Seed sourcing, saving and the wider context

Blimey it’s been a while since the last post! I’ve not forgotten about the blog, have just been chewing the cud on what to write about next and I thought that it would be a good idea to start the new year off with a post about seeds.

Seeds are wonderous things, it’s about this time of year that all the seed ordering goes on and brown,white,gold and see through packets of various shapes and sizes arrive through the post and I get a profound sense of amazement that these are the tiny sparks that ignite everything else that goes on at Sheffield Organic Growers. As no doubt some of you may know a bit about seed sourcing and the wider issues of food sovereignty that are involved and some of you may not, I thought I’d share some perspectives about plant breeding, new genetic engineering techniques and home garden seed saving that I hope you’ll find interesting and that may inspire you to do some more research on this quite complex topic.

First off there are some great documentaries out there about seeds and the issues surounding the production and sourcing of them such as:
Seeds of freedom,

Whilst I broadly agree with much of what is said in these types of documentaries I feel that it’s important to make the point firstly that breeding new varieties of vegetables or indeed any variety of plant costs a lot of money in the modern world. Obviously these new varieties are bred mostly to fill a hole in the demand from a certain type of food system e.g. one that may value longer storage and appearance over flavour or nutrient density. However even seed breeders operating with the desire to produce seeds with different characteristics than what the mass production industrial agriculture require, will face challenges in producing seed that will give a good economic return, and the reasons for this I will attempt to discuss below by first giving a brief description of the three broad types of seed production techniques used in the 21st century and their strengths and weaknesses.


1. Open pollinated seeds the way humanity or nature selects for the next generation

Open pollinated means that the flowers vegetables, cereals or fruit plants produce are pollinated at random by insects/bees/wind, or by selfing (where an individual flower contains both male and female parts that easily fertilise each other without the aid of the former). The important part to stress here is that generally all open pollinated varieties have a greater genetic diversity within the variety of any given crop. So if I am growing say the open pollinated variety of Cabbage January King, the way the varieties characteristics are slightly different from plant to plant is a reflection of a greater genetic diversity within the population of all the seeds I’ve grown.

photo of January Kings courtesy of

Now in order to maintain those characteristics a seed breeder needs to grow a large number of plants to ensure the health of the gene pool for this variety, (this is a fact of plant breeding and indeed all of nature that without a large population inter-mixing genetic material you get something called inbreeding depression, see this link for more information:¬† ). This varies greatly between species of crops as to how many plants you need to grow for seed saving year on year, and as I refered to earlier some plants self pollinate easily such tomatoes or french beans, so if you are doing any back garden seed saving you can find more information about which ones are easiest by reading Sue Strickland’s book back garden seed saving¬†

The difference between nature and human breeding comes at the next stage, i.e. when the plant is growing in the field. The seed breeder walks along the row of crops and will mark out a select number that are the most ‘true to type’ for saving seed from. Please note not all seed is saved from the whole population, seeds are only selected from the most healthy vigorous plants that look ‘true to type’ to the varieties characteristics. This is how a variety is maintained over time. Alternatively if he/she wants to create a new variety they will slowly select over many generations for characteristics they desire from a population (all plants were originally bred from natural species in this way). So as an example we can all see today is wild parsnip (pictured below)

Hunt & Gather UK - Hunt & Gather UK

This plant was selected for larger and larger roots over many generations until we arrived at the modern parsnip.

2. F1 hybrids – A fairly simple description.

Ok, so this is the tricky part now and we could get very technical in order to illustrate fully what’s going on with this technique of plant breeding. I will try to explain it in as simple terms as possible and link in extra reading for the keen.

So lets start with simplest way of describing a cross which is what a F1 hybrid is.

A F1 Hybrid is a cross between two parent plants of the same species, this is like taking the open pollinated variety of Cabbage, say the savoy Violacio di Verona (one parent population) and MANUALLY crossing it with another open pollinated variety such as Red Cabbage Rodynda (second parent population). Here, you are literally taking the pollen from a plant from one variety, rubbing a cotton bud onto the pollen in the bag you collected it in and then rubbing that pollen on the other plant. Now, that is essentially a F1 cross and the seeds you get from the two plants usually show extra vigour from having new genetic material introduced into the seed (the plants are often faster growing and larger).

HOWEVER, this is not how you actually create a F1 hybrid as BEFORE you make that cross you have to highly inbred the two parent populations of open pollinated breeding stock in order to get the desired UNIFORMITY in the F1 hybrid cross.

This is what the seed documentaries argue is contributing to a loss of genetic diversity. However, the genetic diversity is not always lost but the remaining stock of it stored and used for F1 plant breeding purposes.

Another hypothetical example: say 7 old varieties of lettuce were bred and maintained by one independent plant nursery and sold through their seed catalogue and this nursery was then bought by big agribusiness giant. Unless those 7 lettuce varieties are offered and bred by another independent seed producer, that agribusiness giant now can withdraw that diversity from the market.

The economics of capitalism (economies of scale, market share etc), and aggressive mergers being allowed to go ahead has meant that today a huge amount of genetic diversity previously regional and owned largely by the growers themselves is now concentrated in the few hands of a few agribusiness companies that utilise that genetic material for breeding programs that perpetuate that ‘food as a commodity’ model.

It also means that less competition in the market means higher seed prices and margins squeezed for farmers, less work is done to maintain the vigor of open pollinated seed strains as it’s much more economically advantageous to produce F1 hybrid seeds that have intellectual property rights attached.

Add to this the fact that like a mule (a cross between a horse and a donkey), F1 hybrids are often sterile, or don’t breed true when the seed from these plants is saved (some varieties F1 will produce new plants from the seed but will be widely diverse and not breed ‘true to type’), you get an inherently risky reliance on certain areas of land where this seed is produced and certain companies who hold the breeding stock. You can actually breed open pollinated varieties from F1 but it takes quite a lot of time and money. Something that I believe Sativa Rheinau has done if I remember correctly from an article I read a while ago

See also this article in English

So to actually to get a little more technical as a foot note the cross I mentioned above of a savoy cabbage and a red cabbage actually created the variety of cabbage previously mentioned January King! The process of this breeding would have produced wildly different shapes and sizes and colours and some that wouldn’t even create a cabbage heart only by selecting and BACK CROSSING (where they progeny is crossed with one of the parents more homogenous stable form), do you get to the new variety of January King.

3. Genetic Engineering or GMO’s- What it is and intellectual property law

So proponents of genetically modified crops will claim that there is no difference between the breeding techniques of the past and genetic engineering techniques. I would argue that if you are taking genetic material from one completely different family of plants or even animals and combining it into another family, that this material would never be able to introduce itself into by natural means of fertilisation so there is a distinct break from the two techniques above.

Actually modern genetic marker techniques do cut down much of the trial and error and associated costs involved in plant breeding and are not based on recombining genetic material. However, the cost involved in this high-tech process may still create some barriers in democratizing seed production:

See this research paper for full break down on the organic sector’s stance:

I personally subscribe to the view that the real attraction of Genetic Engineering of commodity crops is that the patenting and intellectual property rights claims these companies can make on these GM seeds are on far surer ground legally and thus were/are seen as greater return on investment in a breeding program because the seeds cannot be saved (being an infringement on the intellectual property rights to save these seeds if they could be). F1 hybrids, however, are almost impossible to reproduce if you don’t own the breeding stock and don’t carry any inherrant rights to that genetic material.

Strengths and Weaknesses

Open pollinated crops have the main strengths of being reproducible by everyone meaning a fairer food system often termed food sovereignty. They cost less and are less labour intensive than breeding F1’s. However, unless good work is done in maintaining the variety they might not perform well compared to F1’s (not the variety’s fault necessarily, just because seed houses and corporations favour F1’s for the economic returns). They don’t all crop uniformly, this can be an advantage on a small-scale as if like me you are selling cabbages through a veg bag scheme you don’t want all 250 january king cabbages ready at the same time. This however, to farms of a scale for supermarkets, is a DISADVANTAGE as they have a large crew and need to harvest in a specific window for a specific date.

F1’s, although much maligned, are popular because they ARE uniform in production and thus suite the industrialised food model. They perform like clockwork but are often bred using high input methods and can suffer in adverse weather conditions, and some might argue contributing to food insecurity. I do grow some F1’s myself because you can almost guarantee a return despite the often much higher seed cost. They often have ‘hybrid vigour’ and the difference can be quite stark in comparing some OP varieties with F1 yields.

I personally feel there aren’t any real strengths to GMO’s you can do much the same high-tech breeding selection with genetic marker breeding and the same big bio-tech companies are moving away from gene splicing in favour of genetic marker techniques precisely because the technology is very similar without the justified public concern.

At this point you may be wondering how can I ensure I buy seeds that are produced by independant seed breeders and growers? Well here are two of the best seed sites for the home gardener in the UK:

Also these seed catalogues are good for organic seed sourcing:

Anyway, hope this quite long blog post has given you an insight into this complex world of seed, seed saving and ownership issues. I hope to be able to post a bit more on the blog than last year but we’ll see how a busy growers world pans out. Adios!

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