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Established since 1963 

Sowing the Seeds of Life

23rd. August, 1998. 


EVERYONE now better believe that variety is the spice of life. 

But the traditional gardening advocate, Jude Fanton, Byron Bay, New South Wales, takes that time honoured saying one giant step further, - Variety is indeed the stuff of life," when it comes to food plants, she said. 

Jude and husband, Michael Fanton are founders of growingly popular non-profit organisation in Australia called Seed Savers Trust which is dedicated to promote agricultural biodiversity. 

The key to promoting agricultural biodiversity lies in seeds, by retrieving and circulating seeds of the myriad of wild traditionally grown, non-hybrid species of plants. 

Wow, what a noble mission, I said, here's a couple who dedicate their lives to agricultural biodiversity. 

But Jude Fanton interrupted my less-than-pinpoint accurate statement with an urgent clarification while the words were still in my mouth. 

“No,” she chipped in and turned my thoughts on the family kitchen. 

“I am very much promoting original taste. With taste comes nutrition too, in the traditional varieties rather than the highly bred varieties are often available in the supermarkets. 

With that statement, it dawned upon, the writer the far reaching consequences of biodiversity on the health of the world and its future generations. 

Biodiversity advocates are not people who harp sanctimoniously about biodiversity, for its own sake, but as a means to ensure what surely is one of the most important ends of the human existence good food, tasty food and proper nutrition for sustained good health. 

This was the real basis for founding the Seeds Savers Network which now keeps in circulation more than 4000 vanities of seeds in Australia, starting with just one in its humble beginning in 1986. 

"I wanted authentic cooking, authentic ingredients. That started it all and that's what inspired my husband to provide that for me," Jude paid tribute to French hubby Michael who kick- started the project 13 years ago. 

You can't really have exact cuisine without proper ingredients. So, you need the right varieties, not just cucumber but the right cucumber Jude pointed out. 

For example, with tomatoes, sour tomato is different from a cooking tomato. It's different from a stuffing tomato, different from a tomato you  might use for soup or drying. 

“So you can't just say, take a kilo of tomatoes and use it, for this or that recipe. You to be "more particular to get really good cuisine,” Jude explained. 

Giving more case examples, she pointed out : “Like the immigrants from Asia, they have brought (to Australia) not only just their cuisine but also their varieties (of ingredients). The best of restaurants in Australia don t just buy waxed goods that suit modern marketing but they get them from regional market gardeners who grow the original varieties. 

“In the same way, I am promoting the original taste. With taste comes nutrition too in the traditional varieties rather than varieties available in supermarkets because they come from large scale agriculture which are bred for traffic, for travelling to markets, for long distances, for size, for uniformity, that is, to suit the needs of the food supply marketing system and you lose the taste and nutritional aspect of these things," Jude added. 

"So, it is a good idea to think in terms of nutritional levels in the future, so that future generations can retain the high nutrition we have in meals in original cuisine, as opposed to the modern style of cooking with the trend to eating highly bred varieties of plants," Jude said. 

Asked what prompted him to found the Seed Savers Trust in the first place, Michael said: "I was migrating to Australia and realised the diversity of Agriculture was very poor, very large, very boring kind of a super market compared to an Indian super market or a Malaysian market. So, that spurred me on." 

Explaining what the Trust is all about, Michael said: "For the last 20, years, we have seen an international community conserving the genes of wild plants and animals, like the charismatic panda and rhino. The panda had been a symbol, of losing biodiversity and we have been using charismatic animals to do that like the panda and koala which people would like to cuddle up, feel sorry and cry for." 

"But we are also losing the biodiversity of wild plants. However, the angle we took 
within our conservation is looking partly at plants that are not existing in the wild any more but are used by all of us," Michael explained. 

"For instant right now, we are looking at cotton and rubber, all cultivated plants, some of them have got some ancestors in the wild, some of them haven't got any more, like maize.” 

"Like cotton, sometimes there are very distant relatives but when people cultivated one plant, the wild plant got lost but the cultivated plants may be found in the hands of gardeners." 

"So, we are gardeners now and I believe the communities can take care of those plant resources because they are disappearing in the wake of globalisation where we don't need dozens of cotton, just a few of them will do the trick and we don't need any more. So, may be one day, you end up with only one sort of durian for the market and you'll lose all the wild relatives," Michael warned. 

However, he added:" Borneo is lucky as you still have wild plants that can be harvested directly and they are ready for eating." 

“That's the background of agricultural biodiversity but we also work with communities that are working close to national parks that are protected so that we can find again their agricultural diversity and network it with other communities." 

The umbrella organisation behind the Seed Savers Network is the Seed Savers Trust - a non-profit and educational organisation driven by several thousand members. 

"We also publish books, one in England and one in Australia and drawing some fluids from that. We publish newsletters, consultancy work, teach courses and recently we had been getting funding to do overseas work," Michael said. 

For instance, they had been training in five countries - Cambodia, Congo, Cuba, the Solomon Islands and Fiji. 

"It's spreading. We teach some people who teach others," Michael said. 

"Back at home the Fantons are teaching by practical examples. 

We have an acre of cultivation on the outskirts of town in Australia where we put up a demonstration garden and teaching people how to cultivate those traditional vegetables - those that are in danger of being lost. In fact, a lot have been lost in our culture but not all have been lost," Jude said. 

'In European culture, however, they have lost even more because they have quite harsh laws on what variety of seeds could be exchanged. So that may well be a precursor, a warning to your country that it could happen here," Jude said 

To give an idea of the diversity of seeds that communities can retrieve and perpetuate, there are no less than 500 varieties of tomatoes, 300 varieties of beans that had come to the seed bank of Seed Savers Network. 

"Most of them come from older people, who send us seeds. What we do is we accept any, publicise those and put them in circulation on our network,” Jude said. 

"We started on a personal format basis in our own garden and then swapped with others and that's how it evolved." 

But according to Michael, their cause would in promoting agricultural biodiversity had succeeded because they spent a lot of time with the media, especially journalists and media houses who believed in they we are doing. 

We spent a lot of time publishing the issues through television, radio, newspapers which are absolutely necessary. We really have to do that. It is the most important issue for us, so that we can understand the issues first and create awareness. As a result, seed products and seed saving is now generally accepted in Australia. It is amplifying, because of the work of thousands of our members, we are not alone,” Michael pointed out. 

To keep it going strong in the years ahead, the Fantons are looking at some younger people to do what they are doing which they are, said Michael. 

"I am not retiring but the best thing for me now is to garden. We got a very large block of land. That's all I want to do now - writing and garden." 

Asked how they got involved with People and Plants Southeast Asia which conducted a certificate course on applied ethnobotany at the Kinabalu Park in early June where the Fantons were resource per-sons, Michael said he met Dr. Gary Martin co-ordinator of People and Plants Southeast Asia, during a world tour some four years ago that took them to the UN, New York Canada, Amsterdam, Bonn, Geneva, Rome where he attended a conference on plant genetic resources. 

"But I met Gary Martin at Unesco is Paris and he suggested that one day we work together. He said he wanted to work with people whom he felt he could achieve something which we felt the same. So, that took us to Sabah," he quipped. 

Asked to comment on the ethnobotany course at Kinabalu Park, attended by professionals from. Vietnam, India, Thailand, Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, Philippines and Indonesia, Michael said : "It was very, very good as people are extremely hard working, very fast and a lot of social skills also. There were a lot of interpersonal skills. People don't bump each other. They are polite and we've got the best people on the subject from Southeast Asia, learned people to exchange ideas with. But Kinabalu Park is really a paradise. I am in paradise here, I can live here," Michael laughed. 

Copyright 1998, Daily Express, Sabah, Malaysia. All Rights Reserved.

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