Seed Saving

Bellis logoAll Hands In The Soil!

Global food security is now under threat, and even unconfident gardeners must step forward to feed a growing population.

Humanity is on a planetary resources roller coaster. Right now our carriage is rising to the highest point and it’s slowing down just before the peak. The breeze is ruffling our hair, adrenaline pumps and our palms sweat as we await the unexpected twists and turns. We know what’s about to happen because we all follow the news. The carriage has started accelerating downhill, but all rides start gradually – at first.

As nations joined hands celebrating the new millennium, humanity had already reached a roller coaster peak of food production – I call this ‘peak food’. There are other peaks coming shortly: oil, water, natural gas, sea levels and population. In 1995, the United Nation’s Environment Programme published its Global Biodiversity Assessment, delivering the most important messages of today: a signal for urgent global transformation. More than a decade later, the messages remain stark.

Here’s a summary of some of those messages relating to food security – one global twist which we are living and gardening with now:

  • Even if global greenhouse gas emissions ceased today, there’s sufficient gas already in the atmosphere to guarantee Global Warming. Because oceans respond more slowly than our atmosphere, they will continue rising for 100 years or more;
  • Globally, the rate of human population increase started declining between 1980 and 1995, to a rise of 1.82 per cent per annum. The rate may have slowed, but population is still rising fast;
  • For the first time, the global rate at which virgin land is being cleared for farming, started to equal the global rate at which existing farmland is being lost to desertification. Globally we are treading water and things will worsen;
  • For the first time since humans learned how to farm, world harvests started failing to provide enough food to meet our needs. The longer soil is farmed industrially the sooner it appears to reach a productivity plateau before declining. Declining productivity seems linked to declining soil organic content and soil health

Vale the ‘Green Revolution’

Linda, one of my staff at Sydney Botanic Gardens preparing for a little industrialised gardening…

In the mid-twentieth century, exponential population growth was noticed early and taken seriously enough to spur a dramatic acceleration of global food production from the 1940s onwards. Traditional farming practices and traditional crop varieties were displaced as farming became intensive: the birth of industrial agriculture or factory farming occurred on a massive scale.

Productivity increases resulted from focussing on growing a very limited range of predominantly hybrid crop varieties in unprecedented quantities. These modern hybrid crops, and now genetically modified crops, have been developed from traditional non-hybrid varieties to produce greater yields. While productive, these tend to consume more water, fertilisers, pesticides, oil, technology and expertise than traditional ones. Nevertheless, the future seemed secure as food production exceeded population growth. In 1968, William Gaud, the director of the United States Agency for International Development, named this rapid increase in food production the ‘Green Revolution’.

The world population increased from three billion in 1959 to six billion by 1999, doubling over 40 years. Projections suggest population growth will continue this century, rising to 9 billion by 2042. But productivity has hit a barrier. The Global Biodiversity Assessment explains that Global Warming alone -with no added complications – will severely challenge humanity. Some population experts see declining human fertility and the declining rate of population increase as hopeful signs that we will manage, but this is tempered by the reality that since 2000, the last six out of seven global harvests haven’t provided enough food to feed everyone.

Why has this exceptional situation escaped our attention? The world avoided significant food shortages because we’ve been raiding our larder. Food stores have filled the gaps, but humanity appears convincingly to have passed peak food just as it will pass peak oil in the next 10 to 15 years. Without cheap, plentiful oil, industrial agriculture will have to restructure as rising fuel prices force oil-derived pesticide and fertiliser costs and machine operation bills up. Why not grow biofuel substitutes for fossil oil? Sure, if humanity wants to set aside food growing land for fuel growing land. Big solutions create bigger problems. The arithmetic is simple and, sadly, the sums don’t add up.

Transformation – beyond oil

Between the late 19th and the mid-20th century, British farmland had been neglected for two generations. Importing ‘Empire-grown’ food was so cheap it seemed silly not to do it. In 1939, British farmers and factory workers left to fight the war, food production waned and food convoys were being sunk by submarines. With only eighteen months of stored food left before Britain starved, they transformed how and where food was grown thanks to one person: Viscount Lymington. Training and equipping ordinary people in domestic and farm food production saved that nation from starvation. The rest is history as superbly recounted from a gardener’s perspective in The Wartime Kitchen and Garden.

In the late 20th century Cuba embraced industrial agriculture: it had plenty of cheap Soviet supplied oil. Cuban farmers used more chemical fertilisers and pesticides than even the USA. When the Soviet Empire folded in the 1980s, Cuba lost its oil overnight. It took a decade to transform society. Today food is grown organically by necessity, not by choice. Public parks and open spaces have become permaculture community gardens, and domestic gardens grow productive, not just pretty plants. Cuban organic productivity now equals that of industrial farming but farmers are now some of their best-paid citizens. So far Cuba is the only industrialised nation to have made it to a post-oil economy.

Australian cities are located on our most fertile, most reliably watered soils -we live in garden cities. Food production at home, in community gardens and community supported local agriculture adjoining major population centres offers one avenue for food security. With water shortages hitting our major food-growing regions, some of our politicians expect we can import food to make up the shortfall. But experts warn that this may not be possible with global shortages appearing already. What might be needed is for our leaders to insist that neglected farmland in fertile and more water-abundant regions be put to use to grow food and fodder.

 The politics of food

Imagine the history of food culture starting with our roller coaster ride of ‘food security’. The ride starts with the wild ancestors of modern crops. The middle part of the ride represents how ancestral farmers guided their evolution into modern crops, and the high point of the ride represents the 19th century zenith of cultivated diversity.

Teosinte, Zea mays subspecies mexicana A perennial form of corn, now extinct in the wild.
Teosinte, Zea mays subspecies mexicana
A perennial form of corn, now extinct in the wild.

In some cases it took hundreds, even thousands of years to develop those early crop plants – transforming the weedy-looking wild cereal species into the large, highly productive crops – like wheat, rice and maize – that we recognise today. The wild ancestors may not be productive but they contain the greatest pool of useful genes that will ever exist. Generally speaking, the habitats of many wild crop ancestors are inadequately conserved and face extinction. Teosinte, a perennial species of wild maize, is believed to be extinct. We might never be able to start from scratch again.

A crucial failing is that industrial farming focussed only on those few varieties that fitted in with mechanised monocultures. There was nothing deliberate about what happened next – it’s simply that about 85 per cent of the varieties of crops that existed at the start of the 20th century were neglected long enough to be lost by the end of that century. They are extinct.

Now the land that has been growing modern hybrids is becoming less productive, clearing for farming is reaching finite limits, the economics of farming with oil is altering just as our climate starts changing for a minimum of a century, while at the top of our food security ride sit six billion people (and rising) on the 21st century part of our ride.

Seed saving is vital

Seed savers’ have a simple belief that what you eat is the most political act of your life. Conserving and cultivating what diversity remains is up to the community. So apart from growing your own food, saving seed and keeping crop species viable, is an essential act. Organisations such as the Seed Savers’ Network in Australia and the Seed Savers Exchange in the USA, are vital to preserving remaining diversity in traditional crop varieties.

Red Russian Kale and Cabbage ‘Couve Tronchuda’. Two of the varieties being adapted to Brisbane’s changing climate at Bellis.

Food is also about culture, and the more multicultural a society is, the more seed conservation diversity it can represent. Each generation that saves traditional varieties for subsequent generations to grow, boosts the vitality of their culture.
Also, by saving seed, home gardeners can gradually modify their own crops to better suit local conditions of soil, climate, cultivation, pests and diseases –especially vital as our climate changes. Say for example four gardeners, one in Darwin, Hobart, Perth and Brisbane, buy seed of the same variety of coriander. Local adaptation over time results in coriander more likely to suit the local challenges of those individual cities.

Local Brisbane gardeners are surprised by the vigour of my ‘Aquadulce’ broad beans and mangelwurzel. Long-term successive generations of these grown from home-saved seed can only lift their performance. I’m growing and saving snowpea ‘Oregon’ and Portuguese cabbage ‘Couve Tronchuda’. As all seed savers should, I never eat the best of each crop – I save their seed for next year. One plant of my ‘First Fleet’ lettuce produces enough seed for a ten-year supply for me, or enough for a whole street of gardeners to grow lettuce.
Saving seed is about grassroots conservation for the non-expert of any age or background. Its most potent offering is allowing each gardener, wherever they live, to enjoy their favourite food plants whilst adapting them through climate change.

Global food security is now of paramount importance to the family of mankind. Unconfident gardeners are suddenly vital elements in the conservation of food and culture. Laymen can build buffers against famine and climate change, and also save money. Unlike Britain during World War Two, or Cuba in the 1980s, the world has about ten gardening years to prepare for the end of cheap plentiful oil. Plenty of time for a fruit tree sown in 2007 to begin cropping. Choose your favourite fruit and vegetables and get started.

Jerry Coleby-Williams

This article first appeared in The Organic Gardener magazine, Winter 2007


  • Global Biodiversity Assessment, United Nations Environment Programme, V. H. Heywood, Executive Editor, Cambridge University Press, ISBN 0-521-56403-4, 1995
  • United States Agency for International Development (USAID) website:
  • The Wartime Kitchen AND Garden, Jennifer Davies, BBC Books, ISBN 0-563-36437-8, 1993.
  • Famine in England, Viscount Lymington, H. F. & G. Witherby Ltd, London, 1938.
  • The Power of Community: How Cuba Survived Peak Oil, DVD by The Community Solution, 2006. Available from The Community Service Inc., PO Box 243, Yellow Springs, Ohio, USA 45387. Web:
  • Seed Saver’s Network: PO Box 975, Byron Bay NSW 2481. Web:

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