I am packing up seeds today. One envelope contains too many for me so I am posting a few to my mum. We will smile when the seedlings poke through the earth in a few weeks’ time, each thinking of the other witnessing the same everyday miracle, connected through the shared act of growing food from the same source, even though at the moment we live far apart.
This sharing works horizontally as I post the little packages to her at the other end of the country. It is also a vertical process, connecting me to the past as I remember the way she taught me to sow: lay a bamboo cane on the soil; twist it a bit to make a groove; water the groove; sow the seed sparingly; cover with soil; do not water on top. A mantra she learnt from her mother and who knows when it began in our family?
This year my daughters, both of them facing the challenge of living well on a student budget, also want to grow food. If they move into their new homes in time, I will help each of them prepare a vegetable patch. I will take a bamboo cane and fast-growing salad seeds: mizuna, rocket, lettuce, land cress. I will show them how to twist a groove in the soil. I will remind them: water before you sow and not after.
This practice of passing on skills from generation to generation is as old as the human race. It goes hand in hand with the sharing of seed. It is part of the complex web of ways in which we nurture ourselves from one year to the next, exchanging recipes, comparing growing notes, meeting around tables for our rites of passage: birthdays, weddings, baptisms, wakes.
You could say it is part of what it means to be human.
The preciousness of seed is written into ancient stories from all parts of the world. Right at the beginning of the Bible, for example, we are told that God gave seed as a gift to every living thing:
Then God said, “I give you every seed-bearing plant on the face of the whole earth and every tree that has fruit with seed in it. They will be yours for food. And to all the beasts of the earth and all the birds in the sky and all the creatures that move along the ground—everything that has the breath of life in it—I give every green plant for food.” And it was so.
Genesis 1: 29-30
Seed is sacred.
The sharing and spreading of seed, the saving of it from one harvest as an investment in the next – these practices are a gift from God that bind us to the land and to one another.
That is why I believe the huge corporations that patent seeds so that it is actually illegal to save and share them are committing a terrible profanity.
It is why I think the bureaucrats who want to dictate which seeds we can and cannot use are, at best, a paradigm for the fools who rush in where angels fear to tread. And people who are ruled by fools do not have much to look forward to.
But I am worried that most of us who will be affected by this are asleep.
In our little corner of history we have decided we prefer the hard work of food production to take place where we cannot see it. As a result we are ignorant in ways that would be unbelievable for most people at most times, in most places.
How do we think we will eat if we allow a few corporations to increase their already tight control of food production? What do we imagine we will grow when the legislators have abolished our heritage seeds, the very ones that might help us adjust to the challenges of a changing climate?
What do we think will happen to our relationships to one another and the earth if seed is no longer freely available but yet another commodity to ration, market, hoard and fight over?
We should be scared but instead we are sleepwalking.
We need to recognise seed patenting and seed banning for what they are: acts of sacrilege, attacks on our freedom and autonomy, a kind of war against humanity by the inhuman corporations and bureaucracies who want to trick us into thinking that ordinary people do not have the ability to feed one another.
And we need to fight back. I think we should be linking arms, mother to daughter, father to son, all the growers and the beekeepers, everyone who wants to know how to make food happen, all the people who still understand that the right attitude towards seeds is one of reverence.
For many of us the counter-offensive must begin in acknowledging our ignorance, whether that is ignorance of food production or lack of information about the way corporations are taking control of the global food supply.
Then we must resolve to learn.
The film Seed Freedom from the Gaia Foundation and the African Biodiversity Network is a good start. It’s only about 25 minutes long.
So is simply growing something, even it’s just a few pea shoots on the windowsill.
And if you live in the EU, please, please contact your commissioner about this potentially catastrophic law they will be considering on 6 May.