Founder of Copenhagen Seeds, Signe Voltelen is an architect and seed farmer striving to preserve biodiversity for the next generation.
After her work with Seed Exchange festival, we spoke with Voltelen about the history of seed saving, modern seed industry and the importance of biodiversity.
How did you get into seed saving and urban gardening?
I discovered, after growing my urban kitchen garden for a short time, that seeds are easy to harvest and that they are often much better than the ones you can buy in the store. By harvesting my own seeds I gained knowledge about the whole plant, which led to an understanding of the importance of the seed as the first link in the food chain.
Growing seeds according to ecological principles gives us the possibility to grow good and healthy seeds – without the use of pesticides and GMO. The plants provide such abundant quantities that you can easily share with your neighbour – which I did.
Not long after I started growing seeds I discovered the truth: Behind the marketing of seed packages lies a gigantic and undemocratic seed industry. All over the world, activists work to free seeds from organisations, whose goal is to make seeds (and thus our food) their property, through patents and rights protection.
There was a time when the king owned the seed stocks, keeping farmers trapped in a cycle of poverty. This is comparable to the seed companies’ approach to the market today.
With my work I want to set seeds free, make them democratic and accessible to everyone. I actually discovered that it was illegal to swap seeds in Denmark, as it is in most countries around the world. This pushed me to work more seriously with seeds: as a gateway to transforming the way we grow, produce and eat.
For me, it is important to see the whole picture. Breaking down barriers to decent cultivation and undoing the industry’s monopoly over food systems all starts with one thing: setting the seeds free.
What other uses are there for seeds?
Seeds are amazing – you could say they are the first link in the food chain. Many seeds can be eaten, like lentils, peas and beans which are important proteins. But we use seeds for all sorts! For example, the seeds of mustard for canning, peppers for spices, pumpkin seeds to add flavour, nutrients and fat and cumin seed for the characteristic flavour in stews
We also traditionally use seeds for oils – most vegetable oils are seed oils. Rapeseed oil, grape seed oil, soybean oil, sesame oil etc.
You mention that many seeds can be eaten, what’s your favourite?
I can highlight one seed that is particularly delicious and fresh! The radish seed, which sits in its green form in the radish seed pod, just after flowering.
The radish, like other plants, can be eaten at several different stages. From the radish itself to the flower to the seed stand. It is felt here that all the flavours that are in the radish to begin with, like the plant’s defence, migrate into the seed pod to provide defence to the plant’s offspring. That’s smart isn’t it? In this way you also experience the characteristic taste of the radish when eating the seed pods.
Fresh peas are also the green immature seed that we actually eat. Sometimes we even eat them in the pod, or as they’re more commonly known, as sugar peas.
Who’s typically buying seeds/coming to you for help?
I sell my seeds online, to stores that want to resell and to hobby gardeners. It is both people who grow in the city and in countryside gardens who buy my seeds.
My customers are very curious gardeners – as I hear it – also experience the abundance of seeds after just one or two seasons of growing. It’s amazing how many people are reconnected with nature by growing. So, it’s both beginners and experienced gardeners that are my customers.
What’s your favourite seed fact?
I am a seed nerd, I like everything about seeds, but I’m also an architect. The wildest thing about seeds is that, in any seed, the code for life is stored – our cultural ancestry and our urban architecture from 12,000 years ago when the first cities arose.
Seeds are something we have brought with us and shared over generations. Our cities are built on community farming, where the seed and the processing of vegetables were the prerequisite for life. They were organised in collectives where the demanding work was divided between farmer, mills, blacksmiths and bakers. So in this way, cities emerged.
The logic of the cities was about food, that was until industrialisation came. As an architect, I am thrilled that we are reinventing urban logic in new communities around food and cultivation.
Why is biodiversity important and what does it mean to you?
All plants that we grow in agriculture and our gardens are dependent on human care. For thousands of years, farmers, gardeners and families have kept our seed heritage alive by sharing seeds and by adapting the plants (and thus the seeds) to the climate in which they grew. It was a natural part of traditional farming practice, to maintain our common “heritage” and “heirloom”.
In this way, the most tasty and robust varieties have been preserved. If no one cultivates a pure, determined variety and hides the seeds from it, that variety will become extinct forever.
In modern times, we have stopped storing our own seeds and left it to the seed companies and gene banks. If we are to have the same opportunities to adapt the plants to climate change, we must contribute to the many varieties being cultivated.
Why save seeds by growing them?
Because storing frozen seeds in gene banks is only a temporary solution.
The structure of saving seeds explained: In Situ & Ex Situ
There are two ways to conserve seeds: In Situ, cultivating plants for seeds in the plant’s natural environment, and Ex Situ, freezing seeds with NordGen or the Seed Vault on Svalbard, to name but a few.
Ex Situ is the main method used today. Seeds conserved for Ex Situ are dried then, depending on the type, are checked annually to see if the given seed population (an appropriate amount of seed relative to its genes) is in the condition it should be. This work is handled by various institutions – Denmark has a collaboration with the other Nordic countries: NordGen, which sorts under the Nordic Council of Ministers.
Currently, there is no program or continuous In Situ preservation of Nordic site-native varieties. Some projects have been carried out, but no projects that make a continuous structure of the adaption of seeds to climate changes. And the in general maintaining of varieties and practical knowledge in society, the “On farm conservation”.
Climate change and seeds
With Ex Situ preservation, the seed is not adapted to environmental changes and other threats. When cultivated in the garden and in the field (In Situ) the plant, and thus the plant’s genetic material, is exposed to threats from pests and changing temperatures. It is exposed to weather and wind and the nature of the soil. It encourages the plant’s natural defence, making it stronger and allowing the plant to rapidly adapt to its surroundings and a changing climate.
We need plants that are strong and versatile to avoid food shortages. Ex Situ simply cannot guarantee this.
The seed swap at Seed Exchange festival, managed by Signe.