Written by Malia Guyer-Stevens, Slow Food USA Editorial Intern
photos from the Slow Food International Archives + Summit Speakers
“We form these beautiful time-honored relationships, to seeds and food that inform us as people.” – Rowen White
Every culture has had a method of seed keeping, and most people today are only a generation or two from that practice being an integral piece of how we have fed ourselves for millennia. For some, this severance from our seed keeping path occurred by force – displacement, genocide, or colonization – and for others by choice, such as adapting to industrialized agriculture. Over just the first few days of the Slow Seed Summit, we witnessed the breadth of work that is happening around seed keeping and the roles that we can take on to move this work forward.
“We are lineal descendants of our traditional seeds,” said Rowen White, seed keeper, mother, farmer and storyteller, in her opening keynote. As part of the Mohawk community of Akwesasne, this rings particularly true for Rowen’s ancestors and family. Yet she is adamant that – as many other voices echoed throughout the weekend – we are all descended from seed keepers, no matter where we, or our ancestors, come from.
Rowen told the story of her own family and the Indigenous people of Turtle Island more broadly; She spoke of the intergenerational trauma that separated her family from their land, seeds, and culture, and the trauma that was inflicted upon them through colonization, displacement, and generations of young people forced into boarding schools that taught them to assimilate to the entirely different way of life and being. Rowen also described her own awakening to the power of seeds, and the resilient knowledge and culture that survived the oppression of her ancestors and led her to where she is today. The tension between finding ways of composting trauma while looking for hope in seeds and land served as a framework for the whole weekend.
On Relationship Building
Summit speakers throughout the weekend explicitly acknowledged the people that guided and mentored them in their work. For some, this was inherited ancestral knowledge, and for others, it was about learning from a neighbor. One way or another, building thoughtful and respectful relationships emerged as an integral piece in the sharing of seed and work happening today to build more sustainable foodways.
Chef David Vargas and Chef Rob Connoley centered the interdependent relationships that they have built with producers to preserve heritage foods and serve them in their restaurants. For small producers, working with restaurants can be an opportunity to experiment with foods for which they might not otherwise have a market. These relationships become an opportunity for all of us to enjoy and learn about new foods, served with the cultural and historical context that the seeds and their fruits carry with them. While not all of the seeds and foods discussed over the weekend will find their way into restaurants, individual and community stewards are similarly engaged in that relationship building to keep heirloom varieties in cultivation. The message is clear: building strong relationships is integral to the sustained life and history of seeds.
“May this time together be a collective prayer for all of us. That we would make a renewed commitment to be a part of that community and stewardship that ensures that our community has seeds for future generations.”
– Rowen White, opening prayer for the summit
Returning to Roots
For many, talking about seeds is akin to talking about travel across both time and space. Indigenous seeds being grown in the U.S. today are often the result of decades of movement – often extracted from their native land, carried across continents, and eventually returned to their original land through hard and intentional work by seed keepers. Plant-breeder Heron Breen’s told the complex history of Jacob’s Cattle Bean and its contested roots throughout the Americas. Horticulturalist and botanist, Daniela Dutra Elliott, walked us through her journey to find the favorite peppers of her childhood and Brazilian cultural heritage. On a panel about seed preservation, Kellee Matsushita-Tseng, spoke about the dual work in preserving seeds as food and cultural preservation. Kellee spoke about returning to the land two generations after her Japanese-American family members were removed from their farmland and sent to internment camps during World War II. Heirloom seeds are – much more often than not – accompanied by a story that tells of people and cultures that moved, across time and space, and how both the seeds and people found ways to adapt to new soils.
Another common current throughout this first week of sessions was the central importance of biodiversity. Not biodiversity just for the sake of it, but for our very survival. Seed saver, educator, and activist, Bill McDorman, spoke of biodiversity as a necessary safeguard against the unknown threats that face us and our food in a rapidly changing climate. For farmers like Kellee, biodiversity is not only about rescuing plant varieties from near extinction, but also about acknowledging the diversity that already exists but is too often monolithed through cultural erasure. She gave the example of daikon, speaking to how many Asian vegetables have been reduced down from the many varieties that exist to one single version of it that we know of and find in mainstream markets. To acknowledge this diversity, however, is not just a nod to flavor but also the cultural and historical usage of lesser-known varieties and even the many ways that they have adapted to myriad climates and growing conditions. In our first week of panels, land, people, and taste emerged as the essential elements in the quest for saving our biodiversity.
Bill McDorman and farmer, Fatuma Emmad, emphasized the role we all can play in maintaining biodiversity. They discussed the adverse impact that GE seeds and large corporate seed companies have had on plant and species diversity, while recognizing the immense power that we each hold in planting our own seeds. Bill sums up this potential: “The only way that we’re going to get diversity back is if millions of us are saving our own seeds, and adapting those to [the land] where we are.”
For the Next Generation
“May this time together be a collective prayer for all of us. That we would make a renewed commitment to be a part of that community and stewardship that ensures that our community has seeds for future generations.” – Rowen White, opening prayer for the summit
There is an understanding amongst the Mohawk people that seems to be shared in essence by many seed keepers: we do not own seeds, but rather borrow them from our children. The speakers that closed this first weekend were, in many ways, very focused on the future, our children, and the next generation. How do we create systems of seed saving that move us forward and create a future for which we can be hopeful?
For Anne Maina in Kenya, it’s about fighting GE crops and false narratives of the future that are sold through these technologies, and remembering that the foodways of the past can be drawn upon as inspiration for moving forward. For others, it means starting in their own backyard. Chef Elena Terry reflected on the importance of spending time with her kids to build memories of preparing food together. Whether processing corn or picking beans, these actions are meant to carry on as reminders of a past almost but not quite forgotten for the past few generations.
The existence of Indigenous seeds, Rowen says, is a testament to the resilience of Indigenous peoples. The work of seed keepers is rooted in the very persistence of these seeds, that still grow today. “People always say that history is written by the winner,” says Fatuma. “But these histories aren’t over and the fight is still going.”
Rowen White left us the following questions, meant to be carried with us through this summit:
How do we envision the Indigenous role in the larger Seed and Food Commons and coordinate collaborative efforts to care for our seeds that is in right relationship to our indigenous cosmology?
What if the way in which largely white led organic/regenerative agriculture responds to the crises is part of the crises? What role does radical imagination and blood memory have in resprouting food landscapes that are rooted in cultural sanity?
What if it wasn’t solely technology that was going to save us, but restoring relationships? Cultivating new narratives that allow us to relate to land, seeds, food, water in ways that have sustained human existence for millennia.