Seed Sense: I See Vanished Vegetables


Photo credit: Peter Prehn

It'd be easier for Judy Steele to grow cannabis in her garden in Warwickshire, England, than it'd be to plant Carruther's Purple Podded peas, Auntie Madge's tomato, or Mr. Stiff's bunching onion. In fact, it's illegal to buy seeds of this old variety. But Steele, who is growing a row of those peas anyway, is hardly a criminal or some kind of botanical terrorist—the self-described "foster mother for orphaned pea varieties" is one of 300 seed guardians for Garden Organic, formerly known as the Henry Doubleday Research Association, based at Ryton, near Coventry.

Garden Organic's extensive seed library contains 800 traditional vegetable varieties once grown in Britain but are now outlawed by European legislation. How did society reach the point that growing food became a criminal move? Or an act of subversion?"During Victorian times, seeds were available from local growers, and gardeners knew who to complain to if they didn't grow, but gradually seed companies got bigger and more remote," Sandra Slack, head of Garden Organic's seed library, tells The Guardian. "Plant breeders' rights began in the 1920s. To protect customers and to standardize the seed business across borders, the EU intervened in the 1970s, making sure that seed varieties were properly tested. Unfortunately, testing is expensive and those varieties not tested were dropped. If a variety has been dropped from the approved common catalog, then its seeds cannot be bought or sold."

Concerned that these old varieties would go extinct unless they were in circulation, Garden Organic set up its Heritage Seed Library to lawfully preserve these vegetables. (A scheme was established where gardeners have to pay to become members of the library; each year, they are given a selection of six of the hundreds of varieties to grow.)

In the past 100 years, 90 percent of UK's vegetable varieties have been lost, with the same happening in much of the industrialized world. Frighteningly, only three corporations now control an entire quarter of the world's seed markets. In developing countries, saving food-plant seed—a traditional practice as old as plant domestication—is against the law because of global politics through issues such as intellectual property rights. "Suicide" varieties by companies such as Monsanto are genetically engineered so that the plants never reproduce—think of it as built-in obsolescence, if you will. We prefer to call it perversity.

The Guardian puts it very poignantly: "Whoever controls the seeds controls a people's ability to feed themselves." :: The Guardian

See also: :: Monsanto’s Monopoly Challenged in Munich, :: Norway to Build Doomsday Seed Vault, :: Doomsday Seed Vault, Part 2

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