Borrow, Save, Share: 3 Ways Seeds Can Democratize Our Food System

Originally published on Yes Magazine authored by Neil Thapar.

Just six companies control 63 percent of the commercial seed market. But seed libraries offer us an opportunity to reclaim the seed commons and create our own community food systems.

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Our food system is broken and needs to be fixed, many say. But it isn’t broken. In fact, I think it’s working exactly how it was intended. The current food system, and the legal rules that govern it, have been built by and for only the largest producers, retailers, and manufacturers. The bigger the better, the logic goes, which is why our food economy is dominated by large, increasingly consolidated, vertically integrated corporations.

An especially consolidated sector of our food system is the seed economy; for example, just six companies control 63 percent of the commercial seed market. Because most of our food starts off as seed, instead of trying to fix a system that isn’t intended to work for the vast majority of people, animals, or the planet, we should try to create our own.

 If we want more equitable access to healthy, affordable food grown locally by small farmers who steward natural resources responsibly, this is exactly what we need to do. The task is tall, but so achievable, especially if we all commit to working together in the right direction. Here are three simple steps we can take to reintroduce democracy back into our seed system and into our neighborhoods.

1. Borrow

If you haven’t been to your local library recently, you might be surprised to find a seed library there. Across the United States, there are about 400 of these community-based seed sharing initiatives, which allow neighbors to share seeds with one another. It basically works like this: You borrow seeds, grow the plant, harvest almost all of the fruit (which you eat!), and save and return some of the seeds back to the library, where others will repeat the process. Seed librarian extraordinaire Rebecca Newburn, cofounder of Richmond Grows Seed Lending Library, says it like this: “It’s like checking out a book, except that you’ve added a chapter when you return it.”

Seed libraries make seeds freely available to its members or the public, relying on reciprocity and a sense of interdependence to ensure that its stock is continually replenished. By treating seeds as a common resource to be stewarded for the public benefit, libraries create what is called the seed commons. The commons reframes our role in relationship to seeds as that of caretakers instead of owners. While owners only have a responsibility to themselves, caretakers have a responsibility to the seeds and to the community that placed them under their care. By bringing seeds into the commons, we have the power to democratize access to, and control over, one of our basic necessities: food.

2. Save

Seed saving is nothing new. If anything, it’s likely one of the oldest continuous human traditions, going back some 10,000 years. Just in the last century or so, we as a society have lost—and been removed from—our connection to seed. In this time, seeds have been transformed from a common resource into a commodity, bought and sold and owned by fewer and fewer companies.

But saving seed is not necessarily simple. That’s why libraries exist as educational resources to help us rediscover the art and skill involved with it. Re-skilling ourselves means that we will be able to provide healthy foods to ourselves and our families, build community resilience in the face of climate change, and rediscover the cultural history and significance attached to the seeds we save.

In practice, it also means growing food for ourselves and our communities. The more food we grow ourselves, the less we rely on a global food system that prioritizes profit over environmental, human, or animal welfare. It also means that we are buying and selling food locally, circulating our dollars in our communities, and generating local wealth. Seed saving is at once an act of resistance and renewal.

3. Share

The success of our new food system relies equally on our independence from the current system as it does on our interdependence on each other. What that simply means is that we should share more and sharemore equitably. We should share both the risk and the reward, the profits and the losses, the efforts and the outcomes. By sharing, we also begin to take part in an alternative economy, one not based on transacting money for goods or services, but on relationships, gift giving, and mutual aid. At a time when dollars in our economy are increasingly scarce and consolidated in the hands of the wealthy few, sharing gives us the means to provide for ourselves.

In particular, sharing seeds is an easy place to start, because seeds by their nature almost beg to be shared. One tomato plant might produce upwards of 500 seeds, which, in theory, could be planted in 500 different gardens the next season. Now, imagine that 100 households grow five crops each to share their seeds. It’s not difficult to picture the multiplying effect community-based seed sharing could have on the total amount of local food production!

Yet no good deed goes unpunished. Right now, seed libraries across the country are struggling to protect their ability to facilitate local sharing. In partnership with others, Sustainable Economies Law Center, where I work, has been leading a campaign to raise public awareness of this struggle and to advocate on behalf of seed sharing organizations. You can learn more about it at our Save Seed Sharing website.

Creating a true bottom-up democracy means that we need to envision democracy not just in our government but in all aspects of our lives. Civic engagement is not just about choosing who to vote for—it’s also about choosing how and where to spend a dollar. Seed libraries offer us an opportunity to become more civically engaged by reintroducing democracy into the food economy, reclaiming the seed commons, and empowering communities to begin creating their own local food systems.

 

Neil Thapar wrote this article for YES! Magazine. Neil is a staff attorney at Sustainable Economies Law Center and leads its Food and Farmland programs. He is passionate about building collective power to recreate healthy, just, and resilient food systems. Follow him on Twitter @NeilThapar.

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10 Ideas For Change, Co-operative Local Economies

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As the cracks in corporate capitalism deepen, the co-operative economy is gaining strength. Rooted in community and in the democratisation of ownership, co-operative structures allow citizens to reclaim power over their workplaces, their open spaces, their housing, shops and public realm. Here are ten ideas for building grassroots democratic economies:

1. Take over local shops: Community-run shops – and pubs and petrol stations and libraries – have grown in the UK in recent years, particularly in rural areas. In Ceredigion a co-operative called 4cg began by fighting back against a supermarket planning to move into the town. Through a series of share issues it has communally purchased land and buildings and offers cheap parking and facilities. Its assets now include a community shop as an outlet for local producers and a children’s centre. In a remote island in Maine in New England, employees bought out the three main retail businesses in the town to create the largest worker co-op in the state.

2. Support the development of co-ops: New York City’s most recent budget includes $1.2m for the development and support of worker-owned co-ops, the biggest investment ever made by a city government in the US. In the Bronx, the Green Worker Co-operatives runs a Co-op Academy to help new co-ops get off the ground. The Fund for Democratic Communities supports the development of democratic communities in southern states of the US. In the UK there are a number of development agencies including the Wales Co-operative Centre, Co-operative Development Scotland and Co-operatives UK.

3. Build community media: The centralisation and corporatisation of media has huge implications for local development and democracy. In many places local newspapers have succumbed to market forces and closed their doors. But a movement of co-operative and community-run media businesses is building. Sheffield is home to the UK’s first local television community benefit society, Sheffield Live TV, funded by community shares, and in France a crowdfunding campaign to save regional daily Nice-Matin and convert it into a worker’s co-operative beat its target of €300,000. The West Highlands Free Press has been running for over 40 years and is now employee-owned.

4. Mutualise the local economy: Sheffield co-operative Regather’s ambitious mission is to create a mutual local economy. It helps local people exchange goods and services with each other, expand co-operative working and build collective resources. In Dalston in east London, the Hackney Co-operative Developments supports and incubates cooperative and locally-run businesses.

5. Take over the local football club: The most recent issue of New Start shone a light on the growing number of supporter-led football clubs and the power of community-run clubs to boost their local economy. As big clubs get ever more remote from the communities in which they are based, Supporter’s Direct is helping a new wave of supporter-led clubs to emerge.

6. Gain community ownership of natural assets: Our ancestors – who worked together on common land and managed local woodland as communities – would have despaired at today’s concentration of land ownership and gated communities. A new commons movement is rebuilding community ownership of parkswoodlands and evenmountains.

7. House-build for the common good: Rather than allowing housebuilders, developers and property owners to extract all the value from new developments, there are a number of ways in which that value can be used for the benefit of the wider community. Community Land Trusts are gaining momentum across the UK as housing becomes increasingly out of the reach of many. Community-controlled and owned, they hold land in trust so that housing remains permanently affordable.New garden cities are reviving Ebenezer Howard’s model, which spread the increased value of development to build community infrastructure.

8. Set up community finance mechanisms: New forms of local finance are needed to drive a co-operative revolution. In many places local banks and investment clubs help support co-operative development. In the US urban community land trusts have flourished with the help of city-CLT relationships, in which the local government supports and helps fund new developments. In Germany the KfW public bank provides capital at 1% to local co-operative banks and municipal savings banks for local investment.

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9. Fund the platform: Co-ops and collaborative ventures rely on civic participation, and when it comes to participation, the wider and deeper the better. Organisations like Civic Systems Lab have learnt that the creation of an open platform, on which citizens are invited to co-build the projects and services they want, has greater impact than pre-defined projects that limit involvement. Good examples are Singeldingen, a kiosk in a park in Rotterdam that has become a base from which locals run an endless range of activities during the summer months, and Incredible Edible Todmorden, which invited the whole town to become food growers.

10. Open a Mayor’s Living Room – or similar neighbourhood space: An empty property on a street corner in Rotterdam, previously a place for anti-social behavior, has become the meeting place for the whole neighbourhood. In the so-called Mayor’s Living Room the local community comes together to cook, hold meetings, play music and hang out. Households can become members and pay €3 a month, which helps upkeep the building. Residents come together to celebrate national holidays and, as described in the Community Lovers Guide to Rotterdam, ‘young and old, local residents and professionals, everyone has found a place in our living room’.

Original article published at : https://www.popularresistance.org/10-ideas-for-change-co-operative-local-economies/