Seed saving and Seed Sovereignty - an introduction by Martin Sherring
Anyone with a veg plot will have marvelled at the amount and variety of food that can be produced by tiny seeds, and will know the annual ritual of poring over seed catalogues – but it’s worth spending a few minutes thinking about how the seeds got into their packets! Here are a few concerns you may want to bear in mind.
Many will know that legislation determines the seed varieties which can be sold in the UK – if it isn’t on our “National List” or on that of one of the other EU countries, it can’t be sold commercially. (Of course that may change with Brexit…) And the only way new varieties can be admitted to the National List is for someone to submit them for testing – an expensive business. Even after the variety has been added to the list, someone needs to be its official “maintainer”, and pay an annual fee. The cost involved means that many old varieties, especially those more of interest to smaller-scale growers, never made it onto the list, and most of the new ones are designed to suit farmers and supermarkets. So we have seen a massive loss in the genetic variation of seeds, making us less resilient to disease or changes in growing conditions – just when, with climate change, we’re seeing big changes in growing conditions. Of course, there are benefits to this legislation – it means that people can be confident, when they buy seed, that it is actually the variety it’s supposed to be! But it’s debatable whether that makes up for the lost diversity.
With increasing globalisation, most seeds are now grown overseas - in 1959, for example, 600 hectares in Essex were under cultivation for broad bean seeds; by 1980, only 200 hectares were used for growing all flower and vegetable seed across the whole UK. So again, we are seeing a reduction of our resilience – most of our seed “eggs” are in a few big, overseas “baskets”!
Fewer open-pollinated varieties
This is the issue of F1 hybrid varieties, which increasingly dominate the seed catalogues. These can (but don’t always!) produce better crops, but they tend to be more expensive because the hybrids need to be crossed under controlled conditions, sometimes by hand. Much worse though, they don’t come true from seed – so they have to be bred from scratch every year. Once again, we’ve lost some of our resilience - to get these F1 varieties we are relying on specialist businesses.
Organic growing – or not
And finally, for those who grow organically, only 3% of all seeds available in the UK have been grown organically. That may not make that much difference to the plants you grow, but if you’re going to the trouble to grow organically yourself, it seems sensible to encourage organic seed production.
Fortunately there is increasing interest in saving seed from open-pollinated varieties. Transition Black Isle has been running a “Seed Swap” in late winter/ early spring for the last few years, and there are a few other ways to obtain locally produced seed:
- holds seed from about 800 varieties. Each year their members get the opportunity to choose up to six packets from around 150 of these varieties (those which have enough seed to be made available). Membership costs £18/ year for Garden Organics members.
- is a seed merchant with a difference – they only supply open-pollinated varieties, specialise in unusual and heritage plants, and encourage their customers to save their own seed. Strictly speaking, to allow them to sell seeds outwith the National List, their customers form a club, but as life membership only costs 1p, that’s not much of a barrier!
- is a community-owned seed merchant. All their seeds are produced organically or biodynamically and they aim to source as much seed as possible from within the UK.
- Closer to home, the sells their own seeds as well as plants, and has a fantastic range of herbs acclimatised to the Black Isle.
And for those who want to try their hand at saving seed on their own plot, we will run a Grow North seed-saving workshop on 1st September. We’ve been very fortunate to recruit Maria Scholten from the Gaia Foundation’s Seed Sovereignty programme to lead the workshop, which will be held in Culbokie. We’ll be talking about the how’s and why’s of seed saving, and getting a bit of practical experience.
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