The Seed Co-operative is an exciting new initiative which is making a bold step towards making regenerative, local, organic food systems a reality.
‘From Field to Fork’ and ‘Farm to Table’ are terms which are growing in popularity, and, with this, an increasing awareness of how the food we consume is being produced. In this article I would like to uncover another layer and explore what happens before the field, to a vital agricultural input – seed. There is a high chance that the majority of food which you ate today was originally produced by putting a seed in the ground. Our diets depend upon seeds but how much do we know about how they were produced?
The majority of seeds used in horticulture today in Europe are F1 hybrids, which means they are produced when two distinctly different varieties of the same species are crossed to produce a more vigorous offspring. With higher and more reliable yields and uniformity, these seeds are ideal for commercial growers, especially in large-scale high-input mechanised systems. However, these plants are also genetically unstable and their seeds cannot be saved for use in following years and, therefore, farmers must buy new seeds every year. Open-pollinated seeds, unlike F1 hybrids, can be saved from the plants year after year and their genetic material does not belong to anyone. Open pollination is the natural process by which plants reproduce and exchange characteristics from generation to generation.
From a seed companies’ perspective ,F1 hybrid seeds are a very intelligent business model.
Large agribusiness corporations have increasingly bought up smaller companies and taken control over breeding lines, a trend which has also been aided by patent laws. According to the International Panel of Experts on sustainable Food Systems (IPES) three companies own 50% of the commercial seed market. The widespread dependency of farmers on a small number of multinational seed companies has resulted in a dramatic decline of crop diversity. David Price, secretary of the Seed Co-operative, explains that global seed companies do not breed specifically adapted varieties for the UK as they consider it too small a region. This has resulted in many varieties being ill-suited to local growing conditions. In the past, every local area and region would have had seeds suited to the particular soil, altitude and weather conditions. These were developed by continually saving the seeds of the most vigorous and healthy plants and using them the next year.
The Seed Co-operative is planning to make open pollinated seeds a thing of the future. This new project will make organic and biodynamic open pollinated seeds more accessible to growers in the UK, by extending the good work of the established Stormy Hall Seeds company based in Botton Village, North Yorkshire. In contrast to the top down control of the wider seed market, the Seed Co-operative is aiming to create a UK network of farmers, growers, scientists, nutritionists and organisations who participate in growing and developing seed varieties as a basis for healthy food. Plant breeding will also be an important feature of the project. Hans Steenbergen, founder of Stormy Hall Seeds, explains that when breeding new varieties “The focus should not just be high yields but on the quality, nutritional value and local suitability for low-input organic farming.”
In early 2016 the project finally found a piece of land which is currently in a three-year conversion phase to biodynamic. The 24 acre site near Gosberton, Lincolnshire, is fortunate to have grade 1 soil, its own rainwater fed reservoir and a favourable climate. These ideal conditions will make it possible to grow seeds, process, package and distribute them, as well as breed new varieties. As a community benefit society the Seed-Co-operative is essentially crowd-funded through people buying shares. Becoming a member also enables people to get involved and take an active interest in the operation and development of the project. The project is taking on the challenge of raising £500,000 in 2016 in order to secure the purchase of the land.
A recent report by IPES makes the point that diversifying farming landscapes and optimising biodiversity is essential. Open pollinated seeds hold the key to diverse farming because they are naturally open source and adaptable to changing climates and conditions. For example, being genetically diverse helps these varieties to resist a number of environmental diseases and climate pressures. While, in contrast, modern cultivars are not screened for these pressures, instead they are bred for high-input chemical based farming systems. According to the FAO the consequences of such methods of farming has led to a 75% loss of genetic diversity within agricultural crops since the 1990s. The time is ripe to develop open pollinated seeds and bring sovereignty back to farmers and growers!
– To find out more about the Seed Co-operative and buy share or donate: http://www.seedcooperative.org.uk
– Organic and biodynamic seeds are available to buy through SH Organic Seeds: http://www.sh-organic-seeds.co.uk
Hannah grew up on a biodynamic farm in the North Yorkshire Moors and has ever since lived with a keen interest and many questions about our food and farming systems. Hannah now works for the Sustainable Food Trust in Bristol and is a storyteller in her spare time.