It is time to talk about a subject that is close to our hearts and that occupies a primordial place in our search for a more sustainable food: seeds.
Why talk about seeds?
Logically because it is the basis of all food but above all because the issues around seeds have never been as important as today.
The green revolution started between the 60s and 90s allowed the rise of large multinationals, which shared – between 3 firms – the trade of 2/3 of seeds and ¾ of pesticides. These seeds – often F1 hybrids – which are not reproducible, lead farmers to depend on these companies, which sell them new seeds and the associated chemical inputs (pesticides, fertilizers) every year.
The seeds fully “authorized” for sale in France are those listed in the official catalog. The constraints for registering a variety in this catalog are such that the main firm who manage to do so are the major seed groups (such as Bayer, DuPont and Dow Chemical, etc.).
Several French associations, by selling seeds not listed in the catalog, find themselves illegally and regularly on the dock. These “non-catalog” seeds take the names of peasant, country, ancient, traditional or Creole seeds. They represent the genetic inheritance resulting from thousands of years of work of our peasant ancestors. They have been selected to meet agronomic, food, cultural or climate change needs. Thus, they contain 5 to 12 times more nutrients than the hybrid varieties listed in the catalog, which have favored growth speed, resistance to transport, storage, etc.
With this legislative framework, ancient seeds are today threatened. In 100 years, 75% of the edible varieties have disappeared. ¾ of our food now comes from 12 plant species and 5 animal species. It is a threat to biodiversity, local cultures and the independence of small producers.
It is in this context that the French association “Kokopelli” has created a branch in Costa Rica, in order to produce their own old seeds.
Our investigation therefore begins in Costa Rica and more exactly in Atenas de Alajuela where Eric Sémeillon welcomes us to his home – with a big smile – to present us his garden of ancient seeds. On an area of 9,500 yards, he grows more than 100 varieties.
Aromatic herbs with aniseed, lemon, garlic, peppery, sweet tastes, multicolored corn and forgotten vegetables. Colors, scents, tastes, textures, sounds of birds … It is a real sensory garden where no sense is forgotten. Beyond the issues related to these seeds, we quickly understand why Eric, his wife and daughter chose to settle here. Among these jewels of nature, there are also medicinal plants and it is timely because Kalima has had a stomach ache for a few days. He immediately makes us a “magic” herbal tea with lemongrass, sage and other herbs. We will not know if it is thanks to this herbal tea or not, but the next day Kalima was already much better!
The seeds that Eric cultivates are intended for small producers so that they can rediscover old varieties, freely multiply them for use the following year and exchange them with other producers.
Here in Latin America, ancient seeds occupy a special place in the cosmogony of indigenous populations, far removed from our western vision. These peoples are the main actors in the creation and conservation of the agricultural biodiversity of our planet. Many of our varieties of tomatoes, potatoes or corn have emerged in these regions.
We went to meet representatives of the Misak community in Cauca, Colombia. Avelino and Cayetana Almendra welcome us home in a “nice rainy day” while they are sorting potatoes for consumption and trading with others in their community.
In these baskets, there are no less than 5 different potato varieties, including some small pink and yellow potatoes that we have never seen in France.
They tell us about their vision for agriculture and seeds. The agricultural work for them is above all collective and takes place during the Mingas (community workshops). This collective work will promote the creation as well as the preservation of new seeds, which will be able to be tested and approved by the community on their lands. They will then be exchanged with other communities during gatherings. This organization has allowed the development of thousands of varieties and continues to encourage the creation of new ones.
After finishing our Interview, we leave with a few potatoes to see if they are as good as they look. We will eat them fried in the pan with a little butter and garlic. A delight …
The south of Colombia heralds the start of the Andes for us. A new physical challenge of this trip and the opportunity to meet other indigenous communities. Our bikes are always a sensation as soon as we pass through small Andean villages.
We stop for a few days in Cuzco in Peru to meet Elena Pardo, director of CEPROSI, an association for the protection and promotion of Andean cultures.
For them, the safeguarding of traditional seeds occupies a first order place. They constitute the cultural heritage of previous generations. Elena has noticed in recent years a standardization of local cultures, all the more significant in eating habits. Quinoa, for example, is almost no longer consumed locally, when most of the production is exported.
We saw this during our stay. Apart from a few high-end restaurants for tourists, it can no longer be found on the menu of small street restaurants. It has given way to the “traditional” fried chicken. With massive exports to Europe and the United States, quinoa – formerly the poor man’s cereal – has become overpriced for the local market. According to the FAO, the value of quinoa exports to the West increased by 260% only between 2012 and 2014.
Seeds are the keystone of the indigenous agricultural system. With CEPROSI, Elena is trying to reconnect the link between the youngest and traditional food. She participated in the creation of several vegetable gardens in schools in the region, which are designed by representatives of the Quechua or Aymara community (depending on the region). These vegetable gardens are managed and maintained by the students who can then harvest the fruits of their labor. These gardens have a space dedicated to rituals and offerings to Pachamama (Mother Earth) and give pride of place to local seeds such as potatoes, corn, tomatoes and of course quinoa.
The protection of old seeds is inseparable from the preservation of biodiversity. They cannot be reduced to a small catalog of seeds, controlled by a few agrifood groups which have made a profitable trade of it. In South America, the tradition of growing your own seeds and exchanging them to diversify your crops is still very much alive but threatened today. It’s a daily struggle for small producers, associations and individuals around the world to keep producers independent and for consumers to find colors and flavors on their plates.
We leave from the South of Peru to discover Bolivia and its lunar landscapes. In the middle of desert landscapes, we find ourselves 7 cyclists travelling together for a few days.
A unique experience in 14 months of cycling. For a week we form a united team until arriving at the Salar de Uyuni. His crossing will be a highlight of our trip. For 3 days we find ourselves out of the world. Our bikes turn into ships when all the landmarks fade and they only remain the islands in the distance in line of sight to keep our course.