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Saving Seeds, Saving Culture, Saving The Food System

Columns 2023-11-17, 12:17am


Danielle Nierenberg

Danielle Nierenberg

Across all of human history, according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, more than 6,000 plant species have been cultivated for food.

But today, fewer than 3 percent of these make major contributions to the food supply on global, regional, or national levels. In fact, two-thirds of total worldwide crop production is currently made up of just nine species, according to FAO data.

In addition to all the flavorful produce we’re missing out on, this homogenization is a major threat to crop genetic diversity—and poses serious danger to the future of the food supply. With less natural variation, food systems are more vulnerable to the disastrous effects of climate change.

After all, crop genetic diversity is "the very foundation of agriculture," says Nora Castañeda-Álvarez, Project Manager of Seeds for Resilience at The Crop Trust.

Seed saving is how we can regain control over our food production and build resilient local food systems.

Farming families around the globe have practiced seed saving for millennia, allowing them to cultivate a wider range of crops that are better adapted to local environments. And community seed banks also boost access for local growers and can act as an emergency seed supply to rebuild after extreme weather events.

According to one recent analysis, more than half of global seed sales are controlled by just four companies.

This puts us in a dangerous cycle: Important decisions about food production are being made by a small group of corporate leaders, who all share a strong profit motive to prioritize research and development of cheap, starchy staple crops that have high yields and fill people up—at the expense of meaningful nutrition security and agricultural resilience.

We must remember: Saving seeds is saving culture.

"We cannot separate culture and identity from the art, act, and love of growing food," says Sherry Manning, Founder and CEO of Global Seed Savers. "Seed saving is an essential piece of this knowledge. And in order to build a resilient food system in these ever-changing times, we have to return to this indigenous wisdom."

We’re seeing movement in the right direction around the world. In Kenya, the Seed Savers Network is pushing for Indigenous seed protection laws to boost food security and conserve Indigenous seed varieties. The Seed Savers Network is also working with smallholder farmers to trace and preserve Indigenous seeds at risk of extinction and reintroduce them to farms.

In the United States, the Seeds and Breeds for the Future Act, introduced by Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin, would direct USDA funding toward developing seed varieties that are regionally adapted and publicly available. The Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is a co-op focusing on heirloom and open-pollinated seeds, particularly in the Southeastern U.S. The BIPOC-run collective Ujamaa Cooperative Farming Alliance aims to cultivate seeds as "vessels of cultural heritage." A seed bank run by Native Seeds/SEARCH helps conserve thousands of traditional Indigenous crops.

In Norway, the Svalbard Global Seed Vault is home to more than 1 million seed samples from almost every country in the world, part of The Crop Trust’s broader mission to support genetic biodiversity. In Eastern India, Vrihi is the region’s largest folk rice seed bank and aims to revitalize the declining practice of non-commercial seed exchanges. In the Philippines, Global Seed Savers partners with farmers to establish community-owned seed libraries full of regionally adapted varieties.

(Do you want to know what’s happening in your area? Food Tank rounded up more than two dozen more organizations working to conserve seed biodiversity.)

Seed-saving operations are among my favorite places to visit when I’m traveling. Yes, I know I’m a nerd—but when I was in Senegal earlier this year with our friends at CORAF, one of the most memorable and inspiring sights was the rows of different sorghum and millet varieties whose futures are being prioritized.

Something seed-saving expert Ira Wallace said on a recent Food Talk podcast episode has stuck with me: "Seeds are living things. You can’t just put them away," she said. You have to take care of them, cultivate them, so they remain viable and able to be grown in their local climates.

Seed saving is not like burying a time capsule. It’s an art and a science. It’s an active task—and an incredibly hopeful one, too.

Wherever in the world I see seed-saving take place, I feel a sense of safety and hope. Whether I’m in a village in Africa or my neighborhood in Baltimore, local seed-savers are building a vibrant, diverse, delicious future.

We need all the tools in our toolbox. Farmers saving and growing heirloom seeds. Researchers working to develop climate-friendly and resilient varieties. Governments and legislators regulating big seed companies; subsidizing or investing in local seed networks; providing resources and support for farmers to grow a wider variety of crops. Home gardeners feeling empowered to take control of their own food cultivation.

I was in Washington, D.C., earlier this week for a screening of the film "Common Ground," an inspiring documentary (and the sequel to "Kiss the Ground") that highlights how this kind of biodiversity and regenerative agriculture can meaningfully rescue our unjust food system.

I was honored to join a panel conversation after the film with Kelsey Scott of DX Beef and Intertribal Agriculture Council, Che Axum of the University of the District of Columbia, Lara Bryant of the Natural Resources Defense Council, Michael Dimock of Roots of Change, and Josh Tickell, the film’s director. I really encourage everyone to see this film if possible—you can find more information about showtimes at

Are there seed savers and advocates in your community prioritizing biodiversity? Share their work with me! I look forward to reading your stories in my inbox at

(Danielle Nierenberg is the President of Food Tank and can be reached at