‘They kept us alive for thousands of years’: could saving Palestinian seeds also save the world?


The first year that the Hudson Valley Seed Company tried growing yakteen at their farm in upstate New York, the heirloom variety of Palestinian gourd quickly spread until its vines were sending their tendrils across a full acre of land. Born of a partnership with the artist, researcher and conservationist Vivien Sansour, that pilot plot was just one of many pieces of evidence supporting Sansour’s thesis: that saving Palestinian heirloom seeds could benefit not just Palestinians, but could help feed an entire planet in crisis.

Sansour is the founder of the Palestine Heirloom Seed Library, a project that began in 2016 to conserve Palestinian heritage and culture by saving heirloom seed varieties and telling the stories and history from which they emerged.

Related:‘It connects people’: Palestinian chefs are using food to share their stories

The project feels particularly urgent against the backdrop of Israel’s continuing bombing of Gaza, the “man-made” famine that aid groups warn is imminent there and the knowledge that last year was the hottest ever recorded. “The mission of the seed library is to revitalize and conserve a living archive of our heirloom seeds,” said Sansour. “Not just for Palestine, but also for the world. The world is in a hospice state and we need all the different tools and biodiversity we can in order to adapt.”

Sansour’s love for edible plants was born in Beit Jala in the West Bank, where she spent many formative childhood years. She remembers Beit Jala when it was still more a small village than a town, replete with terrace gardens full of stone fruits, olives, artichokes and herbs. “My life was such a beautiful bouquet of diversity all the time in terms of plant life,” she said. But as time went on, that biological diversity began to narrow as the climate crisis upended longstanding growing cycles, Israeli settlements encroached on the land and agribusinesses pushed local growers away from the seed varieties that had been passed down for generations.

Within a span of about 10 years, the area “went from completely soil- and sun-based agriculture” in which a variety of crops were grown together, to a monocropped system reliant largely on Israeli agribusinesses for seed and chemical inputs, said Sansour.

It was against that backdrop that she decided to start the seed library, to try to “nourish and preserve the things that we love that have kept us alive for thousands and thousands of years”. Sansour began talking to local growers to identify which foods were at greatest risk of extinction and gathering those seeds, like those of the jadu’i watermelon grown in Jenin or the white cucumber grown in Battir and Wadi Fukin, and building relationships with local farmers to encourage and support them in cultivating those varieties again. Another branch of the project, called the Traveling Kitchen, features a small, portable kitchen that Sansour sets up and cooks at in public places from the West Bank to London, Chicago and New York to spark conversation with passersby about cultural conservation by way of food.

The work has earned her accolades from the international art world (she’s presented her work at Victoria & Albert Museum in London and the Venice Art Biennale) to academia (she was a religion, conflict and peace initiative fellow at Harvard University and is currently the distinguished artistic fellow at Bard College in New York’s Hudson Valley). But what Sansour craves more than recognition is to see the people, culture and landscapes she loves knit back together.

“I got into the seed work as a result of a lot of pain and grief,” she said. “So many of the things I’ve loved are being lost.”

As in Palestine, so in the world

Some of the challenges facing Palestinian farmers and cultural foods are unique to the region’s geopolitical realities, while others are shared by small farmers the world over in the face of a changing climate and the growing influence of industrialized agriculture.

The former category of threats includes harassment from Israeli soldiers and settlers, farmers being denied access to their land and crops or having their water cut off. Other times, Sansour said, settlers and soldiers will set fire to crops or apparently “wild” land, destroying food sources for a group of people for whom foraging has historically been second nature, especially in the winter. In more dire cases, growers face violence directly. One recent case of an olive grower being shot and killed while harvesting in the orchard gained international attention, but Sansour knows such scenarios often go unnoticed in the international community, recalling a lesser-known story of a young female farmer who Sansour thought of as being at the forefront of “the new generation of farming”, who was shot in the belly on her way home from school.

“We’re literally talking about the guardians of these seeds being killed,” said Sansour.

Where Sansour grew up in Beit Jala, agriculture has been inhibited by what she and many other Palestinians describe as the “apartheid wall”. The barrier, which Israel built in the West Bank, has cut many Palestinian families off from their olive groves and has made it difficult for residents to build more housing as the town’s population has grown. As a result, families are building on top of one another, and the terrace gardens that Sansour remembered from her childhood have increasingly been crowded out.

But many of the other challenges Palestinian farmers face are ones they have in common with small farmers everywhere. “A lot of our farmers, they’ll say: ‘One of the biggest problems we’re having is it is starting to rain in the summer, and that is something that never used to happen.’ So crop varieties that are used to dry weather in the summer are now getting drowned sometimes,” said Sansour.

The changing climate is part of the reason that Sansour is so passionate about seed-saving, since she says we’ll need all the biodiversity we can get to weather the current and coming crises of a warming globe. Where Palestine used to have a “whole world” of different kinds of wheat, there are now just two varieties that are commonly grown – which means that if one of those varieties is affected by increasingly tumultuous growing cycles, it puts food security at risk for everyone. Saving seeds from a wider range of varieties will lead to greater resilience, she says.

And that resilience won’t just benefit farmers in the West Bank or Gaza. She points to seed varieties that have been bred by Palestinians over thousands of years to grow abundantly in the summer without irrigation, often called “ba’al” crops, after the Canaanite deity of the same name. “I have people in California that call me asking for these varieties, because we have droughts in California now. So having a fava bean that can grow with no irrigation is very precious,” she said. “Our work is also the work of research. How do we develop varieties that can tolerate more heat or more flooding?”

Seeds from the library have already begun to “grow wings” and make their way around the globe, from the yakteen in upstate New York to eggplant in California.

“Sharing seeds can forge strong cross-cultural bonds and simultaneously hold us accountable for historical wrongs and current atrocities. Seeds are the embodiments of erasure and loss as well as the dream and possibility of survival,” said K Greene, founder of Hudson Valley Seed Co. “Vivien, through seeds, has the rare ability to hold these elements of loss and hope in a tender balance.”

Greene notes that customers had an overwhelmingly positive response to the yakteen seed packs, and Hudson Valley Seed Co sold out of the seeds last year.

“Seed stories are multi-layered; not all of the stories are as romantic as many people would like,” Greene went on. “The Palestine Heirloom Seed Library offers everyone a resolve to not shy away, but instead to find ways to share both the aspirational and the challenging stories that seeds carry.”

Sansour notes that the project is called a seed “library” rather than a seed “bank” for a reason. It’s about partnering with people who will grow things now rather than preserving seeds in some safe vault for a future doomsday, because from Sansour’s perspective, “doomsday is already here”.

“I got an email from folks in Gaza asking me what to eat in the wild right now, like, ‘what could be growing outside that we can eat? Because we’re starving.’ That email made me cry, not only because they are starving, but also because it made me understand how the work that we’ve been trying to do is urgent,” said Sansour. Reconnecting to heirloom seeds is also about trying to preserve cultural knowledge about food that’s already growing wild, both in a time of crisis and with the dream that someday it could be enjoyed in a time of thriving, as well.

“Every time we plant a seed or we plant a tree, we are planting it with the hope and intention to have a future,” Sansour said.