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Seed Issues

There are rows of different food products available in the supermarkets, but the variety on offer is an illusion. The essential foodstuffs that make up all of these products are derived from fewer and fewer sources. The number of differing crop varieties and animal breeds used in agriculture has declined massively in the last few decades. Whilst we are able to buy out of season fruits imported from around the world, the hundreds of native fruit varieties once available in greengrocers are no longer.

What has happened is that a few crop varieties produced by plant breeders are now planted extensively by most farmers in large-scale monoculture. Modern varieties have a very high rate of turnover. This added to commercial demands to produce new varieties cheaply, leads to a progressive downward spiral in diversity, as breeders re-cycle the same breeding materials.

The modern varieties have been bred for characteristics useful to modern industrial agriculture, the needs of supermarkets and the food processing industry.

They have been selected for:

  • Uniform growth: harvesting can only happen once, so everything has to ripen simultaneously.

  • Uniform shape and size: sorting and packaging machinery can't cope with diversity very well, nor can large supermarkets and fast food outlets who need to maintain consistent products.

  • More weight: many crops are bred to have a higher water content so they weigh more and are therefore more profitable.
    Storage: Such as fruits with thick, durable skins, tomatoes bred to have more fibre and less juice for easy transportation.

This has been at the expense of taste, nutritional content an resistance to crop pests and diseases. They are known as “high yielding varieties”, but in order to obtain high yields they require high inputs in the form of fertilisers, pesticides and water


Loss of crop biodiversity
In Western Europe, North America and other regions where industrial farming is the norm, the modern varieties have all but replaced the old farm-saved varieties of crop plants, of which there were once thousands. Nobody really knows how much diversity has been lost, and there is no way of knowing how many distinct varieties there once were. According to a report by the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) an estimated 75% of crop varieties worldwide were made extinct in the last century.

A survey by RAFI found that 97% of varieties once listed by the U.S. Department of Agriculture have been lost in the last 80 years. According to the UNDP Filipino farmers once grew thousands of kinds of rice; today only two varieties account for 98% of the area sown. Mexico has lost an estimated 80% of its varieties of corn since the 1930’s, and of 10,000 wheat and 8000 rice varieties being grown in China in 1949, only 1000 wheat and 50 rice varieties remained by the 1970’s.

In Western Europe and North America where most of the old varieties have been lost, those still preserved have come be known as heritage or heirloom varieties. Heirlooms are maintained by a few dedicated groups and individuals that understand that the diversity of crop species is essential to agriculture.

Illegal seeds
Believe it or not trade in the seeds of most crop varieties is now illegal in the European Union. That is, varieties must be registered on a national list to be marketed in any way. Keeping a variety on the list requires thousands of pounds so obviously this is beyond the means of small independent seed companies or seed saving groups who would be financially punished for the number of rare varieties they are trying to save from extinction.

Most of these organisations continue to offer unlisted seeds in defiance of this law. However the French authorities have taken a particularly harsh line, leading to the closure an inspirational small seed company that was dedicated to the preservation of biodiversity. Terre de Semences once distributed over 1000 rare traditional vegetable varieties all over Europe, now they have to find other ways to fund the maintenance of their important collection and distribute seed to others.

Unsurprisingly the large-scale commercial seed industry has little interest in maintaining unprofitable varieties on the Seed Lists. When the new European seed list, the Common Catalogue, was introduced back in 1980 the seed companies produced a list of 1500 varieties from 23 vegetable species that were not to be included because they were duplicates. 1490 of these were found by HDRA to be distinct varieties, they had been simply deleted from existence.

Furthermore to register a new variety on the National Seed List that variety must undergo a series of tests to prove it is uniform, standard and is highly productive using modern farming methods, that it has economic value. A lot of the old crop varieties would not have reached these criteria, and yet it is this very lack of uniformity that makes these old crops highly adaptable and durable.

Importance of biodiversity
Where farmers have grown crops for millennia there had developed many distinct localised varieties, each adapted to differing microclimates and growing systems these are known as landraces. Displaying varying taste, growth rates, disease and insect resistance and tolerance for different conditions, these varieties had been the key to local food security for generations of farming communities.

These crops are still vital to many of the world’s small farmers today. For example, in Turkey wheat farmers grow local landraces that are adapted to their non-irrigated, hillside fields because they out perform modern varieties there. In the Peruvian Andes one farming household may grow and maintain several dozen varieties of potato. The ancient Andeans grew over 2000 distinct varieties of potato, and another nine species with edible roots and tubers. Farmers in Chiapas, Mexico cultivate ancient local maize landraces on infertile soils.

Farmers benefit from directly from the diversity they maintain. Diversity within the landraces makes them much more adaptable and more reliable under difficult conditions, leading to less variability in productivity. Greater diversity in the form of different crops and different varieties of crops leads to less susceptibility to pests, diseases and fluctuating weather conditions. Old varieties also excel in qualities of taste and nutritional value.

The new varieties created by plant breeders are not inventions; the materials from which these varieties are bred are the landraces and the wild relatives of crop species. As an ever-greater proportion of the land is changed from it’s wild state by human activities, the relatives of crop plants are also becoming much rarer. The ability of breeders to create new resistant varieties depends on availability of crop biodiversity and the loss of diversity gives future farmers and breeders less options when looking for varieties resistant to pests and disease and hardy under different growing conditions.

A “miserable looking” variety of wheat was collected by Jack Harlan in Turkey in 1948 that seemed to have few qualities of interest to growers. This was later found to have resistance to stripe rust, which had suddenly become a major problem in the early 1950’s. This wheat is now used in breeding all new varieties for the Northwest of the American continent.

Seed Banks
The response of the international governments to a series of crop failures in the 1970’s, caused by the lack of resistance of over uniform crops, was the setting up of seed banks (frequently known as gene banks). There are now 1300 banks containing around six million samples and even this amount represents a small fraction of diversity.

But there are serious drawbacks of this approach to conserving crop biodiversity. Varieties stored in seed banks are adapting to the conditions of storage. Varieties have to be replanted to regenerate viable seed on a regular basis. Small samples of seed collected and stored from each "growing out" result in a continual depletion of variability and adaptability. The most important wheat collection in Asia, held at the University of Kyoto, grows only five plants per variety for regeneration. Stored varieties become very uniform and adapted to the artificial environment of cold storage.

We cannot depend on national or international projects to look after biodiversity. In order to be preserved varieties need to be being grown by farmers and gardeners who save there own seed. Home gardeners and natural farmers alike do not need varieties that are uniform, mature at the same time, store and travel well. Heirloom varieties are easier to grow, more nutritious, hardier and more resistant to pests and diseases. Crop varieties saved and maintained locally by small-scale growers using natural growing methods will be adapting to local natural conditions. These are our primal seeds.

Primal seeds have compiled a list of sources of heirloom seed.

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