Building local/regionally adapted seed systems

Session summary

Phil set the scene by describing the need for local/regionally adapted seed in the context of climate change in order to develop resilient systems that are able to cope with environmental fluctuations as well as increasing pest and disease threats.

The first presentation was given by Ben Raskin of the Soil Association and explored the implications of new legislation proposed by the EU Commission which would increase the scope of current variety control for plant breeders and retailers. Ben described the global seed market, highlighting how polarised it is towards large companies and the trend of moving away from open pollinated varieties which has markedly reduced available diversity. There is much debate over the details of the new seed regulations; however, as they currently stand, they would likely result in increased legislation which would serve to perpetuate the lack of seed diversity available to commercial growers and support continued market dominance of large seed companies at the expense of small breeders.

The next presentation, which described open pollinated (OP) seed trials carried out as part of the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme (DOFF), was also given by Ben Raskin on behalf of John English (The Community Farm ) who was unable to attend the conference. The DOFF programme involves farmers and growers from across the UK in developing innovative approaches to improve performance of crops in organic and low-input systems. The aim was to take some of the OP varieties available to non-organic growers and trial them in organic systems with a view to either creating a demand for them organically or saving them on farm for use in subsequent years. The crops concerned were carrots, tomatoes, leeks, parsnips and sprouts. It was reported that a couple of the OP varieties performed particularly well with an acceptable, albeit lower, yield compared to F1 hybrids, at a fraction of the cost in terms of initial outlay for seed.

Peter Brown with the project brochure

Peter Brown from Tablehurst Farm gave the final presentation of the session and described an exciting new initiative to produce organic, OP seed in the UK. This project, called the Biodynamic Plant Breeding and Seed Co-operative, is being developed by the Biodynamic Association in conjunction with Stormy Hall Seeds and the Open Pollinated Seed Initiative. It aims to support breeding of new OP varieties, establish a seed production enterprise to meet growing demand and to provide education about the need for local food crops and cultivating regional biodiversity. Peter described the co-operative approach and business plan, emphasising that funding is required to launch it and take it forwards. There was much interest from the audience, with the key message being to tell people about the project and encourage financial investment.

Key conclusions

The discussion that followed the presentations brought out the following points:

  • Producing regionally adapted diverse seed is vital to cope with increasingly fluctuating environmental conditions and to support organic growers in the UK. This includes developing systems for maintaining OP varieties.
  • Varieties to use in breeding and seed production should be chosen based on factors such as possession of characteristics well-adapted for organic systems, demand from consumers and growers, and those crops for which the most derogations are currently requested. Evaluation on the basis of nutritional quality would also be an important breeding goal.
  • By moving organic production closer to organic principles, there is a risk that many derogations would be lost leaving growers with a limited choice of varieties. To counter this, different members of the organic sector need to work closely together to ensure an integrated solution.

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Ben Raskin (Soil Association): Biodiversity and choice under threat from proposed EU Seed and Plant Directive

New legislation proposed by the EU Commission seeks to significantly increase scope and reach of current variety control for plant breeders and retailers. This talk will give an overview of the proposals and show examples of how the proposals are a threat to Agricultural Diversity and Customer Choice. In particular how they might affect commercial growers and what we can do to challenge them before they become enshrined in law.

John English (The Community Farm): Open-pollinated seeds trials.

The Community Farm was one of 22 sites taking part in field trials of Open Pollinated seeds for the Duchy Originals Future Farming Programme in 2013. The aim of the lab was evaluate some of the OP varieties available to non-organic growers by trialling them in an organic system, with a view to either creating demand for them from organic growers or saving them on farm for use in a subsequent year. The session offers one grower’s experience of taking part in a farmer-led field lab for the first time and the findings on the relative performance of OP versus F1 hybrid varieties in 3 crop lines. Looking more broadly, what can a grower learn from taking part in a seed field lab? And having taken part, would we consider making more use of OP seed in the future?

Peter Brown (Tablehurst Farm/Biodynamic Association): The biodynamic seed production and breeding project.

The Biodynamic Association is helping start a new initiative, which will be based on a farm in Essex, with three aims around the need for organic, open pollinated seed produced in the UK. They are plant breeding, to produce new varieties, seed production, to meet the growing demand and thirdly to offer education to professional growers, to home gardeners and the general public. We hope organic and biodynamic growers across the country will be keen to be involved in, for instance, test trialling vegetable breeding lines and even growing and producing seed from one or two crops, which can then be sold to the initiative for cleaning and processing. We are therefore setting up a co-op, the Biodynamic Plant Breeding and Seed Co-operative, in which suppliers as well as the workers can become members. The seed production, which will be based on expanding the work of Stormy Hall Seeds, will need funding to get it started at the new site but will be viable by year five, whilst the plant breeding will need ongoing funding into the future. Today plant breeding for low- input agriculture has virtually no Governmental funding, so the challenge is to attract the necessary funding from elsewhere.

Leave a Reply