Many of you will have heard about the new seed law just passed by the European Union. Due to intensive lobbying by people like us it's a bit less bad than it could have been but its main thrust is still to favour the big multi-national seed companies and to hell with everyone and everything else, including genetic diversity in our gardens and on our farms.
A good, clear description of the new law is given by the Real Seed Company, but the short version is that all seeds are illegal unless they've been tested and registered. It also applies to food plants which are propagated vegetatively, such as fruit trees. The cost of registration is high, so it's only economic for seeds produced in very large volumes, which means those sold by the large seed companies. There are some exceptions for home gardeners and the like but these could be withdrawn at any time. How it will work out in practice remains to be seen but the likely outcome is that it will become increasingly difficult to get hold of any seeds other than a small number of recent varieties bred for large-scale production.
Why it Matters
All the banned seeds will still exist in the deep-frozen vaults of seed banks in one part of the world or another. This could be seen as a useful insurance, but they really need to be out there in gardens and on farms, in the hands of people who know them and understand the unique qualities of each variety. They need to be reproducing every year and perhaps subtly changing with each generation in response to changes in climate and other environmental factors. This is another world from the frozen compartment where they're known by nothing but a number and lie at the mercy of the first serious power cut.
It also matters because our needs, as home gardeners and small-scale growers, are not the same as those of large-scale producers and the supermarkets they grow for. For example, we don't want peas and beans which all ripen at the same time so the crop can be harvested in one fell swoop and sent straight off to the processor. We want a gentle harvest over as long a time as possible.
In my Own Garden
It is possible to get over-enthusiastic about heritage varieties, though. It's easy to be carried away by names like Cornish Gillyflower apple or Cherokee Trail of Tears pole bean and say 'I must have it!' before asking the important question, 'Why is it a heritage variety?' i.e. why does hardly anyone grow it any more?
There are all sorts of reasons why an old variety may have fallen out of favour: low yield, susceptiblity to disease, long harvesting period, poor keeping qualities and so on. Some of these may be more important to you than others. For instance, you won't mind if a vegetable doesn't keep or travel well if you're going to pick it half an hour before you eat it. On the other hand you may well be tempted by one of the new blight-resistant potatoes.
Take the runner bean I grow. I originally got the seed from my colleague Jo Newton, whose main job is at Irish Seed Savers. Going only by the name Irish Heritage, the seed was so precious that there were only three of them in the packet. In the first year, 2011, I sowed them and found out why they have become heritage: the yield is so low and irregular that with only three plants I could hardly ever get enough ripe pods together to make a meal for the two of us. But, and it's a huge but, they tasted so good that I knew I would never grow or buy any modern runner bean again for the rest of my days. What flavour! They make commercial beans taste like a drink of tap water.
I saved some seed and next year, 2012, had more plants. But even so, with their irregular ripening I found I sometimes didn't have enough and at others had a surplus which went over-ripe before I'd eaten them. I saved those for seed, so this spring I had plenty to give away at the local seed swap in March and still enough to plant out a big bed of them myself. I'm quite prepared to put up with their erratic habits for the sake of their flavour.
So it's a matter of deciding what's important to you. You may decide that growing hertiage varieties in order to preserve genetic diversity is an end in itself. In which case you may choose to become a member of Garden Organic's Heritage Seed Library, or an equivalent if you live in another country. In return for your membership fee you're given a number of packets of heritage variety seeds. Or you can become one of their Seed Guardians and take on the growing of a particular variety for seed and preserve it for the future. The choice is yours.
Patrick Whitefield is author of The Earth Care Manual and a leading permaculture teacher. He has a Permaculture Design Course running on 16th-28th June. For more information www.patrickwhitefield.co.uk/pdc.htm
Home seed saving is one of the topics included in Patrick's Land Course Online.