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Richard Perkins
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Seed Saving and a visit to KOKOPELLI

Posted by Richard Perkins about 12 years ago

A visit to Kokopelli HQ on our global film adventure www.impermanencefilm.org

PictureDown in the south of France we took the opportunity to swing by Association Kokopelli, a non-profit making organization that was set up in 1999 to take up the torch of Terre de Semences in France (which was forced to close down following the enforcement of a ministerial decree (issue by the French Ministry of Agriculture)) imposing draconian conditions for the legal registration of heirloom vegetable varieties in a "National List for Amateur Varieties".  Kokopelli is involved in the protection of biodiversity and in the production and distribution of biodynamic and organic seeds.

PictureThe goals of Kokopelli involve promoting the preservation of biodiversity through the distribution of organic and open-pollinated seeds of heirloom varieties of vegetables and grains, as well as creating a network of gardeners involved in seed saving.  Outreach projects have also been established to help Third World countries to develop sustainable organic agriculture through the gift of seeds and the setting of seed grower networks. 

The organization HQ offices are lined with seed, one section for members who can utilize up to 60 packs a year under their membership (Eur 60.00 a year) whilst the main section is heirloom seeds for sale from professional seed savers.  There are more than 600 varieties of tomatoes, 50 varieties of eggplants, 370 varieties of sweet and hot peppers, 200 varieties of squashes, 50 varieties of melons, 130 varieties of lettuces, etc. besides all other herbs and vegetables. 
We lost huge varieties of heirloom crops through both legislation and modern conventional farming and the market created around that.  In the UK there were over 4000 varieties of potato at one point, which is down to around 7 main commercial varieties now.  The EU regulations have shifted more towards US style legislation where only “what is on the list” is allowed, the reverse of traditional English law of “innocent until proven guilty” or only what is on the list is banned for saving, sale, etc.  Diversity of crop species is essential in maintaining pest and disease resilience, local adaptation, longer growing seasons and cultural traditions.  

Large multinationals dominating markets with chemical dependent hybridized seed have already taken control of the vast majority of global seed market.  In my time in Thailand I struggled to find only 2 organic seeds at the countries main agricultural college, and the general seed you find for sale is all hybridized to be used alongside US and European agrochemical companies products in order to obtain a yield.  This is the case in the majority of “developing” countries now as well as our own. 

With the advent of GMOs and intellectual property the markets are incredibly limited and if you are in any doubt of the scale or impact of this problem there are some films which spell out what the future looks like under these globalized regimes.  There is a lot to be said on this matter- but some great films out there give deep and effective insight.  

It is interesting to consider that our closest primate relations eat between 250- 1000 plant species a year, and we struggle to find more than 40 in any market in the UK.  It speaks a lot to malnutrition and the illnesses growing exponentially throughout cultures based around highly processed “convenient” food. Seed swaps are one creative community empowered way to get around the prohibition and constraints of sale of vegetable seeds.  

The work of organization such as Kokopelli are incredibly important with the networking and quality of seeds being distributed. Living Seed Banks in different parts of the world seed banks have been created, often tunnels dug into ice and rock in the freezing tundra at high latitudes.  Any assurance that this is an effective strategy to “fall back on” is totally undermined by the fact that evolution is not simply the long term notion that may come to mind.  Plants adapt on many levels in each growing season, in relation to climate, pollution, nutrition and a whole range of other factors.  Living seed banks are the only thing we can truly rely on to ensure diversity, security and wellbeing.  Kokopelli encourages members to save seed and distribute future seeds back to themselves and on to other growers.  Its vital, to the point where an enlightened community could employ a dedicated seed saver perhaps!
Picture Picture
How do you save seed?

The essence of seed saving is fairly basic with a little understanding.  It is far easier in a cool temperate climate than in say the tropics, where humidity and temperature can quickly lead to spoiling.  The first part to think about is pollination, how does seed originate?  

There are two types of pollination Abiotic and Biotic. Abiotic pollination refers to situations where pollination is mediated without the involvement of other organisms. Only 10% of flowering plants are pollinated without animal assistance. (Co-operation in the natural world far outshines competition; in the same way we have more bacterial cells than human cells by a factor of around 10!)   The most common form of abiotic pollination, anemophily, is pollination by wind. This form of pollination is predominant in grasses, most conifers, and many deciduous trees. Hydrophily is pollination by water, and occurs in aquatic plants which release their pollen directly into the surrounding water.  About 80% of all plant pollination is biotic. Of the 20% of abiotically pollinated species, 98% are anemophilous and 2% hydrophilous, being pollinated by water. 

More commonly, the process of pollination requires pollinators: organisms that carry or move the pollen grains from the anther to the receptive part of the carpel or pistil. This is biotic pollination. Roughly 200,000 varieties of animal pollinators are in the wild, most of which are insects. Entomophily, pollination by insects, often occurs on plants that have developed colored petals and a strong scent to attract insects such as, bees, wasps and occasionally ants (Hymenoptera), beetles (Coleoptera), moths and butterflies (Lepidoptera), and flies (Diptera). In zoophily, pollination is performed by vertebrates such as birds and bats, particularly, hummingbirds, sunbirds, spiderhunters, honeyeaters, and fruit bats. 

Plants adapted to using bats or moths as pollinators typically have white petals and a strong scent, while plants that use birds as pollinators tend to develop red petals and rarely develop a scent (few birds rely on a sense of smell to find plant-based food).

Open pollination is the key to seed saving. Plants that reproduce through natural means tend to adapt to local conditions over time, and evolve as reliable performers, particularly in their localities, known as landraces or "folk varieties." Open pollinated plants are free from pesticides, chemicals and any other form of genetic modification by humans.  The modern trend to rely on hybridized and cloned plants negates these evolutionary processes. Hybrid plants are artificially cross-pollinated, and bred to favor desirable characteristics, like higher yield (in monocultures) and more uniform size to accommodate mechanized harvesting. However, the seed produced by the second generation (F2) of the hybrid does not reliably produce a true copy of that hybrid (it 'segregates') and often loses much of its yield potential.

Types of Flowers

Hermaphrodites are flowers that has both staminate (male, pollen-producing) and carpellate (female, ovule-producing) parts. This is common in most flowers and vegetables, and a lot of coniferous trees.

In monoecious species, each individual has reproductive units that are merely female and reproductive units that are merely male.  Individuals bearing separate flowers of both sexes at the same time are called simultaneously or synchronously monoecious. Individuals that bear flowers of one sex at one time are called consecutively monoecious; plants may first have single sexed flowers and then later have flowers of the other sex.  This represents mainly the Curcubit plants like melon, cucumber, squashes, etc, where hand pollination and individual netting is necessary to save seed that is true to the parent.

Dioecious species have separate male and female plants, each individual has reproductive units that are either merely male or merely female.  This includes spinach, holly, asparagus and often fruit trees.  This is important when considering planting trees especially, to ensure pollination can take place.

Saving seeds

Companies that are passionate about good seed have more detailed information about specific crops.  An important element I think is worth noting is one must select the last to go to seed, something many people seem to get the wrong way round!  If you save seed from the earliest seeders each year you end up creating races that “bolt” to seed without yielding much to eat, and without time to accumulate much nutrient!

Selecting the healthiest plants through observation, particularly any thriving in poor conditions is vital, and with healthy soil practices you should consistently have healthy plants.  It is best to clearly mark these plants so others do not harvest them mistakenly.  Larger seeds must be washed and all seeds must be dried before storing.  Larger seeds like beans can be bitten, if teeth marks are left they are not dry enough.  You need to get them down to 10- 15% humidity to ensure dormancy and “shelf- life”.  Commercially we use seeds within 2 years but Roman wheat still germinates, so well stored they can keep several seasons no problem, but some awareness on the living gene bank notion encourages constant cycling of seed stock.

Brown paper bags in a wooden draw are ideal in cool temperate climates.  In more humid environments like the tropics you need to be much more diligent to save seed without a fridge.  We have used oil to store beans in, ash and rice to absorb any moisture in containers and prevent insect infestation (ash is like razors on a microscopic level) Smoke is also effective for grain crops usually stored above the fireplace in lofts in south east Asia.  Ive also seen African systems of adobe huts on stilts with an anaerobic ferment chamber attached and a U bend vent on the roof to ensure constant CO2 to the granaries, a very nice and age old design.
 PictureWe are very grateful to Kokopelli for their work, and generosity in gifting us books and seeds to share along our way.  It’s a nice way to end to hear that Kokopelli is a fertility deity, usually depicted as a humpbacked flute player (often with a huge phallus and feathers or antenna-like protrusions on his head), who has been venerated by some Native American cultures in the Southwestern United States. Like most fertility deities, Kokopelli presides over both child birth and agriculture. He is also a trickster god and represents the spirit of music.

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