Friday, January 2, 2015

How a Low-Tech Seed Bank in Greece Preserves Thousands of Heritage Crops

Photo by Prensa 420 / Flickr.
Yes Magazine | Dec 29, 2014 | Jeffrey Andreoni

Members of the Greek seed bank Peliti say that keeping their wares in production—instead of in refrigerators—improves the health of the plants they’re working to save. 

Ethical consumers in the United States are increasingly concerned with the seeds used in the production of their food. However, this has been an issue in Europe for many years. In fact, there are several transnational seed-saver networks, like Arche Noah, whose members have become experts on heritage seeds.
One of the most famous groups within Arche Noah’s 8,000-member network is the “live” seed bank Peliti, which has been raising awareness about endangered varieties of heritage seeds since 1995. Once tiny, now Peliti is an NGO that receives thousands of visitors for its annual seed swap where you can get a mind-boggling number of seed varieties for free. It’s the biggest event of its kind in the world with an estimated 5,000 visitors from about 50 different countries in 2013. Recently I had the opportunity to interview one of the 200 Peliti volunteers, who are spread throughout Greece and beyond.

They call themselves a “live seed bank” because traditional seed banks store seeds under refrigeration, sometimes for up 15 years, which is “more like a seed museum than a seed bank,” according to volunteer Vasso Kanellopoulou. Peliti concentrates on keeping their seeds reproducing and germinating so they don’t fall victim to genetic erosion. Originally they started out with only a few hundred varieties, now they have thousands they’re saving from extinction.

Autonomous seed networks

Peliti isn’t just a community. It is yet another node within the larger global seed-saver network. They are now morphing into a decentralized network themselves. Their organization has given birth to many satellite communities that are linked with one another via a Google Group.

These satellite communities, one of which is in Athens, organize local seed swaps for those unable to travel to Peliti. The local seed swaps emerged from a growing interest by urban farmers in Greece who wanted more heritage seeds after the financial crisis. Peliti is encouraging growth of urban agriculture throughout their network.

Their organization goes even further, with a consortium of seed savers being represented in the European Union by a team of lawyers. They’ve also helped stop a law against heritage seeds in the E.U. parliament. Ironically, it was the Greek government that proposed the legislation that had seed savers all over Europe worried. Thankfully the E.U. parliament has rewritten the legislation after hearing the complaints.

Recently, Peliti launched International Seed Days, a series of meetings attended by delegations from more than 18 countries. The meetings are closed to the public and take place two days before the seed swap. The renowned activist Vandana Shiva spoke at International Seed Days last year.

Panagiotis Sainatoudis, Peliti’s founder, says that one of the organization’s basic principles is “to support man’s freedom to keep his own seed so he won’t depend every year on seed purchase, commerce, not even on the seeds supplied by Peliti.” When you get connected to the Peliti network, you automatically gain some autonomy.

Here's a personal example: In 2011 I was cycling through Greece and discovered a Peliti participant, Vasilios, on his farm outside Thessaloniki. Vasilios and I remained in contact so when I got back to London he mailed me some seeds for varieties of lettuce and Swiss chard that grow well in cold climates. I planted the seeds and, as the rule goes, I let a certain amount go to seed after the harvest.

Now every year I have Peliti seeds to plant; I just have to be careful to instruct my housemates not to “weed the seeds,” which happened one year when a journalist roommate who fancied himself a gardener threw away all my Peliti seeds! Good thing I had a reserve. You never know where your Peliti seeds will wind up; I share extras when I have them.

There is a state organization in Greece dedicated to preserving the biodiversity of Greece. However, its future remains uncertain because of the financial crisis. It is said that the National Seed Bank has around 15,000 varieties (a small percentage of the total genetic heritage of Greece). However, 5,000 of these have been lost due to funding cuts. Losing money is one thing, but losing species is dangerous!

Perhaps Greece’s most important national bank could be its agricultural gene bank. After Spain, Greece is the country with the richest biodiversity in Europe, and Peliti aims to keep it that way as their seed collection will soon surpass that of the National Seed Bank. It’s a case of community stewardship supplanting the duties of the state.

Jeffrey Andreoni wrote this article for Shareable, where it originally appeared. Jeffrey is a writer who divides his time between London and Athens. His writing covers subjects from fine art to adventure travel. In addition he organizes flash mobs and social interventions in a variety of locations. Originally from Rhode Island, Jeffrey moved to Italy in 1998 and hasn’t stopped moving since; hence his nickname, Bezdomny.

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