The seed saving rebellion is growing - and banging at the Commission's door

| 29th January 2015
Hayes Valley Farm Seed Library. Photo: edibleoffice via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
Hayes Valley Farm Seed Library. Photo: edibleoffice via Flickr (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0).
A year ago today, Europe-wide protests defeated an EU regulation that would have outlawed many seed saving activities, writes Ben Raskin. Now growers are taking matters into their own hands, saving and developing open-pollinated seeds - and campaigning for a seed regulation that supports them, not the monopolist seed corporations.
Rather than wait for the Commission, farmer and grower networks throughout the country are taking matters into their own hands to secure their future.

We had a great growing season in 2014, and for us seed savers the dry summer and autumn provided perfect conditions for some really good seed. Highlights from my allotment were parsley (third generation seed) and Borlotti climbing bean (fifth generation).

But things were more mixed at a political level, as legal shenanigans continued over the European Commission's proposed regulation on Plant Reproductive Material - seeds, cuttings and baby plants, to you and me.

The ostensible purpose of the regulation is to simplify the existing confused and cumbersome laws, to provide a platform to increase exports to outside the EU, and to safeguard human health.

But the regulation as proposed would have further sustained the dominance of the big seed companies - like Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta - and drastically reduced the number of seed varieties available for growing.

The Soil Association, along with many others campaigned against these proposals. And we won! A year ago today, the European Parliament's Environment Committee voted down the widely criticised regulation with a decisive 46-4 vote, and the full Parliament went on to defeat it by a massive 650-12 - forcing the Commission to withdraw it.

What was so wrong with the original EU proposal?

There was a significant increase in scope of the regulation, expanding from controlling variety in seeds of arable and major vegetables. As MEP Pavel Poc commented at the time,

"Plants other than industrial ones - the so-called bio-diverse plants - are limited to small and bureaucratic niches. This means that the regulation intends to keep the market in the hands of the industrial seed and PRM suppliers ...

"Old or rare varieties - in reality: all non-industrial vegetables, fruits and crops - do not fulfil the biological criteria of industrial plants, so they would not pass the registration for the main market."

The proposed regulation also covered what it calls Plant Reproductive Material (PRM), so cuttings, rootstocks, module plants, and even potted plants as well as seeds. Should we tell them that even a carrot is 'PRM'? Or maybe keep that one to ourselves for now?

Then we have the issue of 'Value for Cultivation and Use' (VCU). Growers are pretty good at deciding whether a variety is any good, and if a plant does not perform they quickly stop using it.

In the proposed regulation any new arable variety has to pass this VCU test and prove to the EU that it is a "clear improvement" on any existing variety before it is approved for sale. Furthermore they added the power to move any plant species into this category at any time with no consultation.

Often the value of a plant might not be seen during initial testing and field trials, but only once it has been grown either for a long time or in a particular set of circumstances, on particular soils and weather conditions, for example. Rejecting these plants is thus restricting the diversity of our future gene pool.

Rather than wait for the Commission, farmer and grower networks throughout the country are taking matters into their own hands to secure their future.

One of the most fundamental concerns is how to define a variety. This might seem obvious, after all there are rules about this aren't there? For F1 hybrids it's easy, but when we look at Open Pollinated (OP) varieties it all gets a bit more difficult. OPs are not genetically stable, this is one of their most useful qualities for growers as you can save seed and adapt them to your own microclimate.

Much of the debate has been focused on edible plants but the proposal included ornamental plans too for the first time. Which of the many nurseries that currently breeds perhaps 20 different versions of Lavender 'Hidcote' for instance will want to be responsible for registering and maintaining that variety with all the associated cost and red tape?

It is estimated that there would be more than 50,000 plants to register - representing a big financial hit for companies, and imposing a huge strain on the ever shrinking Defra team.

What next? Growers mustn't wait for others to set the agenda

Folowing the Parliament's rejection of the proposed regulation, the Commission began to work on a major redraft. But the new Commission has now placed it on their provisional 'legislation to abandon' list.

This may appear to be a victory, if confirmed - but in fact, it may not be the best outcome. Farmers and growers still have to make do with the current 'not fit for purpose' legislation until the Commission can find time to prioritise a new proposal.

Getting the right seed is difficult and becoming more expensive and as a result, professional growers have been motivated both practically and politically to take seed production into their own hands - by forming seed saving networks.

Recognising that producing a reliable supply of good seed is difficult (which is precisely the reason it has been left to professional breeders for so long) they are not aiming for seed self-sufficiency. Most would accept the need for specialised seed breeders and producers in some crops or for certain scales of production.

Instead, their goal is to take control of producing their own seed for the easier crops, or for those where the range of commercially available varieties is very limited - like Brussells Sprouts.

Some inspiring seed-savers

There's no perfect model for running a seed saving group but here are a couple of networks that might inspire you.

Launched last October, the South West Seed Saving Co-op, co-ordinated by the Land Workers Alliance, contains around 10 growers who have each committed to producing seed from one or two crops to share within the group.

There are many advantages in operating in this way. Firstly a grower might have the right land for and become skilled at growing a particular crop. Secondly it allows a good number of plants to feed into the gene pool - you need sufficient plants to ensure the variety does not get inbred.

It also keeps it simple for the grower - they have enough going on with trying to produce and sell food without trying to produce a wide range of seed. By operating in a relatively small locality, the seed should be already adapted to conditions for that group of growers.

Another fantastic initiative is the Biodynamic Plant Breeding and Seed Co-operative (BPBSC), a spin-off from Stormy Hall Seeds - a producer of biodynamic open pollinated seeds that forms part of the Camphill Village Trust.

BPBSC aims to establish a seed production enterprise to meet the growing demand for high quality, organic, UK-produced open pollinated seeds. The Co-op aims to breed new varieties of open pollinated plants, and provide education to professional growers, home gardeners and the general public.

Looking further afield for inspiration I visited Serbia at the end of last year and heard about a wonderful project where 617 children from 22 schools gathered seed from their parents and grandparents. They collected more than 5,000 seed samples. These were then catalogued and are in the process of being grown on and analysed.

The motivation for the project was to preserve old local varieties and populations whose survival is threated by the increasing commercialisation of vegetable production. They have already identified over 400 pepper varieties (there is a strong paprika tradition in this northern part of Serbia) with potential for wider use.

One girl who had brought in over 80 different varieties was so inspired by the project that she went on to enrol in agricultural college.

What do we want from seed laws?

We can't change the whole food system overnight, and there is a place for F1 hybrids as well as open-pollinated varities. Almost all professional growers I know, even the most zealous organic ones, use some F1 seed.

So what we need is seed laws that are proportionate and workable. Here are a few key points that we believe should be cornerstones of a fair legal framework.

  • Variety laws should not discriminate against open pollinated varieties or small seed producers. Registration should be cheap (or even free) and simple.
  • Breeders must be allowed to make a living from creating new varieties, so some form of Plant Breeders Rights seems perfectly reasonable. However there should be no patents on genetic material.
  • Varieties that for various reasons have fallen off the current EU common catalogue should be freely available. This would prevent the current practise of the multinationals buying out small seed companies and 'owning' these varieties, further reducing the range of varieties being grown.
  • There should be recognition of the value of and a market mechanism for marketing 'populations', plants with a wider genetic base than even 'open pollinated'. Sometimes these are 'land races' which are locally and naturally adapted to an area or you can create your own by growing a number of varieties together and allowing them to intercross. It is currently illegal to sell these (though Defra are running a pilot with Organic Research Centre).

We don't know when the European Commission will finally published a new proposed regulation, or how it will be greeted by the Parliament. So rather than wait, farmer and grower networks throughout the country are taking matters into their own hands to secure their future.

So whether you are a professional grower, allotment holder or home gardener, think about growing and saving your seeds, joining a local seed-saving network, and participating in any nearby 'Seedy Sunday' events this weekend.

Seed saving has been common practice for thousands of years and it's fantastic to see the revival that's taking place. Rebellion can take many forms - and we have much to hopeful about.



Follow the Soil Association Save our Seeds campaign.

Seedy Sunday 2015 takes place on Sunday 1st February in Brighton and other locations around the UK.

Ben Raskin is the head of horticulture at the Soil Association. Ben has over 20 years experience in horticulture and his current role involves supporting Soil Association producers, promoting organic principles and techniques and developing training opportunities - the flagship being our Organic Future Growers. Previous jobs include the role of Commercial Manager at the Welsh College of Horticulture, 3 years spent at Daylesford Organics now one of the UK's most prominent Organic brands and an assistant Head Gardener position for the HDRA (now Garden Organic).

Thanks: Brighton's Seedy Sunday is supported by The Heritage Seed Library and The Millennium Seed Bank and generously sponsored by Infinity Foods. Thanks also to Big Yellow Storage for their support.



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