A Sordid History of Seeds: Swapping, Swindling & Why We Must Save for the Future

swap seeds: borlotti, painted lady, carlin peas, mr bounds
Seeds swapped and saved this year, including (L-R): Borlotti, Painted Lady, uknown, Carlin Peas and Mr Bounds

Despite the biting cold and the snow, February is a time of year that I always look forward to. It is the time when the scribbles and marginalia of the previous year’s notebooks start to turn into the shoots and leaves that will eventually make the crops of the coming year. It is a time when I get to enjoy the excitement of cracking open last year’s bean pods, enjoying each little snap of nature’s answer to bubble wrap. It is also the time of year that major seed companies most look forward to, as growers around the world buy seed in anticipation of Spring.

The unquestioned hegemony of seed companies over what people grow is something that I have always found very strange. When so much of what we grow willingly offers its seed, it seems weird and wasteful to buy new seed year after year. So why do we do it? Well, naturally, the problem started with the Victorians. The Industrial Revolution led to a number of major advancements in the practice of agriculture and horticulture, including the mass-production of glass, the invention of chemical fertilizers, and the birth of the large-scale seed supplier. The impact of these changes was unprecedented, allowing growers around the world to produce bigger, more resilient crops earlier in the year.

The scientific spirit of some of these plant breeders was commendable, with a number of their observations contributing to our current understanding of botany and plant reproduction. Some of them even enjoyed correspondence Charles Darwin.

However, what started as the noble, scientific endeavours of a curious few inevitably led to less scrupulous characters entering the market – and nowhere more so than in London. The adulteration of seed became rife, with sellers employing practices ranging from smoking seed with sulphur, to dying the seed of common weeds to make it appear like that of more sought-after species1. As Brooking & Pawson note : “The British Parliament passed the Adulteration of Seeds Act in 1869, in response to widespread concerns about practices whereby London seedsmen in particular were known to add dyed or dead seeds to samples, or even foreign matter. A few years later, these ‘nefarious practices’ re-emerged, drawing a swift response from companies such as Suttons and Carters.”2. These ‘swift responses’ included the development of seed testing labs, which, years later, allowed for the development of the 1920 Seeds Act. As Ainsworth notes, the Seeds Act required plant sellers to make a declaration “as to the variety, purity and percentage germination of all seed offered for sale for sowing”3, and resulted in a number of official testing stations being set up around the UK4.

Over the last century, seed production and strain development has changed drastically, and laws set up initially to protect consumers now pose a real threat, not only to us, but to our environment. The supermarket demand for uniform, clockwork production of fruit and vegetables has encouraged the seed industry to develop varieties that meet the requirements of large-scale producers, but do little to protect the needs of the environment, people, or SMEs. The impact of this has already had disastrous consequences for biodiversity. As the UN note, “Since the 1900s, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties”. Current EU seed laws dictate that only registered seed varieties can be sold, and the costly nature of registration has meant that niche varieties have all but disappeared from the market. Sandra Slack, head of Garden Organic’s seed library notes, “To protect customers and to standardise the seed business across borders, the EU intervened in the 1970s, making sure that seed varieties were properly tested. Unfortunately, testing is expensive and those varieties not tested were dropped. If a variety has been dropped from the approved common catalogue, then its seeds cannot be bought or sold.”.

Seeds (detail): Borlotti, Painted Lady, unknown, Carlin Peas (a.k.a Black Badgers), Mr Bounds .jpg
Seeds (detail): Borlotti, Painted Lady, unknown, Carlin Peas (a.k.a Black Badgers), Mr Bounds

Specifically, the Soil Assocation highlights that “to become registered, all varieties must pass Value for Cultivation and Use (VCU) and Distinct, Uniform and Stable (DUS) tests. Currently, registration costs £2,565 per variety. The proposed law will mean more varieties to register and added costs from VCU and DUS tests, meaning people who sell plants, such as horticultural businesses and garden centres are likely to reduce the number of varieties they sell, or possibly even go out of business”. It is worth noting, of course, that the qualities of being ‘uniform’ and ‘stable’ are only really important to supermarkets, as some variance in these qualities can be tolerated, and even appreciated, by the small-to-medium scale grower. For one, open pollinators actively respond and adapt to their environments, a quality that would not be considered ‘stable’, but should certainly be welcomed.

If the need for biodiversity hasn’t been made clear enough, consider this: 75 percent of the world’s food is generated from only 12 plants and five animal species. If the effects of climate change and population growth continue to take their toll, we are going to need to be a bit more inventive with what and how we eat. Open pollination produces plants that are hardy, and, perhaps most importantly, adapted to their own environments. According to Ben Raskin of the Soil Association, today, only 20 percent of tomato varieties are produced through open-pollination, and only 7 percent of cucumbers. That leaves us in a rather precarious situation. Where the law once served to protect the consumer, its particulars are now used to protect profit, and its future is now swayed by vested interests in the multimillion pound industry. The answer? Well, part of it would be in establishing ‘open source’ seeds, and recognising of the rights of producers to exchange seed freely. In his recent Brighton talk, Raskin claimed that 75 percent of Greek agricultural seed is swapped between farmers. It would be great if we could see something like this happen in the UK.

The Soil Association hopes that we will see a law passed that ensures:

  • Small packets of seeds are exempt from the regulation, allowing gardeners and growers to exchange and sell seed without bureaucratic burden
  • That it is cheap and easy to register existing and new varieties of plants to protect genetic diversity
  • Adapted rules for organic varieties which recognise that organic plants adapt to their environments over time

So what can we do about it on a small scale? Well, the first thing is to start saving and exchanging seed. The more seed that is saved and exchanged, the less need there is for the middle man, and the greater opportunity we give these so-called ‘niche’ varieties a chance to thrive. Community gardens are a great place to exchange information with other local gardeners. I had a hard time finding a London-based seed exchange, and so travelled to Brighton this weekend for Seedy Sunday, which I will write about later this week. I am interested to hear from others looking to start up seed swaps in London, however, so do get in contact. If you must buy seed, perhaps consider supporting an endeavour such as that of the Real Seeds Company, whose aim it is “to assemble the best collection of really reliable, tasty and interesting non-hybrid vegetables for the home gardener, allotment grower, or smallholder”. My experience with them to date has been fantastic, and I have saved seed from a number of delicious crops.

1 p.486, G.K. Ricards, esq., The Statutes of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, His Majesty’s Statute & Law Printers, London 1869

2 p.135, T. Brooking & E. Pawson, Seeds of Empire: The Environmental Transformation of New Zealand, I.B. Tauris & Co. LTD, London 2011

3 p.191, G. Ainsworth, Introduction to the History of Plant Pathology, Cambridge University Press, 1981

4 Ibid.

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