No Seed... No Food

| 10th May 2017
One of this year’s three finalists in the BBC Future Food category of the BBC Food and Farming Awards - the Seed Co-operative - is bucking the trend and producing and selling organic and biodynamic open pollinated vegetable, herb and flower seed in the UK
With the diversity of food crops falling dramatically and just three giant corporations controlling over 75 per cent of the global seed supply, it's no wonder people feel disconnected from their food. LAURA BRIGGS learns more about a new UK Seed Co-operative which aims to redress the balance
Since 1900 we have lost access to over 90% of the varieties of seed available across the globe

Seed is crucial. Nine out of every ten mouthfuls of food we eat relies on seed. Without it, we don't eat.

Despite this knowledge the UK has become heavily reliant on importing seed.

One of this year's three finalists in the BBC Future Food category of the BBC Food and Farming Awards - the Seed Co-operative - is bucking the trend and producing and selling organic and biodynamic open pollinated vegetable, herb and flower seed in the UK.

Based on a small Lincolnshire farm, the Co-operative is run by a small team of staff and volunteers, is currently in organic conversion, and provides a hub for a growing UK-wide network of seed producers.

As a Community Benefit Society the financial backing is provided through donations, grants and community shares.

David Price, who runs the Co-operative is passionate about his work. With a nature conservation background, he says: "I felt increasingly like I was working in a casualty unit when what is needed is long-term hospitalisation and life support. Nature reserves are critical to retaining whatever we can, but they are not going to sustain biodiversity forever.  Sustainability will need systemic change across our natural environment to achieve that. 

"I was trying to work out how I might play a part in this sort of change when I met Peter Brown (Biodynamic Association) and Hans Steenbergen (Stormy Hall Seeds) who were looking to establish the Seed Co-operative.

"Diversity is the striking thing that links my previous work with the work of the Seed Co-operative.  We only sell open pollinated seed, which is rich in genetic diversity, providing the ability to adapt due to its diversity, and this, working with natural processes, provides the basis for both a resilient food system, and a sustainable biodiversity. 

"The diversity of our food crops is falling rapidly. It is estimated that since 1900 we have lost access to over 90% of the varieties of seed available across the globe.  We now have F1 hybrid seed and biotech seed, but both of these are denuded of their genetic diversity and dependent on human intervention for development - they do not naturally evolve as open pollinated seed does."

David believes that many people feel a sense of disconnection with the food they eat and that there is a growing number of people who want to know more about the origin of their food. He says: "We can change this. You can know the person who grew your veg, and they can tell you what variety it is and where the seed came from. If they bought the seed from us they could even tell you which farm the seed was grown on, and potentially, we could tell you the name of the farmer/plant breeder who bred the variety and where. 

"This is what can reconnect people with what is real and what sustains them. Food is not a manufacturing process; or at least it shouldn't be. Food is not created in labs or factories by anonymous white coats in sterile conditions; or at least it shouldn't be. Food should be grown in a living soil by 'people who eat' for 'people who eat' working with natural systems to ensure tasty, healthy and vital ingredients for three meals a day for everyone.

"Food is about people - they cannot be separated. Without seed we will have neither. As more people start to realise that today, only three global corporations sell 75% of the world's seed it raises many questions about our food and democracy and who controls what."

David's idea is resonating with many people and the Seed Co-operative is based on a model that has worked in Europe. He explains: "Companies that supply us with seed have similar networks of small-scale growers. Bingenheimer Saatgut in Germany started with similar levels of imported seed but now produces 80% of the seed it selsl through its network and has a very significant turnover. 

"When people consider that open pollinated seed adapts and tunes in to the conditions in which it is grown they can see the madness of not producing our own seed and want to get involved in making it happen. They can do this through buying shares and buying seed. We now have over 230 shareholders and sales on our web site are 400% up on last year."

Although the organic market is growing rapidly, with more resistance to GMO, David says the economics of the food system are utterly broken: "If what we want is a sustainable and resilient food system that will feed people healthy, nutritious and tasty food, and a food system with natural resilience designed in then we need to use methods that harness natural processes, not fight them. This is what open pollinated seed does, and this only works in organic farming systems."

The Seed Co-operative is at the beginning of a process.  Currently it is looking to expand the volumes of seed produced in the UK for organic production, and as it progresses farmers can again assume the role of plant breeders, developing new varieties.

Economic drivers have meant that conventional plant breeding tends to concentrate on yield, shelf life and the ability to withstand mechanical harvesting which has led to loss of flavour, texture and nutrition.

David adds: "I guess it is about what sort of future people want, who they want to control their future and how we provide for future generations. Unless of course we can give up eating, then perhaps we don't need to worry."

For more information on the Seed Co-operative visit

This Author

Laura Briggs is a regular contributor to the Ecologist.

Follow her here @WordsbyBriggs




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