Stories of Our Seed

A generation ago, the Arab village in Sachnin, in the pastoral Galilee hills of northern Israel, produced its own wheat using indigenous, drought-hardy varieties. Eighty percent of the men were farmers. Each morning, the fragrance of fresh bread emanated from almost every home. Today a mere three percent are farmers. Over three-quarters of Sachnin families buy mass-produced white pita bread shipped in from industrial bakeries. Who grows the wheat today? 85% of the wheat for Sachnin's pitas is shipped from subsidized US farmers. Sachnin's loss of local food production and loss of livelihoods echoes throughout the Israeli food system. Rural communities that were self-sufficient a generation ago have lost their livelihoods due to low-cost imported foods and lack of competitive indigenous varieties.

Loss of Indigenous Landraces results in Loss of Local Livelihoods

non-irrigated fields of wheat and pulses in Sachnin, Galilee, Israel

Abraham offers tasty popped sorghum in Jerusalem's Machane Yehuda market.

To learn more about Ethiopian -Israelis: <>

In Jerusalem's Machane Yehuda open-air market, ancient stone buildings with arched portals open up to a colorful tapestry of ethnic peoples and fragrant foods. Abraham and his wife Yehudit opened the first Ethiopian shop in Machane Yehuda after they arrived in Israel from Gonder, Ethiopia, escaping local cross-fire to return to their ancient homeland of Israel. (Ethiopian Jews may be direct descendents of Moses's children who migrated south after the Exodus, combined with ancestors from the tribe of Dan, who fled when the Kingdom of Judah divided in the 10th century B.C.E, enriched with descendents from trade relations during King Solomon's time, perhaps even the Queen of Sheba.) Today, Ethiopian-Israelis number 100,000. Almost all were traditional farmers in rural mountain villages, but most have joined the ranks of Israel's low-income, under-employed populations from third world countries. Few have found ways to adapt their farming methods to compete with agri-tech farming. So they resort to shipping their ancient Ethiopia wheat, teff and other traditional foods direct from Ethiopia to family-run markets such as Abraham and Yehudit's. It was in Abraham and Yehudit's market stall that I found emmer (Triticum dicoccum), called 'Em Ha'Hitach' or Mother Wheat in Hebrew, the almost-extinct delicious wheat variety that was domesticated in the land of early Israel 12,000 - 10,000 years ago. Wild emmer (Triticum dicoccoides) still can be found growing in remote fields throughout Israel.

'Do you know what this is?' I asked Abraham incredulously. 'Of course, it is aja, (Amharic for emmer).' replied Abraham, with an almost gleeful-hinting smile. 'Abraham, this wheat was used for our first matzahs in Egypt.' 'Yes', explained Abraham, 'It has been kept by our people in Ethiopia.' Why don't you grow it here to bake matzahs? 'Ah', he explained sadly, 'Who of our people have farms here in holy Israel? Who would buy our simple foods?'

Arab and Jewish families who were self-sufficient traditional farmers a generation ago have become marginalized in a world of rapid agri-technological advance. Last generation's family farmers are today's cheap labor.

The ancient teachings of Israel are rooted in its agricultural heritage of decentralized small-scale farming. The biblical vision, the Talmud and Israel's ancient laws, documented in the Mishnah, written down in the 2nd to the 5th century in the book, 'The Way of the Seed' or Seder Zari'im in Hebrew, explain the principles of food justice, gleaning, tithing and the power of blessing, that are at the heart of the Hebraic tradition. In contrast to Canaanite practices of human and animal sacrifice that evolved from nomadic shepherds, the Ancient Israeli farmer believed that the land and the people are one total living ecosystem. In additional to the practices of composting, crop rotation and fallowing, the Israeli understood that healthy soil would only bear nourishing fruit when the people, all of the people, were fed.

After millennia of displacement from the land of Israel, most Israeli farmers jumped into green revolution agriculture with the seeds of modern breeding.

'Israel's mainstream agriculture is totally Western in its reliance on modern high-yielding hybrids. This, urbanization and habitat erosion threaten the indigenous landraces, many of which date back many centuries, if not to Biblical times.' Israel Gene Bank Report 1966

'In the West Bank there is a considerable decline in local varieties due to introduction of hybrid 'high-input' varieties. At least 90% of Palestine's farmers have no irrigation. Both the drought-hardy traditional cultivars and farmers' traditional knowledge of seed selection are disappearing. There is a critical need to revive traditional varieties in the Palestinian areas. However the PA has no central seed bank. Existing facilities are weak or non-existent.'
Dr. M. S. Ali Shtayeh <>

The lands of Israel and Palestine, in the southern arch of the Fertile Crescent are the ancient center of origin for almonds, artichoke, barley, beets and chards, black mustard, celery, chickpea, date palm, emmer, pear, fig, flax, lentil, lettuce, melon, olive, pea, radish, and safflower. Wild edibles, herbs and indigenous knowledge of their uses are embedded in both Jewish and Arab traditions, but today are being lost due to urbanization.

Traditional Arab and Jewish farmers in Israel depend almost completely on themselves and other farmers for locally-adapted seed. There are no commercially available indigenous vegetable seeds in Israel with the drought-hardiness on which traditional low-input Middle East farmers depend. (20% of Israel's population are citizens of Arab ethnicity that often lack access to irrigation systems.) Small-scale organic farmers who grow for local markets do not have any supply of native heirloom vegetable seed, except what we domesticate, select, save and exchange amongst ourselves and our neighbors.

The Israel Seed Conservancy
a Dynamic Circle of Farmers, Seed-Savers and Markets
The Israel Seed Conservancy arose in response. This grassroots consortium of Jewish and Arab small-scale farmers and seed savers are pooling shared genetic resources together to conserve and improve threatened native varieties in the fields of traditional and organic farmers, and to teach cooperative gardening with Arab and Jewish young people. See: <>. The model is adapted from 'Restoring Our Seed', originally funded by SARE, that Eli founded with CR Lawn of <>. See: <>.

The Israel Seed Conservancy (ISC) has established a 'biodiversity conservation farm' near Jerusalem (, and works in partnership with Laithi G'naim's Food Bank Farm in Sachnin, and is a member of the EU-funded 'Landrace Wheat Working Group. See <>. On-farm genetic conservation in the fields of traditional, organic farmers keeps vital the dynamic interaction of indigenous varieties with their pests, predators and pathogens, and the durable resistances needed for robust crops not dependent on agro-chemical protectants. ISC organizes annual seed exchanges and training for on-farm seed-saving. Eli quietly exchanges open-pollinated seed with Palestinian seed colleagues, under difficult conditions, protecting their identities for safety in a region of conflict. The power of organic farming cooperation and the mutual benefits of sharing seed speak louder than ethnic differences. 'We are helping each other to help ourselves.' reports Laithi.

ISC brings Arab and Jewish young people together to learn
seed-saving and organic farming traditions of Jerusalem's diverse peoples

ISC Seed Exchange in Jerusalem


ISC Goals

 A. Exchange knowledge and skills for the conservation, sustainable management and use of landrace and wild genetic food resources.

 B. Maintain in-situ conservation farms and seedbanks; to conserve, improve and celebrate indigenous food crops;

 C. Education the community how to save seed and restore habitats of native wheats, vegetabls and wild edibles, and traditional knowledge of their uses, with market initaitives that benefit the local communities.

ISC's work is rooted in three inter-dependent strategies:

the landrace varieties, the living stories they carry and indigenous knowledge of their cultivation and uses.

the Seed into the Hands of Farmers For Selective Seed-Saving.

in ways that benefit small-scale, low-input farmers ­ the traditional stewards of landraces.

Wheat is the most widely cultivated crop on earth. Heritage wheats' rich flavor and nutritional value are the very qualities bred out of modern wheat varieties, selected for high yield and uniformity, at the cost of high water demand. Artisan bread bakers prefer heritage wheats' superior flavor and baking qualities. ISC is restoring rare, ancient indigenous wheats as a strategy to increase food and livelihood security for the region's neglected traditional farmers. These indigenous heritage wheat varieties have evolved extensive roots system for efficient nutrient scavenging in poor soils, and thrive in the typical climate extremes of rainy winters and drought summers.

Emmer (T. diccocum), Einkorn (T. monococcum) and Hourani (T. durum) are delicious little-known wheats that nourished ancient civilizations but today are almost extinct. Eli hopes that the historic value of these crops, their exceptionally rich flavor, high nutritional value, and capacity to thrive in the soils of their ancestral homeland, will create markets that support traditional farmers to continue their heritage of farming.

domesticated in ancient Mesopotamia, was eaten by Abraham and Sara.


domesticated in its ancient Israeli homeland, is uniquely well-adapted with deep roots that reach out to nutrients and water in the soils of traditionally-managed fields.

Hourani landrace wheat is considered an evolutionary link between wild emmer wheat, the wild progenitor of domesticated wheat, and advanced wheat cultivars (A.A. Jaradat). Hourani was found in earthen jars in the Masada palace-fortress left two thousand years ago by Jews who resisted Roman domination Hourani has been enjoyed for millenia as roasted green spring wheat.

"If you bring a grain offering of the first fruits to the Lord, offer the crushes heads of the spring
grain roasted in the fire" Leviticus 2:14

"The day after the Passover, the very day they ate of the produce of the Land, the unleavened
bread and the parched grain" Joshua 5:11

Instead of purchasing subsidized wheat from industrialized mega-farms in the developed world, the Israel Seed Conservancy hopes to turn the table by restoring the seed of Israel's diverse small-scale farmers, and traditions of bread-baking and foodarts. The cooperative is restoring emmer to bake organic matzah, einkorn for tasty flatbread with local wild herbs, and Hourani for 'parched wheat' using age-old methods.

 Ancient emmer boosts modern wheat's nutrient content
Cooperative research involving the University of Haifa in Israel, the University of California, Davis and the USDA have used a gene from wild emmer wheat to increase the protein, zinc and iron content in modern durum wheat, offering a solution to nutritional deficiencies affecting millions of people world-wide.