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Vandana Shiva and Hummingbird Project Devoted to Saving Seeds and Restoring Soils

Marilyn McHugh and Chris Kennedy had a honeymoon unlike most. They set out to travel around the world for a year with plans to stop in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. What was supposed to be a week in Kenya turned into six weeks when they saw how devastated the communities were by industrialized, chemical agriculture and felt compelled to help. Next, they worked at an orphanage and then with the UN as part of a Green Warrior training program in Uganda. Then, they headed to India for what was supposed to be a short stint but turned into several months.

McHugh and Kennedy work with rural Indian farmers to create viable agricultural practices. Photo credit: The Hummingbird Project

Their whole trip was thrown off, but for the better. They saw a great need in communities in the developing world that have been wrecked by chemical agriculture much like rural communities in the U.S., but in the countries they visited, there is no government support or safety net for farmers like there is in the U.S. McHugh and Kennedy shared what they knew with these farmers about soil life and offered guidance using permaculture principles.

When McHugh and Kennedy returned from their honeymoon, they were forever changed. In 2010, they started a nonprofit, The Hummingbird Project, to "create sustainable systems using permaculture principles that enhance and benefit communities by educating and empowering individuals to improve quality of life and foster stewardship of the Earth."

The inspiration for the name, The Hummingbird Project, comes from Wangari Maathai, who tells the story of a massive forest fire breaking out. While all of the other animals sat by feeling helpless and overwhelmed and watching the forest burn, the hummingbird began carrying little drops of water from the nearby river in his mouth to put out the fire. When the other animals criticized the hummingbird for fruitlessly trying to put out the fire, the hummingbird replied, "I'm doing the best I can." McHugh and Kennedy believe we are all called to be hummingbirds and do the best we can to address the problems in our world.

After learning from some of the preeminent leaders in regenerative agriculture like Darren Doherty and Elaine Ingham, McHugh and Kennedy began giving presentations and classes on soil and seed science and permaculture, which is designing growing systems that mimic natural systems. The nonprofit has three core programs: the Living Soil Saves Lives program, Sustainable Schools initiative and Cleveland Seed Bank. For the last four years, the couple has traveled to the so-called "suicide belt" in rural India to work with farmers. This part of India—the states of Maharashtra, Punjab, Orissa, Chhattisgarh and Kerala—is known as the "suicide belt" because more than 200,000 farmers have taken their lives since 1997. Chemical farming has wreaked such havoc on India's agricultural sector that these farmers have resorted to ending their lives by drinking the very pesticides that have destroyed their livelihoods.

That's where McHugh and Kennedy come in. Through a partnership with Dr. Vandana Shiva and her organization, Navdanya, they have been going to India for the last four years for four months at a time to educate farmers about the damaging effects of chemical farming. The Hummingbird Project's partnership with Navdanya, which means nine seeds and was named so to symbolize protection of biological and cultural diversity, has allowed Kennedy and McHugh to connect with rural Indian farmers and teach classes at Earth University, Navdanya's learning center. The two nonprofits have collaborated to "reduce dependency on GMO seeds, [train] farmers in organic methods, and [re-establish] sustainable agriculture throughout India." Kennedy says "The work with farmers in India is so critical because while here in the U.S., chemical versus organic farming is viewed as a choice or preference, the epidemic of farmer suicides in India shows it is often a question of life or death."

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The couple also works in rural villages to examine farmers' soils under microscopes to test the quality of the soils and teach specific organic methods for improving soil health. Farmers that have adopted chemical fertilizers and pesticides are shocked to find out that their soil samples have no biodiversity whatsoever. The goal of the Living Soil Saves Lives program is to help these farmers transition back to natural, organic farming methods. Since 2011, The Hummingbird Project has "presented on the ‘Living Soil’ to more than 2,500 individuals in six different states across India and has helped 12 farmers' cooperatives by providing infrastructure such as water harvesting, irrigation and vermicompost systems."

Farmers that have adopted chemical fertilizers and pesticides are shocked to find out that their soil samples have no biodiversity whatsoever. Photo credit: The Hummingbird Project

The nonprofit's second program, the Sustainable Schools initiative empowers the school children, who McHugh and Kennedy worked with on their honeymoon in Kenya at Daraja Academy, to provide them with the educational tools necessary for them to become stewards of the land. McHugh and Kennedy have worked with students to design projects such as "biogas digestion to provide a source of clean, renewable cook fuel for the kitchen, greywater systems to recycle water to grow fruit and fodder trees in this semi-arid, equatorial region, a seed bank and an indigenous tree nursery to re-forest the degraded landscape surrounding the campus." The initiative, which they plan to take to more schools in the region, aims to empower the next generation to adopt Mahatma Gandhi's motto to "be the change you want to see in the world."

McHugh and Kennedy help students install several greywater systems to recycle wastewater, growing bananas, papayas, arrowroot and passion fruit in the process. Photo credit: The Hummingbird Project

The third program connects the Cleveland natives with their hometown. They started the Cleveland Seed Bank "as a response to the unprecedented loss of our planet's biological diversity and alarming increase in multinational, corporate agriculture." The seed bank has a physical and virtual presence. Through a partnership with the Cleveland Public Library, people can share seeds—same principles as the library, but with seeds. McHugh and Kennedy have also created an online site where growers can post what seeds they have and which ones they are looking for and then swap with other growers.

Saving seeds is something that farmers have done for centuries, but in the last century many seed varieties have become intellectual property through patents by corporations. Now 67 percent of the world's proprietary seed (seed that has been patented) is owned by just 10 companies. The result of corporate control of our seed supply has been devastating to the world's biodiversity and farmers' self sufficiency. In the last century, 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost due to farmers' reliance on hybrid seeds, according to the UN's Food and Agriculture Organization. Companies can now prohibit farmers from saving and replanting their seeds (and the hybridized versions don't have viable seeds for the next season), thus requiring farmers to buy seeds each year from them. Seed libraries, on the other hand, give seeds out for free and simply request participants bring back seeds they harvested from their crop. Kennedy asserts that "seed saving is the next logical step in the local food movement" to reclaim control of our seeds and, ultimately, our food system.

But local seed libraries are under threat. Agribusiness interests have lobbied governments in Europe, the U.S., and elsewhere to prevent people from saving their seeds because there is a lot of money to be made in selling seeds. The Europe Union is considering tighter controls on seed saving with the belief that these restrictions would help ensure that farmers are getting viable seeds. But those against the proposed regulations argue that if they could save and breed their own seeds, they would be able to ensure their viability.

Kennedy and McHugh are concerned about the fate of the Cleveland Seed Bank. Last July, the Cumberland County Library in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania had to shut down its seed library because the Pennsylvania Department of Agriculture said it was in violation of the Seed Act of 2004. The act "primarily focuses on the selling of seeds, which the library was not doing," but state officials were concerned "about seeds that may be mislabeled (purposefully or accidentally), the growth of invasive plant species, cross-pollination and poisonous plants." The department told the library it could only have the seeds if staff tested each seed packet for quality, germination and other information.

That level of testing was beyond the scope of the library, which had partnered with the Cumberland County Commission for Women much like The Hummingbird Project partnered with the Cleveland Public Library. Most county commissioners thought the department had gone too far, but one county commissioner, Barbara Cross, believes seed libraries could pose a threat on a large scale. "Agri-terrorism is a very, very real scenario," she said. "Protecting and maintaining the food sources of America is an overwhelming challenge ... so you’ve got agri-tourism on one side and agri-terrorism on the other."

Needless to say, The Hummingbird Project doesn't see seed saving as an act of "agri-terrorism." Just the opposite. To Kennedy and McHugh, giving a few multinational corporations control of our seed supply is the real threat. Saving seeds helps build resiliency at the community level to avoid the risk of disease wiping out an entire crop or the dangerous impacts of climate change.

Every state has laws requiring seed companies to be licensed, test seeds and properly label them. Some states require the licensing, testing and labeling only if you sell seeds, but other states such as Pennsylvania require these regulations even if you offer seeds for barter, exchange or trade. These laws exist because some farmers buy tens of thousands of seeds from seed companies, and they risk thousands of dollars if their seeds are not viable.

So the laws hold seed companies accountable, which is good, but proponents of seed libraries say they do not need state and federal regulation to ensure the viability of their seeds because they or their community members are saving the seeds from plants that they grew. "It's hard to justify restricting the small-scale exchanges," said John Torgrimson, the executive director of the Seed Savers Exchange. Nebraska, Iowa and Minnesota are among the states looking into shutting down their seed libraries.

Luckily, The Hummingbird Project and Navdanya are at work in the U.S., India and elsewhere to reclaim our right to our seeds. In an open letter to Prime Minister Modi and President Obama, Vandana Shiva calls on the leaders to serve the interest of the people and not corporations. Prime Minister Modi has invited President Obama to visit India on Jan. 26 to celebrate India's day of independence. Invoking the principles of freedom both countries were founded on, Shiva calls on the leaders to end seed monopolies, "which have created an ecological crisis of biodiversity erosion, erosion of farmers’ rights and erosion of people’s freedoms."

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