Seeds are the secret to safeguarding the future of our food system

As extreme weather causes unpredictability, we must protect our culinary culture and flavour profiles

Erik Oberholtzer
Sunday 22 August 2021 12:55 BST
‘Many of our most beloved ingredients were not bred to withstand unpredictable weather changes. Leaders must recognise the importance of protecting seed diversity’
‘Many of our most beloved ingredients were not bred to withstand unpredictable weather changes. Leaders must recognise the importance of protecting seed diversity’ (Getty Images/iStockphoto)

Few people know that the sweet orange carrots we enjoy as a side dish or snack came from the Iranian plateau 5,000 years ago. The Persians preferred to eat the plant’s leaves and seeds as opposed to the root because, before the plant was selectively bred into the vegetable we know and love, the root was spindly and yellow.

Today, I use carrots shaved raw for a salad or roasted whole with coriander, cumin and lime to concentrate flavours and texture. And I even served carrots, glazed and dusted in linseeds, at a pre-pandemic dinner I cooked at the Svalbard Global Seed Vault to commemorate the progress that has been made to end hunger – one of the UN sustainable development goals (SDG).

Hosted by Norwegian prime minister and co-chair of the UN group of SDG advocates, Erna Solberg, this Arctic dinner was accompanied by a major seed deposit where 35 seedbanks from all continents were deposited at the Seed Vault for long-term safekeeping.

Nearly two years later, in September 2021, the UN will host another milestone event – the UN food systems summit – which aims to provide bold new actions to deliver on the SDGs. The summit could not come at a more critical time.

Across the world, recent extreme weather events have reminded us of the fragility of our food system. We’re reliant on selectively bred varieties, making us more vulnerable to the impacts of the climate crisis. Many of our most beloved ingredients were not bred to withstand unpredictable weather changes, like drought and flooding, which increases the likelihood of food system shortages and collapse.

Our unpredictable climate demonstrates the urgent need for international leaders at the summit to recognise the importance of protecting seed diversity. It also shows that we should celebrate the role conservation efforts and ancestral knowledge play in creating agricultural resilience.

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault, built deep into the side of Plateau Mountain in the Arctic island of Spitsbergen, serves as a backup for this seed diversity. It currently contains more than one million seed samples from around the world. Inside its icy doors is everything we need to navigate an uncertain future and, for chefs like me, to keep it delicious.

The dinner I cooked in Svalbard featured locally sourced specialities like Arctic grouse, as well as carrots –1,311 different varieties of which are backed up in Svalbard – and rye, of which 1,878 varieties are backed up in Svalbard.

Beyond each variety’s unique culinary culture and flavour profile – which in itself is worth safeguarding – each crop variety has its own genetic makeup, some containing the robust traits needed to withstand uncertain growing conditions.

Rye, for example, once considered a weed in wheat fields, is the cold-tolerant cousin of wheat and barley and can thrive in sub-zero temperatures and in poor soil conditions. This makes it a significant cash crop in cold, dry climates. Carrot, on the other hand, is being adapted by researchers from Bangladesh, Pakistan, and the US to grow in hotter, drier, and less predictable climates.

As the climate crisis warps growing seasons around the world, these crops hold the keys to adaptation. Safeguarding them will allow breeders in the future to develop more resilient varieties for farmers, who will in turn help feed a fast-growing population.

Both rye and carrot were among the seeds deposited to the Seed Vault during my visit and they were joined by rare crop varieties like Cherokee white eagle corn from the Cherokee Nation – the oldest and most sacred corn variety of their culture. With blue and white kernels that some say resemble a flying eagle, this variety is used commonly in many Cherokee traditions.

The seed deposit reminded me that not only does the Svalbard Global Seed Vault contain the building blocks for the world’s agriculture, but that it also holds the flavours of our many different cultures.

As we approach the food systems summit, it is vital that we continue to protect seeds and their culinary histories because they hold the key to our food system’s future. While we continue to fight the devastating effects of climate change and extreme weather, I’m optimistic knowing we have the tools and knowledge to provide us with food for generations to come – if we remain committed to safeguarding it.

Erik Oberholtzer is the Food Forever Champion of the Crop Trust, as well as the co-founder of Tender Greens

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