Seeds are the origin of our Food

Hugo Zina Hugo was one of the co-founders of Sementes Vivas. The Portuguese-Spanish seed company Sementes Vivas was founded with the vision to make organic seeds available in the Mediterranean countries and to develop resilient varieties that are fit for organic agriculture in Southern Europe. High nutrient density and aromatic taste also played an important role right from the beginning. Today Hugo is working part time in seed sales for Sementes Vivas. Besides, he runs the organic garden Horta do Pedescalco together with his partner Theresa, where he uses the seeds of Sementes Vivas. Hugo is a conservation biologist and Theresa holds a degree in organic agriculture. The couple got to know each other at the University of Witzenhausen and are meanwhile proud parents of one daughter. Karin Heinze, BiO Reporter International, interviewed the organic pioneers in our first seed talk.

Karin: For my understanding it would be very helpful to get a bit a picture of the place where you are living and working, as I am not able to visit you.

Hugo: We have a vegetable garden - you cannot call it a farm. The piece of land we rented is 3.5 hectares but we only use about 0.5 ha for cultivation. Our Barfoot Garden is around 8 km from the ocean, 80 km north of Lisbon. It is a very humid area here, we are on the limits of a kind of swampland and just bordering a nature conservation area. We have a lot of mist und humid air but we don’t have enough rain. But we have big ponds which we can use for irrigation if necessary.

We work without machines, do no tillage and work with permanent beds. We do not turn the soil and therefore keep the soil structure alive. We trust very much in compost. This system is called Market Gardening and it is a big movement in North America that has becoming more and more popular in Europe, too. We market our organic veggies on a nearby market on Saturdays, and we do box schemes as well. Our Barfoot Garden project is really successful, and we are very happy after these first three years. We like the method because it fits to humans and nature – and not the machines. Plus it is very productive.

Karin: How did you get started with organic seeds? 

Hugo: It is a long story. My educational background is a conservational biologist specialized on birds. Seeing the state of the world, the situation with hunger and environmental problems, I got more dedicated to these topics and switched from animal conservation to food. Theresa studied organic agriculture at the University in Witzenhausen. It was here where we came across a poster by Stefan Doeblin who was looking for people interested in organic farming and seed production to start a business in Portugal – this inspired us. We contacted Stefan and only a few month later became part of the initial group of the founders of Sementes Vivas. I am convinced that it is necessary to bring organic seed breeding in my mother country. Seeds are the basis of every food plant and also the basis of seed sovereignty.

Theresa: Our main motivation to get involved with seeds is the fact that seeds are the basis of all food. We love to go to the market and tell our customers about the quality of our products and the benefits of vegetables made from organic seeds. It is also about the biodiversity in nature and on our plates. If you talk about healthy food and healthy soil, you also have to address organic seeds. Biodiversity is very important for us. It plays a central role in our garden. We benefit from bordering a nature reserve and we are happy to have so many animal species here. We also feel responsible for the preservation of this biodiversity. We try to keep our CO2 footprint as small as possible with our barefoot garden. We communicate this towards our customers – and they appreciate it.

Karin: Do you produce your own organic seeds on your farm? 

Hugo: By now we only use the organic seeds from Sementes Vivas, but we carry out occasional trials. When we decided to concentrate more on the vegetable production with the Market Gardening concept, I started to make this financially feasible by working part-time in the sales of Sementes Vivas seeds. I maintain the contact to professional smaller and bigger farmers in the coastal region and to an organic vegetable nursery, too. I also supply hobby gardeners with small seed packs, which are available in garden centres and web shops. After five years of hard work, we can say that the brand Sementes Vivas is quite well spread in Portugal. Almost in every big city it is available in a few shops. The whole assortment of Sementes Vivas has by now grown up to 287 varieties for hobby gardeners. For professionals there is a special range of varieties.

Karin: Do you think organic agriculture needs organic breeds?

Hugo: Yes, I am sure. But unfortunately, professional farmers and gardeners are not so easy to convince of the necessity of organic seeds. The market often demands very high productivity and special hybrid varieties.  As there are still the exceptions in the EU for using organic seeds, many professionals use conventional, untreated seeds when organic seeds are not available in a specific variety. Hobby gardeners do not have this pressure and many want to make their own seeds, so they prefer open-pollinated seeds.

Theresa: Organic seeds are very important to us. We cannot imagine growing our vegetables from conventional seeds, if only because we want to work in an authentic, climate-friendly and biodiverse way.

Karin: Did you notice an increase in demand for organic food and seeds during the Covid crisis?

Hugo: As we depend completely on the sales on the market we had to react very quickly. During the first lock down in spring we changed from market sales to box scheme. It became a success. People really had an overwhelming interest. Whenever the market in Caldas de Reinha, the nearby city, operates again we notice more awareness in healthy food. Caldas is very famous for its big open air daily open market. And there is a big foreign community in Caldas municipality - they value our organic quality. Here, we are the only organic stand. Apart from that, the online seed sales have increased since the beginning of the pandemic.

Karin: Do you have to do a lot of convincing?

Theresa: Yes, definitely. In many places, people here are still quite uncritical of issues such as the concentration of seeds in the hands of corporations, hybrid seeds or genetic engineering. Shopping at markets for local produce, on the other hand, is very popular - and many buyers assume that regional vegetables are natural or quasi-organic. Even many of our frequent customers do not realize yet that organic vegetables are not always grown from organic seeds. However, the demand for organic seeds for hobby gardeners increases constantly.

Karin: How useful is the focus on seeds specifically for cultivation in the Mediterranean?

Theresa: Adapted varieties for our climates are enormously important. In summer, heat and droughts are big issues and even though we are lucky enough in the Mediterranean to be able to produce many things the whole year round, our plants have to manage with less light in winter.

Hugo: Both wild varieties as well as biodiversity created by humans are at stake since the beginning of the agricultural revolution. We try to diversify as much as we can – and our customers value that. As a part of Sementes Vivas, our journey in the last five years has been to bring the message of the importance of organic seeds to a broader audience. The awareness has increased a lot – but there is still room to grow.