Protecting Seeds within Greek Crisis

Institutional support of local varieties diminishes, while grassroots networks flourish

Greece is currently facing a severe financial and social shock monopolizing the majority οf the news coming from the country. As yet there is little information circulating regarding the impact on the country's real richness and a national bank of equal importance, the one of its natural genetic resources and its agricultural potentiality. Conservation programs of local varieties have suffered diminution of the official State support, as an impact of budget cuts on public institutes. Nevertheless, support from local initiatives, organizations and individuals interested on preserving agricultural knowledge and seed heritage is on the rise, counteracting to further loss of biodiversity.

Wealthy country..
The facts and figures are rather well known. Debt, IMF, memorandum, austerity measures, wage cuts, impoverishment, depression and migration have become common words when describing what Greece has had to face up to these last few years. But, Greece could be described as a rich country regarding its natural, plant genetic resources. It is actually considered to be the second European country with richest biodiversity, after Spain. A vast number of native species orgininate from its territories, such as wild and cultivated cereals or certain medicinal plant varieties, which less than half century ago, where major part of Greece's rural world.
The state's support on plant genetic resources conservation began since early 20th century, but most part of a public conservation plan started with the formation of the National Seed Bank (NSB) some decades ago, as a part of the National Agricultural Research foundation (NAGREF), with auspices of FAO. Apart from that, other satellite institutes, universities and organizations have been involved in plant genetic material conservation.

The collection of NSB is estimated to exceed the 14,500 varieties, an number which still constitutes only a small part of the national genetic resources and is considered rather poor, when compared to the genetic material that previously existed. Indeed, estimations show that only 1% of the Greek arable land cultivated with local varieties of wheat 50 years ago, is now cultivated as such to this day, with a similar trend followed for local varieties of vegetables. However, the collection has been regarded as excellent for some wild cereals, legumes and pulses, many of them characterized by drought and disease resistance traits.

Within the last years leading up to the financial crisis, the National Seed Bank faced many problems, deemed not to have sufficient resources for its sustainability. NAGREF, which houses the Seed Bank has passed through a phase of reorganization and greatly reduced budget, so the NSB has been far from being adequately funded, and ultimately has been threatened with closure. The consequences of these have been a disappointing loss of seed collections, as well as of scientific knowledge. It is estimated that due to lack of funding and scientific personnel, at least 5,000 of the 14,500 varieties in NSB have been destroyed. Similar problems have been faced by all the other institutes supporting plant genetic material conservation, dispersed all over the country.

As a result, the increasing need for better access of farmers and public to plant genetic material of the recent years has not been guaranteed. The utilization of genetic material collected from NSB and other institutions has been limited, while access for amateur gardeners and farmers has been even more difficult, due to limited amount of genetic material preserved or small number of scientists involved.

The roots of these problems have been identified: inadequate agricultural policies followed that did not support conservation strategic promotion. The solutions on the other hand, as people involved say, would deal with taking commercial advantage of local varieties by small scale sales to the public, assuring both their conservation and access to farmers, while it would become source of income for the low-funded institutes preserving them.

Seed protection from below (limitations from above)
Like in many other countries having switched from rural to urbanized forms of economy, much of Greece's plant genetic resources have survived in the field primarily due to farmers and gardeners of old age from mountainous islands or hinterland. Such farmers have continuously cultivated uncompetitive local varieties as part of the local agricultural tradition and seed exchange culture, considering it an essential part of agricultural practices followed.

It appears therefore, to be a contradictory fact that the exchange and trade of self saved seeds by farmers, theoretically is not recognized in Greece. Even if there is a relative tolerance on behalf of state control -since seed saving and exchange is currently a rather small part of farming- national legislation, following EU regulations integrated, has strengthened policies which effectively prevented farmers from re-sowing part of their harvest and required from them to use specific certified varieties. Such examples have been recent EU directives on varieties conservation adapted by Greek State, as well as an awaited European legislation intended to regulate local varieties commercialization, which is described at least as contradictory, or even worse, as being imposed by seed-industry interests.

Fortunately, against formal regulations and commercial trends, a raising awareness on saving rural heritage gave motivation to individuals, unions of producers or social and political groups to formulate organizations working for seed preservation, on their own accord and on a local/national level. Nowadays, despite the severe consequences of the financial crisis in everyday life (from another point of view: due to the very same fact) the calendar is full of self-organized events related to local varieties exchange and conservation, food sovereignty, neorural collectivism or Eco-communities formation.

Examples only from last two years are plenty: older and newly formed local seed exchange networks in places like Crete or Pieria or Thrace, a squatted botanical garden in Athens free-distributing local varieties, an alternative school of ecological farming in Marathon area, a natural farming seed spreading in Paros island, an urban gardening collective by university students in Crete reclaiming peri-urban fields, a summer school of seeds, these are just some of the examples of a flourishing movement obviously well spread and intended to root.

Going back, the first serious efforts on local varieties preservation were established by organizations such as the alternative community of Peliti which holds now the biggest local seed exchange network in Greece, followed by other local corresponded networks and community seed banks. Peliti organizes a popular seed exchange festival held annually, gathering thousands of seed savers and gardeners, freequently with participation of seed activists from abroad. Then, there's Aegilops Network focusing mostly on wheat varieties and following a most scientific approach on agrobiodiversity conservation, Archipelago, an environmental n.g.o. with an extended seed bank of varieties of islands of the Aegean, or again Maich institute in Crete holding a well established seed bank.

Some years ago as well, a formal representation of the groups above have been achieved within the Consultative Group on Plant Genetic Materials, coordinated by the Ministry of  Agriculture. Purpose of such a  move was to extinguish the seed-industry's influence on decision making proposals which would guarantee the rights of farmers particularly in relation to seed preservation on the farm, and free use of agricultural biodiversity.  Further similar effort are currently focusing on uniting the voices on a national and European level.

In real time
So, is it all about a rural revival and concrete turn of Greek agriculture towards local resources, food sovereignty, and small-scale development? Rather not, or perhaps it's too early to say. However, comparing to former times, movements concentrating and spreading the word on such issues, has gained much ground, in theory and rural practice. Financial turbulence have been proven disastrous for public sector, dragging along state support on genetic material preservation. It has been though an appropriate substrate for Greeks, especially the younger, to contemplate on values and mentality previously glorified. Not a few, seek now sustaining all elements that would potentially become the basis of a decent and viable way of living for them, closer to natural processes and self-sufficiency. And seed saving is surely high-listed as part of it. 


Read further:

-"The End of farm-saved Seeds?" brochure (English)  here

Vassilis Gkisakis
June 2012





-1st: Preperation of seed spreading following natural farming method (Courtesy of Permaculture-Greece)


-2nd: Local variety lentil harvest on Lefkada Island-Eglouvi (Courtesy of Eleonora Fiorou- The Englouvi plateau-code ILL 293 documentary)


-3rd: Poster of 1st International Seed days of Peliti (courtesy of Peliti)



With special thanks to J.C. and C.L.