SPORT: Outdoor philosophy

summer2011-021-400x300When we came up with a blueprint for Transition Free Press we decided that it would follow the contours of a regular newspaper with news, features, reviews, opinion pages… and sport. In our back pages we have covered team sports-in-transition (including netball!)  as well as individual physical activities done in a community or environmental spirit – vegan and wild running, ecological diving and surfing, and of course cycling. Here philosopher and adventure cyclist Kate Rawles  explains why encountering the sea in a kayak inspires an immediate sense of connection with the planet.

I am in the glorious Arisaig Islands off the west coast of Scotland and have ‘parked’ my kayak in seaweed. Secured from the wind-drift, I watch the Arctic Terns travelling home from Antarctica. They are small, silver birds with graceful swallow-shaped tails and a screeching call at odds with their delicate frame. Flying up to 70,000 km in one year – by far the longest migrations of any bird – they will clock up the equivalent of three round trips to the moon in a lifetime!

Sights like this explain why sea kayaking has become a passion of mine. About 17 feet long, sea kayaks are both beautiful and immensely sea worthy. In their sealed holds you can pack camping gear and food enough for multi-week trips and their shallow draft and manoeuverability gives a competent kayaker access to islands and beaches that few other craft can reach. It is a low impact, quiet and wildlife-friendly sport.

Once I went to the Lofoten above the Arctic Circle in Norway but, like the Arctic terns, I always come back to west Scotland. However, despite the sheer beauty, diversity and intrigue to be found here, all is not well in the sea.

OP kayak 1 groupHumans mostly understand nature as a set of resources. All other living beings, from blue tits to blue whales, are valued only in relation to their usefulness to us. This anthropocentric outlook, the belief that humans are the most significant species on the planet, is undoubtedly a root cause of our interlocking environmental crises.

For many years, I was lucky to have these debates as part of my job as a philosophy lecturer. But discussing human-nature relations in ivory towers and overheated lecture theatres left my colleagues and I disconnected from the natural world we were trying to think about and without a mandate to act for environmentally positive social or political change.

Outdoor Philosophy is an attempted remedy; it is a discussion about human-nature relations conducted in the middle of other species and ecosystems. It aims to harness the power of this kind of experience – an invigorating sense of reconnection – to nurture, ignite and support people in their environmental work.

Sea kayaking tends to dissolve anthropocentrism, effortlessly. Despite their seaworthiness, it is nigh on impossible to sit in a small boat on even the laziest Atlantic swell and retain a bloated sense of human power and superiority.

In a small boat it’s impossible to retain a bloated sense of human power

Of course, when my sea kayaking trip comes to an end, I load my boat on to my van filled with fossil fuel and drive home, thereby adding to the greenhouse gases that are threatening the lives and wellbeing of the species I‘ve just been revelling in. But, in the end, perhaps that is the point – not to dwell in guilt and blame, but to stay in touch with the deep discomfort of reconnection, as well as its invigorating power. To re-see and revalue the sparrows on my terraced house front. To energise work that aims to reshape our economic, social and intellectual systems so we can co-exist as half-decent citizens of our extraordinary ecological communities.

Kate Rawles lectures and writes on ‘big picture’ environmental issues, sustainability and values. Her 2012 book The Carbon Cycle – Crossing the Great Divide used adventure cycling to communicate climate change. Her next book The Life Cycle will focus on biodiversity and a bike trip in the Andes planned for 2015. Find out more at www.outdoorphilosophy.com

Images: Exploring the coastal wonders of Arisaig in the Scottish Highlands (Kate Rawles)

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BOOK REVIEW: The Art of Fermentation

AOF-with-awards-hi-resFrom  reviews of climate change collections and peak oil fiction, from a Talkback take on resilience studies to the art of making pages out of foraged plants, books form an integral part of all TFP issues. In the autumn edition Naomi Klein’s This Changes Everything features in our editorial and Dark Mountain editor, Nick Hunt looks at contemporary responses to the call for a new narrative. Here Alexis Rowell breaks out the pickle jars in his hands-on review of a store cupboard maesterwerk (Ednote: the mead was our toast to TFP at a recent editorial meeting…it was divine!)

“Between fresh and rotten,” says Sandor Ellix Katz, “there is a creative space in which some of the most compelling of flavours arise.” I’m right in that creative space, but my partner, Sarah, is starting to complain about the smells coming from my fermenting cabbage!

I’m a novice fermenter. It’s something I’ve admired from afar but I’d always felt a bit daunted by the mystique surrounding fermented foods and all that bacteria.

“My advice,” says Sandor – a self-described ‘fermentation fetishist’ – “is to reject the cult of expertise. Do not be afraid. You can do it yourself.”

I started with fruit mead. All you need is a bail-top jar, a pot of raw honey, water and fruit. I used redcurrants from a friend’s allotment, cherry plums from Hampstead Heath and rose petals from my neighbour’s garden.

Reject the cult of expertise. Do not allow yourself to be intimidated

“It looks great – if you like murky pond water,” said Sarah dubiously. But a few days later it was bubbling furiously and had turned a beautiful rose-orange colour. “That looks great,” said a friend, “can I have the recipe?” “Recipe?” I laughed. “Sure – combine honey, water, fruit and petals. Stir and release the pressure twice a day. Drink and be merry after ten days!”

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Next up – sauerkraut. Pack a bail-top jar with shredded cabbage, juniper berries (or caraway seeds or other spices) and brine (salty water), weigh it down with a small glass jar filled with water to keep the cabbage submerged, then leave to ferment.

After a week it was starting to release some powerful odours, Sarah was apologising to visitors and I was worrying I’d got it wrong. But it tasted great. A few days later it tasted even better and it was time to move it to the fridge to slow down the fermentation process.

My fermented radishes looked fabulous as the brine turned red. “Are you sure we’ll be able to eat all this stuff? asked Sarah nervously, as I made plans for a huge jar of kohlrabi, carrot and beetroot kraut.

It’s perhaps a shame there aren’t more photos in The Art of Fermentation and that the illustrations, although lovely, are repeated a lot. But these seem like minor gripes set against the delight of learning from a master fermenter. For this is the omnibus, the bible, the encyclopaedia – it is everything you’ll ever need to know about fermentation – from molecular biology to cultural history, from philosophy to health benefits.

Sandor himself is a larger than life character with a massive handlebar moustache. He looks a picture of health, although he doesn’t hide the fact that he’s been living with HIV for ten years. “Is he healthy because of fermented foods?” I ask. He won’t go that far, but it’s hard not to draw that conclusion.

DSCN6810His book is also a remarkable political statement about the perils of industrialised food and the need for humans to reconnect with nature. In his words: “As microorganisms work their transformative magic and you witness the miracles of fermentation, envision yourself as an agent for change, creating agitation, releasing bubbles of transformation into the social order.”

The Art of Fermentation by Sandor Ellix Katz is published by Chelsea Green. Beginners might like to start with his earlier book, Wild Fermentation.

Images: cover of The Art of Fermentation; Sandor Ellix Katz teaching a fermentation class (www.wildfermentation.com); Alexis’ summer mead undergoing fermentation (Sarah Nicholl)

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Practical action on housing

tumblr_mn4ax9kiZC1sq6ylzo1_1280From the Focus E15 mums to tenants unions and co-operatives, the housing crisis has triggered a wave of activism and people exploring their own solutions to its problems.

Today in Hoxton, East London the residents of the New Era Estate marched against a 10% hike in rent after their homes were bought up by a private investment company. Families fear they will have to leave, or be evicted if they can’t pay and are calling on MP Richard Benyon, whose family company is part of the consortium which now owns the estate, to keep rents affordable for current tenants.

The New Era residents are part of a wave of housing activism that has been taking place across Britain as people fight back against high prices, poor tenant’s rights and a lack of social housing. Tenants unions are springing up across the country and campaigners like the Focus E15 Mothers have forced people to take notice of the experiences of some of the most vulnerable.

In September, the E15 campaigners occupied four empty flats on London’s Carpenters Estate protesting that homes like this were standing empty, and due for redevelopment, while families in the borough are being evicted and rehoused outside the city. The group, mainly made up of young mothers, first become active in 2013 after funding cuts to the Focus E15 young people’s hostel led to many of them facing eviction.

Tenants unions are springing up across the country and people are also exploring creative solutions to housing problems. In Edinburgh students are settling into a student-run housing co-operative, aiming to provide affordable accommodation. The project is only the second of its kind and is the largest with over 100 students taking residence.

In October the House of the Commons conference took place in Oxford. The event discussed diverse topics around the housing crisis, including community energy, fuel poverty, the financial crisis, inequality, natural building techniques and community-led housing.

The current issue of Transition Free Press has a page dedicated to housing and some of the pockets if practical, collective resistance in the challenge of accessing safe, affordable, stable housing. Rachel Savage reports from Bristol on the Abolish Empty Office Buildings (AEOB) scheme which has now attracted £225,000 worth of community investment to turn unused offices into much needed, affordable housing.

In the same section, Amy Hall looks at cohousing – combining communal living with private space for each household. She speaks to people setting up intentional, low impact communities around the UK and experiment with new models of shared ownership.

Research published by Shelter in October indicates that two-thirds of private renters in England are unable to save towards a house deposit and with more than 81,000 homeless households in England alone, grassroots housing action in the UK is looking set to grow.

Read the autumn edition of Transition Free Press online here, including our housing focus on page 6. Find out more about print or online subscriptions here.

Photo by Andy Lord: Downtime at the Lilac cohousing community in Leeds -the UK’s “first affordable ecological cohousing project.” 

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TALKBACK: Situating Transition in a broader movement for change

tfp_slider_image_1Some issues need focusing on in a broader, deeper way that regular news reporting or even a colourful feature can allow. Our Talkback section in the centre of the paper give space to some of the key philsophical and ethical debates within Transition and other progressive movements. Our main TB pieces have looked at a wide range of subjects: from finance (Brett Scott), to supermarkets (Adrienne Campbell) to land rights (Shaun Chamberlin). In the present issue Tom Crompton, author of Common Cause, discusses how strenthening intrinsic values can determine our willingness as a people to change.

No cause is an island by Tom Crompton

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As we wring our hands at inaction on a national food security strategy, climate change or biodiversity protection, it’s easy to focus on the timidity of key decision makers in business and government.

From the outset the Transition movement has recognised that decision-makers are crucially constrained in what they can achieve, and that no amount of clever policy analysis or inside-track lobbying can change this. It is understood that fundamental constraints on meaningful action are imposed by lack of public acceptance – not to mention demand – for ambitious change. Public orientation toward change is viewed as the solution, not the problem – and to be far-thinking public support needs to be built for policies that would today spell electoral suicide.

These are important responses to the problems that beset much mainstream environmental campaigning. Here I will suggest that a good starting point for going further is to understand cultural values and how these are shaped.

Social psychologists affirm what many of us grasp intuitively – that our values lead us to express concern about other people, future generations, or other living things. Our values, it seems, are important determinants – perhaps the most important determinants – in motivating public expressions of concern about social and environmental challenges.

We are almost all at times concerned about what psychologists call extrinsic values – money; social status; public image; authority. At other times, almost all of us prioritise what psychologists call intrinsic values. These are values associated with greater concern about social and environmental problems. They include values of connection to family, friends and community; appreciation of beauty; broadmindedness; social justice; environmental protection; equality; helpfulness. In motivating expressions of concern about social and environmental issues, the balance that we strike between these two sets of values (both individually and collectively) is of crucial importance.

As can be easily seen, it’s difficult to prioritise extrinsic and intrinsic values at the same time. It’s difficult to be concerned about making money while also being concerned about community. Indeed, one important study has found that ‘community feeling’ is almost perfectly opposed to ‘financial success’. This isn’t to say that it is impossible to hold ‘community feeling’ and ‘financial success’ to be of importance at the same time – but it’s going to be difficult.

So we can see that values aren’t prioritised independently of one another. Indeed, it seems that they are held in dynamic relationships. Here are three important principles that have been found to govern these relationships:

“Exercising a value tends to strengthen it in a more durable way”

Firstly, exercising one value within a group (for example, broadmindedness) is found to increase the importance that a person places on other values within that group (for instance, social justice). Asking people to think briefly about broadmindedness leads to increased concern about climate change. Why? Well, it seems that engaging this value leads people to place greater importance on other intrinsic values, such as social justice or environmental protection, which are more obviously associated with concern about climate change.

Secondly, exercising an extrinsic value tends to suppress the importance that a person places on intrinsic values, and vice versa. This has been called the ‘see-saw’ effect. So, for example, drawing a person’s attention to the importance of money (an extrinsic value) is found to reduce the likelihood that they will help someone in need, or donate to a charity (behaviours associated with intrinsic values).

Thirdly, repeatedly exercising a value tends to strengthen it in a more durable way – much like a muscle. Repeatedly reminding a person of the importance of image or social status is likely to lead that person to draw upon this value more often in making decisions in many areas of life, and to place less importance on social and environmental concerns.

These principles have important implications for any approach aimed at helping to build public concern about social and environmental issues – with a view to bringing more public pressure to bear on business or government leaders.

For example, an understanding of values highlights the dangers of appealing to extrinsic values in order to motivate environmentally-friendly behaviour. Marketers (indifferent to the wider social and environmental impacts) use extrinsic values like social status to help sell cars or to encourage us to shop conspicuously. But many social marketers also advocate the use of such extrinsic appeals to drive environmentally-friendly behaviour. This is despite studies repeatedly showing that these tactics are likely to backfire: engaging extrinsic values tends to erode wider environmental concern.

Another important implication of an understanding of values is this: values connect causes. It has been found that drawing people’s attention to the financial value of biodiversity (that is, presenting conservation in connection with extrinsic values) leads people to say that they would be less inclined to join a public meeting or write to their MP in support of work on rights for disabled people. Conversely, drawing people’s attention to the beauty and inherent value of nature strengthens their intention to take civic action in support of disability rights.

“Engaging extrinsic values tends to erode wider environmental concern”

This is very important. In fact it presents a fundamental challenge to the way in which the charity sector is currently structured around ‘causes’. Too often, charities themselves work to isolate these causes – because it works in building a constituency of public supporters. Fundraisers call this ‘positioning’. The problem is that the narrow focus on specific issues that this encourages tends to blind-side charities to the wider effects of their communications and campaigns. These communications will affect both public concern about other causes, and more general public appetite to demand change.

If we are serious about building irresistible public demand for ambitious policy change, the implications seem clear: we should always prefer to communicate about issues in ways that connect with intrinsic values; we should avoid communicating in ways that connect with extrinsic values; we should recognise the crucial importance of beginning to achieve coherence in this across ‘causes’. No cause is an island: it is the values we use to communicate which are more important in shaping public appetite for action on a wider range of different social and environmental issues than the particular causes upon which we focus.

An understanding of values, therefore, points to the importance of not getting hung up on the issues (energy insecurity or climate change, for example). Rather, any group working for social change would do well to free itself from a narrow issues-focus and ask in more free-ranging terms: “What are the issues that matter most to the people whom we most need to engage?” and then, crucially, “How do we campaign and communicate on these more resonant issues in a way that connects with intrinsic values?”

Relying upon intrinsic values to make the unconscious links is likely to prove to be a far more effective way of engaging many people on the issues that are closest to your heart, than by campaigning on those issues directly.

Tom Crompton works for WWF-UK and with children’s and disability charities. He is the author of Weathercocks and Signposts: The Environment Movement at a Crossroads (WWF, 2008) and Common Cause: The Case for Working with Our Cultural Values (COIN, CPRE, Friends of the Earth, Oxfam & WWF, 2010).

Read the autumn edition of Transition Fress Press online here or subscribe for the print or online edition here

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PEOPLE: Danielle Paffard and how divestment changes everything

In a month of climate actions and demonstration here is TFP’s autumn profile of activist Danielle Paffard. Each issue we interview people who are key to an understanding of and manifesting ‘Transition’ culture. In past editions these have ranged from Mark Boyle on the philosophy behind gift economy to George Monbiot on rewilding our neighbourhoods and imaginations. The interviews are often long and intense, though the space in the paper only allows for core extracts from our conversations. Charlotte Du Cann asks the key questions…

What makes an activist? And what effect do actions take in shaping our cultural narrative?

Danielle Paffard helped start up the highly influential campaigns UK Uncut, Move Your Money and No Dash for Gas. How did she get from being ‘relatively unpolitical’ to becoming the new UK divestment co-ordinator for 350.org?

“I studied the environment at university and came out feeling there was a huge problem, but also feeling totally useless and unable to contribute.

“I came across Climate Camp and went from being quite anti direct action to meeting these amazing activists. Two months later I was locked to a coal-fired power station, shutting it down from the inside. That was a really transformatory experience and formed the founding principle for most of the activism I’ve done since: you find a group of people you can work with and who inspire each other.

“Then in 2010 there was a change of government. When the Spending Review made it clear just exactly what this new government was about another radicalisation moment happened to me.

“One of my friends said: if we just keep on marching from A to B listening to Tony Benn speak, we’re going to lose. We need something that’s more feisty.

“The next day he found a small piece in Private Eye about how Vodafone had avoided £6 billion worth of tax and he made the link: ‘Look, if we’re losing £6 billion from one company that could cover almost the entire issue of the cuts, how are the government getting away with this austerity narrative?’

“UK Uncut started at Vodafone’s flagship store in Oxford Street, using the direct action skills we’d learnt through the climate movement to highlight the falsehoods behind austerity. 70 people shut down the shop. By that weekend there were 30 more actions around the country.

“This was when Occupy was starting up and there was a huge anger with the banks and the bailouts. But, though with UK Uncut we targeted high street banks with our actions, it was hard to break through into the more systemic problems around banking.“It was unexpected and exciting and had a key role in changing the awareness of tax justice in the UK.

“At that point I banked with HSBC, who fund the world’s biggest coal mines. It had been on my to-do list to change, but it wasn’t in my diary. So we came up with actions to motivate people to close their accounts.”

“And so with another group of friends we set up the Move Your Money campaign, which was about very publicly moving your money away from the big four banks into more socially responsible alternatives.

“The blockades to a just transition are due to the political power of the fossil fuel industry”

Danielle’s next move however was far away from any high street: with 16 others she scaled a 300 foot chimney to protest about the building of new gas-fired power stations in the UK.

“The platforms at West Burton were about five metres from the top. Once we got on there we blockaded the access points and dropped a hanging tent down into the chimney. So they had to turn the power off. And people took it in turns to sit in that tent. It was November and really cold.

“We delayed work for a week and stopped 20,000 tonnes of C02 from being released. EDF tried to sue us for £5 million. The public reaction was extraordinary. 65,000 people emailed EDF to drop the charge.”

As a result many climate activists were reinvigorated and the Reclaim the Power event was launched at the Balcombe anti-fracking camp in 2013. Paffard is now to be found behind the scenes as divestment co-ordinator for the climate action organisation, 350.org:

“We’re working on ways to stigmatise the fossil fuel industry sufficiently to unblock the political process. It is so weighed down by the fossil fuel lobby we are struggling to get the meaningful decisions we need to do something right on climate.

“My role is to work with the existing campaigns – the university campaigns organised by People & Planet, Operation Noah who work with faith groups and the fossil free health campaign, started by Medact, who have just got the BMA to divest. I am also helping to encourage small independent local groups to get active in their communities, on their own councils, and get them to debate publicly whether public money should be going into fossil fuels.

“If councils don’t have investments in fossil fuels then they’ll be very quick to tell you. And they will do, because everybody does. We’re working on tools to make it easier for campaigners to find that information out, looking at pension funds because that’s where a lot of the investment money is.”

Do people say to you: It’s all very well to divest, but what’s the point if we’re still using oil, coal and gas?

“We are very focused on divestment, rather than personal consumption. It’s very hard to make change until the political power of the fossil fuel industry has been significantly dented. Incentivising clean technologies and getting the investment we need to really transform our entire economy, are blocked by these incredibly powerful industries. And while individual action is important it isn’t going to take down the fossil fuel industry as quickly as it needs to be.

“Until we get massive investment in public transport or incentives for renewable energy, it’s going to be difficult for people to make meaningful enough consumption decisions to change the economy.

“Much of the discussion is now about the social value of investments. The recent Law Commission’s review questioned whether it is right that ‘fiduciary duty’ should just mean short term profit for shareholders. Should it include long term stewardship of both your money and the planet? The fact these questions are being discussed is a really important part of the narrative.

Do you see a relationship between Transition and the divestment movements?

“If you don’t have a Yes, then it’s much harder to push the No. If we’re going to deal with the climate crisis we need to shine a light on all the community projects that are working, so they can be rapidly replicated and supported to make change happen.

“Divestment could be a really interesting project for a local group – because it is about democracy and local participation in decision-making about where public money should be invested. Using the divestment campaign to build a community to do more of the Yes work on a bigger scale.”

Activism typically deals with heavy-duty issues. How do you keep going without being burned out, or oppressed?

“I go running!“ she laughs. “I think it’s about having a good group around you, who can talk and offer support. Also one of the reasons UK Uncut was so successful was because it challenged these big problems and organisations in a fun way.

“So whether you are talking about Sure Start centre closures, by setting up a crèche in an HSBC bank, or running sports days in Top Shop, activists know it’s important to make sure that activism is fun and engaging, because in the end if it’s not, we can’t keep on doing it.” 

Taking part in an Art Not Oil action at The British Museum, 2010; Danielle Paffard; UKUncut Top Shop protest in Brighton; 350.org’s carbon bubble for global People’s Climate March, 2014

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Questions over ‘secret’ trade talks

TTIP protest in ManchesterSaturday 11 October is a busy day. As well as the Global Frack Down for a ban on fracking, there will be an international day of action, including many events in the UK, in protest against the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), a trade agreement currently being negotiated by Europe and the US. Campaigners say the planned deal will put more power into the hands of corporations, taking it away from citizens. In the Autumn issue of Transition Free Press, Joseph Blake explains the controversy. 

The TTIP aims to create the largest free trade zone in the world. But there are fears that an investor-state dispute settlement (ISDS) mechanism within the agreement would give corporations the power to sue governments through secret courts, if legislation is implemented which negatively impacts profits.

“Through this provision, [corporations’] legal status is effectively made equivalent to that of the nation state itself – making states accountable to corporations,” says Adam Parsons of the Share the World’s Resources group.

ISDS rules are already being used elsewhere: under provisions in the the Central American Free Trade Agreement (CAFTA), Canadian mining company Pacific Rim has filed a $300m lawsuit against El Salvador over a moratorium on metal mining because of water contamination.

“TTIP is part of a massive trade offensive that’s going to hand over massive amounts of power to corporations to rule over our society,” says Nick Dearden, director of the World Development Movement. “It’s the worst corporate offensive we’ve seen for 20 years.”

Over 120 European NGOs and charitable organisations oppose TTIP (also called the Transatlantic Free Trade Agreement in the US). A European Commission public consultation on the ISDS provisions received over 100,000 submissions.

The National Health Service is a big focus of the anti-TTIP campaign. “If this goes through it will mean that any Clinical Commissioning Group anywhere in England could be challenged – sued – by a US private healthcare company,” warns Andy Burnham, Labour’s shadow Health Secretary.

Food standards could also be lowered. For example, in the US, 90% of chicken carcasses are washed with chlorine to get rid of the bacteria and 68% of food on the shelves contains GM. Such processes are banned across most of Europe but under the TTIP this might no longer be the case and a whole range of regulation on food, the environment, cosmetics and labour rights could disappear.

It could become harder for countries to refuse developments, such as fracking, on environmental grounds. There are also fears that the EU’s Fuel Quality Directive could be undermined to make it easier to export oil from the Canadian tar sands to Europe.

Joe Nixon is from REPOWERBalcombe, a project attempting to generate all power needs of the community of Balcombe in Sussex from clean, renewable sources following fracking protests in the area last summer. “This is just another example of governments trying to force us to use forms of energy that people don’t want,” he says. “The choices we are making in Balcombe are the same choices Britain faces as a nation – and if we could choose for ourselves instead of our government forcing decisions on us, we would choose renewables.”

Joseph Blake is a freelance journalist, co-founder of Transition Heathrow and campaigner with Plane Stupid, People’s Parliament, SQUASH (Squatters Action For Secure Homes) & Edge Fund.

Photo: TTIP protest in Manchester, July 2014. World Development Movement, under a CC License

Read the whole edition online here or subscribe for the print or online edition here

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Seeding change

small Over Winter Seed Salad Brotherhood Church Greenhouse73% of seed crops are now ‘owned’ by 10 corporations – while community and grassroots initiatives are working to keep global diversity alive. This weekend The Great Seed Festival in London celebrates the people and places that hold the future of many of our crops in their hands. In our Autumn issue we look at seed swaps, seed banks, and open source pollination (by bees and humans). Here Warren Draper reports on the radical acts of exchange happening…online

It is hard to comprehend how patent examiners can grant patents on seeds for plants which have been commonly used, exchanged and cross-bred worldwide for thousands of years: surely it’s like granting a large car manufacturer a patent for the wheel? But large corporations get their own way regarding patents in exactly the same way they control everything else – through powerful lobbying and relentless bullying.

As VQR Online reported recently in their excellent article ‘Linux for Lettuce’ one patent application by Monsanto – for easy harvesting broccoli which they acquired through a corporate takeover in 2005 – was refused because it was too generic and could lead to Monsanto claiming ‘ownership’ of all exserted head broccoli strains. This sounds like a win for common sense, but Jim Myers, professor of genetics for Oregon State University warns that the decision is “not necessarily final.” Monsanto have appealed and Myers writes that after years of legal wrangling patent examiners are tempted to “cave and grant the broader claims as they get worn down by the attorneys’ arguments.”

seed-swapThe hard truth is that seed patents benefit nobody in the end. Peasant farmers, smallholders and organic growers worldwide are suffering due to international laws which seek to prohibit access to heritage seeds. But in the face of climate change and economic uncertainty a large and diverse gene pool is crucial for every breeder – even those working for the corporations who are currently too blind or too greedy to see the long-term damage they are inflicting upon their own industry. Luckily there’s a newly emerging alternative to proprietary seed patents in the form of the Open Source Seed Initiative (OSSI).

The Open Source Seed Initiative seeks to guarantee the right to exchange seeds in much the same way that an open source software license like the GPL guarantees the freedom to share and alter a software program, so long as it remains open source. The OSSI pledge is printed on seed packets and describes how the seeds can be freely used, sold, bred and shared, but not legally restricted. On April 17th (La Via Campesina’s ‘International Day of Farmer’s Struggles’) OSSI breeders released the seeds of 36 varieties of 14 different crops under the OSSI license. The relevance of this should not be underestimated; before OSSI, farmers in many countries routinely faced legal intimidation:

531499_414679435286488_1865570027_n“As a small farmer, I’m constantly worried that I might get ticketed, fined, or even arrested for keeping my own seeds or participating in local seed-banks and seed-sharing programs.” (Thomas Luce, Washington State Farmer).

This is why it is vital for as many breeders as possible to start licensing their own strains under the OSSI pledge. The greater the genetic diversity of open source seeds available, the less likely it is that companies such as Monsanto are able to seize sweeping control of crop types. If you haven’t tried breeding crops yourself then maybe it’s time to start. Even if you have no intention of developing your own strain, letting plants go to seed does have other benefits.

My good friends at the Brotherhood Church, a 90 year old Tolstoy-inspired anarchist commune in North Yorkshire, routinely open-pollinate salad crops in their greenhouse over winter. This not only provides seeds for the following season, it also gives them a source of fresh leaves during leaner times. These leaves are perfectly palatable and the 6ft plus plants are a joy to behold.

seed-truckAs individuals and small-scale growers we can also do our bit to guarantee universal seed sovereignty by supporting seed-banks and participating in seed exchanges. We could also create a UK wide network for the exchange of heirloom seeds and the development of open source varieties… Transition Seed Express anyone?

www.opensourceseedinitiative.org

The Great Seed Festival – Celebrating the Seeds That Feed Us, 10th-12th October is at Garden Museum, Lambeth Palace Road, London SE1 7LB

Warren Draper is a contributor to The Idler magazine and the Dark Mountain journals. He is involved with a number of resilience and rewilding projects in Doncaster.

Images: Gone to seed: Salad crops at The Brotherhood Church, a seven acre paradise which shows exactly what can be achieved ecologically in a single lifetime; Seed swap at Brighton, the oldest seed exchange in the UK; Fife Diet’s Seed Truck on the road in Scotland

Read the whole of Transition Free Press 6 on line here, including Lucy Purdy on Heritage Seeds in the food pages (p19)

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