At Brighton & Hove’s 11th Seedy Sunday, the 2 main issues being discussed amongst allotment growers & community growing projects were the 67% rise in allotment rents proposed by the Green council, & the need to move from simple seed swapping to seed saving. I intend posting on the allotment rent rise separately as it raises so many thorny issues.
Seedy Sunday & local seed swap events across the UK are an important point in the growing calendar. In Brighton & Hove, Seedy Sunday has taken place on the 1st Sunday of February since it started 11 years ago; the date’s significant because it’s the beginning of the 1st week of February, the traditional start of spring, celebrated by the Celtic festival of Imbolc.
Seed swaps are an important way of retaining control over the seed we use as growers, & an opportunity to share local knowledge about the plants & foods we grow & eat. However, seed saving has been spread as a ‘good thing’ without much discussion about good practice. There’s an awful lot of ‘bad’ seed floating around, & to be honest, I’ve stopped swapping my seed for anonymous packets on the seed swap stall at Seedy Sunday because of some of the stuff I’ve taken home. I tend to swap my seeds with people who I know are experienced growers & I’m confident about the quality of their seed. Equally, I know about my seed, can pass on details of its characteristics & how it’s grown in different conditions (drought/cold/heat, etc). Also, what it tastes like & favorite recipes.
Seed swaps are an important part of clawing back control & knowledge about seed, growing & harvests, but we need to understand & develop the next stage in the practice. That is, establishing active seed saving circles. At Seedy Sunday, we filmed John Fryer from Whitehawk Community Food Project talking about establishing a seed saving circle of experienced growers to take on guardianship of varieties grown locally; the development of local knowledge that is shared, renewed & extended cyclically. John introduced us to Peter Brinch, who is involved in Biodynamic growing & established the Open Pollinated Seed Initiative in 2010.
The availability of Open Pollinated seeds has drastically decreased as seed companies have released increasing numbers of F1 hybrids onto the market & stopped supporting open pollinated varieties. Yet, open pollinated varieties are still the essential genetic pool for plant breeding activity. Open pollinated plants breed true to type from year to year, & also contain genetic diversity that allows for adaptability to changes in environment & climate conditions. This ability to breed true allows individual growers to retain control over their plant materials.
F1 hybrids have increasingly replaced open pollinated varieties on plant lists; these have been bred for industrial agriculture’s requirements, with surplus sold to home growers. Their characteristics have been selected for industrial production: Calabrese that all crops at the same time, crop uniformity to make processing easier. Also, F1 hybrids do not breed true & any characteristics developed are unsustainable in the F2, or next generation, when the plants start splitting back to the original parental characteristics. This results in a continuous cycle of buying in seed for the next crop production, giving the Seed companies a captive market. The latest element in this cycle are hybrid types called CMS (Cytoplasmic Male Sterility) which are sterile, with no possibility of seed production at all: the perfect product of seed company research.
If we continue as consumers rather than producers, of seeds, plants & other ‘horticultural’ consumables, even as we profess concern about where our food comes from, we leave power & knowledge over our food sources to others. Time to change this.