There was a time when seed saving was just as much a part of growing vegetables as sowing, planting, and harvesting. You saved your seeds, kept them for next year and repeated the process. Seeds have now become commercialised and seed saving is no longer a part of what most people do. Is this convenience a good thing? Probably not.
Buying seeds from large commercial companies is now the rational thing to do, and this isn’t always in the interest of many gardeners or small-scale growers. Why is this?
For starters, large commercial companies need to make money, and growing seeds is an expensive exercise with economies of scale playing its part. Each variety of seeds can have a registration fee, and because of this, lots of heirloom varieties simply disappeared from seed catalogues over the last 40 years. It isn’t commercially viable to produce small batches of seeds that are only of use to gardeners and allotment holders.
All the money for breeding new varieties of seeds is going into farmed vegetables because this is where the significant returns are. However, your needs and the farmers’ needs are not the same. What Mr Farmer wants is all his cabbage, cauliflower, carrots etc, to all come ready at the same time. This way, he can go through his field and harvest everything together in one pass. It frees up the ground to be turned over and replanted as quickly and efficiently as possible. He doesn’t want his expensive labour to have to start searching through a crop picking out what’s ready to harvest and then coming back some days later to do the same.
If you ever see varieties of vegetables in seed catalogues that boast things like ‘great for freezing,’ now you know why. Those ten cabbages you sowed together are all going to come ready to harvest at the same time, and you are going to get a glut.
Older varieties of vegetables often mature at different rates and grow to different sizes. This means that harvest times spread over a more extended period. You can go through your carrots, pick out the biggest and then come back a week later for some more. This would be a disaster for a commercial grower.
The ‘Market Gardening’ style of growing I do at Greenslate Community Farm and Burscough Community Farm has more in common with allotment growing than commercial farming. I want to harvest comparatively small batches of produce to suit the needs of the shop, cafe and a veg share scheme. We did sow some F1 varieties this year, and they all came ripe together, all at the same time. That isn’t good if you are only selling a few a week.
Another problem with mass-produced seed varieties is that they all need standard conditions to grow. I have learned this season that things that grow well in one place don’t necessarily do well in another location.
We had some startlingly different results from different growing sites this season. One example is Kohlrabi. Back at my farm over in Burscough, I grew the same variety of seeds in the same compost at the same time using the same growing methods. In Burscough, I got the most perfect, round, plump Kohlrabi you ever saw. Over here at Greenslate, our kohlrabi was leggy and not very well formed. It was like they were two completely different varieties of vegetable.
Commercial seeds want uniform conditions in uniform soils. We have to amend our soils to accommodate, and you cannot always do that. On an industrial scale farm system, you are trying to get soil and conditions to match those of other parts of the country. We’ve proved you cannot get conditions that match only ten miles away. What we grow is often dictated by the seed companies, who are, in turn, dictated to by the supermarkets.
Just like weeds like different types of soils and conditions, then also different varieties of fruit and vegetables adjust to their local conditions. Over time, by saving what works, different varieties develop and adapt to the local climate. It’s a kind of speeded up natural selection process. If something doesn’t do well, you trade some seeds with your neighbour who’s variety has done better that season. Over a period, by saving the ‘survivors’ from your crops, natural strains will develop. Without even trying, you become a plant breeder.
This is one of the reasons why I believe that allotments and small growers are so important. They could even be saviours of humanity at some point in the future if you are keen on your doomsday scenarios. By working together, you can develop seed varieties that are perfect for the area in which you grow your food. Ideal for your soil and the climate where you live.
It isn’t all easy stuff to do though; nature has a way of making things complicated as some plants are particularly promiscuous. One of the reasons that brassicas have so many different variants and sub-species is because they cross-pollinate so readily. You can manage this by organising your seed growing group strategically.
Obviously, you don’t want your cabbages and broccoli going to seed. That is not what you are trying to achieve. You want to eat them well before this stage. So, if an allotment site, or perhaps even several allotment sites, within a defined area can organise themselves, it is possible to curb some of the problems with cross-pollination and cross-breeding. You could appoint people to grow limited crops specifically to collect seeds.
One of the more scary parts of all this seed breeding is what commercial seed companies and agribusinesses are doing. Over the last few years, the control of seed breeding and distribution has become ever more stringent. Seed companies have become licensed to produce individual seeds. Of course, there are some arguments for oversight and regulation.
There is the issue of disease and viruses spread through breeding. By breeding seeds on an ever more industrial scale, this kind of problem is magnified. With monocultures and intensive systems, problems can breed rapidly. Also, substantial business interests that have a lot at stake are very keen to have governments keep control of things.
It was only a few years ago that the EU was on the brink of bringing in laws that prohibited small seed breeding companies from keeping older, smaller seed varieties in their catalogues. If it is £1000 to register each seed variety, then some of the weaker sellers will drop off the list.
Perhaps there is an argument that poorer seeds should be taken out, but you then start to reduce the gene pool. As we know, with species of animals, the less the gene pool, and the more interbreeding, the more prone to disaster and extinction you become.
Even large food producers become threatened by a declining seed gene pool. Coleman’s Mustard supply their growers with the seeds needed to grow their basic ingredient. Over a period their yields had been reducing, so much so, that some farmers had given up growing the crop. Even the flavour was changing. English Mustard was in danger.
Scientists did some DNA research and found that the mustard being grown consisted of 5 various types of sub-species. Over the years some of the different strains were being literally sieved out of the mix, so the overall profile of the crop had changed.
Luckily, Colemans had been saving batches of their seeds over many years. Scientists looked back and went through the old samples, identified what was missing and bred up a new variety to be brought back into the mix. English Mustard was saved!
For more on this story click here.
In a more disturbing development, companies like Monsanto have been buying up smaller seed companies to plunder their stocks for commercial gain. This puts more and more control of our food supply into the hands of larger seed companies. Again, diversity is getting lost. Furthermore, Monsanto has often resorted to taking legal action against anyone who they see as using their seeds without their permission or paying their licensing fees.
There is a very interesting documentary about Canadian farmer Percy Schmeiser (David versus Monsanto) who used to save his own canola seed. His neighbour had signed up with Monsanto to grow their GM canola. The inevitable happened, and the farmer ended up with crossbred GM canola. If that wasn’t bad enough, Monsanto took the view that this farmer had ‘stolen’ their GM bred seed and started to pursue him through the courts trying to drive him out of business.
In countries such as India where farmers have signed up with large seed companies such as Monsanto, there have been disastrous consequences. Farmers have become trapped into licensing deals where they are contractually obliged to use particular varieties.
No matter what your opinions of GM or Monsanto, I don’t think that putting the very essence of life, the humble seed, under the control of large corporations is a good thing.
I firmly believe that allotment group perfectly illustrates what the Transition Movement is all about. The allotments are here at Greenslate Farm because the Billinge and Orrell Transition Group made the effort to get hold of this land. The Transition Movement is all about making local communities more resilient against the dangers of globalisation and our declining oil-based economy.
If groups like allotment societies develop seed saving systems for themselves, they will be making their locality more resilient in an increasingly dangerous world.
If you want to learn more about saving your own seed, I highly recommend this book by Sue Stickland.
[This post was based on a talk I did for Greenslate Community Farm’s allotment society in November 2017 – Neil Hickson]