Nine out of ten mouthfuls of food start with a seed, and that is not going to change any time soon. These small and unassuming objects hold within them the key to our survival as a species. They are essentially little packets of information, containing instructions on how to produce sugar, starch, protein and many other lifegiving molecules from soil, sunlight and water. They also contain the instructions on how to create almost identical replicas of themselves ensuring that this information can be disseminated year after year. The work they perform is no less than alchemy.
It is a disturbing fact that in the last 100 years, more than 90% of the diversity within food crops has been lost. This is in large part as a result of the industrialisation of global food production, and the dangerous shift in control of the global seed supply from gardeners, growers, and small regional seed companies, to large multinational chemical giants, who now control more than two-thirds of the world’s seed. The shift from naturally breeding, open-pollinated varieties to high-tech F1 hybrids means that even if gardeners and growers wished to save their own seed, they cannot, because any seed produced by F1 plants will be genetically unstable. You can save the seed of an F1 hybrid, but you won’t get the same plant when you try to grow it next year. So gardeners who use F1 hybrid plant varieties must buy new seed every.
In the UK the majority of organic food is actually grown using nonorganic seed, as the supply of organic seed is so poor. On top of that nearly all of the vegetable seed (organic and non-organic) planted on UK farms is produced in other countries, with dryer climates and cheaper labour. So most of the ‘local’ food we endeavour to eat actually comes from seed produced on the other side of the world.
In response to this situation, we started Vital Seeds, a small independent seed company based in Devon, producing and selling organic vegetable, herb and flower seeds. Our vision – lofty as it may sound – is to create a world where all farming is ecological and all crop varieties and improve existing ones. All our varieties are openpollinated, so you can save seed from them year after year. What do we mean by ‘open-pollinated’ I hear you ask? Open-pollination is the natural way that plants breed, whereby they exist in populations and each generation is similar to the last. There is genetic diversity within the populations which means that they can evolve and adapt to changing climatic conditions. Conversely, F1 hybrid varieties of crops do not have this genetic diversity; all the individuals of a given variety are essentially genetically identical; not quite clones of each other but almost. Not only do they have very limited genetic diversity, but the seeds which they produce will not produce plants similar to their parents, due to a genetic phenomenon called segregation which there is not the space here to go into. As it is not possible to save good seed from hybrids, it means that seed companies have total ownership of
varieties, and people wanting to grow the varieties must go back to the company every year to buy more seed. Another result of hybrids producing bad seed is that they are unable to adapt to changing conditions, making them essentially an evolutionary dead end.
Some say we are approaching an eco-crisis; I personally think that it is already in full swing. If we are going to come out the other side of it with any hope of producing nourishing food from freely accessible plants, then we must start to take seeds more seriously. We need excellent seeds of well-adapted and resilient varieties to give us the best chance of moving towards a future we want our children to live in. To make this happen it is imperative that individuals and communities are re-skilled in the art and craft of saving seeds. This humble activity would once have been one of the most important elements of our seasonal land-based existence. Without good seed to plant in the spring, the harvest – and therefore our health – would have suffered greatly. This is still as true today as it has ever been.
There are gene banks and some seed companies who are stewarding varieties which may be of use in the future. However, it would be no less than foolish to depend on a few ‘Noah’s Arks’ to save the day. The real ark is in every grower and gardener who saves seed year after year and swaps seeds with their neighbours and friends, and teaches them to save their own seed. This is the option for true resilience. In this scenario not only are we keeping valuable varieties alive and evolving, but we are also enabling the flow of genetic and cultural material between communities in a truly organic form.
As well as producing and selling top-quality seed, part of our mission at Vital Seeds is to educate gardeners and growers in seed-saving skills, through workshops and online content. We are passionate (borderline obsessive) about seeds and want to share this with others. Seeds really are little miracles waiting to happen.
What can you do today?
- Learn to save seed – start with self-pollinating, annual crops as they are easy (eg French beans, peas, lettuce, tomatoes)
- Join the Heritage Seed Library (few £s a month) – their raison d’etre is to keep alive old varieties which might otherwise go extinct
- Support small regional organic seed companies (like Vital Seeds).