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Updated on November 26, 2016
Seeds saved in Many Hands
Seeds saved in Many Hands | Source

Seedsaving Future Food

Climate change will have an increasing impact on the growth cycle of all plants. The over specialisation of hybrid seeds, means they are only suited to present growing conditions. Keeping our vegetable baskets and our seed boxes packed with variety is vital for ensuring plants that can adapt to the conditions of tomorrow.

Seed banks, are an important link in storing the seeds of the future, but have been likened to putting all one's eggs in one basket. Any of the 144 seed banks, worldwide, are vulnerable to terrorist attack, power failures and stored seed that can no longer meet changed climatic conditions.

Saving seed keeps the source of our food in our own hands. Ripe seed needs to be harvested under dry conditions, and stored away from humidity or light. Temperature must remain constantly cool to prevent the seeds germinating. Seeds should be chosen from the most healthy, pest resistant plants and when the plant is ripe. Harvesting the seed too early means the embryo wont survive the drying process. Too late and the wind might blow the seeds away.

Hybrid, F1, seed is sterile and must be repurchased annually.
Hybrid, F1, seed is sterile and must be repurchased annually.

Outlaw Seeds

Seed Saved in the Hand

Picture a garden as it grows from seed, to flower, to fruit and finally back to seed. New green shoots reach for the sun and eventually flower. If fertilised, the flowers swell into fruits containing next year’s bounty: seed. But this last great leap, renewal of the species, is a leap that many gardens no longer make.

We are losing our heritage at an alarming rate, and most of us don’t even know it

Every seed variety that appears on the list of extinction, means one less food-producing plant in the future. We are losing species from nature's gene pool faster than we can record and study them. And yet, farmers and seed companies are being taken to court for the age-old practice of saving seed.

Seed-saving sustains diversity; in the garden and on our plates while providing food for bees, butterflies and beetles. In every garden, farm, allotment or balcony pot, seed acclimatizes to its local environment. Over time, new varieties come into being. The gardener who saves and sows these seeds year after year, is rewarded with stable and diverse variations of traditional vegetables. By sharing these seeds, these varieties become part of the region's diverse richness; our Heritage Vegetables. Heirloom vegetables are those cultivated in one location, over many generations. Through the cycle of natural selection, well-adapted species produce the strongest plants, most nutritive fruit and the most vital seed.

However, in order to be legally sold, these uncommon and sought after seeds must be first registered on a National or European Seed List. These Lists were established in the 1970's with high costs for registering and for maintaining the variety on the List annually. Limiting the sale of rare, locally-grown seeds has led to a loss of over a 90% of the UK's food-producing seed diversity in the last 100 years.

Seed registration requirements have also limited the range of seeds being offered in commercial seed catalogues. Varieties are often chosen to suit mass harvesting practises. long-distance transport, and extended shelf life. Taste, extended harvests and genetic diversity are not considered ,necessarily, important at the commercial level of food production. And that is what seeds basically come down to: the source of our flowers, fibres and food.

Where do Seeds Come From?

In addition, seed cannot be stored indefinitely. It needs to be resown periodically in order to remain viable. Older varieties are often more hardy and versatile as they have naturally undergone many adaptations in their long history of growth. If these seeds become extinct, then those hard-learned lessons cannot be passed on to the next generation, and are erased permanently from the collective genetic store.

The way that the seed is produced is critical in determining its ability to adapt and propagate. Seed development hinges on pollination. Fertile seeds are gathered from open-pollinated plants, while sterile seed is produced by cloning hybrid breeds.

Hybrid breeds are created by repeated cross-pollination of chosen plants, to achieve certain desired characteristics. The breed is then cloned to produce a seed crop of hybrid or F1 seeds which are either sterile or produce weak and stunted plants. The root of the food chain is being marketed as a designer item, but at the cost of its power of renewal.

As F1 seed must be repurchased annually small scale farmers, have become largely reliant on indigenous, home saved, food varieties. The United Nations' World Health Organisation, declared 2008, The Year of the Potato, in recognition of this seed crop's potential as a major source of food. Potatoes produce a far greater nutritional yield, per hectare, than any cereal crop. In most countries, potatoes are grown locally and thus accumulate low food miles. In Peru, over 2000 varieties of potatoes still provide the staple of the national diet.

Replenish the Stores

However, Urubamba, a French based seed and development company, was fined E350 000, for unfair trading advantage, for marketing a selection of these varieties. The Government Authorities administering the National Seed Lists, admit that there is a problem. A B-list has been established in the UK for registering Heritage Vegetables, but with little significant change.

Garden Organic, the working name of The Henry Doubleday Research Association (HDRA), runs an Adopt a Veg scheme, to gather contributions for listing and maintaining endangered varieties on the UK Lists.

In order to ensure the continued propagation and diversification of the remaining known heritage seeds, European and UK growers have re-established the tradition of swapping seed. Seed-swapping events, like Seedy Sunday in Brighton, are run on a donation basis only. Some event participants have renamed these endangered seeds “outlaw seeds” as a reminder of the precarious nature of their existence.

The Heritage seed library, run by Garden Organics, provides another avenue for seed saving and swapping. The library first opened, in the 1970's, and began by giving the seeds away. Members still receive their first six packets free. Unlike a seed bank, library seed is stored only until there is enough to be shared with members. Seed is saved for resowing and for replenishing the library's stores.


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