When the COVID-19 pandemic began to reshape the world, many people turned to gardening and orchard-keeping as a pastime that felt both private and public. Now, as the pandemic reaches deeper into the summer, we’re tending the soil out of hope and anxiety, out of a desire for health, and for more control over a seemingly unstable food supply.
Since the beginning of March, seed sales from online catalogs have increased three- to five-fold, while nurseries and garden store outlets quickly ran out of stock. And paradoxically, COVID-19 has also made operations significantly more difficult for diverse seed-saving institutions, such as Seed Savers Exchange and Native Seeds/SEARCH, both of which closed temporarily to reconfigure in order to meet the increased demand. And while the pandemic’s danger for all agricultural and food workers is painfully evident, COVID-19 is particularly threatening to the many workers in the seed supply chain.
The COVID-19 pandemic presages a next few years marked by limited access, rising prices, and threats to seed diversity and sovereignty. With every passing day without further action, community seed access—and therefore food security and even national security—is being placed at increasing risk.
The roots of many seed companies’ issues during the pandemic lie in their physical configuration. Typically, small- to mid-size operations employ three to seven people in an assembly line: Sitting side by side, they’ll locate the desired seeds, package them up, and ready them for shipping. This process sometimes takes place under the same roof as seed-cleaning equipment, which periodically fills the air with dust, pollen, and chaff.
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