Wednesday, February 1, 2017

Would you trust a seed swap seed?

Its February, so it must be seed swap time again!
Seed swaps have been growing in popularity for some years now. The best known one in Britain is Brighton's Seedy Sunday. The events are an excuse for a get-together for gardeners apart from anything else, and since gardening often is a rather solitary activity, this seems a jolly good idea. Very often the seed swap is just a peg on which to hang the event, with most attention and energy spent on going to talks, eating, networking, buying stuff from stalls etc.
But what about the idea of the seed swap itself?
Basically the idea is that you save seed from a good variety and then package it up and offer it to other people, so you are sharing your good variety. But why do this when the range of seed available commercially is so good?

Promotors of seed swaps like to portray themselves as keepers of genetic diversity, safeguarding old varieties from extinction and keeping that diversity going for the next generation. Commercial seed producers are generally cast as agents of wicked corporations which are trying to limit the range of what we grow, so they can monopolise it. Particular venom is reserved for F1 seed varieties, which will not breed true and are therefore 'one use only'.

Seed swaps tend to concentrate on vegetable varieties. Given that such an epic range of vegetable seed is now available commercially, whereas the range of ornamentals: annuals, perennials etc, has actually gone into decline, I would be more likely to see myself visiting a seed swap to get interesting ornamental varieties. The emphasis, and the undoubted moral ardour is however very much on the veg, so that is what I'll concentrate on.

Sorry to pour cold water on what sounds like such a good idea, but I'd be pretty wary about getting my seed from a seed swap myself. Here's why.

Is it what is says on the packet?
With the best will in the world, it is very easy to muddle seed up. I have just been informed by a correspondent that DEFRA (the British government department for agriculture and the environment) recently did a survey of online seed sources, and 60% was the wrong species, i.e. not just another variety of carrot, but beetroot instead!

How has it been kept?
When you buy a packet of commercially-produced seed, you can be 100% sure it has been harvested and stored in optimum conditions. You can never be sure with seed swap seed, where its been. Seeds deteriorate if conditions aren't right. Damp shed? Overheated room? This season's harvest, or last years?

Local does not mean best.
One of the 'facts' touted around the seed swap movement is that vegetable seed from locally grown plants will be adapted to local conditions and therefore grow better. This is complete rubbish. Nearly all the veg we grow have what is known as a wide ecological amplitude – they'll grow well across an enormously wide range of conditions. Most of us (in the UK) will have noticed how the Italian company Franchi sell their (very reasonably priced) seed really widely now. Does this mean that their vegetable varieties will do less well here because this is not Italy? No. And in many cases the varieties are the same anyway.
Even if vegetable seed could meaningfully evolve towards being better adapted to local conditions this would take many generations to achieve.
The only possible exceptions might be those veg which are right on the borderline of being viable in the local climate. Tomato or aubergine seed from somebody who has grown the plants outside at a northerly latitude is going to be in with a chance, at least.

Genetic Drift
Someone has a veg variety they like, so they keep the seed, and sow it again next year, and the year after that, and so on. Every year it will actually change slightly, so that after a few generations it may have lost the special characteristics it had that made it special. Commercial growers ruthlessly 'rogue' their plots of plants, removing any which do not 100% match the original. They also operate on a large scale, so minimising the distorting impact of the odd rogue plant. Anyone seed saving on a small scale will be growing a relatively small number of plants, so if you are saving from ten plants, one of which is a bit dodgy, then that'll be 10% of your seed harvest off-kilter.
When growing veg in the garden, there is a strong tendency to harvest the good plants, so saving seed from the remainder. With plants where you cannot 'have you cake and eat it', like lettuces or carrots, saving seed from one's own plants might actually mean you are consistently saving from inferior plants.

Saving varieties from extinction
Given what I have just said, the problems in maintaining a variety's integrity on an amateur basis can be pretty major, so I don't see seed saving and seed swaps as doing anything very much towards maintaining genetic diversity.

Seed companies of course maintain considerable seed diversity, but that isn't much help to anyone with a small plant breeding business . There is a very valid criticism of the seed business - that they have a monopoly, and is probably one of the reasons that we (in Europe or North America) see very little small-scale or independent vegetable seed selection and breeding. The exceptions are tomatoes and chillis, where there seems to be a very healthy market in amateur or small-scale breeder varieties. See Simpsons Seeds.

The accusation is sometimes made that all commercial veg seed breeding is for the big growers, and the amateur grower has to do with the crumbs from the table. Well, actually the demands of all growers are pretty similar: strong-growing, reliably producing crops tolerant of a wide range of conditions and pest and disease resistant. It is the latter factor which makes modern breeding so superior to 'heritage' or 'heirloom' varieties – so much breeding effort now goes into producing varieties that will stay healthy without using pesticides. This is why the statement on one seed swapping site that “It keeps seed making in the garden and out of the laboratory” is so daft. If you want to live in the Middle Ages, that's fine, but most of us would like to move on.

F1 seeds are presumably one of the 'laboratory' crops. For many of these, there is probably little point in us growing them, as their advantages are mostly for commercial growers. BUT for the latest in disease-resistant varieties, or sweet corn or courgettes for cooler climates, then there is little option – F1s maybe more expensive, but their advantages can be well worth the extra cost. The prejudice against F1s is little short of ridiculous, a sort of spill-over from the rather hysterical opposition to GM breeding, a technology which by the way has yet to show any of the ill-effects that were predicted. 
Much of the discourse around the seed swap movement reflects a kind of 'small is beautiful' romanticism. There seems to be a widespread belief that evil multinational corporations are hell-bent on forcing governments to ban varieties, forcing us into a kind of vegetable totalitarianism. In reality, the range of varieties has risen dramatically over the last twenty years, partly because more mainstream commercial varieties are available to the amateur, the expansion in the range of heritage varieties available, and the increasing interest in trying varieties from other countries. Above all, we are more adventurous and are demanding and fussier consumers, so the trade in vegetable seed has inevitably reflected this. There is room for the small producer as well, the sort of place that sells obscure varieties that probably wouldn't sell well from the supermarket. For these, such as RealSeeds, we should be grateful. But if you want to see the full range of commercially-bred varieties and the opportunity to buy them in whatever quantity you want, try Moles Seeds. Better to spend your money with a proper seed merchant than risk all the unknown factors of a seed swap.Anyone selling seed commercially will generally have some sort of government certification, which in the words of one small grower, “if you buy from a registered merchant then you will get good seed, that germinates, of the variety on the packet.” So there. 

And gardeners should get together to meet each other anyway, even if it only to swap seed catalogues.