Seeds

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 28 seed brands.

We also look at organic certified seeds, genetic modification, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Stormy Hall Seeds and give our recommended buys. 

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

What to buy

What to look for when buying seeds:

  • Are they certified organic? Organic seeds will have been produced without chemical pesticides or fertilisers and also won't be GM. Its even better to choose a company that is 100% organic. 

  • Are they supporting a movement for better seeds? You can purchase your seeds from a number of non-profits working to increase biodiversity, encourage seed saving and resist a corporate monopoly on seeds. 

Best Buys

Our best buys are brands from wholly organic companies:

Recommended buys

We also recommend Real Seeds, Jekka's Herbs and Franchi Seeds which all sell organic certified seeds or seeds raised without the use of agricultural chemicals. Landlife Wildflower also scored very highly although doesn't sell organic. 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying seeds:

  • Are they F1 hybrids? F1 hybrid seeds have led to a serious reduction in plant diversity and companies which sold them were marked down. Try to choose open pollinated varieties. 

  • Do you know where they were sourced? There seemed to be some lack of transparency by many companies about where their seeds were sourced - this is worrying considering that Monsanto accounts for more than 27% of the branded seed market alone.

Companies to avoid

We would recommend avoiding the following brands because they sell F1 Hybrids as well as scoring poorly overall. 

  • Seeds of Change
  • Tuckers Seeds
  • Duchy Original Seeds

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20)

Stormy Hall Seeds [O]

Company Profile: Stormy Hall Seeds
16

Laura's Organics [O]

Company Profile: Laura's Organics Ltd
15.5

Real Seeds

Company Profile: The Real Seed Collection Ltd
15

Tamar Organics seeds [O]

Company Profile: Tamar Organics
15

Landlife Wildflowers

Company Profile: LANDLIFE WILDFLOWERS LIMITED
14.5

Jekka's Herb Farm

Company Profile: Jekka's Herb Farm
14

Franchi organic seed [O]

Company Profile: Seeds of Italy Ltd
13.5

Franchi seed

Company Profile: Seeds of Italy Ltd
12.5

Suffolk Herbs organic seed [O]

Company Profile: EW King & Co Ltd
12

Chiltern Seeds

Company Profile: Chiltern Seeds Limited
11.5

Dobies of Devon organic seeds [O]

Company Profile: Suttons Consumer Products Limited
11.5

Kings Seeds organic seed [O]

Company Profile: EW King & Co Ltd
11.5

Mammoth seeds

Company Profile: W ROBINSON & SON (SEEDS & PLANTS) LTD
11.5

Nickys Nursery

Company Profile: NICKYS NURSERY LTD
11.5

Plants of Distinction

Company Profile: Plants Of Distinction
11.5

Simpson's seeds

Company Profile: SIMPSONS SEEDS LTD
11.5

Suttons organic seeds [O]

Company Profile: Suttons Consumer Products Limited
11.5

Chase Organics organic seed [O]

Company Profile: Chase Organics (Great Britain) Limited
11

Dobies of Devon

Company Profile: Suttons Consumer Products Limited
11

James Wong's seeds

Company Profile: Suttons Consumer Products Limited
11

Kings F1 Seeds

Company Profile: EW King & Co Ltd
11

Suffolk Herbs

Company Profile: EW King & Co Ltd
11

Suttons Seeds

Company Profile: Suttons Consumer Products Limited
11

Organic Garden Catalogue seeds [O]

Company Profile: Organic Gardening Catalogue Limited
10.5

Thompson & Morgan

Company Profile: Thompson & Morgan Group Holding Limited
10.5

Chase Organics

Company Profile: Chase Organics (Great Britain) Limited
10

DT Brown seeds [O]

Company Profile: D T Brown and Company
10

Johnson's organic seeds [O]

Company Profile: Mr. Fothergill's Seeds Limited
10

Mr Fothergill's organic seeds [O]

Company Profile: Mr. Fothergill's Seeds Limited
10

Organic Garden Catalogue seeds

Company Profile: Organic Gardening Catalogue Limited
10

DT Brown seeds

Company Profile: D T Brown and Company
9.5

Johnson's

Company Profile: Mr. Fothergill's Seeds Limited
9.5

Marshalls seeds

Company Profile: S E Marshalls & Company Limited
9.5

Mr Fothergill's

Company Profile: Mr. Fothergill's Seeds Limited
9.5

Tuckers seeds [O]

Company Profile: Edwin Tucker & Sons Ltd
9.5

Unwins

Company Profile: Unwins Seeds Ltd
9.5

Duchy Originals seeds [O]

Company Profile: Waitrose Limited
9

Tuckers seeds

Company Profile: Edwin Tucker & Sons Ltd
8.5

Seeds of Change seeds [O]

Company Profile: Seeds of Change
4

What is most important to you?

Animals
Environment
People
Politics
Product sustainability

Our Analysis

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.

image: hands holding seeds

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”.

Sourcing seed

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:

  • Monsanto, 
  • DuPont, 
  • Syngenta, 
  • Groupe Limagrain, 
  • Land O’ Lakes, 
  • KWS AG, 
  • Bayer Crop Science, 
  • Sakata, 
  • DLF-Trifolium
  • Takii.

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.

Seed Sharing

Ashley Wheeler from the Landworkers’ Alliance explains how farmers and growers are uniting to reclaim the lost skill of seed saving

For thousands of years seed saving was common practice for farmers and growers, as fundamental as maintaining soil fertility and crop husbandry. It was the norm for farmers to select the plants most suited to their land and collect the open-pollinated seed from the best plants.

This selected seed adapts to the climate and soil type of that land, known as a landrace. This leads to a hugely diverse living bank of seeds that constantly adapts to changes and results in resilient plants that have an ability to tolerate stress caused by environmental pressures.

Unfortunately, since the uptake of modern F1 hybrid seed, whose offspring do not produce traits true to the parent, and cannot therefore be saved to reproduce reliable crops, farmers’ landraces have dwindled. F1 seeds produce vigorous, uniform crops, but breeding from them leads to offspring with lack of vigour and lower yields.

This commercial advantage was taken on board by the fertiliser companies who began breeding seeds and adding them to their catalogues.

The first Plant Patent Act came about in 1930 in the U.S. and led to large agricultural companies, who bred hybrids (along with manufacturing chemical fertilisers and pesticides) being given some legal protection for ‘their’ seeds.

Seed varieties and plants eventually became intellectual property. The result: 67% of the world’s proprietary seed (i.e. seed with intellectual property rights) is owned by 10 companies. 

These companies pushed the hybrid vigour of these seeds and farmers became reliant on them just as they had become reliant on the fertilisers and pesticides that these same companies were manufacturing. The Green Revolution saw farmers become dependent on this modern way of farming and they lost the more traditional skills of rotation and seed saving.

It is estimated that since the 1900’s around 75% of plant genetic diversity has been lost due to farmers relying so heavily on hybrid seed. 

Reclaiming the seeds

As farmers, growers and a nation of amateur gardeners, we must reinvigorate the skill of seed saving and take back control of our seeds and ultimately, our food system. This is one of the first steps of food sovereignty: “the right of peoples to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced through ecologically sound and sustainable methods; and their right to define their own food and agriculture systems”. 

By continuing to save and breed seed varieties that are locally adaptable we can begin to reverse this loss of biodiversity and build up a constantly evolving living seed bank. It is of paramount importance that we work to bring back life to the skill of seed saving and set up networks amongst farmers and growers to start breeding more open-pollinated seed varieties, which can be exchanged amongst local groups and used commercially.

The South West Seed Savers’ Cooperative (SWSSC)

In our belief that farmers should have the right to saving, sowing and exchanging their own seeds, the Landworkers’ Alliance and the Soil Association came together in October 2014 to host Save Our Seeds, a two day event held at Embercombe in Devon. It gave farmers and growers an insight into the history of seed saving, current legislation and a practical workshop to show how simple it is and how little is required to save seed.

This event saw the launch of the South West Seed Savers’ Cooperative, a seed saving network amongst growers and farmers in the South West of England. The basic idea of the SWSSC is that each member saves open-pollinated seeds, even if it is just from one variety of crop. We will gather in the autumn to share our seeds, so that each member comes away with many more varieties and can become less reliant on hybrid seeds bought from seed companies. The members will gradually be breeding varieties that are locally adapted and so will produce more resilient crops with a greater genetic diversity than if they were to use hybrid seeds.

The SWSSC will continue to host workshops and events to help members relearn the skill of seed saving. Practical advice and guidance will be given to members, and farm visits will take place to learn the technicalities of seed saving. The intention is to have local groups all over the UK.

If you are a grower or farmer in the South West of England and wish to be a part of the South West Seed Savers’ Cooperative please contact ashley@trillfarm.co.uk.

UK Seed Saving Initiatives

Based at Willow Hall Farm in Essex, the Biodynamic Association have joined forces with Stormy Hall Seeds and the Open Pollinated Seed Initiative to produce UK-raised seed that is suitable for sustainable agricultural practices, and provide education on seed saving.
Website: s.coop/1v6fv 
Contact: Peter Brown peterbrown[@]biodynamic.org.uk or 01453 759501

DVSS is a not-for-profit organisation, based in Machynlleth, mid-Wales, and is run primarily by
volunteers. DVSS coordinates the Apple Mach Register and Welsh Vegetable Project and appears to organise a ‘Seedy Sunday’ event every March, amongst other seasonal swapping events.
Website: www.dyfivalleyseedsavers.org.uk
Contact: info[@]dyfivalleyseedsavers.org.uk

The HSL is based in Coventry and guards approximately 800 open-pollinated varieties. Seed is collected by the Garden Organic team in addition to ‘Seed Guardians’ – dedicated HSL members.
Website: www.gardenorganic.org.uk
Contact: enquiry[@]gardenorganic.org.uk or 024 7630 3517

The ISSA, based in Capparoe, Scarriff, was founded in 1991 and now protects over 600 varieties of rare fruit and vegetables in its seed bank. It passes seed on to members so that they can learn to save them and grow them, protecting Ireland’s agricultural diversity.
Website: www.irishseedsavers.ie 
Contact: info[@]irishseedsavers.ie or 061 921856 / 921866

Living seed bank based in Lancaster Library (from Spring 2015).
Website: www.incredible-ediblelancaster.org.uk
Contact: dennis_toul[@]yahoo.gr

The LFSB is a living seed bank based in London. It sources its seed from a network of organic growers throughout London. The group runs seed saving workshops and events throughout the year. 
Website: londonfreedomseedbank.wordpress.com/about 
Contact: freedomseedbank[@]gmail.com

OPSI was established in England in 2010 by Peter Brinch. It aims to ‘raise awareness and promote the practise of using and investing in openpollinated seeds throughout the world.
The OPSI’s website has vast amounts of useful information and resources.
Website: www.open-pollinated-seeds.org.uk
Contact: Peter Brinch phdbrinch@gmail.com or 01342 822935

Seedy Sunday is the UK’s biggest community seed swap which takes place in Brighton and Hove every February. It is also a campaign which aims to protect biodiversity and ‘protest against the
increasing control of the seed supply by a handful of large companies’.
Website: www.seedysunday.org
Contact: seeds[@]seedysunday.org.uk

New initiative launched in October 2014 in the South West of England that hopes to train members (farmers and growers) to save and share a range of seed varieties that are adapted to local environmental conditions.
Website: landworkersalliance.org.uk/southwest-seed-savers-cooperative
Contact: ashely@trillfarm.co.uk

c/o the Women’s Environmental Network, 20 Club Row, Ground Floor, London, E2 7EY
Website: s.coop/1v6fx
Contact: info[@]wen.org.uk or 020 7481 9004

Company Profile

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

Want to know more?

If you want to find out detailed information about a company and more about its ethical rating, then click on a brand name in the Score table. 

This information is reserved for subscribers only. Don't miss out, become a subscriber today.

Start your 30 day trial today!

Ethics made easy - comprehensive, simple to use, transparent and reliable ethical rankings. Subscribe today for a wealth of data at your fingertips.

We will take payment when you order, but you can cancel by phone or email within 30 days for a full no-questions-asked refund!

Start your 30 day trial today!