Seed Banks and Soil Health

If you’re anything like us at Jeeva Bhavana, you are fascinated by seeds! These tiny bits of life, sometimes no bigger than a grain of sand, are actually fertilized ripened ovules – embryos – enclosed in a protective outer covering. Seeds contain everything biologically necessary to become a new plant but depend on appropriate growth conditions (like water, sunlight, nutrition from the soil, etc) to germinate. In other words, seeds contain the promise of new life and it is up to those who sow the seeds to nurture them to their full potential.

This all sounds rather grandiose for something so seemingly banal – something that most of us take for granted. When we eat a roti, for example, we rarely think beyond the ground up flour to the bunch of grains on a millet stalk, let alone to the seeds from where the grains originated. Yet seeds are the source of plants, and plants are the primary basis for human sustenance, used directly for food, clothing and shelter, or indirectly in processed form (and also to feed animals, which is a terribly inefficient way to use crops, as detailed in Animal-based versus Plant-based Agriculture). Our crop plants have been raised over millennia, through evolutionary forces and human selection, from their wild ancestors. Seeds are the repository of the genetic potential of crop species and their varieties resulting from the continuous improvement and selection over time.

As writer Janisse Ray says, “A history of civilization is a history of seeds.” Indeed, as we humans began domesticating plants (via selecting, saving and sowing the seeds of wild plants), we sedentarized and became agricultural, evolving into agrarian cultures by leaving behind our foraging roots  and depending more and more on the food that we domesticated. And over millennia, the food became dependent on us, as we selected, for example, the ancestor of maize with the plumpest kernels, and crossed it with another with the longest ears to eventually harvest an abundance of long-eared, fat-kernelled maize unlike any we had seen before. By cross-pollinating two different, but related plants over 6 to 10 plant generations, eventually a new plant variety was created. The process required patience, but was rewarding. By selectively cross-pollinating related plants in this way, farmers could create varieties that were healthier and stood up to the farmer’s micro-climate—their soil, their weather patterns, their predatory insects. For thousands of years—at least 12,000, but perhaps many more—humans have engaged in plant domestication, selecting, developing and caring for progenitors of the crops we know today.

And what a diversity of seeds we discovered and created and propagated and…traded! In fact, historically, between growing seasons, part of the harvested seeds was kept aside for future use, and another part was traded because traditional societies understood that, just like with human reproduction, plants do better by outbreeding. Exchanging seeds helps keep a variety strong and valuable, almost like a genetic currency whose intrinsic worth grows from being swapped and disseminated. There is something symbolic about this process, that to enhance the viability and value of seeds, we had to be openhanded.

And we were. For centuries, people in agrarian societies shared seeds to sustain themselves and to help each other subsist from year to year. Farmers and farming communities had the essential societal and material responsibility of breeding plants and producing seeds. The historical and regular exchange of seeds among communities and peoples allowed crops to adapt to different natural conditions, climates and topographies…and in truth what allowed farming to spread globally and to feed the entire world with diverse and nutritious food.

This changed drastically in the 20th century, when plant breeding and seed production became activities separate from farming itself and “peasant varieties” were gradually replaced by industrial varieties. In Europe and North America, this happened over several decades, spurred by new technologies such as the development of hybrids, and by the lobbying power exerted by a handful of multinational agricultural corporations (today, three companies: – Bayer Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta – account for roughly 50 percent of all global seed sales). In Asia, Africa and Latin America, it took off after the 1960s, when so-called development programmes pushed ‘high-yielding’ crops and the use of chemical inputs, and the resulting “seed laws” that regulated the production, sale, trade and quality of seeds for sowing. 

In India, this was known as the Green Revolution. Driven by the goal to ensure India’s national food security (after harvest failures and famine conditions in the mid-1960’s), it marked the transition from traditional agriculture with its abundant biodiversity to industrial agriculture aimed at increased yield, with the adoption of modern methods and technology such as the use of (and subsidies to procure) high yielding variety (HYV) seeds, tractors, irrigation facilities, and chemical pesticides and fertilizers (all of which are implicated in environmental damage). In the early 21st century, GMOs (genetically modified organisms) stole their way onto our cropland, and with the arrival of these non-reproducible seeds came corresponding noxious herbicides and insecticides…and international patents controlling their use and distribution. Aside from being a direct extension of chemical agriculture (developed and sold by the world’s largest, aforementioned agrochemical companies), GMOs pose a serious threat to farmer sovereignty, to our national food security, to crop diversity (which seeps into a wider and deeper gulf of destroying ecosystem biodiversity), and to a loftier ideal of non-ownership of life.

The sinister route that agriculture has followed since the Green Revolution makes the need for seed banks that much more vital.

But why? As we’ve seen, with the advent of industrial agriculture, thousands of distinct varieties of seeds worldwide, especially ancient breeds, are threatened: fewer and fewer farmers are growing them—and in many cases, no farmers are growing them and varieties are dying out, the seeds for them no longer found. Three things result from varietal decline. First is the loss to our plates, palates and nutrition and to farmers’ independence. Second is the loss of seed sovereignty and with it the ability to control our food supply. Third is that varietal decline threatens agrodiversity; and the less biodiverse any system is, the greater the potential for its collapse. Loss of seed varieties combined with the industrial agricultural shrivels the gene pool, strips our crops of the ability to adapt to change, and puts the entire food supply at risk. 

The importance of seed banks is multiple: They are used for preserving the genetic diversity of crops that otherwise are on the verge of losing their existence, and to preserve the genes that plant breeders need to increase yield, disease resistance, drought tolerance, nutritional quality and taste of crops. They are also used to protect seeds from extinction in case of various disasters, including the effects of climatic change (like drought or flooding), natural disasters (like tsunamis), and human-made disasters (like war or oil spills). 

While there is a handful of global seed banks (the most famous being the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, aka the “Doomsday Vault”, housed on a cold, remote Norwegian island, that currently holds nearly 1 million seed samples), it’s really on a national, and even more so on a local level that seed banks demonstrate their commitment to environmental , economic and political activism,  by appreciating the traditional knowledge of indigenous  peoples and local communities; emancipating farmers from the shackles of dependence upon the ruinous  multinationals and liberating the soil from those corporations’ environmentally devastating products; and relying on  cooperation,  self-reliance and a variety of exchange mechanisms (like seed fairs, in-kind seed loans and barter) rather than competition, subservience and bank loans and the inevitable debt that drive so many to suicide.

Some of the most dynamic of these groups are Community Seed Banks, often called Seed Libraries, because their main purpose is not to store or hold onto seeds (like a “bank”) but rather to disseminate them to the public (like a “library”). Other groups call themselves “Seed Savers,” or “Seed Swappers” or “Seed Exchange Networks.” Regardless of their label, they are an invaluable asset for the preservation of seed heritage, the exchange and proliferation of native varieties of crops and the time-honored knowledge of our most important source of survival: our food system. 

Probably the most well-known seed-saving organization in India is Navdanya, an NGO founded in 1991 by the outspoken environmental activist Dr. Vandana Shiva. Navdanya is a women-centred movement for the protection of biological and cultural diversity, advocating for biodiversity conservation through a large network of seed keepers and has helped set up 54 community seed banks, as well as the largest direct marketing, fair trade organic network in the country. 

Some other well-known seed banks in India will be listed at the end of this section, but it would be a mistake to conclude that saving seeds can only be organized by an NGO or another type of institution. Take Rahibai Soma Popere, an uneducated illiterate farmer from Kombhalne village in Maharashtra to whom eminent scientist Raghunath Mashelkar conferred the epithet “Seed Mother.”  Rahibai has worked on farms her entire life and has a remarkable knowledge of crop diversity. Not only has she conserved almost fifty acres of indigenous farmland where she grows 17 different crops, she has conserved many native crops including 15 varieties of rice, nine varieties of pigeon pea and sixty varieties of vegetables, as well as developing a series of hyacinth beans for self-help groups and families in nearby villages. Rahibai has also established a seed bank that is managed by community members and that distributes 122 varieties of 32 crops. Focusing on women-led agro-biodiversity, she trains farmers and students on ways to select seeds, harvest water, manage pests and maintain soil fertility. 

For without healthy soil, seeds cannot prosper. In fact because soil is the foremost medium of food production, fertile soil is essential for our survival…just as infertile, degraded soil leads to our demise.  As Dr. Shiva has written, “History provides ample evidence that civilizations which ignored the health and well-being of the soil, and exploited it without renewing its fertility, disappeared along with the soil.” 

Without presenting a course in soil science, simply speaking, healthy soil is recognized as having the following characteristics: 1) good soil tilth (tilth is the overall physical condition of the soil in relation to plant growth); 2) sufficient depth, meaning not compacted or eroded; 3) sufficient but not an excess supply of nutrients; 4) good soil drainage; 5) strong and diverse microbial populations; and 6) free of chemicals and toxins. As we reveal in the section Organic and Veganic Farming, continuing modern-day “conventional” agricultural methods is a sure way to deplete our soils and join ranks with those disappeared civilizations that Dr. Shiva wrote about. By adopting veganic methods of agriculture, however, we ensure healthy, fertile soil, and hence a flourishing crop production and sustainable food system for the present…and the future.

Article about seed laws:

Community Seed Banks in India:

Links to other well-known seed banks in India:

  • Annadana Seed and Soil Savers works toward conserving food plant diversity and supports sustainable natural farming. The Annadana Seed Bank conserves and distributes 101 varieties of organic open-pollinated vegetable seeds.

  • Green Foundation started in 1996, which works on conserving local seed diversity and promoting biodiversity-based ecological agriculture. It has a network of farmer associations spread across 109 villages in Karnataka and Tamil Nadu for preserving and promoting agro-biodiversity through community seed banks.
  • Sahaja Samrudha is an organic farmers’ collective that works for preserving India’s traditional farming practices and the rich biodiversity of its indigenous crop varieties. It has created a seed savers group in Karnataka, which has done remarkable work in identifying rare varieties of paddy, millets, lentils, vegetables, etc.
  • Deccan Development Society is an NGO involved in conserving agro-biodiversity, working with voluntary associations to help women and agricultural laborers in Andhra Pradesh. It has initiated a community gene bank project to preserve agro-biodiversity, networking with a number of small organizations involved in seed bank activities.
Shopping Basket