Michel and Jude Fanton are in perpetual motion, a two-person NGO (non-government organisation) on a global odyssey for seed freedom.
The couple formed Seedsavers in 1986 after concerns that corporate seed production would lead to the loss of varieties cultivated over centuries for their taste, nutrition and robustness. Their concern was shared; after decentralising their operation, 120 seed networks sprouted across Australia. Members meet in each other’s gardens to swap seeds and gardening lore. Byron Hinterland Seed Savers is active in Byron Shire.
‘We received 8,700 strains from gardeners around Australia,’ says Jude of when the duo began to take off. ‘Our typical provider was ageing, sometimes unsociable, and fanatical. They didn’t want to pass away without passing on their favourite breeds.’
And then they went global. ‘We now specialise in helping war-torn and newly modernised nations,’ says Jude, who was among the first foreigners to reach Cuba following the Soviet collapse and the near-starvation of the population. East Timor, Cambodia and Afghanistan also received the ‘seedsaver’ treatment. In their travels, they encounter aid groups who respond to food shortages by distributing hybrid seeds, pesticides and fertiliser.
It’s unclear if using potentially genetically modified (GM) seeds and chemical poisons is simply ignorance, or the vacuum left by war and corporate opportunism to open up new markets. But Jude and Michel’s alternative is to educate on permaculture methods and link locals with seed and knowledge.
They don’t have a five-year plan. ‘We have a five-minute plan and a 5,000-year plan,’ says Michel. The five-minute plan was to eat wild almonds. ‘The 5,000-year plan is to bring more local traditional varieties into the global diet. The foods we eat now used to grow in the wild. In 5,000 years we should be growing an even greater variety of nutritious food and natural medicine.’
One senses that the couple have reached a junction in their life and life’s work, are passing from actors to elders, and with this they begin to share their wisdom:
‘Just plant something,’ says Michel. ‘We’ve planted stuff from all over the country. If it survives, it adapts. If you send seeds from Byron to a frost-prone area, only the early-flowering varieties will survive. The first year you may get a poor crop, but if you continue to collect the seeds, next year more of your plants will flower early, and soon you have something different: a locally adapted variety. The vital step is to harvest the seed, or you lose nature’s work.
‘I haven’t spent time worrying about [biotech GM corporation] Monsanto. Yes, there is room for political activism, especially against laws restricting the right to save seeds, but if you keep planting and swapping and showing others how, the rest will take care of itself,’ says Michel.
The couple are not entirely free of concerns: Jude worries about farmers. ‘We are losing the people with knowledge,’ she says. And Michel worries most about our tastebuds, citing the example of ‘Zeesweet’, which are highly bred stonefruits developed in California and available in Australia. They are high in sugar, low on taste.
‘Our palate is no longer in tune with what is good for us,’ he says, as Jude serves a flavour-bomb of garden-fresh black sapote with raw cacao. No wonder these people have energy. In fact, Michel is starting to bounce around in his seat. It’s time for a walk in their garden.
Veggies, spices, mushrooms, shampoo, ginger. Asian, South American and African food forests. Staples and rarities. An object lesson in global nutrition and a scented delight.
‘You want the best food, the greatest variety, walk up a narrow track in a third-world country. That is where you find it,’ the couple say. It’s an astounding comment on modernisation. For all our travel, export and influence, our diet is blander than a remote village.
The couple has just returned from a five-month tour of 13 countries, including a seed exchange with 5,000 participants in Greece and assisting an embryonic seed network in Senegal, west Africa.
‘The longest-lasting, most effective organisations are those that start without a budget and are light on their feet,’ says Michel.