed stock is becoming depleted which means we will need to grow many more items out right away. We currently don't have the space nor the personnel to accomplish this. Meaning, next year we will be in short supply.”

Other groups share this concern, particularly community organizations that depend on excess seed for their activities. If those stocks run out, what will happen with community seed banks, community gardens, and other local initiatives?

Some groups, however, noted that this “excess” in demand may in fact be quite positive, as it may reflect a broad change in the interests and consciousness of consumers for growing their own food. Somos Semilla (We Are Seed), a community seed library from San Miguel de Allende, Mexico reflected:

“We do believe there is a restoration of consciousness around food issues, especially with respect to the recognition of the importance of seeds. We wish to highlight the importance of not only using seeds to start a garden and to eat vegetables, but also the necessity of saving your own seed and returning a part of this to the seed library. There is still a lot of work left in order to truly value this process in its entirety.”

Many seed producers identify consumers as the source of increases in demand, including many who have turned to gardening for the very first time. In many cases, consumers are purchasing seeds as a direct response to the pandemic, and with a limited knowledge of the growing process. One worry, however, is that this sudden interest in gardening, if hurried, may produce poor results, and risk turning new gardeners away. As voiced by a representative of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, in Mineral, Virginia:

“More inexperienced gardeners are buying seeds. They are buying seeds very late for the crop type and the region where they live. I think most of our newest customers are going to grow gardens this year, not have tremendous success, and are unlikely to be gardening five years from now.”

Adaptation to Crisis

Seed producers have begun to adjust their activities and operations in response to the current crisis. Many are viewing this moment as an opportunity to restructure, and to pursue new projects based on updated expectations of the future of seed production. A group of five Indigenous communities in the Sacred Valley of Cusco, Peru, known as El Parque de la Papa (the Potato Park), share their experience:

“Our goal at the Park is to manage landscapes at scale. In this period of uncertainty, we are trying to relocate our community greenhouses (for plant breeding) to harvest seed potatoes with agroecological qualities (the Park has over 1,300 types of potatoes). We are also working with local Park technicians on proposals to create community seed businesses, particularly now that tourism related incomes have been lost.”

A family in Peru's Potato Park works together to prepare the soil for planting potatoes (David Greenwood-Sánchez).

Communities have also turned to trueque, or exchange, as a means of promoting access to seeds. Typically, people will gather within a seed fair, market, or community space to exchange items, particularly crops, directly for other items without the use of money. As one urban farmer in Puerto Montt, Chile shares:

“Now we are beginning to value our sustainable food systems. I continue working independently in my garden, taking all the necessary safety measures. My city created an exchange for plants, seeds, and trees, which has been an excellent initiative to meet people who share this passion and love for plants.”

Another response has been the reactivation and strengthening of community bonds. This is especially visible within Indigenous communities, many of whom hold ancestral practices such as Apthapi (an Andean tradition for the sharing of food and knowledge) and Trafkintu, (a Mapuche event where seeds are traded among communities according regional needs), that have helped to provide stability during these times. In the same way, in Mexico’s Yucatan peninsula, Mayan communities have reactivated practices such as monitoring sessions, community action protocols, and the use of medicinal plants for self-care.

As one representative of Seed Guardians Káa nán iinájóob describes:

“During these times we are mobilizing actions and informing others in our original language and from our own culture as the most effective way to protect our communities, our lands, and our families. From these actions we recognize women and the milpa as the heart, and the basis of all of our processes which put life at the center.”

Similarly, many grassroots organizations have begun to use creative endeavors to strengthen solidarity during this crisis.  For example, in St. Paul, Minnesota, one woman started a free seed distribution project called “Outplant the Outbreak” distributing over 5,000 seed packets across eight neighborhood library boxes traditionally used for local book exchanges. In Latin America, activists have opened virtual spaces for the spread of informational activities related to seeds and agroecology. In Colombia, an event known as Carnaval del Maíz (Corn Carnival) was held virtually for the first time, connecting over 120,000 people for workshops on seeds, solidarity economies, food sovereignty, gardens, traditional cooking, arts, and resource management.

Free "Outplant the Outbreak" seeds offered within a neighborhood book cabinet in St. Paul, Minnesota (Used with permission from Stephanie Hankerson).

Another emerging theme is the return of people who had migrated away from their homes, often due to the pull of employment opportunities in urban centers. Now, we are observing the return of many of these earlier migrants, and there is a clear need for new policies to assist with this transition, particularly the recuperation of land. A second issue is that controversial agricultural policies are being advanced during the crisis with minimal debate. This is particularly visible in recent efforts to deregulate genetically modified seeds in Bolivia, Peru, Chile, and Cuba, and highlights the need for the continued involvement of civil society groups, particularly during these times of crisis.

Building Seed Systems

Based on our conversations with seed producers, farmers, schools, and community groups around the Americas, we put forward the following recommendations:

● First, we need more seed producers, both formal and informal, commercial, and non-commercial. In our current system, the responsibilities of producing seed are too concentrated, and producers have little incentive to produce surplus seed, particularly in commercial settings.

● Second, we need to promote the practices of seed saving and exchange, and to make use of the crisis as an opportunity to reestablish their place within our cultural practices.

● Third, we should work to extend technical assistance for new farmers and gardeners, many of whom are beginning with little practical knowledge and limited skills.

● Finally, we stress the importance of continuing to fight to promote legal structures that support small farmers, particularly the right of farmers to save and freely exchange seed.

These experiences also reinforce the importance of thinking about local seed systems across multiple dimensions – social, economic, cultural, and symbolic. Seeds should not be viewed as only an economic input. Instead, when we analyze questions of seed production and exchange, it is helpful to begin by recognizing that seeds hold many different uses and meanings across communities. In evaluating how to manage seeds, a better starting point may be to consider seeds within the wider architecture of production, exchange, ceremony and ritual, conservation, and education.

These accounts serve to highlight just some of the many ways in which individuals, communities, and organizations are experiencing and adapting to the Covid-19 pandemic. We hope this helps to stimulate new understandings and reflections about our seed systems.

Valeria García López received her PhD in Ecology and Rural Development at the Colegio de la Frontera Sur (ECOSUR), in Chiapas, Mexico. She works on issues of native and creole seeds, agroecology, and political ecology. Her most recent research focuses on the construction of seed sovereignty and the seed guardians network.

David Greenwood-Sánchez is a PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research examines the politics and regulation of genetically modified crops in Mexico and Peru.

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