Seed sovereignty is about growers being able to produce and have control of their seeds – by saving seed from the crops they grow, selecting the strongest and most suitable seeds for breeding, and exchanging seeds freely with others. Sounds simple, right?
Why does seed sovereignty matter?
At the moment, almost all commercial seeds are F1 hybrids. The seeds that these plants produce are either sterile or the seed saved from them can be expected to produce poor crops – growers can’t save the seed to sow the following year, and are reliant on the seed companies for future seed.
So next year’s crops are in the hands of surprisingly few large commercial seed companies; there are 3 global seed (and chemical) corporations supplying 75-90% of the worlds seed
There’s more. As well as increasing our dependence on big seed companies for our food, their use of F1 hybrid, GM and patented seeds also reduce diversity – both the number of varieties available to us, and genetic diversity among individual seeds within each variety.
This matters a lot. The lack of crop diversity poses a serious threat to the resilience of our food system.
Now, more than ever, plants need to adapt to changing weather patterns and more extreme weather events, new pests and diseases, as well as tolerating lower water and energy inputs.
To realise seed sovereignty, we need to have access to diverse, open pollinated seeds that are not patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled. That’s where the Seed Co-operative comes in.
Democracy. Diversity. Health.
The Seed Co-operative is not just about highlighting problems – it is about realising solutions, and creating opportunities for a shared response.
The Seed Co-op is on a mission to “sow the seeds of a healthy and resilient organic food system that promotes diversity, democracy and a closer relationship with our food, and those who grow it.”
They grow, process and sell open pollinated seed varieties – that can be pollinated by wind/insects/humans to produce viable seeds, carrying wide genetic diversity. They are also well adapted to organic growing systems, which improve the soil, require less water and energy, and support biodiversity.
And there is an explosion in demand for organic food, and organic seeds.
The Price of Seeds and the Value of Everything
Just like our food, seeds are still cheap relative to the cost of production.
Even with the increasing popularity of organic – both the increase in demand from organic farmers trying as they supply increasing numbers of customers, and on top of that the rise in home growing – prices are still too low for decent margins for organic seed producers; it’s hard to pay staff properly and there is a reliance on volunteers.
We need to be willing to pay more for open pollinated seeds and the food grown from them.
David is quick to point out that food poverty results from inaction on poverty by policy makers and has nothing to do with food production. Only a few pence out of every pound spent on UK supermarket food actually gets back to farmers!
Brexit is also generating uncertainty. Each country in the EU has a catalogue of vegetables that are maintained in that country, and the “EU common catalogue” is an amalgamation of all of them. Each variety has a registered grower who is responsible for maintaining the quality of the seed.
Changes brought in by the UK government have caused complications. In the EU any variety on the common catalogue can be sold throughout the EU.
Now only the varieties on the UK list can be sold in the UK, diminishing the diversity available.
Very little organic vegetable plant breeding has been undertaken in the UK for decades, but many varieties have been selected and bred in the EU using organic methods specifically for organic production.
Will it be possible to sell these varieties in the UK? Would anyone be able to register them in the UK if they are maintained in another country? That is yet to be seen.
It will potentially cost hundreds of pounds to add a seed variety to the UK list. We are yet to see how this situation will pan out, but the uncertainty creates anxiety and difficult decisions for small seed producers, on top of the collapse in seed varieties available in the UK.
There are incredibly few UK producers of organic, open source (un-patented or otherwise “owned”) vegetable seeds. Those that exist are very small scale. Even before Brexit and the pandemic, the UK was not able to keep pace with demand, and the situation is further exacerbated by the above.
Three ways to support seed sovereignty
There is lots of information about seed sovereignty online, both how to save seeds at home – for example Real Seeds and Garden Organic – and how to support the movement for food sovereignty. One of the up-sides of the pandemic is the increase in webinars and online events and opportunities to learn and connect. Follow these national organisations: CSA Network UK, the Seed Sovereignty Programme run by the Gaia Foundation, the Landworkers’ Alliance, and the Organic Growers Alliance
The future of seed is local. Grow the food that thrives in your region, save the seed, and then share it with others, building resilient seed communities. You might like to join an organisation like Lincolnshire Organic Gardeners Organisation (LOGO) – who are organisers of Seed Swap events, as well as a wonderful network of expertise.
3. Support the Seed Co-operative
Become a member of the Seed Co-op. You can buy shares in the co-op for £1 each. You have to purchase a minimum of 100 shares, and a maximum of 100 000. You won’t get interest or dividends – profits are all returned to the development of seed production, and you can’t trade them on the stock market. But this is one of the most genuine investments in our children’s future that I can think of.
(Find out more and apply to become a member here)
If you can offer a regular time commitment, access to the farm in Gosberton and a willingness to learn, you would be welcomed as a volunteer on the site.
There is also need for pro bono roles on the board, they are currently recruiting for a Marketing & Communications Director and a Finance Director.
Normally there are three open days a year, and I would highly recommend that you go and visit them to find out more about their amazing and vitally important work. It is incredibly exciting to have this project right here on our doorsteps in Lincolnshire!
Unfortunately, due to pandemic uncertainties, there are currently no open days scheduled for this year (except for members – see above), so in the meantime, here is a quick tour, on a windswept day in May!