Take a step back and consider today's food system...
In the UK we have an abundance of choice largely controlled by just three seed corporations - Monsanto, Du Pont and Syngenta. Brightly lit, air-conditioned supermarkets present a vast range of blemish-free produce throughout all seasons. It’s easy to take food for granted.
Behind the scenes, farmers are being squeezed out as pressures to maximise efficiency create ever larger, more mechanised and intensive farms. Complex supply chains for food commodities criss-cross the planet, traded in financial centres at the whims of the global market. Legal changes have allowed the agri-business corporations to take ownership of and patent genetic plant material. In short, ownership of the food system is shifting to fewer and fewer people.
Nowhere is this decline more apparent than in the production of seed. Before the widespread mechanisation of agriculture following the second World War, it is was common practice for farmers and growers to save their own seed and buy new seed from local producers. But over time these smaller seed companies and their breeding lines have been bought up by large corporations. Excluded from the knowledge and skills of seed production, farmers and growers are left dependent on the agri-business industry.
Commercial seed production is now dominated F1 hybrids. Although F1s provide many short-term benefits, such as greater yield, increased vigour and uniformity of produce, these cannot be sustained from parent to offspring, meaning growers are dependent on buying new seed every year from seed companies.
There is another way. For generations, people across the globe have been inheriting a local food culture from their forebears in the form of resilient, naturally-adaptable organic food production. At the heart of this system are open pollinated seeds, which unlike F1s breed true-to-type, allowing farmers to save seed for the next year. Open pollinated seeds are the original ‘open source’ software of food - their genetic material does not belong to anyone.
F1 hybrid seed vs open pollinated seed— the science
Breeding of F1 hybrid seed is based on natural hybridization when two distinctly different varieties of the same species cross to produce a more vigorous offspring. F1 hybrid seed production is uses techniques that enforce prolonged in-breeding on two separate homogeneous breeding lines, which are then crossed to produce the F1 hybrid seeds. However, this in-breeding reduces genetic diversity. The initial benefits of the in-breeding process cannot be sustained from parent to offspring, meaning seed produced from F1 varieties will yield an ever weaker crop.
Open-pollinated seed breeds true, meaning that, after pollination by natural means – either an insect, bird, wind or human hands – with another representative of the same variety or by self-pollination, the offspring will be roughly identical to its parents. The “roughly” bit matters because this seed is not uniform. It closely resembles its parents, has their characteristics, but it also has its own genetic diversity, and that means adaptability and resilience to changing conditions.
This is a model that could find new life in a resilient farming culture. Smaller, mixed use organic farms no longer dependent on agri-business for seed, fertiliser and pesticide can become more resilient through self-sufficiency and diverse income streams. They are also proven to be more productive - 70% of the world’s population are fed by small farmers, despite them using just 25% of the world’s farmland.
Supporting self-reliance also returns control to local communities. Re-establishing local supply chains through box schemes and farmers markets helps to connect those producing food to those eating it - a vital pre-requisite for truly sustainable farming.
Jobs in farming can also become more attractive and rewarding. Current industrial farming practices have de-skilled many jobs to reduce wage bills, but mixed farms in an organic food system breed a wide range of skills and knowledge, making the work rewarding on many levels. The annual cycle means that no two weeks are the same. Without wishing to romanticise what has always been hard work, farming can be about teamwork and community - values that have been lost in some of today’s farming communities.
All of these elements are central to the concept of food sovereignty - the idea that those who produce, distribute and consume food should be at the heart of the food system, not the demands of markets and corporations. That’s the future we’re working towards.