The Golden Local Seeds: a Tale of Tradition and Taste
In the north of Madrid, Spain a small organisation of "young city people" tries to preserve traditional agriculture one seed at a time.
BY RUBÉN PULIDO
Think about the rows and rows of produce in a supermarket, piled high and gleaming. Now think about the heap of tomatoes, all bright and round, waiting to be placed into your basket. How can all of these tomatoes be such a brilliant red, so perfectly round, and roughly the same size as all the rest? It’s a question that consumers are asking more and more frequently, wondering - often with concern - about the origin of the seeds from which these picture perfect fruits and vegetables sprang.
La Via Campesina is one of these critical consumers. Since 1993, this international peasant movement has tried to strengthen the rights of small farmers against large cooperations, who own the world’s vast majority of seed patents. Small farmers, they believe, create resiliency by keeping their own seeds by using agroecological practices instead of relying on chemicals, as opposed to the patented ones.
Ownership of seeds is an issue that also worries other parties. This year, the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) published “The future of Food and agriculture.” A report that summarizes incipient trends and offers deep insight on the challenges that the world will have to address in coming years. One the main concerns, the authors write, is that “critical parts of food systems are becoming more capital-intensive, vertically integrated and concentrated in fewer hands”. This increasing consolidation has a negative impact on different issues, including employment opportunities for unskilled laborers, migration, and as a result the “feminization” of farming in many parts of the world.
La Via Campesina establishes local iniatives around the world, to enable communities to lead the drive for change, and creating jobs and resiliency. Soia Loaysa, a biologist, works at one of these local initiatives: La Troje, which was founded in 2004 to recover traditional seeds from the northern area of Madrid.
La Troje was born when its five official members met at university and began to cultivate an urban garden in Madrid. Eventually, that work sprouted into something bigger. The idea to recover local seeds came when one of the founders, Laura, talked with hundreds of local small-time farmers, mainly older women, while conducting research for her PhD. “It was important for us to know the agricultural information attached to every seed but we also wanted to know the cultural legacy,” she tells me. She decided to store and reproduce local seeds, in order to preserve them for the future.
“At the beginning it was hard. The old people from this area didn’t trust us. What does a group of young, city people know about farming, they thought. But after seeing the results in our garden, they’re coming to consult us. It's nice to see this connection.” Sonia, on the founders, says.
Nowadays, they have around 1000 small farmers associated with the project, mostly coming from Madrid and its surroundings. “We believe in a sustainable way of living based on the use of real resources. We try to recover the legacy of the local peasants preserving the complexity of the local ecosystem,” Sonia explains. Currently their catalog includes around 400 horticultural seeds, 30 fruit crops and some ornamental seeds.
La Troje has a dynamic seed conservation bank that takes into account the reproduction potential and the longevity of every seed. Sonia explains the proces as follows: “We keep the seeds in watertight canisters, using chalk to dry them and silica gel to determinate the humidity, after which we store them in the bridge at around 4°C during the whole year. Then we remove them and try to reproduce them”.
Conservation can also be complicated; some seeds have been lost due to external conditions, like the weather, when trying to reproduce them. Luckily, these seeds have what’s called heterogeneous genetic heritage, which means that not all seeds are equal to each other, even if the final product is the same. Thanks to this, the seeds are able to adapt to different climates much more easily.
The large ranges of seeds in La Troje’s possession allow the group to cultivate tomatoes or lettuce during the entire calendar year. “Some tomatoes are bigger, some are smaller; but this also helps us to try new tastes and textures,” Sonia says proudly of their garden. “As fertilizer we use manure, mostly from cow and sheep, and to protect the plants against insects we use garlic and nettle”.
This type of agriculture is fragile and constantly subject to environmental changes. Plagues are another big problem according to Sonia: “Due to higher temperatures on this side of the mountains, we’re facing plagues of red spider mites since a few years”.
Yet, the same heterogeneity that gives the seeds a genetic advantage, puts them in legal limbo: they cannot be registered. And finally, as La Troje’s mission is to operate outside of market mechanisms, prices for their seeds can be elevated. Sonia, however, remains optimistic that people are both interested and “willing to pay a bit more for better products”.
Ultimately, Sonia hopes that consumers will not only worry about how healthy the products on their plate are, but also about the way they are produced. “Here in the northern mountains of Madrid, I see more and more people who consider gardening as a way of living. However, rural lifestyles are not highly valued by urbanites, who can look at it with condescension,” she says. But then, many are beginning to turn that glaring gaze upon their too red and round tomatoes as well.
RUBÉN PULIDO is a Spanish journalist based in Hamburg. Green olives as starter, paella as main course and tiramisú as dessert. A beer, a sunset and the ocean. ¡Buen provecho!