Huseyin Kara introduces each crop on his farm in southern Turkey with the pride of a new grandfather. Three types of okra, beans and tomatoes grow happily from the dry, crusty earth. In a nearby garden, trees blossom with young figs, lemons and pomegranates.
Each comes from a line of seeds saved after each harvest, and passed down over the decades, known as ata tohumu — or “heirloom seeds.”
Kara and his colleagues are working tirelessly to preserve these seeds through a local network of seed savers headquartered in the Muğla region of southern Turkey.
“In my family, to this day, we have never used hybrid seeds.”
“In my family, to this day, we have never used hybrid seeds,” he said, referring to commercially grown seeds common in modern agriculture.
As the climate crisis deepens, researchers say that improving plant diversity may be one way to adapt to a changing world. And this seed-saving network is placing its faith in traditional agriculture to stave off the effects of climate change.
Scientists estimate there are about 200,000 edible plants on Earth. But most humans base entire diets on a small fraction of that. And scientists also estimate that a third of plant and animal species will go extinct in the next 50 years if carbon emissions continue at current levels.
When fellow seed-keeper Jale Eren visits the farm of a potential partner for the network, she looks for a full, healthy garden with blooming flowers. She also confirms the uses of traditional pest-control methods.
“I check and see if they’re growing something that we don’t have, and if so I ask for some seeds. …I ask them about their growing techniques. If there’s anything different from farmer to farmer.”
“I check and see if they’re growing something that we don’t have, and if so, I ask for some seeds,” Eren said. “I ask them about their growing techniques. If there’s anything different from farmer to farmer.”
About 10 years ago, while blending boiled sweet potatoes and spinach for her new baby granddaughter, Eren realized she couldn’t find certain vegetable types from her childhood. She wanted to share the same pesticide-free, local seeds and crop varieties with her grandkids.
While working for the local municipality, she started driving to villages around southern Turkey and asked local farmers if they still kept local, indigenous seeds. Most did not.
“Buying hybrid seeds and planting them every year showed you were wealthy,” she said.
In 2006, Turkey passed a law patterned after the European Union’s agricultural policies, which forbids the sale of “unregulated seeds.”
Farmers began saving seeds only if they couldn’t afford commercial varieties. For some, it felt almost shameful. So, those old varieties that had been grown in villages for generations quickly started to disappear.
“This seed law wasn’t for the people, or the farmers. It was for the big seed companies,” Eren said.
Little by little, though, seeds started to come out of the woodwork: a special type of long cucumber; a drought-tolerant chickpea.
It only takes one seed to bring an old variety back, she said.
Eren organized seed swaps, lugging huge sacks of heirloom seeds to local fairs. Once, she even chased a lady down who was carrying a special type of dimpled squash to ask her where she found it.
Today, Eren’s collection boasts 2,728 plant varieties from a large geographical area. Most are seeds along with a few cuttings from local trees. She and her volunteers have packaged 142,000 seed packets.
She maintains four centers spread across southern Turkey, working with farmers from 25 villages and also runs a Facebook page with over 26,000 followers.
Members swap photos of their garden produce and share tips on natural pest-control methods, a testament to Turkey’s deep appreciation for food that remembers its roots.
Heirloom versus hybrid seeds
Farmers often select commercially grown hybrid seeds because they generate higher yields and are more pest-tolerant at larger scales.
Seeds developed during the Green Revolution in the 1950s and ’60s — such as high-yield rice — were credited with helping circumvent famine in India and China.
“Farmers want uniformity. It makes it easy to harvest, more predictable.”
“Farmers want uniformity. It makes it easy to harvest, more predictable,” said Hannes Dempewolf, director of external affairs for Crop Trust, a seed-funding organization based in Germany. Their organization contributes to the Doomsday Vault for seeds in Norway.
“The whole system is geared toward uniformity. Part of the problem is that it creates a vulnerable food system,” he said.
Industrialized agriculture has kept an unprecedented number of humans fed and healthy. But it’s also led to increased pollution and biodiversity loss.
Heirloom plants, on the other hand, are good for subsistence farming, but not so convenient for high-tech harvesters. They may be too obscure or low-yielding for mass markets.
The practice of saving seeds for the next harvest is an old form of climate adaptation, explained Ali Taş, a Turkish environmentalist who runs an annual heirloom seedlings exchange in Istanbul.
Often, he claims, these plants require fewer chemical fertilizers and pesticides than their commercial counterparts.
“If it is a real heirloom, it has years and years of experience in the field. It recognizes the bugs, the microbes, it knows the soil.”
“If it is a real heirloom, it has years and years of experience in the field. It recognizes the bugs, the microbes, it knows the soil,” Taş said.
Heirloom watermelon seeds feature black-and-white geometric patterns.
An old tomato variety called the traveler’s tomato is a cluster of cherry tomatoes fused together.
Eren and others can’t sell their seeds. According to Turkish law, they can only give or exchange them.
But Eren’s network expands each time a farmer takes one of her seeds, grows them and sends some back. She helps farmers market products from their farms — such as sun-dried tomatoes and jams — to ensure income from the rare seeds.
Climate adaptation, the old way
The sun is often hot and unrelenting in Meşelik, a village off of Turkey’s southern coast where Huseyin Kara’s family has farmed since the early 1900s.
Olive trees dot the hills of dry, rocky soil.
Kara’s seeds can tolerate drought and the occasional bugs that show up. And they may not produce as much as commercial seeds, but they’re tough.
His tomatoes, for example, can grow with almost no additional water.
“We’ll water them again when they start to fruit. But we haven’t watered them for the past two months, since before Ramadan,” he said.
Still, the summers are getting hotter, and drier on the Mediterranean — about 20% faster than the world average.
Once, almond trees grew in Meşelik, but they died about 15 years ago, and he isn’t sure why.
Everything is getting harder to grow.
“Global warming affected the warmth of the soil, so our planting time is delayed,” he said in Turkish, as his son, Yunus, translated. “Every year, it gets worse.”
“We are trying to find new seeds which are more efficient in this climate, and we are trying to make a living on them.”
“We are trying to find new seeds which are more efficient in this climate, and we are trying to make a living on them,” he explained.
Commercial companies and nongovernmental organizations are now crossbreeding heat-resistant wheat in capsules that mimic future climate change conditions, or use gene modification to create disease-resistant corn.
Kara’s methods trace back to the dawn of agriculture — and it’s in these practices that he places his faith.
Every season when he works his fields, Kara selects the healthiest, most successful plants to save the seeds from for the next year.
Every year, he said, teaches the plants something about the soil, pests and weather. He believes the seeds can adapt — until, of course, nature can no longer keep up with a rapidly changing climate.
Kara’s hoping he can stave that off as long as possible.
Translations with help from Şayan Bakır, Ezgi Eren Belgin, and Yunus Çağrı Kara.