Safeguarding our living gene bank
Ben Raskin - 19 March 2014
I've always been fascinated by seed and how such a tiny thing can hold such complexity and potential. Being part of the entire cycle of life, from sowing seed and growing the vegetable through to saving seed for replanting, is part of what makes growing so wonderful. It's also astonishing how quickly plants begin to adapt to new surroundings or changing growing conditions. We live in uncertain climatic times and I can't believe that mankind, and more specifically the lumbering bureaucracy of Europe, can better safeguard our agricultural genetics than nature’s own ability to adapt (with a little bit of help).
Of course we need skilled plant breeders, and I'm all in favour of innovation and progress in seed production. It's also clear that the advent of F1 hybrids
has brought benefits to many growers (particularly of some crops such as brassicas). However I am really concerned about the disappearance of open pollinated
varieties and the creeping concentration of genetic ownership into the hands of a very small number of seed companies.
The current EU legislation is overcomplicated and not fit for purpose, and what's more has contributed to the 75% loss of agricultural diversity estimated by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation
. The proposed replacement "Plant Reproductive Material" legislation has been devised by the commission to suit large scale farming at both seed and crop production levels. It is clear that a different legal framework is needed for small and medium scale farming, one that removes rather than creates restraints, and supports rather than blocks diversity. There are clear precedents for this, for instance in America, where there is much less regulation over variety there is a thriving seed industry at all levels of production.
While it is heartening that MEPs recognised that the legislation was not fit for purpose and voted overwhelmingly (650 to 15) to reject it in its current form we're very worried that the Commission appears to be driving it forward without taking on board any of the comments or amendments made by the EU parliament.
While our campaigning and negotiations on the legislation continue
, I'm also getting excited about some of the other seed work we're doing. In particular the second year of our Duchy Original Seed Field Labs
, where growers are taking 2 open pollinated varieties that performed well in trials last year (Carrot St Valery and Brussel Sprout Sanda) and trialling them again with a view to producing some seed for their own use or for sharing with other growers. I've also got a rather unusual rocket plant that seeded itself in my green house, with larger (and hotter) leaves it has formed a very vigorous bush. I shall be saving seed from it this year, because while it's vital to keep our eye on the wider political issues, seed saving is fun and you never quite know what you might get. Without diversity we can’t have resilience. We all need sufficient genetic material whether saving our own Open Pollinated varieties, or at the cutting edge of seed breeding. An effective legislation as well as protecting consumers must allow us all, both amateur and professional seed producers, to increase the living seed bank adapted to the changing climate.
Ben is Head of Horticulture at the Soil Association. After discovering the outdoor life on an organic vineyard in Northern Italy, and a one year professional gardening course at Lackham College, Ben has worked in horticulture for 20 years. Previous incarnations include running a walled garden in Sussex, working for the HDRA (now Garden Organic) at their gardens in Kent, setting up and running the horticultural production at Daylesford Organic Farm, before moving to the Welsh College of Horticulture as commercial manager. Ben is passionate both about the commercial production of high quality organic vegetables and teaching practical skills to all ages through on farm learning. Ben set up the Soil Association Future Growers apprenticeship scheme and is also the author of Compost – a family guide to making soil from scraps