Interview with Elaine bradley

General manager of the Irish Seed Savers Association

Conducted by Adèle Pautrat in March 2023

The Irish Seed Savers team © ISSA

Seeds4All. Elaine, could you start telling me a bit about your background and experience with seed saving networks – what brought you to become the general manager of the ISSA and what does that mean to you?

My professional background is as an organisational development specialist, primarily working in the areas of social and environmental justice and human rights. I am also a qualified permaculture designer, having trained with Dan Hemenway in the mid ‘80s, who in turn trained with Bill Mollison.

In 2019 I was planning a heritage orchard on my land so I came to the Irish Seed Savers Association to attend a course on orchard creation and management. I absolutely felt in love with Co. Clare, so when the General Manager job came up at ISSA, I decided to apply and here I am, in post for almost two years now!

The ISSA has experienced an interesting period of growth. It’s 32 years old now, and came very much from grassroots. Starting with the inspirational initiative of Anita and Tommy Hayes’ who pioneered food crop conservation using their own garden and kitchen, it evolved into a conservation organisation of national and international renown, in particular for the selection and conservation of Irish heritage apple trees. ISSA is now a major social enterprise in East Clare and acting agent of positive social change in the areas of agroecology, biodiversity and sustainable food systems.

The association receives public funding for part of our conservation work while generating income through commercial activities – selling seed and apple trees and running education programmes and workshops. With a budget of over €750,000 and a staff of 27 in 2022, we have reached a crucial point in our growth trajectory and have no choice but to develop our organisational structures in the interest of transparency and accountability. Our guiding principle in this development is to nourish and protect the spirit and ethos of ISSA that make it uniquely valuable while recognising that it is an organisation that must be reliable, fit for purpose and compliant with legislation.

Speaking about compliance with legislation, I wonder what is the situation in Ireland regarding seed marketing law. ISSA started out very informally, but now that it has become a major business, how does it manage the marketing of heterogeneous seed varieties?

I must start saying that this is a very unclear area, even at State level. The association is doing what it understands to be within the law: selling to amateur gardeners in relatively small quantities, and to some wholesalers who supply them. We don’t supply at scale to commercial growers, but we do supply in small quantities so that growers can bulk up their seed stock if they wish to grow on a large commercial scale. Our commitment to supporting commercial producers is manifest in the two-year Seed 2 Seed training programme where we educate in how to grow organic open-pollinated heritage seeds to the highest standards as very few currently have the skills or the know-how.

ISSA’s mission is to ensure conservation that contributes to the dynamic evolution of genetic resources for food diversity and food sovereignty. We conserve seed as part of a global network of seed and gene banks – some of our seed is now stored in the vault at Svaldbard. We practice and promote ‘Conservation Through Use’ to ensure that varieties survive and adapt to different places and environments.

Another crucial goal is to get the seeds out of our walls and to facilitate duplication. The more our heritage seeds are spread through the country, the more they are used, the more we secure their conservation. The dissemination of knowledge of these seeds and how to grow and save them is part of our remit which we fulfil through a comprehensive training and education programme.

To date, European legislation still tends to restrict the dissemination and use of seed varieties that have a high potential for adaptation and evolution. Does the ISSA engage at a political level in advocacy to change legislation?

The ISSA is a member of the EC-LLD, and therefore works at European level, looking for reforming the seed marketing laws.

The current EU legislation governing seed was designed – back in the 60’s – to promote industrial development in the context of the post-war agricultural green revolution. There are very few laws if any to protect open-pollinated seed and those who work with it – either in conservation or production. We’re looking for more support and recognition on this, and we believe that the work we have been doing for three decades, presented alongside a plurality of organisations with similar objectives, has the potential to positively influence a change of mindset within the political institutions.

An update is needed on seed exchange and marketing laws in the EU, and with increasing urgency as biodiversity is being depleted, threatening food resilience. We acknowledge that it’s challenging to work at European level because every country has its own domestic situation, expectations and needs. There is no single direction that suits everyone. Searching for common ground must be done by taking into account the diversity of positions. Especially since it is a relatively new process to seek laws on the protection and marketing of open-pollinated seeds.

NB: the 2023 EC-LLD annual conference will be hosted in Ireland in October by ISSA.

Going back to the Irish situation in terms of loss of agrobiodiversity; if it was possible, would ISSA commit more directly to farmers, with the aim of bringing diversity back to the field and to the wider market? What would this mean for the organisation?

We lead in this, in many respects. ISSA has practiced agrobiodiversity from the very beginning and one of the things we've learned and demonstrated is that it's important to maintain a balance in the way you develop your land in respect of food production. Because we grow open pollinated seeds, we need pollinators, so we have to pay attention to our ecosystems. Our site and its produce are certified organic. Parallel to cultivation, we focus on creating and maintaining habitats, keeping wild species and fallow lands, letting nature find its balance with our site.

With this mode of development, we’ve shown that you can generate substantial income without exploiting or pushing your land to exhaustion. You can make money and still care for the soil and native species. You can make money, go organic and encourage wildlife. It’s just about finding the balance and seeing the possibilities of doing things differently.

Recently, in connection with a measure proposed by the new CAP to promote tree planting, we’ve been asked to supply farmers throughout the country with heritage apple trees so they can (re)plant traditional orchards. This is wonderful, cause it's exactly where we want to go. But how to increase our production? Do we give up on other crops or fallow lands to plant orchards? No we don’t. So we went to ask local farmers to grow for us. We’re working with three different farms on that project, and it improves our model, strengthening our wish to be networked with people and communities.

The model is not to do everything by ourselves, growing bigger and bigger, making more and more money. It is knowing who we are, what we do, and where we link with other individuals and organisations for mutual benefits strengthening our wish to be networked with people and communities in the interest of sustainability.

Earlier, at lunchtime, we were talking about the notion of pride; about regaining and communicating pride in local breeds, crops, know-how and traditions linked to food production. But above all, regaining and communicating pride in the fact that all this is rooted in the specificities of a territory. How important is this in your work?

The Irish Seed Savers Association collects more than plant genetic resources, we collect stories too: where do seed come from? Who are the families who kept them and made them available? How old is that tree and how did it survive? This has a crucial sense: the sense of place and history, which also provide the lessons for the future.

In Ireland this is of particular relevance given our very painful collective history: the famine is only a few generations away. At a meta level, it was a consequence of the British domination on Ireland’s food production and distribution capacities. Poorer families grew mainly one potato variety at the time, the Lumper potato, which was severely affected by late blight in the mid-19th century, resulting in over a million deaths and mass emigration. Irish people fundamentally understand the dangers of a lack of diversity and sovereignty in food systems.

On the other hand, our more recent history is influenced by the ‘Celtic Tiger’s ‘ accomplishments (nb: nickname for Ireland during its boom years, between 1995 and 2007). We have moved away from agriculture which now contributes little over 1% of our GDP, while the bedrock of our national economy is industry, in which the tech sector plays a substantial role. In the collective belief, agriculture belongs to the past and is associated with poverty. Telling people that we need to return to growing our own food’ is a challenge, as many see it as a backward step – the opposite of progress and modernisation.

We need to work on (re)building a national agricultural and food heritage based on our crops and skills while taking into account modern expectations.

So, in concrete terms, how do we make people aware of the richness of their agricultural and food heritage? How do we make them proud of it and willing to develop it?

There is no easy answer or simple solution, but communication and education are key.

Cooking can provide a route into raising awareness. If you ask people in Ireland about traditional food they would probably say meat, potato and cabbage, which many consider to be boring, especially given all the types of food from different countries that we’ve access to today. But, what if we used our traditional varieties to reinvent traditional cooking, drawing on all the culinary knowledge now available to us. Chefs could play a pivotal role here; we’d love for example to showcase how you can make Kimchi (nb: traditional Korean dish made with chillies and lacto-fermented vegetables) from your local cabbage! Or perogi. There are so many possibilities to explore – we need to be excited by our heritage food.

Another important aspect is precisely what we do at ISSA – improving as much as possible the supply of plants locally-adapted to Ireland's soil and climatic conditions. Not everything we grow here originated in Ireland. We are constantly researching food crops that will change and adapt to Irish regional conditions. Diversity motivates people to get involved with food production!

In the context of climate change, people are looking for varieties that will adapt to new growing conditions – flooding in early spring, frost in May, drought in summer… People need to have confidence in the varieties that can be grown locally.

The key thing in the end is to make everyone understand that food heritage doesn’t belong to the past at all – it is a living changing dynamic thing, 100% connected to the future, which needs human commitment. Plant conservation is a matter of development and evolution. It is the building block of future food crops. If you lose it, it is gone forever and you will have fewer genetic resources at your disposal for future crops. This is just how it is. And that’s why diversity in plant genetic resources for food and agriculture needs to be cherished and promoted.

In view of all the elements we’ve discussed so far, how would you summarise ISSA's vision?

What we’re working towards is that everyone in Ireland can have access to nutritious wholesome food, grown within local and sustainable food systems. This is the challenge of our time and raises questions related to our ways of living and be organised as communities, societies. Let's ask the question concretely: what is food resilience when it comes to feeding huge cities with millions of people without access to land and without the possibility of self-sufficiency in case of crisis? The prospect is daunting. Access to land for growing food is key, and having access too, to shareable saveable seed is a necessity.

We often have the impression that seed saving is seen as a pleasant and fun thing to do. In fact, seed saving is revolutionary: reviving forgotten knowledge and skills, sharing it, teaching people, empowering people, connecting people, improving access to something as fundamental as good quality food. It has to do with resistance and resilience. In that sense, our work is about promoting a necessary, realistic and reliable way of developing food systems, as opposed to the recently developed model of chemical industrial agriculture which has shown its limits in only a few decades, and threatens global food security as well as the very planet on which we live.

GET in touch w/ the Irish seed savers association