By Souzana Raphael
A seedbank is a type of gene bank in which seeds are preserved. Seedbanks are a means of preserving agro-biodiversity in a time of increased global domination of seed production and sale by large companies, with vast reduction of variety and genetically uniform seed. Local varieties of food crops planted by farmers (both large and small scale) are being lost, replaced by a small number of genetically homogenous standardized varieties that may not have any of the charactertistics possessed by the time-honored local varieties, such as drought-resistance, or adaptation to local soils. Farmers have traditionally selected and saved seed from their own plants, acquiring self-sufficiency in this regard, along with a far greater variety of produce. Aegina island is gifted annually - twice in spring - with the distribution of some of the seed varieties (and seedlings from those seeds) collected from growers all over Greece by the Peliti Seed Bank, centered in the Paranesti area of Greece's Drama prefecture (easternmost Macedonia). And some of those seeds also come from Aegina.
I spoke with Vaso Kanelopoulou, local Aegina author and environmental researcher, who wrote a book about genetically modified crops (GMOs) in 2006, entitled Μεταλαγμένα - Το Παρόν το Παρελθόν και το 'Αγνωστο Μέλλον (Genetically Modified - The Present, Past and the Unknown Future.) She told me about Panagiotis Sainatoudis, the man who founded the Peliti organization in 1995. A few years earlier, while distributing wedding invitations in local village homes for his brother, he noticed food crops growing near the houses that intrigued him, and began talking with the local people about what they grew and about their seed-saving practices. He began travelling long distances in northern and central Greece, often on foot, sometimes hitch-hiking, sometimes by bus or train or in friends' vehicles. He would go into the kafeneia to ask which of the locals saved seed and then go visit them. He took notes on seed varieties and their particular idiosyncrasies, and in 1999 put on the first big gathering for the sharing of what he had gathered. In 2000, a network was set up, consisting of more than 200 growers who saved seeds and wanted to share them with others.
Peliti (which means "oak tree" in the language of the Pontic/ Black Sea Greeks), became a legal NGO in 2003. It collaborates with groups in other countries, including Austria and Turkey, and with the Greek national seed bank in Thessaloniki. Volunteers come to work and learn at the Peliti centre. A catalogue is issued annually (in Greek only), with a listing of growers in the Peliti network who offer to share seeds that they have saved. Plant varieties are named, along with contact information. The catalogue also contains many interesting articles on topics such as the diet of ancient Greeks, types of traditional wheat, types of grains, threshing, and indigenous animals also in danger of disappearing from Greece. Including livestock well-adapted to regional conditions. If one turns the book upside down, one finds 65 pages with a second network, called Από Χέρι σε Χέρι, και από καρδιά σε καρδιά/ From Hand to Hand and from Heart to Heart. Listings in this network consist of services or goods offered in exchange for goods/ services desired, listed under region/ town. No money is involved. I noticed that quite a number of people offered services without indicating anything desired in exchange. Some offer food and lodging, along with lessons in languages, soap-making, or yoga in exchange for agricultural work, olive oil in exchange for organic food products, reflexology and herbs in exchange for being hosted or for fruit, vegetables, eggs and cheese. Another offer is of freesia bulbs in exchange for strawberry and mushroom seeds. A fascinating network, this!! These two networks seem surely related, as they both bring together people involved in growing healthy food, nature, ecological communities, alternative house construection, healing, crafts, languages, computers, etc.
Peliti puts on a big festival every year, on 30 April, to which anyone may go, with or without seeds to share. Information about the festival is on the site. Click on the British flag for English on their website.
About wheat and barley
Vaso told me that of the old wheat varieties in Greece, only 2-3% remain. Some of the older varieties had less gluten, which is said to be healthier. I asked her about barley, recalling that both barley and wheat had been ground in the old days in the water mill in the mill-house I'd lived in for 7 ½ years in a Naxos village. She told me that now barley is used mostly for animal feed, though Hippocrates had recommended the drinking of water in which it had been soaked, and that she had found a type that she had cooked with food instead of rice, and eaten as a morning cereal.
The Big Seed Companies
From a video on the Peliti website, I learned some of the following: Since around the 1920s and 30s seeds became more standardized by large seed companies which needed to have genetically uniform seed registered in their catalogues. 67% of the commercial seed market (and this means the global seed market) is controlled by ten companies, with 47% domination by three companies. Farmers in developing countries who save their own seed, which is not at all genetically consistent, but rather in a state of continual transformation, are threatened by the growing dominance of commercial seed. Governments provide such seed along with pesticides and commercial fertilizer, and in some case regulate the traditional seed varieties as well.
One negative result of all this is the reduction/ disappearance of bio/ agro-diversity, which, during this time of unpredictable climate change is especially dangerous, as crop resilience is so essential. Some of the lost local varieties may withstand changing weather conditions, or crop diseases far better than newer, more uniform crops. Another result is the dependency of farmers on commercial seed/ fertilizer/ pesticides/ herbicides, with resultant indebtedness and possible loss of their land. Some Free Trade agreements have asserted what are called "intellectual rights" on seed varieties, forbidding the saving of local seed.
Here is what a friend who lives in Istanbul wrote to me about Turkey: Turkey isn't an EU country, and sells a lot of produce to the EU, but is producing less and less of that, while more and more corn is being grown for companies like Cargill. Also Turkish farmers are now forbidden (as in other areas) from saving seed to plant their own crops; they have to buy the seed from abroad. Another issue is that because of very strict EU regulations on, for example, what is acceptable as a cherry (EU accepts only 2 varieties), farmers here are ripping out all their old trees and planting "Napoleon" (a bing variety) and the yellow/ red blushed one. So a huge amount of biodiversity is being lost. All for the sake of economics and globalized markets.
I asked Vaso what she thinks about hybrids, and she told me that though they are not bad in themselves, companies have property rights on them, and since they are not consistent in reproduction, seed must be repurchased is one wants a consistent crop. Also, since most of the commercial seed is from hybrids, hybridized plants have taken over, causing the "genetic erosion" evidenced in the loss of so many "heirloom" varieties. "This is our common human inheritance," Vaso pointed out. "These seeds, and the knowledge of seed-saving, is our ancient treasury, and the same companies now promote GM (genetically modified) seeds because they are more profitable than hybrids, having even stronger property rights, and if sprouts come up the following years, the buyer continues paying. Seed saving for both hybrids and GM plants is illegal." We went on to talk about the Monsanto scandal involving Percy Schmeiser, the canola farmer from Alberta, Canada, who was sued by that company when some of their GM seed that had blown into his fields sprouted. They sued him for stealing their seed!! We also talked about the sale of Monsanto's herbicide Roundup along with the seed, which is resistant to it. Buyers spray the Roundup on everything, and only the canola survives, while meanwhile the water and soil are poisoned (and the canola?).
About Vaso Kanelopoulou
Vaso visited Aegina for 15 years before moving to the island, coming over from Athens with her husband on weekends to go on the walks led by Gerald Thompson. She loved Aegina most in winter. Vaso produced a series of documentaries about EKPAZ for ERT (Greek national television) and writes for an environmental periodical. She has also contributed to a book of articles about the environment, and has produced films about the environment. She is a member of the association Σύλλογος Ενεργών Πολιτών της Αίγινας/ Association of Active Citizens of Aegina, a group that addresses the many problems that have arisen on the island as a result of increased building, environmental degradation, etc. She is warmly thanked for her time and information about Peliti and the modern seed story.