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).
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%”.
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:
- Groupe Limagrain,
- Land O’ Lakes,
- KWS AG,
- 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. 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.
How to support the growing Seed Freedom Movement:
- Buy organic, open-pollinated seed from one of Ethical Consumer’s Best Buy seed companies.
- Choose vegetables to eat and grow for taste and provenance, rather than size and a uniform shape.
- Pressure your favourite seed company to source more open-pollinated seed and encourage them to display the open-pollinated seed logo on their packets.
- Sign the Declaration on Seed Freedom
- Turn your garden into a nectar- and pollen-rich zone for pollinating insects, supporting them in their important seed creation role.
- Seed bomb your neighbourhood and any un-loved land with wild flower seeds collected locally or bought from one of Ethical Consumer’s Best Buy seed companies.
- Learn how to save seed and join your local seed savers group or set up a local living seed library.
- Keep up to date on changes in seed legislation, and initiate/join a campaign or sign a petition where necessary.
- Avoid companies promoting F1 hybrids, GMOs and harmful pesticides over open-pollinated seed varieties and organic farming methods. And let them know why!
- Celebrate the seed and host a seed-related event, spreading awareness of the seed’s important role. Events can be publicised here.