When you hear “seed bank” what comes to mind? Is it perhaps a vault or a deep freezer stocked with seeds? Yes, Grassroots International partner the Union of Agricultural Work Committees’ seed bank has those, but what I saw and heard was so much more than that. UAWC’s seed bank also assists farmers while protecting local agricultural biodiversity across the occupied Palestinian territories (oPt) – literally preserving their seed sovereignty amidst the occupation.
According to Fu’ad Abu Saif, UAWC’s Programs Director, the idea for a seed bank evolved from a 2003 local survey in Palestine in which UAWC discovered that significant varieties of seeds – what he described as “pure local seeds used by hundreds of Palestinian families” – were disappearing. Abu Saif says their disappearance was “systemic and the result of weather “ and “Israeli companies that purchased seeds from local families and gave the families new seeds that were not adapted to local conditions.” From that initial survey a local seed improvement program emerged, which eventually became the seed bank in 2009. Although the main priority is conservation and preservation of local seeds, the seed bank transcends passive collection of seeds for posterity. Rather, through its seed bank, UAWC is engaged in a conversation rooted in sovereignty with Palestinian farmers. It receives and distributes local Palestinian seeds. It conducts research to improve seeds through proven methods of crosspollination and grafting, processes small farmers around the world have effectively used for thousands of years. And, it is deeply engaged in the fight against genetically modified organisms (GMOs) through its laboratory, which tests agricultural products in Palestine for evidence of GMOs. Since early 2012, they had not found any GMOs, but they worried about rumors that Israeli agribusinesses were using Palestine as a test case for GMOs. Abu Saif estimates that the seed bank provides local seeds to 200-300 families every agricultural season. In exchange for the seeds, these families promise to return a portion of seeds they collect to the bank after the harvest. When asked why local seeds are important, Abu Saif responded with a sentiment we’ve heard from other small farmers from the Global South: “There’s no national sovereignty without seed sovereignty.” From conversations with him, and other Grassroots International partners, the meaning of that statement is becoming clearer: whoever controls food production in a country controls that country, and food production is impossible without seeds. In that context, it is important for local farmers to control and preserve local seed varieties in the face of GMO and hybrid seeds that can’t be used from one season to the next because they do not reproduce. GMO and hybrid seeds must be purchased each planting season thereby creating dependency on foreign corporations; often the same corporations also sell the chemical fertilizers that must be used with these seeds. Abu Saif made it clear that this seed bank should be under the government’s purview, and they “are ready to hand it over to them.” Whether it’s an issue of capacity or political will on the government’s part, UAWC continues to manage the seed bank where local seeds from across the oPt are stored, including those from the Ministry of Agriculture. One way to view the human story is through our relationship with our food, and the seeds that make life possible. As UAWC views it, handling seeds with scientific expertise and human care reach beyond the next planting season and into the next generation, quite literally implants sovereignty deep into the soil of their land.