For Indigenous people, seeds are more than food – they’re ‘members of an extended family’



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This week:

  • For Indigenous people, seeds are more than food – ‘they’re members of an extended family’
  • The staggering growth of plastic
  • How one Canadian company is turning discarded fishing gear into plastic timber

For Indigenous people, seeds are more than food – they’re ‘members of an extended family’

(Potato Park/Asociacion ANDES/Cusco, Peru)

About 1,000 kilometres south of the North Pole lies Svalbard, a Norwegian archipelago. Home to roughly 2,600 people, it also has another, larger, more famous population: that of 1,057,151 seeds.

This is the Svalbard Global Seed Vault (SGSV), an effort to preserve seeds from around the globe that could eventually be lost as a result of natural or human factors. The vault’s inventory includes everything from African varieties of wheat and rice to European and South American varieties of lettuce and barley.  

According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO), more than 75 per cent of genetic diversity has been lost because of farmers transitioning to varieties of high-yield, genetically uniform crops. 

In 2015, groups belonging to Parque de la Papa, a Peruvian organization that aims to preserve agricultural diversity and Indigenous culture, deposited 750 seeds of differing varieties of potatoes in the Svalbard seed vault, the first Indigenous group to do so. Last February, the Cherokee Nation became the first U.S. Indigenous group to make a deposit. 

In fact, Indigenous people have long preserved seeds because they have important cultural ties within the community.

“There’s this very strong relationship that people have with seeds,” said Alejandro Argumedo, director of programs at the U.S.-based Swift Foundation, which aims to preserve biocultural diversity. “In the place where I come from, for instance, seeds are considered to have feelings and heart. And so you’ve got to treat them with lots of love.” 

It’s a deeply reciprocal relationship, he said.

“There’s this big difference between just looking at seeds like biological materials that are important for farming,” said Argumedo, who is Quechua from Ayacucho, Peru. “Indigenous people see them more as members of an extended family and to which you have to [tend] with care. Because there will be a reciprocity — they will be providing you … food, will be caring about you.”

Argumedo cites the “qachun waqachi” potato variety used in a marriage ritual, where the bride (“qachun” in the Quechua language) gently peels the potato to show her love and caring for her husband-to-be as well as for Pacha Mama, or Mother Earth. 

“The ritual articulates the Andean belief that love and respect between humans depends on and is nurtured by the land and epitomizes the commitment of couples to protect their seeds and food systems,” he said. 

Terrylynn Brant, a Mohawk seed keeper from Ohsweken, Ont., has dedicated her life to this effort.

“I do a lot of work that supports other faith keepers in the work that they do. I support healers, seers, people like that … because sometimes people need to use a certain food for a certain ceremony,” she said. “I treat [seeds] with honour and respect.”

Argumedo said that the preservation of specific seeds is important in Indigenous communities where rituals require the best, purest form of seed.

“People are more interested in different features or characteristics of the seed. So people do selection for cultural reasons. And many of those traits are associated with taste, are associated with the colour and shape, because they will be used in rituals or social gatherings to create community cohesion,” he said. 

“And if you want to have a better relationship with your neighbours, you better have the right seeds, because you will be offering it as a way of respect.”

Hannes Dempewolf, senior scientist and head of global initiatives at Crop Trust, a German-based organization that’s involved with the Svalbard seed vault, said there’s another important reason for preserving genetic diversity of seeds.

“Every seed, every variety is unique in itself,” he said. “They have a unique set of genes that we have no idea what they could be useful for in the future.”

Nicole Mortillaro


Reader feedback

David Price of Sherwood Park, Alta., had a question about our article on regenerative ocean farming last week. “It sounds good but it does not explain how any of the practices will help to reduce climate change!” he wrote.

He noted that while the kelp will absorb CO2, all the products it is turned into will ultimately release that CO2 back into the atmosphere, as will any dead kelp that sinks to the bottom of the ocean and decomposes. Good point. So how does it work? GreenWave, the company featured in the article, says the carbon benefits of this type of farming come from ocean “afforestation,” which is similar to planting trees where there weren’t any before. It increases the amount of carbon stored inside plants rather than in the atmosphere at a given time.

Old issues of What on Earth? are right here.


The Big Picture: Accumulated plastic production

There’s a bit of dialogue in the classic film The Graduate that has become iconic. During a party, a middle-aged gentleman corners the bewildered protagonist, Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman). In one of cinema’s most dramatic non sequiturs, the man tells Braddock there’s “a great future” in “plastics.” The scene more or less ends there, but the prophecy lives on. In 1967, the year The Graduate came out, the world was creating 23 million tonnes of plastic a year; by 2015, it was 381 million. Nowadays, the chief use of plastic is in packaging, and despite heightened awareness of the problem, only an estimated nine per cent of all plastic is recycled. Meanwhile, a lot of it is accumulating in the ocean, and when it’s not collecting in large garbage patches, it’s breaking down into almost imperceptible pieces. Below is a graphical depiction of how much plastic we have produced since 1950.

Hot and bothered: Provocative ideas from around the web


How one Canadian company is turning discarded fishing gear into plastic timber

(Elizabeth Chiu/CBC)

Mike Chassie presses his nose up against a load of plastic lumber and takes a sniff. He’s inspecting the newest product made at his family’s business, Goodwood Plastic Products in Fort Ellis, N.S. 

“Smells great to me,” Chassie said last week, while standing outside the building where the synthetic timber is manufactured. “It doesn’t have any of the smell that you would think you’d get from that ghost gear.”

That ghost gear — another way of saying lost or discarded fishing equipment — was three kilometres of old, thickly woven plastic fishing rope covered in marine life and recently fished out of the sea by a N.S. diving company.

Goodwood approved the fishy-smelling delivery for its newest venture: commercializing synthetic lumber made out of ghost gear.

The supply of this raw material for plastic wood may be limitless. Every year, about 640,000 tonnes of ghost gear is left in Canada’s oceans, threatening to entangle marine animals and harm fishing stock. The Department of Fisheries and Oceans created a $8.3-million fund to tackle the problem and fishermen and divers are eager to help

Last week, which was World Oceans Week, DFO gave Goodwood $475,000 under the $2-million Innovative Solutions fund to address ocean plastic. The company is spending it on a new shredder that can make mincemeat out of tough plastic rope (see photo above).

Recycling this first shipment of ghost gear was labour-intensive, Chassie said. Previously, the plant had received old fishing rope and nets that were cleaned by the fishermen.  

This time, the workers had the job of picking out “mussels, a bunch of algae — there is everything that you could think of that’s at the bottom of the ocean,” said Chassie. “[We’re] surprised we didn’t find any lobsters.”

Usually, the 10 or so workers at Goodwood’s six-hectare plant handle milk cartons, margarine tubs and plastic bags from municipal blue-bag programs. The recyclables are shredded, melted and pushed through moulds — or “extruded” — to create planks and posts for building decks, park benches and picnic tables. 

The company, which is still quite new, hopes to recycle at least 10,000 tonnes of plastic annually. 

The ghost gear was blended with shopping bags to create planks that look just like the other plastic products now sold to the public.

The price for a 4-by-8-by-12 timber of Goodwood Plastic is $61. Chassie said while it’s more expensive than treated wood lumber, it is also more durable. Chassie said the strength of the rope that makes it hard to destroy underwater is what makes it ideal for plastic lumber.

He said the real saving is the benefit to the environment, especially if the plastic lumber is returned to where it came from — the sea — in the form of a wharf or marina timbers. “You don’t get any of those harmful chemicals [from pressure-treated wood] that over time leach into the water,” he said.

Chassie is eager to ramp up recycling a product that many people had considered no longer useful.

“You’re taking a product that would typically be destined for a landfill or to be buried in the ocean and forgotten, and you’re giving it a new life.”

Elizabeth Chiu


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