How saving seeds can improve food security in the Philippines

For this year’s International Day for Biodiversity, we put the spotlight on how the simple act of saving seeds can lead to food security.

by Mavic Conde

Community pantries have sprung up in the Philippines to fill the gaps in the government’s coronavirus pandemic response. But community pantries where goods and food are exchanged for free have long been in practice in rural communities. This highlights “bayanihan,” a term used to express the collective solidarity among Filipinos, especially in times of crisis. 

In the countryside, even before the pandemic, this strong sense of community was very much alive, especially among farmers. An example is the community-led seed library in Benguet province in the Cordillera region, 129 miles from the Philippine capital of Manila. The seed library is where farmers share their excess seeds for other farmers to use. 

“This is a breakthrough for us, especially that it revived and also enhanced our seed saving culture,” says Jeffrey Sotero, the Agriculture Municipal Officer of Tublay, where the seed library is located. 

Members of the Benguet Association of Seed Savers in the Philippines with their seedlings. Photo courtesy of Global Seed Savers Philippines

Saving seeds is an ancient practice for indigenous communities in Benguet, including for the Ibaloy (the tribe Sotero is a part of) and the Kankana-ey. They do it in preparation for the next planting season. But its benefits go beyond that, as it allows organic farmers to save from their annual cost, especially since there are seeds that cost more than a kilo of meat. It also widens the genetic diversity of their crops.

“It’s through seed saving that you get to know the characteristics of crops and how they adapt to the environment,” says Karen Lee Hizola of Global Seed Savers Philippines (GSSP), the organisation that assisted in setting up the seed library.

Now, the seed library has 20 members, including farmers from neighbouring villages and towns, such as  La Trinidad under the Benguet Association of Seed Savers, along with the Municipal Agriculture Office of Tublay. When the nationwide lockdown was imposed last year, these farmers had no problem accessing farm supplies, including seeds. The Ibaloys were also able to participate in Aduyon (their term for bayanihan), where their vegetable produce was donated to nearby provinces like Pampanga, Metro Manila and Bulacan where millions of families had problems with access to food supplies due to movement restrictions. 

It’s through seed saving that you get to know the characteristics of crops and how they adapt to the environment.

According to Hizola, 330 tons of vegetables from 300 to 500 farmers in six different municipalities reached a quarter of a million people for free through the Aduyon spirit and collaboration with the Local Government Units (LGUs) and NGOs like Philippine Business for Social Progress, CARE Philippines, Caritas, and Liwanag and Pag-Asa, among others. Some even put their produce by the roadside for passersby to take. 

“It’s better to give the vegetables away than have them rot,” said 49-year-old Elizabeth Martin who is a Kankana-ey. However, those without similar support were forced to throw their harvests away. 

Before moving to La Trinidad two years ago, Martin had been saving seeds which she first learned about from her mother. She didn’t recognise how integral seed saving was for organic farming until she started organically farming herself in Buguias town and became part of the seed savers association. 

“I was so used to buying from farm supplies, I didn’t think about whether the seeds I was using were chemically treated or not. Now, I understand that the first step in practising organic farming is really having safe, non-chemically treated, organically grown seeds,” she told GSSP in a past interview.

According to her, they used to store seeds on top of a fireplace where it was cold, dark, and dry. Now, they store them in glass jars because gas and electric stoves have replaced fireplaces. She adds that if she didn’t save seeds, there would’ve been nothing to bring when she moved, more so during the lockdown when farm supplies became out-of-stock. 

Martin is also one of the field inspectors who monitors the crops dedicated for seed saving every month. “We fill out a form [provided by the GSSP] and indicate which is and isn’t susceptible to pests, which method works and which don’t, among others,” she says. Her experience, coupled with training from the GSSP and the Department of Agriculture (DA), makes her qualified for this role. Its ultimate purpose is to tell which seeds are well-adapted to which places, so they can grow into robust plants. For her, this says a lot about farmers being “their own scientists.”

Manang Connie, a member of the Benguet Association of Seed Savers in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of Global Seed Savers Philippines

However, the mobility restrictions and lockdown brought about by the pandemic temporarily halted their monitoring activities, especially last year, affecting their stock inventory from 70 to 40 varieties. For Hizola, this number is still limited and will need more seed savers to increase their seed inventory and varieties. 

Hizola says the majority of seed savers are women. According to Martin, this is because the men kept to farming and the task is also quite meticulous. For instance, Martin says she has to add other materials like ash, pepper, and (mature) pine tree chunks for longer storage life, in addition to manually separating seeds. This practice also gives them insights into the storage life of seeds which can be affected by climate. “We need storage containers that can keep the seeds in even temperature, and caves and earthen jars are something we’re also considering,” says Hizola. 

Indeed, seed libraries make seeds available every planting season, unlike with seed banks where seeds are stored for long periods of time untouched. The former encourages the continuity of the knowledge-building process among farmers and seed savers, ensuring their crops are diversified one planting season at a time. 

Saving seeds is key to organic farming

There’s a need to encourage more farmers to start saving seeds because it goes hand in hand with organic farming, which is key to healthier food, less food waste, and minimal resource usage. The more farmers do it, the more affordable organic foods will be, says Hizola, who adds that commercial seeds are one of the biggest hurdles to realising that. 

Farmers that use hybrid seeds (filial 1), or those commercially produced via highly selective plant breeding, are normally not used for saving seeds because they don’t remain true to type. Hybrid seeds return to one of their parent plants, making the second generation plant (filial 2) exhibit a wide array of very different physical characteristics from that hybrid, says Hizola. 

She explains that “our society has become so particular about how our vegetables look that this forces farmers to want uniformity in their crops. As a result, farmers are not very keen on saving their own seeds anymore and have become dependent on farm supplies when we have so many underutilised crops.” Moreover, some plants can produce seeds that may not grow at all. This means buying seeds every planting time. 

Broccoli florets and veggies from the Benguet Association of Seed Savers farm in the Philippines. Photo courtesy of Global Seed Saver Philippines

If a grower is after improving yields or increasing resistance to disease, these too can be achieved with quality non-hybrid seeds like open-pollinated seeds, or heirloom seeds which can be reused for planting because they will reproduce stable characteristics like the parent plants. Quality conditions for it to grow should also be present, from healthy soil, clean water sources, and enough sunlight. And, the process of saving seeds can provide information about crop diversity. 

As such, Hizola believes that seeds should be part of the commons and not owned or controlled by just a handful of seed companies which often produce hybrid seeds and are under or owned by bigger seed foreign companies. After all, according to her, self-sufficiency via food production starts with seed sovereignty. Sotero, the Municipal Agriculture Officer, agrees to this, as he shares that “treated seeds had almost erased our seed saving practices.”

Just Transition

In 2017, when the GSSP launched the first-of-its-kind collaborative seed library in Benguet to encourage seed saving, sharing, and replanting, the organisation said that plant growers throughout the Philippines had very little access to 100% organic seeds which forced them to purchase synthetic, treated, and non-organic seeds after each planting. 

For the government, Hizola says it would be a chance to create a policy that protects our heritage, heirloom, landrace, and endemic seeds from being tampered, adding that “we can start with having community-led seed libraries in every barangay or municipalities, and incorporate seed saving in every Gulayan sa Paaralan program (School Vegetable Gardens),” a national government project to help promote food security under the National Greening Program. Currently, the majority of seeds that come from DA are treated for longer storage life. In instances where open-pollinated seeds are provided, beneficiaries may not be aware that they can save them. 

She also believes that this can be incorporated in disaster risk reduction and management, especially since a big part of our labour force (26%) in the country is in agriculture. In 2018, when typhoon Ompong wreaked havoc, the farmers were able to get seeds from the library to replace their damaged crops. Doing this for the first time made them realise that it would really benefit municipalities that have a majority of their constituents engaged in agriculture to make seed saving part of their Department of Risk Reduction and Management, says Hizola. 

Not only do diverse seeds help mitigate the impacts of climate change but are also key to a lot of things – from balancing the ecosystem to utilising locally adapted crops, adds Hizola. 

Seeds are tiny things but have big roles. Photo courtesy of Global Seed Savers of the Philippines

The Philippines is in the top five most vulnerable countries in the world in terms of climate change impact. “When we have a diverse pool of genes (seeds) in our hands, it’s more likely that we’ll find a gem that can survive or thrive when there’s too much rain or when there’s severe drought,” she says, adding: “This means we also have diversity in food, and more affordable organic food supplies.”

Heads of existing government and private initiatives also see the same value in saving seeds.“We would like to encourage the beneficiary-growers to establish community-based seed libraries to help them access seeds and keep seeds diverse so they can continue to grow vegetables at different times of the year,” says Albay Agriculture Officer Cherry Rebata who handles the Family-Based Food Production Program (AFBFPP) in this Bicol province, southeast of Luzon.

The AFBFPP required the 720 barangay targets to have a barangay communal vegetable garden and 100 or more households to have their own backyard garden. Agriculture specialist Naz Buisan of TipidTanim Challenge also eyes including teaching seed beneficiaries to save seeds, especially that, during the pandemic, his social media-initiated group has been providing donated seeds to households in Mindanao for free. 

[Seed saving] is a form of insurance against food insecurity, and a concrete way for farmers to counter the loss of food diversity and the environmental destruction that comes with industrial agriculture.” 

The DA’s Participatory Guarantee Systems which amended the Republic Act 10068 or the Organic Agriculture Law in 2020 is a move in the right direction, as it allows a peer-to-peer review, making the certification process localised and less expensive. Unlike before with the third-party system, certification is very expensive for farmers that even if DA subsidized it for three years the agency struggled with funds eventually, affecting the transition of farmer-beneficiaries to organic farming, says Sotero.

He adds that it helps to have indigenous agriculture officials in municipalities, for it helps create programs anchored on agriculture-indigenous practices like saving seeds. Maintaining a bee pasture within farms can also help to attract bees and other pollinators. 

Seeds are tiny things but have big roles, according to Sotero. Thus, GSSP also encourages interested communities to reach out for setting up their own seed libraries. Not only to increase the seed inventory they have right now which are also available for sale but also because the GSSP believes that it is “a form of insurance against food insecurity and a concrete way for farmers to counter the loss of food diversity and the environmental destruction that comes with industrial agriculture.” 

After all, Hizola says, the seed you hold in your hand is a record of its self-replicating ability (because you know the kind of plant it produced in the past) which is key in making sure that we are able to flourish now and in the future.

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