Dial “M” for …. Monsanto
Recently, I have been going through about thirty years’ worth of newspaper and magazine clippings on gardens and gardening. An odd habit, you may think, in this day of Google Search, but I’m addicted to my clippings.
There’s all sorts, from features on exceptional gardens worldwide, to book reviews, to monthly “top tips”. No-till, composting and caring for fruit trees are in the archive too, along with summer bulbs and some glorious articles on my all-time favourite: the walled kitchen garden.
But in my own garden, I’ve just come up against a wall of an entirely different sort, one that I thought I had avoided: To my dismay, I have found you have to be very careful how you source seeds in Egypt. It’s by no means as straightforward as I had thought.
For some crops, especially herbs, I buy seeds from an “A’ataar” shop selling seeds and scents for the house and garden. Parsley, coriander, dill and rocket are sourced from our local “A’ataar”, and as they are easily obtained and cheap to buy I am confident they are locally sourced.
In other cases, we produce our own seeds and/or clumps that can be divided up for distribution around the garden. Chives fit this bill. Local spinach and dill seed themselves; likewise flat-leaf parsley and coriander, though not in sufficient quantities.
For the most part, however, I bring packets of seeds from Britain and sow them from the autumn onwards according to the calendar for cultivation in Egypt. Now, whether this is a sensible way to source seeds is a tricky issue, and I don’t think I have got it right.
This came to mind as I read an article about a restaurateur-gardener in Oxford, England, filling a wheelbarrow – yes, a wheelbarrow! – with a bumper crop of French beans from her kitchen garden. I pondered our scanty row of fragile mangetout in raised bed 3: seeds purchased in London but produced in Italy, they have germinated into plants that have every appearance of struggling. As for harvesting, I certainly won’t need a wheelbarrow!
Usually, I buy lots of seeds from Kew Gardens or from garden shops close to the station there. Oddly, although Kew is home of the UK’s Royal Botanic Society, most of the seeds on sale are mainstream commercial, and there’s limited attempt to promote the cultivation of heritage varieties. This seems like an opportunity lost.
Here in Cairo, we don’t have garden centres, and plant nurseries tend not to sell seeds. Why I don’t know, except that Egyptians are not keen gardeners. We can, however, source seeds from agricultural suppliers. This brings me back to the wall.
In previous years, I have sown courgette (zucchini) seeds produced by an Egyptian company and, as far as I know, locally sourced. This year, for the vast sum of over EGP100, the Engineer brought a can of seeds produced by US company Seminis Vegetable Seeds.
Against my better judgment I gave the go-ahead to plant them. Then I researched the company. Wrong – wrong – wrong!
Seminis was acquired some years ago by: Monsanto.
I now regard the seedlings with a jaundice eye.
For one thing, they are hybrid – so no good for saving for future sowings. In addition, they are treated with Thiram; hence the leaflet wrapping the can that warns me in no end of languages to be careful how I handle them. According to Cornell University’s Extoxnet website, Thiram (Tetramethylthiuram disulphide) is a an anti-fungal agent, now used especially on soya beans, to prevent fungal diseases and as an animal repellent. For humans it is dangerous if inhaled, and potentially risky when used as a preservative on food crops.
So what in the world are we, organic gardeners who have tried so hard to cultivate in tune with nature and with a view to observing best practice wherever possible, doing planting such seeds in our garden? And how could an agricultural engineer with experience working for one of Egypt’s leading food producers ( or so he claimed) have recommended that we use them?
I am stunned. It shows that now, more than ever, I have to be extremely vigilant every step of the way.