Photo of hands holding heritage seeds
Farmers' and gardeners' right to save and swap seeds is the source of future biodiversity

Saving seeds, securing the future

23 May, 2013

If you are interested in  food and sustainability you are probably aware of the recent furore over proposed changes to EU law that would have prevented the swapping of or growing plants from saved seeds. But just why is this issue so important?  Ben Raskin, Head of Horticulture at the Soil Association looks at the bigger picture of the seed industry and its connection to a secure food future…

Recently the Soil Association has been speaking out over proposed EU laws which, amongst other things, could have meant small growers and people with allotments or gardeners couldn’t swap their home saved seeds. The proposed regulations caused public outcry across Europe but luckily, last minute changes to the directive look like good news for growers and small seed companies.

An ancient tradition

For thousands of years farmers have been identifying the best plants in their crop and saving their seeds for the following year. This annual cycle of growth and regrowth within a closed system mostly led to a gradual improvement of yield and health.

In much of the world this continues to be the way seed is produced, often supplemented by local exchange with neighbours. Even in the developed world there are still (mostly small scale) growers and farmers who saved their own seed, usually of only one or two “easy” varieties like beans or tomatoes.

On the plus side this gives growers access to cheap seed and control (within the bounds of nature and weather) over their choice of locally adapted variety. However this system also has limitations; growers must keep seed each year to sow again and in drought years this might mean starvation, while very wet years might produce either diseased or no viable seed of certain crops.

This risk led to the development of specialised skilled commercial seed producers. In more recent years we have seen a polarisation of seed production in areas of the world where reliability is guaranteed – mostly warmer and drier countries.

The road to monoculture

By focusing on fewer varieties in more favourable conditions, seed companies have been able to produce seed cheaply enough to persuade farmers that growing their own seed is more trouble than it is worth. This approach, combined with the increasing industrialisation of farming and associated threat from pests and disease in monocultural crops, has led to seed companies being the only people that can keep ahead of the game, so we see new blight strains evolving as fast as resistant varieties are bred.

The first seed laws were introduced to the UK in 1869 to protect farmers from unscrupulous seed merchants selling either cheaper seed or even dust and sand. The first seed laboratory was set up in Germany in the same year.

Parallel to this professionalisation and regulation of the seed industry ran an increased understanding of genetics and advances in breeding techniques.

The rise of hybrids

There are several different types of seeds. Open pollinated is the term given to varieties that can produce seed of the same variety. Until the early 20th century all crops were open pollinated. All of what are commonly termed Heritage varieties are open pollinated, though there continues to be some breeding and development of these types of varieties.

About a century ago we developed hybridisation  to create vigorous and uniform varieties.  They have gained popularity with many farmers as they often have higher yields, and for specialised growers supplying larger markets, they are more likely to be ready to harvest at the same time. This can be a disadvantage for smaller scale growers who need a staggered harvest to supply a range of outlets, or for the home grower wanting a steady harvest for the family.

F1s can also be bred to be resistant to specific disease or pest threats. However since they do not produce seed that will grow into the same variety growers are unable to save seed from them, and thus must return to the seed merchant each year for more seed.

In horticulture there is now such a drive to find new improved varieties that just as a grower has come to love and understand a particular lettuce, for example, it will have been removed from the catalogue and a new one put in its place.

Plant breeders’ rights

Further genetic manipulation and breeding techniques led to the economic drive for seed businesses to patent their varieties in order to protect the investment made to develop it.

This has never been in the interest of the farmer, and often directly against it.

There should of course be a balance. Plant Breeders’ Rights (PBR) exist in many parts of the world and can give breeders a window of up to 25 years to recoup investment and continue to breed new varieties.

Anyone could take a variety protected by PBR and use that to breed a new variety, but crucially under the more recent patent laws that exist in America, the EU and Australia, breeders are prevented from using the patented variety to breed new varieties thus it effectively gives the patent holders control over an ever increasing genetic bank.

The original creation of the EU national lists of registered varieties and the subsequent ban on anyone selling seeds that were not on that list has been damaging to the availability of vegetable seed particularly. However it does appear that the latest directive has redressed that balance a little with exemptions on registering and selling varieties for smaller businesses of fewer than 10 employees or a (Euro) €2 million  turnover.

We hope this will make it easier for those maintaining heritage seed varieties and current open pollinated crops, but there remains a high burden of red tape and fees for new varieties that are likely to increase cost of seed and further polarised the gap between the amateur or small scale professional seed producer and the ever growing global seed businesses.

Years ago when the issue of genetically modified plants was first raised, biotech companies proposed what was called a ‘terminator’ seed. A plant that produced sterile seeds. This too was for the benefit and protection of business and in 2001 the proposed us of terminator seeds was abandoned.

The self-destructing terminator gene could have answered some of the concerns about armers spreading GM crops by planting saved seeds. Though since farmers are not able to save their own F1 or GM seed anyway the power it placed in the hands of the seed company may not have been substantially different to what is is today.

Seeds are our future

What does all legal wrangling have to do with the average consumer? The loss of biodiversity of our seed supply eventually leads to a lack of diversity on our farms and in our food supply, as food shortages become more prevalent and global weather less predictable this is a serious concern.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN (FAO) estimates that “Since the 1900s, some 75 percent of plant genetic diversity has been lost as farmers worldwide have left their multiple local varieties and landraces for genetically uniform, high-yielding varieties.

While even some open pollinated varieties still available are not always properly maintained by proper selection and breeding, as a result we have been getting reports of varieties not performing as well as they previously have The proposed EU regulation might slow that decline but ultimately we need to remove patent control from all global seed regulations.

There is now sufficient consumer protection legislation that did not exist when seed regulations were first dreamt up. And with electronic communications being so quick and immediate, seed companies not providing decent seed of good varieties will soon go out of business.

For growers, our increasingly erratic climate means that uniform F1s or GM crops will make them more vulnerable. A drought resistant variety is no good if you can’t predict whether you will be flooded or parched and even the global seed companies require constant new stock of genetic material from which to breed.

The new NIAB wheat variety bred from ancient seed that may give up to 30% increase in yield is a classic recent example. While Martin Wolfe in Suffolk has been doing long-term experiments with wheat populations that show good resilience to seasonal variation.

Ultimately we all rely on as wide a genetic diversity as possible to provide long-term food security in the face of increasingly difficult growing conditions.


  • On May 25th there is a global March Against Monsanto taking place in cities across the world. One of the important issues for protesters is the biotech companies’ continued efforts to control our global seed supply. If you’d like to join the march see our home page for details.