The Seed Co-operative is a community owned seed company that is growing and selling organic and biodynamic open pollinated vegetable, herb and flower seed in the UK.
Launched in 2014, we are building on the great work of Stormy Hall Seeds, which for 20 years was the biggest organic vegetable seed producer in the UK on just 7 acres. With a small team of staff and volunteers, we run a small farm in Lincolnshire, which completed organic conversion in 2018 and provides a hub for a growing UK-wide network of seed producers.
As a Community Benefit Society, the capital backing is mainly provided through community shares, with more than 300 people now co-owners, and many more to come! Seed sales will mean that seed production will at least break-even and pay staff and overhead costs in the long-run, but just as only inherited farms can be viable in the current economic situation, the wider community is enabling us to ‘inherit’ this farm; a similar model to a community shop or community pub.
Our focus is on regenerating UK farm-based organic seed production and participatory plant breeding amongst small-scale growers to ensure the availability of appropriately-priced seed of the best quality that is suitable for UK growing conditions. Seed Co-operative now has a customer base of over 4,500 and deals with commercial growers and organic retailers, plus mail order and web sales to gardeners. In 2016 there were eight growers producing seed as part of the network, in 2017 this figure increased to 17, with more getting involved in 2018.
Why is this important?
9 of every 10 mouthfuls of food derives from seed, yet little vegetable seed is now produced in the UK. 80% of the organic open pollinated vegetable seed sold in the the UK is currently imported. Globally 75% of seed is sold by just 3 corporations, whose other interests lie in pesticides and fertiliser. Through the community ownership of a seed company, people have the opportunity to take a stake in their food future. This is about co-operation between people who eat food and people who grow food, but also between people and the natural world.
Why is this work relevant to the future of food in the UK and perhaps further afield? How might it influence the wider food industry longer term?
Evolution is an ongoing process. Our food system needs crops to evolve or the food system itself will be at risk. Without open pollinated seed the evolution of our food crops is in jeopardy. Choices being made about the shape of our food system are being driven by short-term economic considerations resulting in the domination of F1 hybrid varieties and the consequent loss of open pollinated varieties.
Our food system relies entirely on a functioning ecology; given a malfunctioning ecology we won’t eat. Within the natural world insurance is provided not by the money markets but by diversity. Natural resilience comes from the ability of species to adapt to changing conditions; that ability is inherently dependent on the genetic diversity within living organisms as much as having a diversity of species / varieties. Open pollinated seed, compared to F1 hybrid or GM seed, has oodles of genetic diversity and provides for a resilient food system rooted in natural processes.
Since 1900 the global availability of food crop varieties has reduced by more than 90%. Many of the remaining open pollinated varieties are in desperate need of restorative maintenance after decades of under investment whilst seed companies have concentrated on F1 hybrids. There are parallels between plant breeding and computer programming: open pollinated is in many ways equivalent to open source software; available to all as a shared resource. Seed companies’ commercial interests are protected by concentrating on F1 hybrids because seeds cannot be saved as they do not breed true-to-type, meaning growers have to go back every year to buy more seeds. Patents and other legal devices are also dominating the seed world, placing control of our food system in the hands of very few people. Our Seed Co-operative is about demonstrating that this process is reversible.
Our reaction to being a BBC Food and Farming Award 2017 finalist
We are delighted to have been given this chance to tell our story about the future of food. Food is not ‘man-made’ but produce of the natural world and it all starts with seed. We are bringing seed production back home and re-connecting farmers, growers, gardeners, chefs and ‘people who eat’ with the natural world, through co-operation. Diversity, health and democracy is what our seed is all about.
David Price, Managing Director, Seed Co-Operative