Making seed sovereignty happen in the UK (ORC)

Neil Munro (Heritage Seed Library, Garden Organic)

This workshop looked at the future of organic seed production in the UK. What can be done to ensure resilience, diversity and security in ourseed systems? We look at initiatives and networks working towards change.

Session summary

Neil introduced the workshop by defining seed sovereignty as the control over access to seed, the ability to sow the seeds you want, and the Right to grow and save seed. Tom Brenan from The Gaia Foundation was first up, to speak on ‘Enabling a UK & Ireland seed programme in support of biodiversity and resilience’. He explained how seeds are the starting point for 9 out of 10 bites of food around the world and that 75% of food comes from just 12 plant and 5 animal species, demonstrating a narrowing of diversity. He highlighted an FAO report stating that plant diversity is central to food security. Food sovereignty was then further defined as the right to healthy and culturally appropriate food produced by ecologically sound and sustainable methods. Tom went on to talk about the Seeds of Freedom films, a trilogy documenting traditional agroecological farming in Africa and the threat to it from Industrial agriculture.

Tom Brenan

Gaia organised the Festival of Seed 2014, with the objective of raising awareness of seed and improving networks to support seed. A study was undertaken to map the existing seed network in UK and Ireland, to investigate the potential for a resilient and sustainable seed production system. The question of how to achieve a biodiverse and sustainable seed system was addressed in the report and certain bottlenecks were identified. Namely, a loss of agricultural biodiversity, corporate consolidation, the industrial farming system, and seed regulations which are supposed to ensure quality but benefit companies while inhibiting farmers. The report also found limited communication between seed breeders and growers.

The result of the report was the initiation of a programme to develop a biodiverse and ecologically sustainable seed system across the UK. The programme contains three elements; A seed network, tools and training, and public and policy. Tom explained some of the features of the system including working for alternative regulatory proposals, a database of varieties, regional networks, and education for greater skills and techniques in seed saving.

David Price (Seed co-operative) presented ‘Building a network of biodynamic and organic seed growers to safeguard Open Pollinated seed’. David began with an introduction to the Seed co-operative which was set-up to reinvigorate the UK seed system. He explained that results of a UK survey of vegetable, herb and flower seed growers, found that 80% of seeds were imported. David went on to explain the Seed Co-op aims; Seed production (in house and through a UK network), acting as a hub to process and transport seed; Plant breeding , involving a network of growers and breeding systems; Collaborate with European partners on the production of new varieties; Skills and knowledge sharing. A Webshop has been set-up. Eventually they hope to be able to buy seeds grown near to where the customer will grow them, with the grower and location identified.

David Price

David expressed how keen they are to build the network through email and the website and urged people to get in contact. He explained how the Seed co-op demonstrates what seed sovereignty can look like in practice declaring that the system is “owned by everybody, to grow seed owned by nobody” and the “seed co-op puts control back in the hands of the community”.

David went on to talk about the purchase of a nursery in Lincolnshire to enable the growing of seed and to act as a central hub for the operation. The new site will enable making the seed co-op a reality. David talked about how the seed issue is incredibly urgent and important and highlighted the need to understand and raise public awareness of issues and the situation globally, with Africa used as an example and attention again drawn to Gaia foundation seed film trilogy.

Bruce Pearce (ORC) was the final speaker of the session, presenting “Population Growth: A good thing?” He started by explaining the motivations behind the development of the population and the history of the project. Bruce then went on to talk about the issues with marketing the population, and the illegality of populations from the ‘variety’ point of view since a variety, as outlined by EU seed regulations, must be distinct, stable and uniform. He explained how this is completely at odds with the principles of a population and its in-crop genetic diversity. Bruce outlined The ORC’s work on policy and in securing an EU derogation allowing for a temporary marketing experiment of the population. He explained that The ORC has now been issued a temporary license to market the population and that the aim is to start doing it in Autumn of this year. He then went on to talk about the future for the Wakelyns population and for other populations in development. Read more at Launch of ORC Wakelyns Population

Key conclusions

Seed coop: lettuce seed production

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

  • The populations had been developed during a number of European projects, involving a number of trials. They are now part of new trials taking place at the University of Reading’s Sonning site and at Doves Farm in Hungerford.
  • The population had been tested across Europe and subjected to a very hard winter in Hungary, though the following year it bounced back well, but fears exist about whether it was subjected to too high a selection pressure that has reduced genetic diversity too much.
  • The genetic base of the population stays stable; the frequency of genes varies from year to year but the overall genetic base stays fairly constant.
  • Marketing models were discussed, including closed clubs as well as share ownership by for example by a group of bakers. The Scotland the Bread project was mentioned as an example of managing the process from ‘soil to slice’. If a group owns the seed then this removes the need to sell it and therefore its not marketing. Farmers can grow mixtures or populations themselves and save seed. Another suggestion for dealing with the issue of marketing is to contract the seed to be grown and then to receive the product back. A seed saving levy could be raised and closed clubs would need licensing agreements.
  • The future for the population was then discussed. Start a new population or develop the original one? Diverse cropping using the population is another option, with wheat and beans grown together. The Diversifood project is looking at the combination of cereals and pulses.
  • If anyone is interested in buying seed then they should talk to John Bradwell of Organic Seed Producers and if they’re interested in field trials they should contact ORC!

Individual speaker presentations and abstracts

Tom Brenan (Gaia Foundation): Enabling a UK & Ireland seed programme in support of biodiversity and resilience (No powerpoint presentation)

Seeds are the starting point for 9 out of every 10 bites of food available in the world today. However, most people have yet to make the connection between food and seed. Together with pressures from climate change and the effects of loss of biodiversity, there has never been a greater urgency to rebuild our seed diversity for greater resilience. In October 2014, the Gaia Foundation and partners organised The Great Seed Festival with two main objectives: to raise awareness of the importance of seed in our food system; and to link existing seed networks to inspire greater collaboration and working. The festival highlighted that although there are a number of initiatives addressing issues around food there is relatively little being done to protect seed, revive seed knowledge and ensure the availability of good quality, local seed for commercial growers. A follow up meeting affirmed an appetite for a more joined up effort on seed work and led to the production of a feasibility study in October 2015 which outlined the potential for a robust, accessible and diverse seed system. The workshop will consider the findings of the study and the proposals for an exciting new UK and Ireland programme.

David Price (Seed co-operative): Resilient seed for sustainable farming (No powerpoint presentation)

Vegetable seed production in the UK has been declining for decades. Commercial pressures have led to an increasing proportion of F1 hybrid seed use, which in turn reduces the numbers of stakeholders involved in seed production, and in many cases removes it from the UK. In the 2016 season we are looking for seed growers to help with the urgent work of reviving the production of UK open pollinated vegetable, herb and flower seed. We seek to act as a hub for small- scale certified growers who can produce the highest quality seed. It may be only one or two varieties, to start with, and we will provide help and advice as required. We have our own ideas of the varieties of seed that we need, but we are equally keen to hear from people who feel that they have particularly good conditions for particular crops or varieties. We want this to be a grower led initiative so we will welcome your ideas. We will take in harvested seed and undertake cleaning and processing ourselves, before undertaking germination testing to ensure viability. Our plan is to reverse the decline in UK seed production, producing the best quality open pollinated seed, providing a resilient base on which to build a sustainable farming future.

Bruce Pearce (ORC): Insights about the temporary marketing experiment & the marketing of cereal populations (2.13mb pdf file)

Increasing climatic variation has had, and will continue have an impact on crop production and the economic viability of farmers. A way to insure against these impacts is to increase the diversity on farm. Increased genetic diversity within the crop can be a component of this. Genetic diversity can be delivered by growing a greater number of crops or varieties separately or as a mixture or by growing composite cross populations (CCP). Since 2001 the Organic Research Centre has developed CCPs of winter wheat in organic and low input systems. Aligned with this work are activities with UK and EU policy makers to address the EU legal framework that would allow for the marketing of populations. After nearly 15 years of work we are now at a point where some cereal CCPs can be marketed under a temporary marketing experiment. The paper will cover the production and development of the populations as well as an analysis of their performance along with insights into the development of new seed regulation policies as well as our initial experiences of working within the new marketing experiment.


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