We rely on seed for our survival...

Around 90% of our food originates from seed. But while there is an estimated 10,000-50,000 edible plant species on planet Earth, only 150 are currently cropped. What’s more, it’s estimated that these agricultural crops have lost three quarters of their genetic diversity through industrial farming since the 1900s. Not much for our bodies to work with.

Bee Pollinating FlowersOne of the primary causes of the collapse in diversity of our food is the commercialisation of F1 hybrid seeds. F1s are developed to boost beneficial plant characteristics, but they lack genetic diversity. Without this, they cannot maintain long-term plant health from generation to generation.

Notwithstanding the impact on our health and the wider biodiversity around us, this lack of diversity can be devastating for the food system. Take the humble banana, for example. The banana we see on the supermarket shelves is actually just one single variety of the fruit - the Cavendish. Almost the entire global banana supply is dependent on this one variety, which is now in danger of collapse because of a single disease. It has already happened before - the Gros Michel used to be banana number one, until it was wiped out by disease in the 1950s.

A resilient food system is sustainable for the long-term. It springs back to shape and recovers quickly from rapid changes to the environment - whether it’s a new strain of disease or the impacts of climate change. This natural resilience can only come from enhanced diversity, in as many forms as possible.

Open pollinated seed and organic farming systems offer a solution. They bring an adaptable genetic diversity to agriculture and help to restore biodiversity to the soil and wider environment, for the benefit of all.

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.

Plants gone to SeedUnfortunately, a lack of breeding and development work in recent decades has left a huge gap in the commercial seed market where new open pollinated varieties should be. That’s why we only grow and sell open pollinated seed which is genetically diverse, maintaining the natural ability of seeds to be resilient and adaptive.

We are also developing a plant breeding programme, using natural open pollination, to increase the diversity of vegetable varieties that are available. Our selection criteria focus on taste, texture, nutrition and keeping qualities, as well as suitability for growing in organic, agro-ecological farming systems in the UK.

Next: Read about Seed and Democracy...