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.
Now, to comport with the social distancing requirements of a respiratory virus pandemic, employees have to partition the work by isolating themselves in space or time. This means fewer people can work on fulfillment together—and speeding up the process could jeopardize workers’ lives. The people who work in these seed fulfillment facilities will never be seen by most gardeners who benefit from their work. But they are unequivocally essential workers for our food security, and we must treat them as such.
This restructuring of the seed supply chain in March and April—coupled with the spike in demand—generated a several-week delay for buyers to receive the seeds they ordered. It wreaked havoc on gardeners and farmers trying to get their seeds in the ground under optimal weather conditions. And this change will likely have an even greater effect on future growing seasons, should seed supply continue to lag far behind demand.
In response to these challenges, some companies have chosen to exclusively sell highly valued seeds in bulk quantities to commercial farmers. For a swamped seed house, processing one large order is quicker—and therefore, safer—than dozens of smaller ones. Opting to help farmers before gardeners may be likened to giving masks first to nurses; the argument could be made that the stakes for community food security are higher if farms aren’t able to grow the crops they need.
However, fewer farmers save their own seed stock from year to year than they once did. On the other hand, gardeners have a higher probability of saving the progeny of the seeds they purchase for future plantings. A pivot toward bulk farm sales may ultimately affect the diversity and spatial heterogeneity of food crops being grown in any given locale.