“It’s a direct action, an act of political independence. In the current market economy that we live in, we’re not encouraged to do anything for ourselves. So saving your own seed is saying ‘yes I can have control in my own life and I’m not just totally at the whims of market forces’.”
For Fred Groom of Devon-based independent seed company Vital Seeds, saving and sharing seed is at the very heart of life itself and nature’s ability to evolve. The majority of seed companies sell what are known as ‘F1 hybrid’ seeds, where only the seed company knows the parents, and therefore ‘owns’ the patent, locking growers into a cycle of dependence on the same company, which Groom describes as effectively “an evolutionary dead end”. The vegetables produced may be uniform, but the seed subsequently saved from these vegetables will not evolve in a way that is true to the parent plants.
In contrast, companies such as Vital Seeds, the Seed Co-operative in Lincolnshire and Real Seeds in Wales are leading the way in producing open-pollinated seeds. These are seeds pollinated by insects, wind or human beings, producing seed with just enough variation, key for crop diversity, but still retaining desired characteristics that react to the environment.
Groom gives the example of tomatoes, peas and beans as good starter seeds for gardeners to save. Given that summers are tending towards being hotter and drier, not the ideal conditions for peas, there are climate change resilience gains to be had.
“If we were to select peas every summer and grow them in ways that don’t require irrigation and let them fend for themselves, if we did that season after season in the dry climate and very specifically selected the plants that are coping best with the heat, then over time they should and they will adapt to those drier climates.”
David Price, managing director of the Seed Co-operative, has spent most of his working life on nature reserves, which is crucial work, yet “a bit like working in the casualty unit. You’re looking at patching things up and actually there’s a much bigger systemic issue that needs to be addressed.” He sees the re-emergence of an organic seed industry, based around smaller food companies producing different and often heritage varieties as essential to a healthy planet: “It all comes down to diversity. I see it as effectively nature’s programming language and if you don’t have it then you don’t have anything to work with in nature.”
Such seeds offer a kind of open-source programming of nature, and indeed, the very structure of Seed Co-operative, community-owned and backed by 370 shareholders, reflects these values.
Most seed on the UK market is not organic, even if the vegetables grown from those seeds are grown by organic methods. The Gaia Foundation estimates that three per cent of seeds are actually organic, and its Seed Sovereignty UK and Ireland Programme is addressing this through training and funding for equipment, variety trials and increasing public awareness of this issue. Due to the existing shortage, if an organic grower can't obtain certified organic seed, there is the possibility to use non organic, as long as it hasn't been treated with anything and is approved by the Soil Association. Occasionally the Seed Co-operative cannot get organically-grown seeds of a particular variety – for example an old variety that no-one has grown organically for a long time. So, for Price, each generation that seed is produced organically “the better it will get in terms of ‘organic-ness’”. This is why transparency is key.
Community seed banks, such as The Stroud Community Seed Bank and the London Freedom Seed Bank are using urban networks of growers to maintain genetic diversity. In 2016, Charlotte Dove of the London Freedom Seed Bank undertook research in North America and Canada on seed diversity and community seed projects, inspired by environmental activist and author Vandana Shiva, and the global movement for seed freedom. The London Freedom Seed Bank’s work is motivated, as Dove says, by a desire to “take power back into the hands of individuals and not being reliant on the seed corporations.”
London Freedom Seed Bank is dedicated to preserving and conserving 20 seed varieties with the aim of creating London strains of varieties that are well-adapted to London’s particular growing conditions – for example the poor, often clay, soils and limited growing spaces. One London Freedom Seed Bank grower is the artist Richard Galpin who is breeding – albeit on an incredibly small scale – The Bloody Marvel, a new London lettuce variety based on the Bloody Cos, which originated in Syria in the 18th Century.
Galpin says the lettuce variety is about a connection with the past, while looking to the future: “There is always something about the preservation of 'heritage' as a static and unchanging thing makes me uneasy, unless it’s tied to an attempt to continue to strive for a better life.”
He is not as concerned with consistency as someone running a larger breeding programme would be: “I see variability in the variety as a positive – it demonstrates genetic diversity, creates interest, and helps to tell its own story… we may not have much space in London, but what we do have is people, proximity, strong networks, and the need to get along with others.” In other words, tapping into the human ecosystem as a way of developing seed diversity.
Getting to know: heritage seeds
There’s no real legal or trading standards definition of a heritage variety as such, but it’s generally taken to be an older variety, open pollinated and usually with no proprietary ownership.
That’s according to Ed Scott, polytunnel manager at organic veg box company Riverford, and veteran veg grower. A large-scale commercial farm doesn’t typically grow many heritage varieties due to the wide variation in maturity timing, which makes it difficult to plan harvest times. “This isn’t a problem in a garden or allotment situation, and a market gardener (or small box scheme) might even find it advantageous: you only have to plant once in order to have a crop you can harvest over several weeks. On our scale, however, it’s inefficient,” explains Scott.
That said, Riverford still grows some heritage varieties with specific flavour, texture or size on a small scale, he adds. There’s the Jersey Devil tomato, a tapered variety that is quite dense that is good for making sauces, the Indian Poona Kheera mini cucumber variety that starts as pale green and ripens to russet, supplied by Real Seeds, and the Black Hungarian chilli, which is a black jalapeno or fresno-type chili bred from Kent-based Nicky’s Nursery.