Laura Pottinger, University of Manchester
Though seeds are fundamental to all food systems they have evaded scrutiny in much of the discourse around local and alternative food networks. With rising interest in community gardens, urban allotments and ‘growing your own’ food, some gardeners have begun to question the provenance and suitability of commercially available seeds, and have learnt how to save their own.
‘Seed savers’ are gardeners who cultivate their own fruits and vegetables before selecting, drying and storing the seeds to provide future crops for themselves and others. They claim that home-grown seed is better suited to small-scale, organic systems. What’s more, self-sufficient seed production provides opportunities for resisting the control of what is argued to be an increasingly corporate and concentrated industrial seed system.
Conservation networks, like Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library and local seed swap events connect seed savers so that they can share their seed harvest and source unusual varieties at a low cost. In doing so, seed saving networks extend gardeners’ individual and everyday practices with plants and seeds among a wider gardening community, and contribute to the biodiversity of British gardens.
On February 5th 2017, Seedy Sunday takes place in Brighton and Hove. As the UK’s largest and longest running annual seed swap, the event brings gardeners together to swap seeds (one packet can be swapped for either another packet or a fifty-pence donation), exchange gardening advice and skills, listen to talks and learn about local food projects and environmental groups.
In a new paper in Area, I explore how seed savers’ practices of cultivating and exchanging can be understood as a kind of ‘quiet activism’. Though the relatively mundane activities of tending plants and sharing seeds may seem at odds with the vocal and combative protest often associated with traditional accounts of activist behaviour, they can contribute to environmentally and socially progressive goals.
Seed savers propagate and protect rare and heirloom seeds that are outlawed by EU legislation prohibiting the sale of unregistered varieties. Swapping and gifting seed also generates feelings of connectedness amongst extended collectives of growers. As plant material is circulated and sown, it forges links between diverse growing spaces, connecting gardeners over space and time.
A Guardian article exploring ‘the cult of quiet’ highlights a contemporary desire for quietness, and explores the recent trend for silent reading parties, dining and even dating. Occupying a purposeful rather than passive embodied stance, quiet activism seems to promise both radical potential and the possibility of retreat. Seed savers suggest that their tangible practices of making and growing hold greater currency in cultivating environmentally and socially just food systems than vocal, antagonistic protest. But is there also a risk that these quiet acts go unheard?
This research with seed savers prompts geographers to look beyond noisy and disruptive activism to expose small, quietly subversive acts of gardening, crafting, making and doing. These varied forms of action provide a rich terrain for researchers to explore activisms performed at varying volumes, and their unique possibilities and limitations.
About the author: Laura Pottinger is a Research Associate and Senior Tutor in Geography at the University of Manchester. Laura’s research explores ethical food consumption, focusing on alternative food initiatives.
Pottinger L 2016 Planting the seeds of a quiet activism Area doi: 10.1111/area.12318
Sokell A 2016 Saving seeds, one teaspoon at a time The Guardian Online Retrieved 12 December 2016
Williams L 2016 Ssshhh! How the cult of quiet can change your life The Guardian Online Retrieved 12 December 2016
Seedy Sunday http://www.seedysunday.org/
Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library https://www.gardenorganic.org.uk/hsl