Volunteer Undertakes Mission to Preserve Vanishing Heirloom Seed Varieties

ByMo Jingxi May 7, 2022
Volunteer Undertakes Mission to Preserve Vanishing Heirloom Seed Varieties
Shen Ye works at a Beijing farmers' market in 2018. [China Daily]


As she sunk her teeth into a tomato she'd grown at an organic farm in Kunshan, Jiangsu Province, Shen Ye's mind raced back to when she sang with her grandfather in their countryside garden as a child.

It was as juicy and delicious as the ones her grandpa picked for her in their hometown of Anji County, Zhejiang Province.

The 38-year-old has been working as a volunteer for the farm for the past three years. That's because, one day, she had a hangover.

Several years ago, Shen, who was a band manager for a rock music label in Beijing, yearned for the delicious tomatoes of her childhood after waking up in agony, following a night of heavy drinking.

She scoured supermarkets and grocers but was surprised to find that the megacity that is the national capital didn't have tomatoes like those she'd enjoyed as a little girl.

"They all look like tomatoes but don't taste like the real sweet-and-sour ones," she recalled.

She bought seeds online and tried to grow tomatoes on her apartment's balcony but failed. They only grew as big as cherry tomatoes and were soon eaten by birds.

She couldn't even find seeds to grow tomatoes like those from her childhood.

In 2014, Shen left the music industry to work for a farmers' market in Beijing. She was responsible for organizing local farmers to sell organic produce to urbanites.

"Even though I learned a lot about organic farming there, I was still separated from the land," she recalled.

"So, I considered moving to a smaller place where I could work in the fields to plant and harvest organic food."

She and her husband moved to Kunshan in 2019.

As a part-time volunteer, she goes to the farm several days a week and spends nearly a whole day there.

One of her jobs, which she believes is urgent, is to conserve the seeds of traditional crop varieties before they completely disappear from the world, such as the tomatoes she had as a kid.

Shen said most farmers now plant hybrid or transgenic seeds purchased from stores. These plants can't produce viable seeds, so farmers have to buy new ones every year.

Also, this kind of produce is usually less tasty since it needs to endure long periods in transportation or storage.

These market conditions are causing many heirloom seed varieties to disappear.

Consequently, some localized foods are vanishing, too, she explained.

For example, Kunshan's ancient town of Zhouzhuang used to be known for a popular pickled cabbage dish called apo cai. But there is no authentic apo cai now because the real thing was made from a traditional Chinese cabbage variety that nobody grows anymore.

Volunteer Undertakes Mission to Preserve Vanishing Heirloom Seed Varieties
Farmers collect the harvest from landrace seeds at an organic farm in Kunshan, East China's Jiangsu Province, last year. [China Daily]


"We must find, collect and plant as many landrace seeds as possible from different villages to enable them to adapt to various climates," she said.

Shen believed this is an alternative to relying solely on seed banks.

"Because you have no idea whether the seeds can adapt to the climate after being frozen for centuries," she said.

The organic farm she works at has set apart several experimental plots for planting the seeds they have collected. Nearby farmers can also get these seeds if they wish.

Shen and her coworkers also teach local farmers the essential skills to refine the seeds from harvests to encourage them to conserve as many seed varieties as possible.

She felt that organic farming is somewhat like rock music, given that both emphasize independence and freedom.

"Farmers who own seeds that are able to reproduce no longer need to rely on others for seeds. They enjoy greater certainty and autonomy," she said.

Shen also spends a lot of time writing articles to encourage people, especially urban youth, to embrace sustainable organic food.

She recalled that when she was presenting a lecture at the Beijing farmers' market and asked the audience, "where does food come from", the children shouted "supermarket shelves" or "delivery boxes".

Shen said that rapid development has severed younger generations' connection with the land.

"If the youth don't know how food is naturally produced, how could the following generation know?" she pointed out.

So, she shares her life at the farm through photos, videos and written posts on social media platforms.

On her WeChat, people see freshly picked mushrooms and lettuce and zongzi, leaf-wrapped rice dumplings made with a local heirloom variety of rice.

Shen typically cooks simple, organic meals at home.

She recalled that some of her friends asked her how to grow bean sprouts when they had to stay at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic and didn't have enough vegetables.

Cooking at home is a step toward understanding our food system, whether the food is organic or not, she said.

"Maybe we can't change our food system's industrialization, but our efforts at least provide an alternative for the future," Shen said.

"This is especially important in a world of growing uncertainty."


(Source: China Daily)


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