Celebrating the humble seed
Corporate monopoly and reduced agricultural diversity appear to go hand in hand in the commercial seed industry. But how are suppliers of seed for your garden or allotment faring? Anna Clayton explores.
The persistent selecting and saving of seeds by growers since the dawn of agriculture, and pollination brought about by the wind and insects have led to an abundance and diversity of food crops and plants flourishing on the earth today.
Seed sovereignty, photo credit: Landworkers Alliance website
When exposed to the right conditions, seeds germinate and grow into plants that we eat, such as apples, wheat and lettuce. Plants, such as grasses and corn, feed cows and other animals that provide us with milk and meat. Without the humble seed, humans would struggle to survive.
2014 was a year for celebrating the seed and its often forgotten role in our lives. The UK’s Great Seed Festival raised awareness of the seed’s silent work by coordinating a number of seed swaps, talks, and seed saving workshops around the UK. In Europe, an International Solidarity Caravan for Seeds travelled through Greece, Italy and France. The caravan celebrated the ‘Pan-Hellenic Exchange of Local Seed Varieties’ and spread the mantra of an agriculture based on diversity, free from genetically modified organisms (GMOs).
Seed diversity under threat
2014’s plethora of seed celebrations were not without cause. They were reacting to a growing trend of industrialisation and corporate monopoly within the seed industry.
67% of the branded seed market is now controlled by ten companies, all of which have interests in biotechnology. These companies are, in order of dominance: Monsanto,
Land O’ Lakes,
Bayer Crop Science,
Monsanto accounts for more than 27% of the branded seed market alone.
An emphasis on uniformity, high yielding varieties and patentable traits, has resulted in F1 hybrids being favoured over open-pollinated varieties.
This has led the UN’s Food and Agricultural Organisation to estimate that 75% of agricultural diversity has been lost since the 1900s.2 Genetically modified seed threatens to continue this disheartening trend.
Suppliers of garden seeds
Information on the companies that supply seed to gardeners and allotment holders is hard to track down. This report has therefore endeavoured to cover the most widely available seed brands (those that can be bought from garden centres and high-street shops or online).
It has also included a number of organic seed companies recommended by the Ecologist, including Real Seeds, The Organic Gardening Catalogue, Tamar Organics, Laura’s Organics, Jekka’s Herb Farm, Seeds of Change, Edwin Tucker and Duchy Originals.
A lobby success?
Thanks to the tireless work of campaign organisations and farmers dedicated to seed diversity, in March 2014 MEPs rejected proposed changes to EU legislation on seeds and seed marketing that would have required all commercial seed to be registered on a single EU list. Due to the financial cost incurred through registering a seed, small UK seed companies would have struggled financially and been out-competed by large agribusinesses, resulting in seed production being controlled by a powerful few. This process has occurred in the US where, for example, Monsanto bought 200 independent seed companies over a 10 year period.
Although the EU’s proposed Plant Reproductive Material Law was rejected, there are still potential threats ahead.
Protecting seed freedom
Potential threats to seed diversity in the UK have sparked the creation of a number of new seed saving initiatives. These include The South West Seed Savers’ Cooperative, the international Seed Freedom movement, and numerous other seed-saving and open-pollination initiatives. The Seed Freedom movement is driven by a network of individuals and organisations committed to maintaining seed and plant biodiversity, and the cultural skills associated with seed saving and swapping.
1 ISIS Report, 22/10/2014, Beware the corporate takeover of seed under many guises
How the companies performed
As can be seen from a quick glance at the score table above, UK consumer seed companies provide very little information on how they operate. Few companies score well for their environmental reporting or supply chain management. This is due to little information being publicly available and companies not demonstrating explicitly environmental or socially progressive practices, for example, offering organic products only. This is also the case for wood-sourcing and cotton-sourcing policies, where companies have uncertified products on sale. Little information is also provided on the chemicals and methods used for treating seeds.
Policies on ‘industrialised’ seed
Although no company covered on the score table was linked to the production of genetically modified (GM) seed, few companies provided statements outlining their position on GM technology or how they ensure their supply chains remained GM free. Only The Real Seed Collection, Stormy Hall, Duchy Originals, Franchi Seeds, Garden Organic, Chase Organics and Thompson and Morgan provided positive GMO policies.
The Real Seed Collection and Stormy Hall Seeds were the only companies that provided statements opposing F1 hybrids, supplying open-pollinated seeds only. Stormy Hall stated that it “rejects the use of hybrids because we are convinced that they are not suitable for [sustainable] plant growing. It is also impossible for gardeners and farmers to save their own seeds from F1 hybrid varieties. We therefore retain and care for well-tried varieties in order to ensure their continued development and availability. These varieties have been maintained and multiplied on organically-managed land over many years and thus are well adapted to organic growing conditions”.
In addition to these two companies, Laura’s Organics’, Jekka’s Herbs’ and Landlife’s seed collections did not contain any F1 hybrids. Although Franchi seeds’ collection contained F1 hybrids, the company stated that 99.8% of its seed were open-pollinated traditional, heirloom or regional varieties, and that it merely supplied F1 hybrids to meet a small customer demand.
This argument was similarly used by Chase Organics who stated “it is clear that many people growing organically are not anti-hybrids and use them as a reliable way of producing food. If they require, for instance, specific disease or weather resistance, or a plant that will grow quickly to avoid pest attacks, then an F1 hybrid variety may be the best way to achieve this, and for this reason we offer an informed choice”.
Where UK seed companies source their seed from is a seemingly seedy matter. Out of the 28 brands covered in this report, only seven provided any meaningful information on their seed sources: Real Seeds, Franchi Seeds, Kings Seeds, Landlife, Jekka’s Herbs, Stormy Hall Seeds and Seeds of Change. Those that did provide information about seed sources appeared to be some of the few companies supplying seed for gardens and allotments that actually grow some of their own seed!
According to Paolo Arrigo of Franchi Seeds:
“Before World War Two, in the UK there were more than 40 hobby seed companies that produced their own seeds for their own packets, now there are none left with the exception of Kings that produce roughly 15% of their own seeds and some very small cottage companies like Real Seeds and Garlic Farm Ltd. We are the only hobby seed company selling through garden centres that produces its own seeds for its own packets, almost 80%”.
Kings Seeds grows 16-20% of their seed and maintains its own mother seed stock, which is sent abroad for bulking up, helping to keep costs down.1 Suffolk Herbs, King Seeds’ sister company, offers a wide range of organic seed, as does the Duchy Originals organic seed collection, of which Thompson & Morgan is the sole retailer.
Thompson and Morgan sell a number of peat products, as do Edwin Tucker & Sons. For more information on the issues associated with peat see Peat-free Compost guide.
Edwin Tucker & Sons and Mr Fothergill’s sell a number of pesticides, including Provado Ultimate Bug Killer, which contains the neonicotinoid, thiacloprid. The Soil Association advises consumers to avoid this product due to its impact on bee populations. Both companies also sell a number of animal products such as Blood, Fish and Bone, filled white bones and bone meal.
The Real Seed Collection is a not-for-profit company dedicated to the production of open-pollinated seed varieties and education about home seed-saving. The company sends out free seed saving instructions with every packet of seed so that, in theory, customers should have to purchase seed only once. The Real Seed Catalogue has sent 101,800 sets of seed-saving instructions to its customers to date. The company actively campaigns against F1 seeds and was the only company in this report to have signed the Safe Seed Pledge, a pledge opposing the use of GM seed.2
Sutton Seeds has recently undergone a management buyout from Cooperative Limagrain, the fourth largest seed company in the world, and is now an independent company in its own right. Suttons Consumer Products own the Suttons and Dobies of Devon seed brands, and also retails the James Wong seed range.
Seeds of Change is owned by the chocolate giant Mars Inc. The company stated that it did “not source any seed from Monsanto”. Although Seeds of Change provide a GMO-free statement on its website, Mars Inc.’s GMO policy is more ambiguous and contains no commitment to excluding GMOs from its supply chain. It merely states that it complies with relevant laws and consumer preferences to determine which ingredients it uses.
All of Jekka’s Herb seeds come from an award-winning herbetum in Alveston, UK. Although the products are not certified organic, the herbetum is managed using organic principles.
Stormy Hall Seeds is a not-for profit organic company, producing Demeter and organic-certified seed, which is sourced from Botton Village in North Yorkshire, and a network of Biodynamic farms across the UK and Europe. Stormy Hall Seeds has recently started co-developing a new initiative, The Seed Co-operative, with the Biodynamic Association and the Open Pollinated Seed Initiative. The Seed Co-operative hopes to breed new varieties of open-pollinated plants suitable for sustainable farming practice and UK conditions, in addition to providing education to professional growers, home gardeners and the general public.
Stormy Hall Seeds is owned by the Camphill Village Trust – a charity which runs the volunteer-based community village of Botton in North Yorkshire. There has been some controversy surrounding the reconstruction of the Trust.
Landlife is an environmental charity based at the National Wildflower Centre in Merseyside, North West England, and offers a number of wild flower mixes of British origin through its trading arm, Landlife Wildflowers.
The Organic Gardening Catalogue is a joint project of Garden Organic and Chase Organics (a subsidiary of the Ian Allan Group). Surprisingly, the catalogue contains a number of non-organic and F1 seeds despite being endorsed by Garden Organic – an organisation promoting organic agriculture and seed saving. When questioned about this, Chase Organic stated “Some cultivars and varieties are simply not available as organic seed and our aim is to supply a complete range for our customers to choose from. [Our non-organic seeds] are not treated with any chemical processes or dressings after harvest”.
The Ian Allan Group has operations in the aviation and automobile industries, both of which are considered to have a high climate impact factor.
Franchi Seeds 1783 is the oldest family run seed company in the world. It claims to be the only hobby seed company selling through garden centres that produces its own seeds (almost 80%). It is also the only Vegetarian Society approved UK seed company. Franchi is passionate about seed provenance and made history this year as the first seed company in the history of Slow Food to be invited to take a stand at their show ‘Salone del Gusto’. According to Franchi, not many British seed companies would qualify to take a stand at Salone due to the show requiring companies to produce their own seed or produce and exhibit regional seed varieties only.
This product guide is part of a Special Report on Gardening. See what's in the rest of the report.