In May we had a visit from Laura Stratford who works with the Lincolnshire Food Partnership. We are very grateful to Laura and the Lincolnshire Food Partnership for permission to re-use the resultant blog in full.
Why does seed sovereignty matter?
Seed sovereignty is about growers being able to produce and have control of their seeds - by saving seed from the crops they grow, selecting the strongest and most suitable seeds for breeding, and exchanging seeds freely with others. Sounds simple, right?
At the moment, almost all commercial seeds are F1 hybrids. The seeds that these plants produce are either sterile or the seed saved from them can be expected to produce poor crops - growers can’t save the seed to sow the following year, and are reliant on the seed companies for future seed.
So next year’s crops are in the hands of surprisingly few large commercial seed companies; there are 3 global seed (and chemical) corporations supplying 75-90% of the worlds seed.
There’s more. As well as increasing our dependence on big seed companies for our food, their use of F1 hybrid, GM and patented seeds also reduce diversity - both the number of varieties available to us, and genetic diversity among individual seeds within each variety.
This matters a lot. The lack of crop diversity poses a serious threat to the resilience of our food system.
Now, more than ever, plants need to adapt to changing weather patterns and more extreme weather events, new pests and diseases, as well as tolerating lower water and energy inputs.
To realise seed sovereignty, we need to have access to diverse, open pollinated seeds that are not patented, genetically modified, owned or controlled. That’s where the Seed Co-operative comes in.
Democracy. Diversity. Health.
The Seed Co-operative is not just about highlighting problems - it is about realising solutions, and creating opportunities for a shared response.
The Seed Co-op is on a mission to “sow the seeds of a healthy and resilient organic food system that promotes diversity, democracy and a closer relationship with our food, and those who grow it.”
They grow, process and sell open pollinated seed varieties - that can be pollinated by wind/insects/humans to produce viable seeds, carrying wide genetic diversity. They are also well adapted to organic growing systems, which improve the soil, require less water and energy, and support biodiversity.
And there is an explosion in demand for organic food, and organic seeds.
The Price of Seeds and the Value of Everything
Just like our food, seeds are still cheap relative to the cost of production. Even with the increasing popularity of organic - both the increase in demand from organic farmers trying as they supply increasing numbers of customers, and on top of that the rise in home growing - prices are still too low for decent margins for organic seed producers; it’s hard to pay staff properly and there is a reliance on volunteers. We need to be willing to pay more for open pollinated seeds and the food grown from them.
David is quick to point out that food poverty results from inaction on poverty by policy makers and has nothing to do with food production…. Only a few pence out of every pound spent on UK supermarket food actually gets back to farmers!
Brexit is also generating uncertainty. Each country in the EU has a catalogue of vegetables that are maintained in that country, and the "EU common catalogue" is an amalgamation of all of them. Each variety has a registered grower who is responsible for maintaining the quality of the seed.
Changes brought in by the UK government have caused complications. In the EU any variety on the common catalogue can be sold throughout the EU. Now only the varieties on the UK list can be sold in the UK, diminishing the diversity available.
Very little organic vegetable plant breeding has been undertaken in the UK for decades, but many varieties have been selected and bred in the EU using organic methods specifically for organic production.
Will it be possible to sell these varieties in the UK? Would anyone be able to register them in the UK if they are maintained in another country? That is yet to be seen.
It will potentially cost hundreds of pounds to add a seed variety to the UK list. We are yet to see how this situation will pan out, but the uncertainty creates anxiety and difficult decisions for small seed producers, on top of the collapse in seed varieties available in the UK.
There are incredibly few UK producers of organic, open source (unpatented or otherwise “owned”) vegetable seeds. Those that exist are very small scale. Even before Brexit and the pandemic, the UK was not able to keep pace with demand, and the situation is further exacerbated by the above.
Ways to support seed sovereigntyLearn
There is lots of information about seed sovereignty online, both how to save seeds at home - for example Real Seeds and Garden Organic - and how to support the movement for food sovereignty. One of the up-sides of the pandemic is the increase in webinars and online events and opportunities to learn and connect. Follow these national organisations: CSA Network UK, the Seed Sovereignty Programme run by the Gaia Foundation, the Landworkers’ Alliance, and the Organic Growers Alliance
The future of seed is local. Grow the food that thrives in your region, save the seed, and then share it with others, building resilient seed communities. You might like to join an organisation like Lincolnshire Organic Gardeners Organisation (LOGO) - who are organisers of Seed Swap events, as well as a wonderful network of expertise.
Ways to support the Seed Co-operativeInvest
Become a member of the Seed Co-op. You can buy shares in the co-op for £1 each. You have to purchase a minimum of 100 shares, and a maximum of 100 000. You won’t get interest or dividends - profits are all returned to the development of seed production, and you can’t trade them on the stock market. But this is one of the most genuine investments in our children’s future that I can think of.
(Find out more and apply to become a member here)
If you can offer a regular time commitment, access to the farm in Gosberton and a willingness to learn, you would be welcomed as a volunteer on the site. There is also need for pro bono roles on the board, they are currently recruiting for a Marketing & Communications Director and a Finance Director.
Normally there are three open days a year, and I would highly recommend that you go and visit them to find out more about their amazing and vitally important work. It is incredibly exciting to have this project right here on our doorsteps in Lincolnshire!
Unfortunately, due to pandemic uncertainties, there are currently no open days scheduled for this year (except for members - see above), so in the meantime, here is a quick tour, on a windswept day in May!
Farm design for the future
The whole site is organic and biodynamic - designed to be regenerative and resilient, carbon storing and sequestering, supporting health and biodiversity, and requiring low energy inputs.
The water supply for the farm is this reservoir, which is on the site. It keeps the water footprint of the whole operation incredibly low, with a clean water supply, free from the chemical drain off from nearby non-organic farms. That’s on top of the wildlife benefits.
Since buying the site in 2016, over 3500 trees have been planted, including alder and hazel, most of them around the border of the site to provide a windbreak, as well as for their multitude of benefits - wildlife, carbon sequestration, mitigation of both hot temperatures and flooding, not to mention their beauty!
I visit on a windy, rainy day, and while this makes the conditions in the glasshouses absolutely idyllic for working, the fens are a wild and windswept landscape! If you are in any doubt of the importance of wind protection, take a look at these spinach plants, grown in the middle of the field.
...compared to these spinach plants - the same variety, sown at the same time, but benefitting from the sheltered microclimate provided by a tall hedge at the edge of the field.
There are plans to plant more trees, including agroforestry into the design - combining trees with the crop growing spaces, increasing crop and soil protection, and biodiversity.
Regenerating the Soil
Back in 2016, the soil was badly depleted by previous high intensity farming methods - there was hardly a worm to be found! So Kate and David set about rebuilding fertility in the soil, using green manures, including deep-rooting chicory, clovers and cocksfoot, and also a small flock of sheep.
Once the soil fertility and structure is re-established sufficiently to support food growing without artificial fertilisers, the outdoor growing spaces will be managed in 7-year rotation.
Green manures are also used within the glasshouses - this gorgeous purple flower, phacelia, has a design purpose beyond its beauty, of soil regeneration. The bees also love it!
Re-used, re-claimed, resourceful
Resourcefulness and minimising waste is in the DNA of the Seed Coop! Waste root vegetables are fed to the sheep. Reclaimed builders fencing comes in useful, from growing structures for peas, to suspended hangers for seed drying.
Pictured, is winter purslane, the first seed crop of the year, shedding its seeds through the filter of netting. It will soon be followed by turnips. Have you ever seen a mature turnip plant? They are pretty spectacular - my eyes were on stalks when I saw them!
Rotation PlanningThe work of the Seed Co-op includes growing outdoors and under glass, and for some crops such as carrots and celeriac, both. The planning of the growing calendar is complex, due to considerations of cross pollination.
For example, courgettes (insect pollinated) are growing in the glass house, so that the first fruit are pollinated before any outdoor courgettes (in neighbouring gardens) are flowering. This way they don’t cross pollinate with each other, but the early fruit need labeling and all later fruit removed so that only seed from the earliest fruit are saved.
Just one variety of carrots can be harvested on the site each year, so that they aren’t at risk of cross pollinating. They are sown outdoors, roots are lifted and selected, overwintered indoors, and then planted out in the glasshouse, so that they flower and set seed undercover where rain can’t spoil the seed-head. Any seed from flowers coming later in the season won’t be retained in case they have crossed with the wild carrot.
Crops that are self pollinated, such as lettuces, can be isolated by distance.
Maintaining Seed Quality
Reproducing open source seed involves both multiplying the seed and selecting the best seed - the Seed Co-op pride themselves on well maintained seed quality. They are the registered maintainers of numerous varieties, including Autumn King carrots, James Scarlet Intermediate carrot, Blue Lake climbing french beans, and a summer Savoy cabbage called Rearguard Ormskirk,
However they do not and cannot grow all of the seeds that they sell: some are supplied by carefully selected and registered organic or biodynamic farmers, smallholders and market gardeners across the UK or abroad. They are very careful about the provenance of their seeds, which is explicitly labelled in their seed catalogue.
“Even people who know about seed sovereignty don’t realise how little is grown in the UK,” David tells me. “In organic systems we're working with natural processes, but changes in the environment make it even more challenging. Harvests fail, summers are increasingly hot and dry, hailstorms can completely smash a crop.”
A Healthy Food System
I ask David about where this fits into the wider challenges in the food system, such as food poverty.
“The problem with food poverty is nothing to do with food production; it is a problem of inequality - it’s a political issue,” David tells me. “Another big problem is access to land, and making small farms viable in a system that sidelines them.”
In most of Europe farms under a certain size gain subsidies, in the UK it is the other way round - it has always been a UK decision to exclude small farmers, and that is set to continue with the new post-Brexit support systems.
Also, entitlements to subsidies are not only attached to land - they're tradable. So the Seed Co-op would have to buy entitlements to the system of farm subsidies, even though it is over 10 hectares in size.
David and Kate are modest, practical, and very busy getting on with the job, very ably supported by the hardworking team of staff and directors. But I feel I cannot overstate the importance and urgency of the work that the Seed Co-op is doing, and how very much I want you - us - to get involved at whatever level we can.