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Acts of seedition

Grow some banned seeds and stick it to the Man

The Ecologist, June 2007

Acts of seedition

A few weeks ago I found myself seated around a table in a former church crypt with a dozen or so keen-looking strangers. It was evening, and the light was fading. The former crypt is now an organic café, and the sympathetic owner had allowed us to colonise a corner of his establishment. Diners wandered in and out, ordering food and looking askance at the small group of oddballs clustered around a glowing laptop and a large cardboard box.

The cardboard box was the real focus of our attention, for it was crammed to the gills with seeds, of every imaginable colour, size, shape and variety. Bean seeds, squash seeds, edible flower seeds, carrot seeds, kale seeds, lettuce seeds … whatever you wanted to grow, the chances were that some variant of it was in that box. And the chances were that you’d never seen it before, and might not again.

We had been brought together by two self-confessed ‘seed geeks’. Andrew Still and Sarah Kleeger run a farm in Oregon , in the Pacific Northwest of the USA . Over the years they have become interested – to be frank, they have become obsessed – with old, lesser-known and in some cases extremely rare seed varieties. They have spent years delving into history and coming up with any number of weird and wonderful varieties of food seeds. They have grown them, cross-bred them and tried to turn others on to the amazing variety of seeds out there – a variety that is beyond the wildest dreams of those who choose their veg from the few dozen varieties available in the local garden centre.

Last year, Andrew and Sarah embarked on an ambitious global mission: they would travel the world, meeting equally enthusiastic seed geeks from all continents. They would swap varieties and stories, and spread the word about the importance of preserving heritage seeds. This is how they ended up in my town – and how I ended up with about twenty different varieties of bean, from as far apart as Oregon and Russia , which I will be experimenting with on my allotment this year. I can’t wait.

Andrew and Sarah are performing a vital service. Thousands upon thousands of intriguing, tasty, curious and locally-specific varieties of food crop have been created by keen and experimental farmers and gardeners in this country alone over the centuries. They ought to be the pride of the nation: as valued as an Old Master painting or an ancient battlefield. Instead, astonishingly, most of them are banned. You can’t sell or buy them. Instead, you are limited to a strict list of government-approved, corporate-owned varieties. Anything else is – well, seedition.

I’ve written here before about the disgrace that is the National Seed List. When we joined the European Community in the 1970s we were required to create a list of officially ‘approved’ seed varieties. In theory, this was intended to ensure that all seeds sold were of good quality. In practice, since it costs thousands of pounds to get onto the list and thousands more every year to remain on it, it has meant that only big companies can get their varieties listed. Result: all those amazing old heritage seeds, of the type that Andrew and Sarah are so keen on, are illegal. That’s right: illegal.

Recently, on BBC Radio, the ever-controversial Prince of Wales weighed in on the same subject, giving it some helpful publicity . ‘ Hundreds of varieties have been lost’, hesaid.‘Wonderful things which our forefathers took enormous trouble to develop … What could be crazier than reducing ourselves to far too few varieties and finding, at the end of the day, that maybe they are then more and more subject to disease and complications?’

Quite right too – though Princes ought be careful when they argue against inbreeding. The National Seed List is a disgrace; the worst kind of corporate stitch-up, which militates against history, diversity, culture and the ages of work put in by ordinary folk all over the country to develop place-specific, and often mind-bogglingly odd, varieties of food crops. Old varieties of seed, and the crops they bring forth, should not only be preserved, but promoted. Not just for the perfectly good reason that more crop diversity means more food security, as Prince Charles pointed out (the catastrophic Irish famine of the 1840s was caused partly by over-dependence not just on one crop – the potato – but on one variety of it) but because these old varieties are part of what makes us what we are, and they tell us about what we were.

If there was any justice in the world, the National Seed List would be abolished tomorrow. There ought to be a campaign against it. And the good news is that, in a way, there is. Not just nationally but – as Andrew and Sarah are showing so well – all over the world. People everywhere, from India to Romania , England to the USA , Ghana to Indonesia , are realizing that they need to stand up for crop diversity in the face of the corporate monoculture. They are doing so at local level, below the radar. Meeting up, sharing seeds and stories, furtively swapping varieties like the criminals that, in some cases, the law has made them. There is a seedy revolution brewing, and I am proud to be a footsoldier.

And there are ways of taking part, without risking arrest. By joining the wonderful Heritage Seed Library, the UK ’s pre-eminent promoter of old varieties, for example. You pay to join them, then they give you a few varieties free every year. Technically they’re not selling them, so it’s legal. With the same principle in mind, seed-swapping days are springing up all round the country – the ‘Seedy Sundays’ held in Brighton are said to be the biggest – in which like-minded people get together to swap weird and wonderful crops. I’ve been to a few of these, and they’re great. You never know what you’re going to come away with. It’s like a lucky dip.

The more people grow their own food – and numbers are rising all the time – the more people will become aware of this seed censorship. And once you’re aware, you can never go back. So explore some of the links below, and get your hands on some heritage varieties of your own. Swap them, talk about them – but most of all, plant them. Every seed in your soil is one in the eye for the corporations that want to control your food. Help this revolution succeed.


  • Plants for a Future has a great fund of information on old varieties of edible and medicinal plants: http://www.pfaf.org