For the Liberation of Seeds and Humus

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For the Liberation of Seeds and Humus

That is the position in Europe, and in almost every detail it was foreseen by Lawrence D. Hills. This remarkable man founded the Henry Doubleday Research Association to research scientifically the basis of organic growing. His aim was always to take the magic out of the phrase ‘all muck and magic,’ so often used by conventional intensive farmers to denigrate their organic counterparts. In the mid 1960s, shortly after the UPOV convention was agreed and given expression in the UK with the Plant Varieties and Seeds Act 1964, Hills began to understand its implications. If plant breeders rights offer extra profits, and if they are only available on new varieties, seed companies will abandon the old favourites in favour of new varieties that are eligible for PBR. If the cost of registration is fixed, a single variety that can be sold throughout the world will be more attractive than a hundred locally adapted varieties. And if, peculiarly to Europe, it becomes illegal to sell seeds of unregistered varieties, no matter how popular they might be, those varieties will simply vanish.

Hills launched a campaign with several aims. He wanted the government to create and fund a national vegetable gene bank. This it was very reluctant to do, until shamed into it by a massive contribution from Oxfam, a charity best known for tackling third-world hunger. Although it has had its ups and downs, not least in the security of its funding, the National Vegetable Gene Bank at Wellesbourne in Warwickshire is now recognised around the world as one of the most effective repositories of vegetable seeds.

A gene bank, however, was not enough. It would act as a safe deposit system for the plant breeding industry, keeping varieties and their cargo of characteristics until needed to improve the crops. But it would not be able to supply growers who simply wanted to enjoy those varieties, rather than breed from them. So in parallel with the gene bank, Hills established a seed library at the HDRA. Recognising that the law expressly forbade him to sell these seeds (in fact in the early days he was advised that he could not even suggest a fixed donation per variety) Hills simply gave them away to members of the HDRA. It was a library to the extent that people who grew the seeds were intended to return fresh supplies to the HDRA, which some of them did diligently. But the HDRA has many other concerns besides genetic resources, and it is fair to say that 15 years after it started, the seed library was somewhat moribund. This was by no means a deliberate policy, simply the result of having much else to do, but in the end it meant that the seed library itself was suffering from genetic erosion of its own.

Five years on, the Heritage Seed Library of the HDRA had become a thriving enterprise with about 5000 members. The collection numbered more than 700 different varieties, each of which was grown out as necessary. A cadre of Seed Guardians helped by taking responsibility for other varieties, bulking up the seed so that it can be distributed to other members. Each year a seed catalogue listed more than 100 varieties, from which members could request some that they would like to try. The offerings changed each year, to encourage people to try something different and to save the seeds of the varieties they like. And in 1995 the Library achieved one of its important goals, establishing a potato collection and a system for producing extremely high-quality minitubers. The authorities are well aware of the Heritage Seed Library and how it works. Strictly speaking, what it does may be illegal, especially if the library were to suggest that there is any automatic entitlement to a specified number of varieties, or indicated a set “handling fee” per variety. In future, if things get tighter, it may need to call for massive civil disobedience, but at the moment the Heritage Seed Library is achieving the aim set for it, of enabling conservation through utilisation.

A change is gonna come? Along the way, and since parting company from the Heritage Seed Library, I have tried to campaign for change, to make the library unnecessary. In some cases we have been successful. In re-writing the laws for the single European market, the bureaucrats initially tried to require that every single ornamental plant sold would bear an official plant passport testifying to its origins and state of health. That would imperil the tens of thousands of small nurseries on which Britain’s gardening reputation depends. It would also have made it impossible for fund-raising events to sell cuttings of the most innocuous flowers. By raising the spectre of the Pelargonium Police patrolling every church f?te in search of illegals without their passports the HDRA helped to get an exemption for small, local nurseries and charity sales. Likewise, at one point the legislation proposed allowing tourists to bring plants in from the countries bordering the European Union, but not from those further afield, even though neighbours might have poorer plant health status than distant countries. Now tourists are allowed to bring in five packets of seeds, or bulbs, or other propagating material, from wherever they like.

The current battle is to establish an alternative registration system for small-scale growers and to prevent the further extension of the European Union’s powers over plants. On the former, we do not seem to be getting anywhere yet, although the simple business of campaigning slowly changes attitudes and perceptions. On the latter, the sheer lack of practical experience of the people dealing with these issues sometimes amazes me. One example: in the draft directives for regulating the marketing of seed, the bureaucrats proposed a special exemption from the labelling requirements for small quantities of seed. They defined small as less than 2 kg. But they did not distinguish between 2 kg of lettuce seed and 2 kg of seed potatoes, even though the former is enough to plant most of southern England while the latter will barely plant a decent row of potatoes in a garden.

Another wheeze is to extend the directives to cover ‘use,’ although nobody in the responsible department seems to know how this will be policed. I have asked, for example, what happens if I sell the fruit of an unregistered tomato (it is still legal to grow unregistered varieties, if you can get the seeds) to someone who then extracts the seeds from the tomato and uses them to grow more tomatoes. Have I sold the tomato, or the seeds? And how is anyone supposed to govern the uses their products are put to after they have been sold and title transferred to the purchaser? The same applies to straw sold for thatching; what if it contains seeds that are used to grow a crop? And what about dried peas and beans sold for eating; who is liable if the purchaser wickedly decides to plant them for a crop? The UK’s negotiators in Brussels have told me that none of the member states are in favour of this “use” business, but at the moment it remains resolutely a part of the draft directives. What worries me is that it may be part of the final package of measures too. Why bother? Why are we so concerned about the conservation of genetic resources, to the extent that we are willing to find ways to skirt around the law? There are many reasons, and a handbook for seed savers is not the place for a detailed discussion of the value of crop biodiversity. On the other hand, without some sort of motivating passion the exercise becomes sterile.

There are, really, four reasons why the loss of biodiversity is important: food security, environmental safety, public health, and consumer choice. All are equally important.

Food security has always depended on genetic diversity. If all the plants in a field are identical, and a pest or disease evolves to take advantage of them, then it is a simple matter for it to attack all the other plants. The result is a catastrophic crop failure. The first of these that we know about was the Irish Potato Famine, which began in 1845. At that time all the potatoes growing in Europe were descended from just two introductions of potatoes from the Andes. Late blight, the fungus behind the famine, is a native of Mexico, to which Andean potatoes have never been exposed and to which they have no resistance. When the blight arrived in Europe it went through all the potato fields with a speed and a virulence that can scarcely be imagined. Everywhere the potato crop failed, but the consequences were so much worse in Ireland because of the political system there. At least a million people died, and another million or more emigrated,. changing the course of world history forever. Mexican farmers plant many varieties — perhaps twenty or thirty in a single field. Although it is impossible to predict the potato variety that will succumb to whichever strain of blight is most prevalent that year, the farmer is assured of some harvest. Rather than maximize production, the stated goal of so much intensive agriculture, Mexican subsistence farmers, like subsistence farmers everywhere, want to minimise risk, and diversity is a key component of their strategy.

Salvation lies in expanding the genetic basis of the crop. It may involve planting a mixture of varieties, it may involve bringing in specific resistance genes from old landraces or wild relatives of the crop, but in every case the solution involves more, not less, diversity. Environmental safety is compromised by the use of many modern varieties. These are often touted as ‘high-yielding varieties’. In fact they are better thought of as ‘high-response varieties’. They require the use of synthetic fertilisers and irrigation, which may not be an option for poorer farmers. And to combat the potential epidemics of disease caused by genetic uniformity they need large amounts of pesticides (in the widest sense). Potatoes again provide a classic example. There is still no cure for blight, so intensive growers spray with fungicides according to the calender, not according to need.
Public health is threatened by the use of the chemicals modern varieties demand, and by the system that encourages their use. Again, this is not the place for a full discussion of these facets of food production, but it is obvious that even if the final consumers are safe (a proposition I personally do not necessarily believe) the workers who have to apply those chemicals may not be.

Consumer choice may be considered a luxury by some, but it is important for all that. Speaking personally, I do not mind if the supermarkets wish to stock their produce counters with uniform, tasteless “products”. One of the reasons I garden and grow my own food is precisely so that I can have something other than that. But I do object to the fact that it is illegal for me to buy the seeds of some of the varieties I would like to grow. I can see absolutely no reason why all growers in Europe from the most intensive commercial farmer to the gardener who simply wants to have a few fresh salads should be governed by the same legislation. As long as they are protected from sharp practice, which ordinary consumer protection legislation can accomplish with ease, gardeners should be free to grow whichever variety they choose. At the moment, in Europe, they are not.

Everything not permitted is forbidden.

That, alone, is enough of a motivation to save your own seeds. But there is more. In these days of convenience stores and fresh food all year round, it is, if one is so minded, a real pleasure to put food you have grown on your table. Without going all the way to self-sufficiency, the knowledge that you could, if you wanted to, is rewarding far beyond the effort involved. But there is more. When I grow food from seeds that I have saved, I feel a powerful connection with the entire history of agriculture. A chain links one season to the next, one generation to its parents, right back to the first people who deliberately decided to look after some of the plants and animals they ate. When I sow my saved seeds, I am part of that chain. I am a human being.

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