Public granaries: seeds banks before the concept even existed

by | Dec 2, 2019 | blog | 0 comments

Since the end of the 19th century, botanists and state agronomists began to store seeds in order to improve agriculture production. In the first half of the 20th century, the first important national seed banks were created in USSR and the USA. However, only since the 1970s, the creation of a large amount of national and international seeds banks tried to manage the best conservation condition for the seeds, through refrigerated chambers and other quality controls and security regulations. 

Now, there are several seed banks, such as the Banco Português de Germoplasma Vegetal in Braga (Portugal) and Banc de Germoplasma de la Universitat de València (Spain) that we visit this year. The Millennium Seed Bank, in Sussex (UK), one the most important project to preserve the biodiversity of the wild plants, stores more than 40 thousand species of seeds for possible future use. It is an impressive number since, according to FAO, «75 percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and 5 animal species, making the global food system highly vulnerable to shocks».  

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Seed Bank in the botanic garden of the University of Valencia, on July 19, 2019.

The seeds banks want to limit the loss of genetic variety, in view of what might happen to the monoculture plantations, such as plagues, droughts or other effects of climate change. But it is not a completely new kind of institution. In order to solve similar problems, such as plagues, droughts and high prices, the public warehouses of cereals were one the most important and long-lived early modern organisations. They spread in the Latin late-medieval Europe to help local people during shortages. 

The Communal Grain Stores in the Early Modern Age

The Spanish pósitos, the Portuguese celeiros comuns or the Italian monti frumentari baked bread for poor neighbours and lent seeds to encourage the cultivation of wheat, barley and rye. Usually, they did not store grains more than one year, but they share with the modern seeds banks their concern for the best conservation of the seeds. For that reason, especially in the 19th century, the handbook of granaries spread to suggest the best condition of the warehouses to avoid humidity, theft or weevils (flour bugs). The farmers themselves preferred to take advantage of these warehouses in years of scarcity, which would explain their incredible permanence over several centuries. As Carasa Soto wrote, they could be the expression of «a mental world resistant to change and embedded in slowly changing agricultural structures». 

All the villages in the centre and south of Spain had their pósito, sometimes in the same Town Hall. In other cases, it could be one or more warehouses dedicated to it. They were usually quadrangular buildings and were built in places accessible to all and the racking that involved carrying and removing cereals. In the big cities, such as Seville or Madrid, the public granaries were large bakeries. They were powerful organizations consumption-oriented designed for the supply of bread to the neighbours. While, in the villages, the activity of the granaries was dedicated to the productive needs of the peasants. Neither big landowners (because they did not need it) or poor farmhands (for not being creditworthy) acceded to the loan. Instead, where the users of granaries were mostly small landowners and tenants, they used loans for seeding. The granaries lent them seeds or money with moderate interests. These interests, called creces in Spanish, covered management and warehousing costs.

A detail of the scale model of Madrid, built in 1830 by León Gil de Palacio and located now in the Museum of History of Madrid. On the left, the big building of the pósito.

The literature on this subject is boundless but, in general, is rather dated by now. The studies underline the charitable functions and the social and economic benefits of the public granaries in the early modern society. They saw in these granaries a tool of social and economic empowerment of the peasants and of the moralisation of the popular classes. Also, they defined them as a way to limit the typical subsistence crises of the ancien régime and to control de prices of the cereal since the granaries worked against the usury and limit the speculation on the grains market. In the second half of the 20th century, the attention on the Spanish granaries was essentially linked with its credit character. They became a precursor of the welfare state or a model of the micro credit for the rural society. But we can also think about them as seeds banks before the concept even existed.

What about the effect on cereal variety?

We don’t have a lot of data about the varieties of cereals stored in that granaries, but, as pointed out by James C. Scott, the wheat was the product protected by the State and local administrations: it was destined and linked to certain political and social groups. The cereal production increased when there were institutional conditions that encouraged it. In the case of rice and maize, for example, the pósitos did not stimulate the spread of these cereals. Furthermore, viticulture, horticulture and olive growing did not fit into the logic of the public granaries. Some studies even show that they did not help the wheat production. Actually, not always the existence of pósitos coincide with the cereal production, such as in Murcia o Valencia (See the graphic below). For this reason, the legislation of the 20th century sought to convert the funds into money, and granaries into credit bank.

Showing the first hypothesis of this research at the Lisbon Economic History Seminars on November 26, 2019 (ICS – U.Lisboa).

Our first hypothesis is that little pósitos did not afford the best condition to store grains that may guarantee a good harvest. In addition, according to the local and government reports, the institutions were corrupted and the local elite took advantage of their funds. Another hypothesis may be that the public granaries worked as a selector of the most productive variety. Since they expected some interest income, they must offer a good quality of the seeds to enable a productive harvest. Each local granary intervened in a larger space than municipal boundaries. They could buy the seeds from other regions, to sell later to the village’s users. It means that the public granaries increased the movements of the cereals in the Peninsula. Each year the variety of the wheat cultivated in one area could change, since it arrived from other regions or even from other countries. Finally, with a deeper interdisciplinary study, the ReSEED project may help to understand if the granaries contribute more to mix the seeds up or to uniform the crops. 

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