by Ashley Wheeler – The Ecologist, 6 January 2015
Farmers and growers in south-west England have united to reclaim the lost skill of seed saving, writes Ashley Wheeler. They are determined to grow, develop, share and disseminate open-pollinated seeds, and oppose EU laws granting commercial plant breeders a legal monopoly on the seeds that sustain our lives.
For thousands of years seed saving was common practice for farmers and growers. As fundamental as maintaining soil fertility and crop husbandry.
It was the norm for farmers to select the plants most suited to their land and collect the open pollinated seed from the best plants. This selected seed adapts to the climate and soil type of that land, known as a landrace.
This leads to a hugely diverse living bank of seeds that constantly adapts to changes and results in resilient plants that have an ability to tolerate stress caused by environmental pressures.
Unfortunately, since the uptake of modern F1 hybrid seed, whose offspring would not produce traits true to the parent, and could therefore not be saved to reproduce reliable crops, farmers’ landraces have dwindled.
Hybridisation came about after agricultural fertiliser companies took Mendel’s knowledge of plant genetics and started breeding varieties of F1 hybrid seeds that could not be farmer-reproduced. The F1 seed produced uniform, vigorous and nutrient-demanding crops. But breeding from them led to offspring with lack of vigour and lower yields.
This commercial advantage was taken on board by the fertiliser companies who began breeding seeds and adding them to their catalogues – with a view to the profits to be made both from selling the seeds, and selling the fertiliser the F1 plants needed to perform.
Seeds as ‘Intellectual property’
The first Plant Patent Act came about in 1930 in the US and led to large agricultural companies, who bred F1 hybrids (along with manufacturing chemical fertilisers and pesticides) being given some legal protection for ‘their’ seeds.
Seed varieties and plants eventually became ‘intellectual property’. The result is that 67% of the world’s propietary seed (seed with intellectual property rights) is owned by just ten companies.
These companies pushed the hybrid vigour of these seeds and farmers became reliant on them as they had the fertilisers and pesticides that these same companies were manufacturing. The Green Revolution saw farmers become dependent on this modern way of farming and lost the more traditional skills of rotation and seed saving.
The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organisation estimates that since the 1900’s around 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost due to farmers relying so heavily on hybrid seed.
Seed legislation was introduced in the early 1900s to regulate the seed market and assure consumers that the seeds they were buying would be viable and come true to the description on the packet.
Currently the seed legislation in the EU is made up of Directives which were put in place by the European Commission. Such directives can be interpreted by member states, resulting in different levels of leniency. So now new legislation has been proposed in the form of an EU Regulation which must be adhered to in its entirety across all member states.
The result in the UK would be much tighter controls of seed saving and lead to the loss of many open pollinated varieties. The proposed regulation was rejected by both the Environment and Agriculture Committees and has been sent back to the Commission for redrafting.
However, it is likely that the Commission will be under huge pressure from the agri-industrial lobbyists. Furthermore, if the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership goes through, more pressure will be applied from the US seed industry.
They will no doubt aim to mould the regulation to benefit the large scale seed companies that already control so much of the commercially available seed.
Reclaim the seeds!
Obviously this is all rather disheartening, but it should be a reminder that as farmers, growers and a nation of amateur gardeners we must reinvigorate the skill of seed saving, and take back control of our seeds, and ultimately our food system.
One of the first steps of food sovereignty – set out in the 2007 Declaration of the Forum for Food Sovereignty is to assert “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods, and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems.”
By continuing to save and breed seed varieties that are locally adaptable we can begin to reverse this loss of biodiversity and build up a constantly evolving living seed bank.
It is of paramount importance that we work to bring back life to the skill of seed saving and set-up networks amongst farmers and growers to start breeding more open pollinated seed varieties that can be exchanged amongst local groups.
The South West Seed Savers’ Cooperative
With the threat of the EU Regulation controlling the exchange and marketing of seeds and our belief that farmers should have the right to saving, sowing and exchanging their own seeds, The Landworkers’ Alliance have set-up a seed saving network amongst growers and farmers in the South West of England.
The network was launched at an event held at Embercombe in Devon, which gave farmers and growers an insight into the history of seed saving and current legislations as well as a practical workshop to show how little is required to save seed, and how relatively simple it is.
The basic idea of the SWSSC is that each member saves open pollinated seeds, even if it is just from one variety of crop. We will gather in the autumn to share our seeds, so that each member comes away with many more varieties and can become less reliant on hybrid seeds bought from seed companies.
The members will gradually be breeding varieties that are locally adapted and so produce more resilient crops with a greater genetic diversity than if they were to use hybrid seeds.
The SWSSC will continue to host workshops and events to help members re-learn the skill of seed saving. Practical advice and guidance will be given to members, and on farm visits will take place to learn the technicalities of seed saving.
The ultimate intention is to have local groups all over the UK, building communities of growers who save and share high quality, locally adapted seeds – thus keeping alive essential knowledge and seed diversity, both a priceless inheritance from our ancestors, and such an important gift to our children.
Ashley Wheeler runs a market garden in Devon with his family. He is a founding member of The Landworkers’ Alliance and The South West Seed Savers’ Cooperative. He ran a session on seed networks at the Oxford Real Farming Conference on 6th and 7th January 2015.
The Landworkers’ Alliance is an official member of the international peasant farming movement La Via Campesina which represents 200 million small-scale producers around the world. We campaign for the rights of small-scale producers and lobby the UK government and European parliament for policies that support the infrastructure and markets central to our livelihoods.
Related Seed Freedom Calendar Event