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For instance, every member of his network, regardless of whether they bring one variety of bean seed into the Grassroots Seeds Network or 100, will have a vote in how the group does business, its organizers say, and that won’t change, no matter how big the group gets.
Nor will the group ever have headquarters except in a virtual sense; Seed Savers has an 890-acre farm, complete with big red barn, as its headquarters.
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There are an estimated 1,500 seed banks worldwide – Seed Savers Exchange now has the biggest nongovernmental or academic seed bank in the United States – and communities across the country are opening up seed libraries so that gardeners can pass seeds back and forth the way their great-great-grandparents once did.
The Millennium Seed Bank Project, an international effort, opened in 2000 in England and has more than a billion seed types in storage capable of surviving a nuclear war.
It doesn’t stop there; in 2008 the Norwegian government built a fortress inside a sandstone mountain in Spitsbergen to house the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, a collection of well over a million different seed samples with room for a few million more.
But while there is a common goal – sustainability – the diminished state of Bonsall’s potato collection in Industry illustrates the disagreements that can spring up even among like-minded environmentalists.
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But he is a leader, albeit not exactly intentionally, of a growing worldwide trend toward seed preservation – or, rather, a rebirth of something that humans always have had to do to survive up until commercial seed companies and big agriculture came along in the 20th century.
Back-to-the-landers like Bonsall kept the practice alive through that period of dormancy, but in the 21st century, fears of climate change and genetic modifications have reawakened a passion for seed saving.
But a philosophical and political rift with the Iowa-based Seed Savers Exchange, the national seed saving group that helped fund his curating career, has put Bonsall’s potatoes, some deeply obscure and ancient, in jeopardy.
“I have lost a huge amount of it,” Bonsall said of his collection. Last year there was a whole big section of stuff that we had no labor to collect, so they got frozen and turned to mush.” With his monumental beard, propensity for wearing denim head to toe and recipes for “mayonnaise” that include neither eggs nor oil, Bonsall may seem more like an aging hippie than a trendsetter.