With constant headlines about a climate crisis, a cost of living crisis, and what some papers are calling a “salad crisis”, it can seem like little is going right in the world. But now seed libraries are springing up across the country, planting hope in communities at a time when the world could really use a little bit more joy
Originally written by Isabella Mcrae for the Big Issue on March 29th 2023
With constant headlines about a climate crisis, a cost of living crisis, and what some papers are calling a “salad crisis”, it can seem like little is going right in the world. But now seed libraries are springing up across the country, planting hope in communities at a time when the world could really use a little bit more joy.
The idea is simple: seeds are free for people to take home and sow. With trial and error, you might just manage to grow a crop of bright red tomatoes or wonky courgettes you can share with friends and neighbours.
There is no suggestion this will solve the cost of living crisis, or that people will be able to single-handedly stock the supermarket shelves with their own home-grown produce. But those at the heart of the seed-sharing community are adamant: as an example of people gathering together and providing for each other, it is hard to beat.
You might manage to grow a crop of tomatoes like this one. Image: Shaun Fellows/ Shine Pix Ltd
“Seed sharing is a brilliant way to get closer to nature and your community,” says Rob Percival, the head of food policy at the Soil Association. “Whether it’s swapping seeds across the garden fence or visiting your local seed bank, it’s a cost-effective way to start your growing journey that’s kinder to the environment.”
Along with your seeds, Percival suggests reusing household objects like yoghurt pots and mushroom trays to plant your seedlings. The Soil Association will run a “plant and share” month between April and May, a campaign to get the nation growing and sharing produce with their community.
It is not a simple fix by any means. When environment secretary Thérèse Coffey said we should cherish home-grown produce amid the food shortages (her vegetable of choice was turnips), she was slammed by campaigners and politicians alike.
Labour MP Ian Byrne told the Big Issue at the time: “If all she has in her armoury is turnips to fight the devastation I see, then I suggest she looks at a different career path.”
Turnips are not going to solve the cost of living crisis. And growing food in our own back gardens isn’t a feasible solution to hunger.
But people who are actively involved in the world of seed sharing believe that it is a start, and there are lessons to be learned from the communities sharing seeds between each other.
Catrina Fenton at the Heritage seed Library. Image: Shaun Fellows / Shine Pix Ltd
One of those is Helene Shulze, the co-director of the London Freedom Seedbank, a network of food growers and gardeners dedicated to saving, storing and sharing seeds.
“We see seed as a shared resource and a shared responsibility,” she says. “It should be something that everyone has access to and free. The seed industry is dominated by just four companies globally. That’s terrifying because when you control seed, you control the whole food system.
“The majority of what we eat comes from seed at some point. That’s the start of power in the food system. When that power is taken away from communities, it shifts the whole system towards a concentration of power. Seed libraries are an experiment in collective care.”
Shulz believes seed libraries are a tool to deal with “injustices related to land ownership”. If you open a pumpkin up, it’s filled with more seeds than you can feasibly grow yourself. So, you can share them or donate them to a seed library.
“The food system is so oriented around scarcity,” she says. “Everyone is looking after themselves. That lesson in abundance and in sharing when you’ve got more than you need is pretty important as a philosophy of life.”
Miles away in Northern Ireland, Killyleagh, Antrim and Belfast Central Libraries are developing seed libraries using repurposed card catalogue furniture, providing free seeds along with gardening tips.
“At a time when many people are impacted by the increased cost of living, there are real mental health benefits to spending time nurturing seeds and watching something grow,” a spokesperson for the libraries says.
These small seed libraries are pilot projects, seeking to help their communities in a small way and boost morale. But it is also part of a much bigger movement focused on building a more sustainable future.
The Heritage Seed Library is one of the oldest seed banks in Europe, with a collection of rare varieties saved over generations. Over the last century, the world has lost hundreds – if not thousands – of vegetable varieties. The seed library is trying to save the seeds and build resilience in the face of the climate crisis.
“Our empty shelves in the supermarkets have shone a light on where food comes from and how vulnerable it can be to events in other countries,” the seed library’s head Catrina Fenton remarks.
“Anyone can do a little bit of seed-saving themselves. If you haven’t done it before, I’d encourage you to try something simple like a tomato or a pea, and then you’ll have a free supply of seed for as long as you want.”
Catherine Howell, northern-region coordinator at Seed Sovereignty UK and Ireland, which supports a network of seed growers, agrees.
“Seed swaps are safe, comforting and warm spaces to exchange skills and knowledge, find friendships in local communities and maybe, even for a brief moment, feel all that’s good in the world,” she says. “Building these networks catches folk when they fall. They throw a lifeline to people in danger of slipping through the cracks.”
Thanks again to the Big Issue for this article.
The food policy landscape in Scotland is changing. In the past Scottish...
Following on from Defra’s commitment to publish a Land Use Framework and...
We're pleased to annouce that we have 8 new members, taking our network up...
We spoke to Ian Smith (Food Plymouth) and Rachel Silcock (Plymouth City...
Louise Denham, coordinator of the Vale of Glamorgan Food Partnership, shares...