Today is World Food Day and the perfect time to take stock of the wonderful array of events which have taken place as part of this years’ Great Seed Festival, co-hosted by Gaia. The Great Seed Festival has seen a coming together of food justice organisations, growers, artists and chefs from all over the UK, all in the name of the humble yet vital seed; the seed that feeds us. Tonight, the Great Seed Feast will be held on London’s south bank with acclaimed pop up restaurant duo The Art of Dining. But first, here are some reflections on how the Festival’s flagship London event brought the magic of seed to life…
Hundreds of people streamed through the doors of the The Great Seed Festival over the weekend to celebrate the first national festival of the humble seed. The Festival, which is taking place throughout October across the UK, has been organised by The Gaia Foundation alongside a collective of food justice and food growing organisations including the UK Food group, Beyond GM and the London Freedom Seed Bank to name just a few. The aim of the festival has been to engage a wider public on the importance of seed, and most specifically, to draw attention to new legislation that threatens to criminalise seed saving and exchanging as well as potentially opening up the UK to the introduction of genetically modified (GM) crops.
Helen Strong, Coordinator of the Festival, hosted by Gaia, points out: “Our entire lives depend on seed. Almost all of the food we eat starts out as a seed – from the vegetables, fruits and roots we grow, to the bread we bake, the milk we make and even our meat, which comes primarily from animals that live on food grown from seed. Despite the central role seed plays in our daily existence, we seldom recognise its importance and that it is coming under increasing threat both here in the UK and globally. That’s why The Great Seed Festival was born.”
The lush surrounds of the Garden Museum, a medieval converted church and gardens, provided the perfect setting to celebrate the seeds that are the origin of all we eat and the world we cherish. Embellished with bunting strung from pillars, bright tablecloths and piles of colourful cushions, the belly of the museum boasted arts, crafts and cooking galore dedicated to this celebration.
Workshops run by Rococo Chocolates and The Dusty Knuckle Bakery’s were thronging with visitors on Saturday and Sunday. Churning out flatbreads slathered in peppers, tahini and herbs and deep brown chocolate hearts, the link between good seed and delicious food was impossible to ignore.
Wafted by the heady aromas of bread and cocoa, traditional crafts celebrating seed included storytelling from the Secret Seed Societyand the northern textile craft of ‘hooky and proggy’ using a stretched hessian frame and recycled wool. The latter invited visitors to hook and prog their way to create two beautiful textile pieces depicting a seedling and intricately striated soil, guided by artist Rachel Phillimore. Meanwhile, the Gaia team hosted a colourful stall with bags of seed to touch and identify, and accesible info about why seed needed them, and what they could do to spread the word.
Everywhere beautiful stalls exhibited the vast diversity and abundance of seed types from around the world, offering visitors the chance to get hands on and discover the seeds’ origins. Books animating the journey of seed to plate, a treasure trail, seed bombs and London Freedom Seed Bank’s ceremony on Battersea barge evoked the creativity of seed and its endless variety of manifestations.
This hands on-reconnection with seeds, their flavours, forms and histories infused the festival with a sense of rediscovery. The sun shone despite the forecast and the often forgotten connections between seed and the food we find on our plates were brought to light.
The festival continues tonight with The Art of Dining’s Great Seed Feast to celebrate World Food Day. This four-course meal has been designed by Moro-trained chef, Ellen Parr and set designer Alice Hodge, to illustrate the importance of seed through the combination of the menu and design. Visual treats will include menus tucked away in seed packets and harvest themed table design. A welcome berry-infused cocktail will warm up the palette.
Seed Under siege
Back to the main Festival and two trends dominated talks, workshops and impromptu discussions over the weekend. First, that seed diversity has been in rapid decline since 1900, a period in which we have lost a staggering 75% of agricultural biodiversity. This means less resilience to climate change and other shocks in our food systems.
Second, that this loss of diversity is largely due to the conversion of agri-culture into agri-business. A shift that entails the concentration of control over seeds into fewer and fewer hands, the use of increasingly carbon- and chemical-intensive farming methods that contribute hugely to climate change, biodiversity loss and the dispossession of small-farmers, who provide 70% of the planet’s food from just a fraction of the land.
Gaia’s Director Liz Hosken explained how community-led processes such as eco-mapping and calendar making has supported communities in Africa and the Amazon to revive their traditional seed varieties and related knowledge. Meanwhile Lawrence Woodward of the Beyond GM campaign delivered a rousing speech on the ills of patenting seeds for profit, urging citizens to take action in the UK and beyond to keep GM out of our fields and off our shelves.
Pat Thomas, director of Beyond GM, and host of the opening night film premiere said: “There is such tremendous value in events like The Great Seed Festival. Not only do they highlight important issues, they help carve out a space where people can come together and talk about the things that concern them, ask the questions they want to ask, and meet other like-minded people. They are a source of renewal and strength for anyone concerned with environment, sustainability and fairness. We felt very privileged to meet everyone who came along to the weekend’s events and to be a part of it all.”
Ben Raskin of the Soil Association held a workshop asking ‘what have seed laws ever done for us?’ This was well complemented by a talk by Haidee-Laure Giles of War on Want as Saturday’s events dovetailed with the Europe-wide Day of Action on TTIP. Ahead of the demonstrations in London, she described how this new EU-US free trade deal threatens to open the door to unlabelled GM products and severely dilute food and environmental safety standards within the EU.
The London premiere of the new film GMO OMG, The Gaia Foundation’s Seeds of Freedom and an impromptu dramatisation of the losses seed has suffered, performed by the Community Centred Knowledge Group, added dynamism to proceedings.
The festival’s programme clearly revealed how the recent story of seed has become one of loss and debt, serving only a handful of business interests while farmers, growers, eaters, ecosystems and the global climate suffer the fall out. As with the food we find on our plates, this problem has its origins in the unjust treatment of seed, which has become the global status quo.
Seed is hope
Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of the festival was the hopeful, pro-active attitude of the 500 or more visitors. Those already aware of the importance of seeds came together with those making this discovery for the first time over the course of the weekend. Both threw their backs into the effort to protect and revive seed diversity and seed sovereignty, recognising these as the pre-requisites for food sovereignty itself.
Initiatives ranging from the immediately tangible to tackling the complexities of international policy popped up throughout the weekend. Mini anti-GMO demonstrations organised by Beyond GM and Wholefood Action were staged on the riverside opposite parliament. The Heritage Seed Library and others offered the chance for people to take away endangered seeds while workshops, such as that held by Guardian blogger Kim Stoddart, encouraged and empowered people to save and share seeds.
Bringing people together around the totem of seed, the Great Seed Festival is already bearing fruit. Since the festival weekend a new LWA South West Seed Saving Co-op has been born, thousands of seeds not found in any regular catalogue have been stored away for the sowing season and discussions are already beginning about what comes next.
The festival has demonstrated that when people locate the seed within their own lives and see how it’s sovereignty or control affects our food supply and the lives of farmers worldwide, they want to protect it.
Check out The Great Seed Festival website:www.greatseedfestival.co.uk and follow them on twitter @greatseedfest
Photographs by Tom Groves. Video coming soon!