Can Seed Sharing Increase Nutrition in the Developing World? Tim Magee’s Tropical Food Garden

A few weeks ago I wrote about getting started with nutrition in developing nations through family gardens. This week I’m going to expand upon food diversity.

This summer in anticipation of starting a food garden in my back yard in Guatemala I purchased vegetables seeds in the States and in England. I did this because I wasn’t certain which varieties of seeds were going to prosper in Guatemala.

I was also lucky enough to be able to trade seeds with my friend Ricardo Frohmader who went to Denmark this summer and returned with quite a variety of Danish seeds. We traded seeds, but we also traded quite a few seedling plugs which meant that we both got a head start.

Between the seeds that I purchased and the seeds/seedlings that I traded with Ricardo I wound up with about 75 varieties.

All in all, I had 18 seed trays—each with an average of 50 planting cells—or 900 seeds planted. With a germination rate of 50% I had 450 seedlings—far more than I could use. I also realized that I only used a small percentage of the seeds that came in the seed packets.

So I circulated an e-mail to friends and gave them a list of both the seeds and the seedlings that I had available.

So for example Ricardo was interested in kale, cabbage, daikon radishes, lettuce, a particularly spicy pepper called Serrano, and a less spicy pepper called poblano.

Hugh and Kathy wanted rhubarb, Thai and lemon basil, cherry tomatoes and a variety of spicy peppers.

Carlo and Diana took carrot, watercress, dill, arugula, spicy peppers, and Romaine lettuce.

Fiona and Joaquin took tomatoes, watercress, lovage, oregano, dill, Thai and lemon basil and a selection of spicy peppers.

I learned several things from this experience. I did not have to send a couple of hundred innocent seedlings to the compost pile thanks to my friends taking my excess—and we all had a good time coming together doing something that we enjoyed. But also, the thing that really struck home, was how many leftover seedlings and a leftover seeds I wound up with at the end of the planting season which I couldn’t use.

I began to realize that other people with vegetable gardens all over the world are in the same situation.

Seeds are expensive: People in developing nations planting family gardens for nutrition could share seeds and seedlings with their friends and neighbors and thereby reduce each family’s costs—but increase each family’s food diversity.

There are two aspects of good nutrition. One, food security, stresses that an individual needs to have access to the right quantity and quality of food at the right times, 12 months of the year, so that they can lead healthy productive lives. The second aspect is food diversity. By eating a broad range of vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes, an individual will have a greater chance of getting the full compliment of protein, carbohydrates, vitamins and micronutrients that they need to grow as children and lead healthy lives as adults.

So seed sharing offers a tremendous opportunity for families that can’t afford to buy a broad range of seeds—to be able to get a diverse diet through trading a diverse variety of seeds.

In my online course, Food Security, Nutrition and Home Gardens, students conduct several interviews with community members (from their project community) to gain a better understanding of what they’re eating when (diversity), how much they have to eat when (food security), and what they would like to eat if they had access to it. See an example assignment of one of these community surveys from Kenya.

The students then work with a nutritionist to determine what’s missing from the community having a healthy diet, and what fruits and vegetables could be grown in a family garden to fill in the nutrition gaps.

From their project budgets students then typically purchase seeds in bulk and distribute them to the interested gardeners in the community. Typically the seeds are sold inexpensively—or are even sold to the community members through microcredit.

I would love to hear your suggestions on how to spread the word in small global communities about the advantages of sharing seed.

What’s happening in the region where you live? Is there specialized information that you would like us to write about?

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Until next month,

Tim Magee

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