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Plant a Seed

Madeline McKeever of Brown Envelope Seeds nr Turk Head, Skibbereen

Madeline McKeever of Brown Envelope Seeds nr Turk Head, Skibbereen

There was a time in Ireland when we would not have countenanced lifting a morsel to our mouths without first giving thanks to the Creator for the gifts we had received.

It was understood that life was a miracle and as such food was a gift from above, in which God blessed our toil in the fields. Now don’t worry, I’ve not fallen under the entrance of campaigning creationist Sarah Palin, more simply my point is that we no longer view food as a gift from something greater than ourselves. This is not just a sentimental loss but is also a fundamental danger when we turn the tables and start to play god with nature. The God complex is nowhere more evident than in the science of genetics, particularly genetic modification, the dangers of which have been well spelled out and thankfully for now kept from our door. Just 2 weeks ago at the Terra Madre Ireland conference in Waterford, Minister for Food, Trevor Sargent, gave a solemn promise that Ireland will remain a GMO free country. The real agenda behind genetic modification (GM) is not simply the worthy desire to produce a superior product but is actually to grab ownership of the means of production itself – the seed. Monsanto, which has 90% of the GM-plant trait patents, doesn’t need to own all of the world’s agricultural land if instead it can effectively charge a rent on land use through seed patent monopolies and the prohibition of seed saving by farmers. There is a small but growing movement to protect agriculture and biodiversity from this scenario by spreading and improving the practice of seed saving.

One such seed saver is Madeline McKeever, who is one of the founder members of Growing Awareness and farms 30 acres near Skibbereen. Madeline is giving a talk on seed saving at An Sanctóir so I called down to find out more about seed saving. “The problem with most of the seed that we buy in Ireland, is that it has been produced in hot countries and it doesn’t always work well in our growing conditions. The Pacific North West in the USA and Southern Europe are the most significant seed producing areas, they have dry summers and mild winters. It is hard to produce seed in commercial quantities in a damp climate like ours, but locally produced seed will be better adapted. My guiding principle is to concentrate on what works for me. If it works here in difficult conditions, it will work for others in this area.  We have a good climate for producing brassica seeds but it is marginal for other stuff. I could specialize and grow loads of brassica seeds but most of my customers are home gardeners and as far as possible I want to be able to provide them with all of their seed needs. So it’s important that I provide a range and that I sell the basic normal vegetables seeds that work.”

Madeline walked me through her seed gardens, introducing me to her plants. Many of these are the result of years of refining and improvement through careful recording and selection. At this time of year, the gardens have a wonderfully wild and outlandish feel. So many of the plants change form when they run to seed, stalks shooting sunwards as the leaves recede, tubers, pods and seed heads all ready to burst and disperse. Ordinary garden vegetables like the carrot plant were to me unrecogisable in their fertile form.

“I’m convinced that growing our own food is going to really take off. At the moment nobody is actually living off their garden, but in a post peak oil society we may even see people growing their own staples. It seems to me that very little research money is being channeled into improving plant varieties that can thrive without petro-chemical and fossil fuel inputs. I have a project going here with Andean potatoes; they have survived the blight this year but are not to everyone’s taste. I hope they will eventually cross with Irish varieties, and that one year through selection and interbreeding I could produce blight resistant spuds.” Madeline attributes her experiences in Growing Awareness as a significant motivator for herself and others to get working on solutions. Developing a shared understanding and consensus about the problems facing food production has planted a seed in Madeline which has taken firm root and is branching out. You can find out more about Madeline’s seed catalogue at www.brownenvelopeseeds.com



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