A holistic approach to seeds, food and communities.
Sophia van Ruth has been keen on growing food ever since she first had her own home. Plot, balcony, indoor pots, any little space can do the trick, as she never intended to do it at a professional level. Curiously enough though, she cannot remember when this passion exactly started and where it came from; influenced by her, her parents have only recently started a veggie garden.
Sophia was working on various projects at the collaborative work space the Hub in Rotterdam when fellow Hub members Eefje Ernst and Marten Witkamp invited her to join an urban farming project they were developing. She happily stepped in, and Urban Edibles was born.
The “smart sprouting” mini-course Sophia is offering cannot but trigger my curiosity, as it seems to offer a sound tool kit to understand the basics of food growing and seeds issues.
“I love researching, but I know that most people living in the city won’t lie in bed with big books on soil microbes like I do. They are becoming more aware of the issues around food production and want to start acting on that, yet they have busy lives working in another area. People want to grow food or learn about seeds and gardening, but they don’t know where to start and they don’t have a lot of available time to research it for themselves.”
Hence the mini-courses, workshops and booklets. Sophia’s knowledge and experience come from very different sources. Even though she took permaculture classes, she does not like to overuse this word, as it would be too restrictive to describe her mixed influences.
She considers food, seeds and community as connected areas and always looks at the patterns within the environment she is considering. That kind of approach makes full sense when you know she got a Master’s degree in Holistic Science. Studying complex systems has influenced her way of working with food and seeds just as much as the Schumacher College lifestyle where she studied.
“We all lived on the campus, cooking, meditating, growing food together. This was the most revolutionary style of higher education I had ever heard of.”
The school is based in Dartington, England and the locality also hosts the Agroforestry Research Trust, where Sophia has spent quite some time as a friendly and curious neighbor. Last but not least, in the same area, Totnes is the birth place of the Transition Town initiative. Sophia learned the most about plant propagation during her time there.
“I was stunned by what I discovered about hybrids seeds, industrial seed production, the grafting techniques, and so on. For instance the fact that all the apples we eat come from grafted trees, meaning that each apple of a certain variety comes essentially from the same genetic stock and can’t evolve anymore. Today I regard seeds as a quite important subject of education. Whilst I am not opposed to an organically produced hybrid, or a grafted tree, I think people should understand what they are growing. Now that I understand these issues better, I will choose open pollinated seeds where possible and if there is a new variety of apple available I will try it.”
Indeed, Sophia noticed that most people do not understand the differences between genetically modified organisms and hybrids, and need explanations about open-pollinated seeds.
Yet this knowledge is crucial to know what to consider when sourcing seeds. For instance the organic vegetables you get at your local farmers’ market can have been grown from hybrid seeds which means that if you plant the seeds from these vegetables you may get a very disappointing result. The next generation from a hybrid plant may have very different characteristics to the plant itself.
“Who were the people who created them? What is the system you are buying through? What are the implications for supporting those systems? These are the questions I try to make people aware of. ”
Using a holistic approach enables Sophia to see our places and roles in complex systems. The seed market is one of them, where we can think about the impact of our decisions at various levels: in the economy, in the fields, in our communities, on our plates…
“I am very concerned about the bigger players in the seed market claiming Intellectual Property Rights. There is a place for business in the production of seed, but I don’t feel comfortable with seed varieties becoming the exclusive property of private companies. I would be disturbed if open-pollinated varieties would die out because no one is using them anymore and the only seeds we have left to us exclusively belong to multinational companies. That is one of the big motivations behind educating on the different types of seeds out there. I would like to see people swapping seeds a lot more and participating in diverse seed projects. As said before, I can see that there is a place for commercial seed production, but I don’t think that some of the current practices are healthy and find the scale of some of the companies involved too large.”
Indeed, she approaches the market concentration issue from the interesting angle of scale and values.
“I have yet to see a company of multinational scale that is able to retain authentic ecologically sound practices. I think that this scale is essentially dehumanising and abstracts decision makers from the on-the-ground impacts of their decisions.”
What is the impact of a 12-page booklet or a 2,5-hour workshop on people about those issues though?
“It is hard to tell what impact we have specifically. For sure people show interest, and not only in the technical details : they are thinking about where food comes from, they don’t always like what thee discover about the conventional system and they want to know about alternatives.”
Just as Lynn Shore, Sophia does not intend to focus on actions in the political arena and prefers to focus on educating people through her projects. Like other initiatives such as the local alternative currency project she recently joined, Urban Edibles could thus contribute to raising awareness about the key role communities can play in social change.
“I think our impact combined with other influences will be visible in the long term, when we reach a critical mass of people who find these issues important enough to act on.”
Sophia van Ruth’s project and working place :
Some other projects and organisations she mentioned :
- Schumacher College
- Agroforestry Research Trust
- Transition Town initiative
- The Dam, alternative currency network based in Rotterdam
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