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The effect of human activity on our seeds

According to the Food & Agriculture Organisation vegetable crops have lost 75% of their genetic diversity throughout the globe in the past 100 years.Seeds are the foundation of a secure food system.

Seeds are naturally distributed by wind or wild animals.  Yet the loss of natural habitats and wild places now results in the distribution of seed being inextricably linked to human activity. To understand the complexities of seed conservation, we need to take a broader look at the context of human activity, the study of people and plants known as ethnobotany.

Human Activity Negatively Impacting Seed Biodiversity:

Habitat loss means that we are losing many of our wild crop relatives and varieties of plant/seed before we even have chance to discover them. Wild crop relatives are the genetic safety net to breed resilience into our food system, alongside crops with rare and important pharmacological properties.

The need for intergenerational cooperation. Many heirloom or landrace (regional) vegetable crops depend on people to save seeds and pass them on to the next generation to keep the strain alive. Varieties can become extinct because trends can change or people may simply not pass on the skill on how to save seeds or the genetic seeds themselves.

Capital vs Natural Capital

In order to be grown in large monocultures, “Big Agriculture” requires seed bred for uniformity, yield, shelf life and disease resistance. As large scale industrial agriculture is commercially productive, legislation is weighted in its favour and at the expense of the biodiversity it inhibits. Small and non-commercial growers require seed that is regionally resilient, diverse, tastes good (directly linked to nutrient richness), attracts wildlife and pollinators and doesn’t require extensive farm inputs.

The cost to legally market, distribute, pack or produce seeds cripples small seed retailers. Seed producers need to pay for a license per variety per year and pay for additional tests on batches of seeds. This means that they can only afford to produce or sell their most commercial varieties of seed – meaning that the less commercial varieties face risk of extinction.

It is often cheaper to produce seed outside the UK.  This means that we are growing seeds that are not necessarily suited to our growing conditions.

Brexit – The price of importing seeds into the UK and the biosecurity checks required to move them across borders may drive up the price or simply make less commercial strains unavailable.  On the other hand, freedom from EU regulation may allow the UK government to permit a much wider range of traditional and native seeds to be used commercially again after decades of prohibition.

Large Seed Monopolies own the patents on genetically modified seed.  This allows them to outcompete non-GMO farms. There have been cases where farmers have been sued for saving GMO seed or accidentally growing GMO seed that has blown onto their land. (This needs to be balanced with an understanding of our dependence on “Big Agriculture” to feed a growing population).

Biosecurity. Human activity has resulted in the introduction of invasive species or disease. For this reason, it is essential that distribution of seeds by people needs to be done in an educated and bio-secure manner.

The Fight Back:

Seed Banks

Svalbard Seed Vault and Kew Millennium Seed Bank recognise the importance of genetic conservation of seed and hold backups to many of our seed stocks. While ex-situ conservation of seed is important as a backup, self-organised communities are creating living and dynamic networks of in-situ seed conservation.

Seed Guardians

These are people who dedicate their time to keep heirloom and landrace varieties of seed alive. Previously isolated hobbyists, social media and online networks have highlighted that these individuals are an integral part of in-situ conservation.

Seed Swaps

Seeds that are shared freely are not covered by the same legal restrictions as non-commercial seed. This has led to the creation of multiple seed swapping communities across the UK and large national events such as Seedy Sunday Brighton and Bristol Seedy Sunday.

Regenerative Agriculture

Through good farming practice and long-term thinking, the current mutually exclusive relationship between Capital and Natural Capital can become cooperative. Agriculture that builds biodiversity could be the answer to feed a population sustainably and not at the expense of biodiversity. While industrial agriculture creates higher yields in the short term, it can require intensive farming inputs to sustain such yields. Sustainable farming practices show the potential to generate yields in the long term without the need for intensive inputs – the financing of which requires long term thinking and an intergenerational economic model – which is no easy feat.

A quick glossary of seed
  • Open Pollinated: Open-pollination is when pollination occurs by insect, bird, wind, humans, or other natural mechanisms.
  • Heirloom: An heirloom variety is a plant variety that has a history of being passed down within a family or community, similar to the generational sharing of heirloom jewellery or furniture.
  • Landrace: Similar to Heirloom, a Landrace variety is one that has been bred in such a way that is has regional site-specific adaptations –  for example, The Cheltenham Green Top Beetroot or Cornish Kea Plum.
  • F1 Varieties / Hybridisation: Hybridisation is a controlled method of plant breeding by which the pollen of two different species or varieties is crossed to get a desired trait. Seed produced by F1 plants is genetically unstable and cannot be saved for use in following years. Gardeners who use hybrid (F1) plant varieties must purchase new seed every year. Hybrid seeds can be stabilized, becoming open-pollinated varieties, by growing, selecting, and saving the seed over many years. While hybrids have their benefits, choosing open-pollinated varieties conserves the genetic diversity of garden vegetables and prevents the loss of unique varieties in the face of dwindling agricultural biodiversity. Furthermore, focusing on heirloom varieties creates a historical connection to gardening and food production, building a more sustainable future by carrying on our garden heritage.

Contributing Editor: Raphaella Fearns, Plotty Seed Bank

Seed swapping is a great way to find non F1 varieties that suit the local area. Search online for an event near you. Other great suppliers are listed below: