I have never been to Karsu...
But I know a very talented jazz singer with that name. And my friend Ali was born in the Turkish village. We know each other for thirty-six years. We were colleagues in the European Parliament. He worked in external affairs, and me in agriculture. Here these two important fields got together. With our story of seeds from Karsu, we have embarked on an exciting time travel. Ali rediscovers his village that he left at the age of eighteen. I get to know his family and cousins - as well as to see his homeland through the eyes of one of the world's most famous seed savers and ethnobotanists in time: Nikolay Vavilov.
The first time I came across the fascinating life and work of the Russian agricultural, botanical and genetics scientist was back in 1988.
I read about Nikolay Vavilov preparing the first draft resolution for the European Parliament on agricultural diversity with seed saving activists Henk Hobbelink and Renée Velvée – who later founded GRAIN (Genetic Resources Action International).
The resolution deplored the galloping loss of genetic diversity in European and global agriculture. It called for urgent action to preserve and enhance biodiversity in EU farming. In a sense we were late. Vavilov had already warned and described the risks of losing wild and cultivated genetic diversity at the beginning of the 20th century.
His family had almost starved from hunger during the besiegement of Leningrad by the Nazis. During Stalin’s campaign for industrialized kolchos farming, Vavilov sensed the danger of crop failure due to lost genetic diversity in staple crops.
Like Alexander von Humboldt, he traveled the world with a quest to find, describe and preserve cultivated diversity. He studied the connections between the selection and cultivation of plants by farmers and their local varieties, the collective knowledge emerging from that practice as its importance for food safety.
Vavilov travelled all continents for years, sometimes under very dangerous political conditions. He collected and analyzed tens of thousand of seed samples and finally established the worlds’ largest collection of plant seeds, which later became the Vavilov Center and Seed Bank of St. Petersburg (then Leningrad).
In 1927, he presented his concept of the Centers of origin of cultivated plants to the International Congress off Genetics in Berlin. Since then this theory has its place in plant and genetics science.
The village of Karsu lies in one of those Centers of Origin of Cultivated Plants which Vavilov visited and described, in the Kuseyr region which adjoins the Syrian border.
It is part of the former Levant, the Eastern Mediterranean, including todays Turkey, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel and Palestine.
According to Vavilov the diversity of cereals and a broad range of vegetables have been selected and cultivated over many centuries by the peasants of this fertile and climatically privileged zone, which was known as the bread basket of the Middle East.
However, Vavilov already described the destructive consequences of war on agri-cultural wealth and the rapid loss of seed diversity in the early 20th century. Colonial interventions and subsequent political and military conflicts took their toll.
The village of Karsu, with a population of about 2000, is located in the Turkish province of Hatay, on the fertile Kuseyr plateau.
Surrounded by the Amik plains to the north, the Asi River and the Mediterranean to the west, and Syria to the south and east, the Kuseyr plateau covers an area of 1000 km². It is influenced by the Mediterranean climate with hot, dry summers and warm, rainy winters. Agriculture and livestock breeding are the major economic activities in the region. Due to low rainfall during dry periods, agriculture focuses mainly on some specific crops: tobacco, wheat, barley, lentils and chickpeas.
The village of Karsu belongs to the district of Altinözü, where agriculture and market gardening are facilitated by the presence of the Yarseli water reservoir, some ten kilometres away from the town. The area is best known for its traditional olive cultivation, celebrated each year in October during the regional olive festival.
Kuseyr region is ethnically and religiously very diverse. The village of Karsu is surrounded by Christian and Muslim Arab villages, as well as Turkmen villages. The province of Hatay is home to about 2 million inhabitants. Among them are numerous ethnic and religious minorities in addition to the dominant Turkish and Arab population.
Being bordered by the Syrian province of Idlib, the region is particularly hard hit by the Syria crisis. The UNCHR estimates that more than 500 thousand refugees are sheltering in the Kuseyr
Recently, in 2020, public attention focused on that region, when the entire Seed Bank of Syria was evacuated from civil war and brought to Norway to be stored at the Global Seed Vault in Arctic permafrost facilities. The accessions contain traditional varieties and thousands of wild relatives of many globally important food crops, such as wheat, barley, lentils and fava beans.
However, the idea of saving wild and cultivated diversity in seed banks is increasingly questioned, as concentrated collections risk to get lost in conflicts and missing public support. Bringing conservation and development of seeds back into farmers’ hands reduces those risks. Furthermore, spread out through various climatic and geographical zones, seeds adapt to continuous change of climatic, soil, disease and pest conditions.
Vavilov saw seeds and plants not just as genetic material for breeding, but as organic systems in an evolutionary, geographical and cultural context, rather than assuming that their genetic code was stable and their qualities fixed. He saw the resilience of plant populations and the development of immunity against pests and diseases as a continuous process of adaptation in the field. And he recognized the observation and accumulated knowledge of farmers in the development of resilience as the best ground for food safety. It must have been the experience of famine in his childhood, which made him so sensitive to the need of making food production more resilient.
So if gene banks are not apt to preserve this process of adaptation of seeds to climatic and environmental change – maybe even less in the melting permafrost vault in Norway – and if the knowledge of farmers observing and selecting the most pest – and disease – resistant and tasteful seeds is still alive, why not questing Vavilov’s findings at one of the world’s centers of the origin of cultivated plants?
We are curious so we asked to meet with Ali’s cousin, Hakan Dönmez, and his mother, Tuna Hanim, who run a farm in Karsu. Us in Brussels, them in their wonderful Turkish gardens, we talked about their ideas of seeds and their secrets as farmers and breeders.
Conducted by Hannes Lorenzen, Ali Yürttagül and Adèle Pautrat in May 2021
Seeds4All. Hakan, tell us about your village and your farm
S4A. Do you enjoy being a farmer?
HD. We have been farming for generations, and we enjoy upholding the values of our parents and grandparents. When I say values, I mean traditional and mixed agriculture free of chemicals and based on our own seeds and products, which we have been preserving and selecting for generations. We know how valuable they are in today's quickly changing economical and climate conditions. We know, of course, that in order to increase production to meet growing demand, modern agriculture has moved away from natural production methods. This is another reason why we are aware of the value of traditional farming methods and the preservation and development of our own seeds. I like to be managing this very diverse farming system together with my family.
S4A. Do you like living in your village?
HD. We had no alternative to this village life anyway, because we have chosen farming. I am glad that it turned out this way. I enjoy living with my family in a natural environment. Especially in these days of the pandemic, we learn through social media how precious this kind of life is. It would be nice if all people could live in such a natural environment.
S4A. We understand you're using your own local seeds. Why do you do this?
HD. This is thanks to my mother - Tuna Hanim - that we take care using our own seeds. We have selected them and we know them well. Without my mother’s attentive care, we might have lost everything and switched to modern seeds. It seems that she has always been in the village. She is a very wise woman. Sometimes, she appears with seeds that she has stored for 20 or 30 years. Even for such a long time, the plants from these seeds thrive magnificently. She has her own methods of storing seeds for very long...kind of her secrets. Something is special about our varieties, I do not know, perhaps their naturalness and that they have always grown here and belong to this place. We share these seeds and products with joy and this makes us happy.
S4A. Tuna, could you tell us the secrets about your seeds?
Tuna Hanim. I have always been curious and attached to our seeds. When 25 years ago we were offered hybrid seeds I was not convinced at all to take them. I knew our own plants and seeds were much better and I decided to rely on them. So I practiced seed saving and selection myself every year. I know exactly how they perform under which conditions. But that is my secret.
S4A. What is so special about them?
TH. As already mentioned, perhaps the most important thing about these seeds and the food we can make from the plants we grow is their local roots and naturalness. We notice this very clearly in tomatoes, peppers and salads for example. The tomatoes sold in the city have almost no taste. Our tomatoes are not only juicy, but have a slightly sweet-sour taste that you can feel on your palate. You can also notice this difference in taste and texture in other vegetables we grow.
S4A. How do you market your products?
HD. We market locally mainly, so all products that we cannot easily transport on long distances. We also consume much of them in the family and in the village. Olives and olive oil is sold to buyers who sell it on national or international markets. But we keep the best of our olives here. We have special products like the green plum which is very much demanded in the cities which is very early ripe this year so we are early (in May) and get a good price for it.
S4A. How do you see the future?
TH. We are hopeful and have some dreams too. We hope that we can also market some of our organic seeds on the emerging organic seed markets. It could also enrich other people’s diets and food if they would use them in other places. Many of the plants we are growing seem to have their roots here in our region historically and culturally. So if people are interested and appreciate our seeds we might get more engaged in saving, developing and multiplying our seeds. We are curious about these possibilities. And we hope we can make Karsu’s seeds as famous as Karsu’s Jazz singer…
S4A. Can you tell us what kind of dishes can be cooked from your varieties and products?
HD. There are so many dishes we cook from our products that could fill entire cooking books. Nevertheless, here are a few examples. Imam bayıldı which is a typical dish of braised or fried aubergines stuffed with onions, garlic, tomatoes, green peppers and spices. Tomatoes are always good for stuffing. They are so rich and therefore added to many recipes. Peppers are used in the same way as tomatoes, and are also dried and used as a seasoning. There is also Domatesli, a wonderful dish of bulgur with tomatoes, whose recipe my mother agrees to share with you...
A recepy to try & share
Tuna Hanim style
Ingredients, serves 4:
Two medium onions,
Plenty of tomatoes
Some tomato paste
One large cup of bulgur
One fine pepper
Olive oil - Tuna Hanim uses plenty, can be less or more according to taste
Salt, pepper and red paprika powder.
Cut the onions half round, add olive oil to the pot and put on the fire (do not preheat olive oil). Sauté until the onions turn slightly yellow. Add the finely chopped pepper and stir in. Add finely chopped tomatoes (4-5 or plenty more) and simmer for a few minutes.
Add salt, pepper and red paprika powder, or a little tomato paste if there is a shortage of tomatoes. Stir in until the tomatoes have cooked down a little.
For one cup of bulgur, add three cups of water and wait until the mixture starts to almost boil. Add one cup of bulgur and stir it in, put a lid on and simmer at a low temperature.
After about 20 minutes, taste to see if the bulgur is soft. The bulgur should not become dry. Remove from the heat and serve hot. Accompany with salad or green and red peppers, or whatever is growing in the garden. Yogurt or ayran make a good addition as well.
All images for the interview were kindly provided by Hakan and Tuna Hanim. All rights reserved.