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How Scottish-Grown Vegetable Seeds Became Available Once Again

For thousands of years, our ancestors did something very simple but essential. From the crops they grew, they carefully selected and stored the seeds needed for the next year’s planting.


Haley Shepherd and Finlay Keiller are the founders of Seeds of Scotland (Image: Seeds of Scotland)

This fundamental skill, a key element of subsistence farming, saw local cultivars develop with traits suited to the area’s soil and weather conditions. These landrace crops, with ancient and diverse genetics, are incredibly important as we face the growing climate emergency.


They are also significantly less needy of the chemical inputs required by the seeds sold by the four petrochemical companies which own 60% of our world seed.


As a nation, we have become almost entirely dependent on imported seeds – and Brexit is making imports difficult.


The quality and quantity of seed has declined as Brexit bureaucracy creates significant delays and expense. Many European exporters have simply given up on the Brexitland market.


Positive steps are being made to change this worrying situation. The aptly named company Seeds of Scotland, which is based just north of Inverness, has opened its first catalogue ahead of this year’s growing season. It is the first time Scottish-grown vegetable seeds have been commercially available in almost 40 years.


Finlay Keiller, one of the two growers behind Seeds of Scotland, told me: “From an environmental and biodiversity point of view, it’s important we have more small-scale producers in more local areas.


“We want to produce seeds [which also will be viable for] people living in Shetland and the Western Isles. The money spent on those seeds is going to somebody in the local community – to real people – as well.”


Keiller and partner Haley Shepherd grow a range of open-pollinated crops on two acres in the foothills of Ben Wyvis. Their story is a fascinating journey through seed banks and across nations, although Brexit has stymied many of their efforts to import heritage seed from organic growers across Europe.


They are keen for people who use their seeds to try saving some themselves. Keiller said: “Some of the varieties have been grown in Scotland before or in similar climate conditions and are able to grow better in our environment.


“Some of these varieties, if they weren’t being grown by us, would be lost, potentially, or would be kept in a gene bank. If they’re kept in a gene bank, they might not see the light of day for decades. It’s important to grow these varieties so they can continually adapt to the climate.”


One important aspect of the seed sovereignty movement is that culturally appropriate crops are available to people who want to grow and eat them – and that the seed has come from growers who are working in a safe environment which respects ecosystems.


The Gaia Foundation is behind much of the work being done in Scotland to help us learn old skills anew. Sinéad Fortune is its Scottish co-ordinator. “We work mostly with small-scale growers and community groups to re-educate people, re-empower people, connect people,” she told me.


“We have a three-tiered training programme – an introduction which lets you dip your toe in and make sure you’re going to enjoy being obsessed with seeds.


“Then the year-long training goes through the growing season and looks at all aspects of seed production from selecting your crops, to pests and diseases, processing, drying, routes to market; and then we have a whole scale of opportunities from growing trials to connecting with international organisations.”


Across the country, and the world, growers are building connections to share stories and experiences to help embed seed sovereignty into communities.


The issue of farmers being forced to limit varieties of produce to suit the needs of supermarkets is commonplace  and suicide rates among farmers across many nations are shockingly high as they become trapped in a cycle of debt, restricted by contracts and even demands they use chemical-dependent genetically modified (GM) crops which makes seed saving impossible.


Abi Mordin is the co-founder of Propagate, a worker-led collective specialising in local, community and sustainable food projects in the south-west of Scotland.


She said: “I was speaking to some small-scale organic farmers in the Rift Valley in Kenya recently. They were showing me over 50 varieties of potatoes, different seeds and legumes they have stored, and they are really concerned about the issue of genetically modified seed coming in. The larger farmers are being told what should be grown.”


Mordin pauses before making a point I hear raised more and more across farming communities, “Because that’s what the market is funding – and who is demanding that exactly?


“We’ve lost our connection to food through losing variety and diversity; being controlled by big agri-business and by supermarkets which are putting what they want consumers to consume on the shelves because it suits their shareholders. It doesn’t suit the small-scale producers around the world who are actually producing the food.”


This month sees the first in-person meeting of the Scottish Seed Hub, a co-operative working to grow and sell regionally adapted seed grown in Scotland using agroecological practices.


Food security means growing our own crops. The most fundamental sovereignty begins with the tiny miracle that is a seed.


Ruth Watson is the founder of the Keep Scotland the Brand campaign.


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