Could saving Palestinian seeds also save the world?


The first year the Hudson Valley Seed Company tried to grow yak teen on their farm in upstate New York, the heirloom variety of the Palestine gourd quickly spread until the vines sent their tendrils over an entire acre of land. Born from a collaboration with artist, researcher and conservationist Vivien Sansour, this pilot project was just one of many pieces of evidence supporting Sansour’s thesis: that saving Palestinian heirloom seeds could not only benefit Palestinians, but also helping to feed an entire planet in crisis.

Sansour is the founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, a project begun in 2016 to preserve Palestinian heritage and culture by rescuing heirloom seed varieties and telling the stories and history from which they emerged.

Related:‘It connects people’: Palestinian chefs use food to share their stories

The project feels particularly urgent against the backdrop of Israel’s ongoing bombardment of Gaza, the “man-made” famine that aid groups warn is looming there and the knowledge that last year was the hottest on record. “The mission of the Seed Library is to revive and preserve a living archive of our heirloom seeds,” said Sansour. “Not only for Palestine, but also for the world. The world is in a hospice state and we need all the different tools and biodiversity we can to adapt.”

Sansour’s love for edible plants began in Beit Jala in the West Bank, where she spent many formative childhood years. She remembers Beit Jala when it was more of a small village than a city, full of terraced gardens full of stone fruits, olives, artichokes and herbs. “My life has always been such a beautiful bouquet of diversity in terms of plant life,” she said. But as time went on, that biological diversity began to diminish as the climate crisis disrupted long-term growing cycles, Israeli settlements encroached on the land, and farms pushed local growers away from the seed varieties that had been passed down for generations.

Within the space of about a decade, the area went “from a completely soil-and-sun agriculture,” in which a variety of crops were grown together, to a monoculture system largely dependent on Israeli farms for seed and chemical inputs, Sansour said.

It was against that backdrop that she decided to start the seed library, in an effort to “nurture and preserve the things we love and that have kept us alive for thousands and thousands of years.” Sansour started talking to local growers to identify which foods were most at risk of extinction and collected those seeds, such as those of the jadu’i watermelon from Jenin or the white cucumber from Battir and Wadi Fukin, and built relationships with local farmers to encourage and support them in growing those varieties again. Another arm of the project, called the Traveling Kitchen, features a small, portable kitchen that Sansour sets up and cooks in public places from the West Bank to London, Chicago and New York to spark a conversation with passersby about cultural preservation through food. .

The work has earned her accolades from the international art world (she presented her work at the Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Venice Art Biennale) to academia (she was a Religion, Conflict and Peace Initiative fellow at Harvard University and is currently the distinguished artistic fellow at Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley). But what Sansour longs for more than recognition is for the people, culture and landscapes she loves to come together again.

“I started the seed work as a result of a lot of pain and sadness,” she said. “So many of the things I loved are lost.”

As in Palestine, so in the world

Some of the challenges facing Palestinian farmers and cultural foods are unique to the region’s geopolitical realities, while others are shared by smallholder farmers around the world in the face of a changing climate and the growing influence of industrialized agriculture.

The first category of threats includes intimidation by Israeli soldiers and settlers, denying farmers access to their land and crops or cutting off their water. Other times, Sansour said, settlers and soldiers will burn crops or apparently “wild” land, destroying food sources for a group of people for whom foraging has historically been second nature, especially in winter. In more serious cases, growers are directly confronted with violence. A recent case in which an olive grower was shot dead during the orchard harvest received international attention, but Sansour knows that such scenarios often go unnoticed in the international community, and is reminiscent of a lesser-known story of a young female farmer who, according to Sansour, the vanguard of ‘the new generation of farmers’, who was shot in the stomach on the way home from school.

“We’re literally talking about the guardians of these seeds being killed,” Sansour says.

Where Sansour grew up in Beit Jala, agriculture was held back by what she and many other Palestinians describe as the “apartheid wall.” The barrier, which Israel built in the West Bank, has cut off many Palestinian families from their olive groves and made it difficult for residents to build more housing as the city’s population grew. As a result, families rely on each other and the terraced gardens that Sansour remembered from her youth are increasingly displaced.

But many of the other challenges Palestinian farmers face are common to smallholder farmers around the world. “A lot of our farmers will say, ‘One of the biggest problems we have is that it starts to rain in the summer, and that’s something that never used to happen.’ So crop varieties that are used to dry weather in summer are now sometimes drowning,” says Sansour.

The changing climate is one reason Sansour is so passionate about saving seeds, because she says we need all the biodiversity we can get to weather the current and coming crises of a warming globe. Where Palestine used to have a ‘whole world’ of different types of wheat, now there are only two varieties that are commonly grown – meaning that if any of those varieties are hit by increasingly tumultuous growth cycles, it puts food security at risk for everyone. Saving seeds from a wider range of varieties will lead to greater resilience, she says.

And that resilience will not only benefit farmers in the West Bank or Gaza. She points to seed varieties bred by Palestinians for thousands of years to grow abundantly in the summer without irrigation, often called “ba’al” crops, after the Canaanite deity of the same name. “I have people in California calling me asking for these varieties because there are droughts in California right now. So it is very precious to have a broad bean that can grow without irrigation,” she says. “Our work is also research work. How do we develop varieties that can tolerate more heat or more flooding?”

Seeds from the library are already beginning to ‘develop wings’ and are making their way around the world, from the yak toe in New York State to eggplants in California.

“Seed sharing can forge strong cross-cultural bonds while holding us accountable for historical wrongs and current atrocities. Seeds are the embodiment of erasure and loss, but also the dream and possibility of survival,” said K Greene, founder of Hudson Valley Seed Co. “Through seeds, Vivien has the rare ability to hold these elements of loss and hope in a gentle balance.”

Greene notes that customers responded overwhelmingly positively to the yakteen seed packets, and that Hudson Valley Seed Co sold out of the seeds last year.

“Seed stories are layered; not all stories are as romantic as many people would like,” Greene continued. “The Palestine Heirloom Seed Library offers everyone the resolve not to shy away, but instead find ways to share both the ambitious and challenging stories that seeds bring.”

Sansour notes that the project is called a seed “library” rather than a seed “bank” for a reason. It’s about working with people who want to grow things now, rather than keeping seeds in a safe vault for a future doomsday, because from Sansour’s perspective, doomsday has already arrived.

“I got an email from people in Gaza asking what I should eat in the wild now, like, ‘What can grow outside that we can eat?’ Because we’re starving.’ That email made me cry, not only because they were starving, but also because it made me understand that the work we are trying to do is urgent,” said Sansour. Reconnecting with heirloom seeds is also about trying to preserve cultural knowledge about foods that already grow in the wild, both in a time of crisis and with the dream that one day we can also enjoy them in a time of prosperity.

“Every time we plant a seed or plant a tree, we plant it with the hope and intention of having a future,” said Sansour.

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