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Seed keepers in Turkey revive old farming methods to confront new climate threats

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,” 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. 

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. 

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. 

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