By Rob Symons
This is my 40th article in the Mercury Food and Wine supplement. This article also appeared on the site, Verdant Life
KwaZulu Natal and the the Eastern Cape are characterised by deep-cut river valleys that flow down to the sea from the mountains. Each valley tends to have its own regional climate and soil conditions. Each valley also has its own unique variety of maize grown by the community who live there.
These varieties are have adapted to the specific conditions found in their valley. They have been selectively bred by the farmers who live there and the seeds have been passed down through generations. These are heirloom seeds and sadly their existence is threatened.
Seed companies are aggressively marketing their patented varieties of maize which are bred especially for large scale chemical, intensive agriculture. Small scale farmers are seduced into purchasing this seed and, as a result are starting to neglect the traditional varieties and placing them on the endangered list.
The effect of this is not only the loss of generations of accumulated genetic heritage, but also the loss of control and ownership of the communities and farmers over their own food. I have myself started to experience this loss of freedom in the crops that I grow.
Not so long ago there was a wide variety of lettuce seed that was available from suppliers in the quantities needed by the farm. Salad packs have been one of my core products and I have always been proud of their quality. Our focus was on the growing of the lettuce from seed to harvest, so we left the business of seed production to the seed suppliers.
However, recently there has been a change in the supply of seed. Prices have risen and the number of varieties available has dropped. A new development has been pelleted seeds which cannot be planted on an organic farm due to incorporation of chemicals into the seed pellet.
These pellets have been developed for large scale nurseries that use planting machines. As a result of these developments the choice that I have as a farmer is very limited. If we are to retain freedom over the crops that we grow, organic farmers must look to saving our own seed.
We need to select heirloom varieties that grow well in our areas and start collecting seed.
It was an amazing experience when I first collected my own rocket seed. What blew me away was how much we collected, 25 kilograms in total. That saved me a lot in time and money, but above all it gave me a great feeling of freedom and independence.
On a food-stressed continent the freedom and independence of the food supply is critical. Every effort must be made to preserve traditional seed varieties and to encourage communities to take control by saving their own seed.