Why swap seeds?

Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Why swap seeds?' page
Photo: Illustrative image for the 'Why swap seeds?' page

Why seed swapping is important

By Lindy Sharpe

Seed swapping: not a new idea!

We are used to buying things when we need them. Our first impulse, if we want to grow vegetables, may be to go and buy a packet of seeds. But this is a recent option. For almost all the time humans have grown plants for food, they SAVED seeds to sow the following year, choosing the plants that thrived best or produced the tastiest or most plentiful foods. To expand the range of the plants they grew and to bolster supplies in times of shortage, they also swapped seed. In this way, since time immemorial, growers have harnessed the process of natural selection to develop the thousands of useful varieties of food plants we grow today. Modern seed-swappers are continuing this tradition.

Fewer varieties, suited to commercial growers

For more than a century, agricultural supply companies have been in the business of persuading farmers and growers to buy things which they formerly produced themselves, including seeds. This has brought about dramatic changes in the kinds of plants we grow. Seed companies sell most of their seeds to commercial growers, so it pays them to focus their resources on developing a relatively small number of varieties with the sort of characteristics these growers want. That means, for example, plants that come into fruit at the same time, so whole fields can be picked at once; or climbing beans sturdy and uniform enough to be harvested by machine; or strawberries that stay firm long enough to be distributed to supermarkets. Traits valued by gardeners (such as flavour, or a long fruiting season to avoid gluts) are not high on this list. Nor (since the seeds are sold all over the country), can the varieties be suited to local growing conditions.

Seed that can't be saved

An increasing number of the seeds now on sale are F1 hybrids, first developed in the 1920s. Growers traditionally collected seeds from 'open-pollinated' plants, meaning plants that pollinated naturally, where they grew. Hybrid seeds are produced by artificially cross-pollinating two plants from different varieties which have often already been self-pollinated for several generations. By crossing plants in this controlled (and expensive) way, plant breeders can develop and amplify very specific characteristics, such as high yield, disease resistance, or short straw length to facilitate combine harvesting. The seeds of these crosses, the F1 (or Filial 1) seeds, produce very uniform plants (in fact, they genetically identical, unlike the offspring of open-pollinated plants), and they are often very vigorous. These characteristics undoubtedly make them useful to growers. BUT - a big but - they do not 'breed true'. When the F1 plants mature, the seeds they produce are either sterile or grow into weak plants with unpredictable traits. To replicate the F1 hybrid plants, the original cross must be repeated. So farmers and growers cannot collect these seeds and sow them again the following year. This is obviously convenient for the people who sell seeds, but very inconvenient for the people who grow them, because it means that for the first time in history, growers have to buy new seed every year.

Listing: traditional seeds outlawed

Since the 1970s, UK and EU legislation has unintentionally exacerbated the decline in traditional varieties of fruit and vegetables. In the name of protecting growers from the risk of buying unsound or unpredictable seeds, governments produced National Lists, which prescribe the varieties that can be legally bought and sold. This means that even if you have been growing a variety for years, if it is not 'Listed' it is illegal to buy or sell it (which is why seed swaps, where unlisted varieties change hands, do not charge for seeds, but ask for a donation to cover costs). There is a fee to have a variety included in the List, and every Listed variety must have a 'Maintainer', who pays to keep it on the List. Consequently, varieties that don't sell in large quantities are unlikely to make it onto the List. Seed swappers refer to these as 'outlawed' varieties, rather than the more polite 'heritage' or 'heirloom'. The Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), which administers the National Lists in the UK, admits that there is a problem and maintains a 'B List' which includes some older varieties. But a 2007 review by Defra found that there were many varieties that no commercial company wanted to maintain 'as they see no benefit in doing so'.

Shrinking seed supply: bad for biodiversity

It is frustrating for many gardeners that old varieties are often unavailable and that the F1 varieties that dominate seed catalogues cannot produce viable seed. But the potential consequences for the earth's ecosystems are much more serious. Seeds are one of the fundamentals of life, and lie at the base of the human food chain. By pollinating freely and making seed, plants constantly experiment with the genetic material available to them, and adapt opportunistically to new conditions. As the reservoir of genetic material shrinks - because fewer varieties are grown - the potential for plants (and the growers who use them) to make successful new adaptations in the future is jeopardised. Globally, the United Nations estimates that 75% of plant diversity has been lost in the past 100 years. In Mexico, 80% of maize varieties have been lost. In the Philippines, only two varieties of rice are now cultivated, where once there were thousands. Saving and swapping seeds sounds like a small thing to do to combat this huge problem, but it is vitally important. Even the world's 1400 seed banks, which hold the seeds of many varieties in cold storage, can not keep them indefinitely without growing and renewing them from time to time. This is what seed savers do every year -renew the stock, and preserve a bit of the gene pool for the future.

So that's why seed swapping is important

  • It maintains age-old skills
  • It keeps a diversity of locally adapted varieties alive
  • It resists the privatisation of plant genetic material
  • It keeps seed making in the garden and out of the laboratory
  • It gets round the counter-productive aspects of the National List, which even the government admits are daft
  • It helps protect biodiversity
    Not to mention introducing you to other local gardeners, cementing a sense of community and saving you money. Not bad for something you can do in your back garden!
  • This page was added on 24/01/2008.
    Comments about this page

    This is brilliant work, thank you for helping preserve traditional varieties.

    By Orly barziv
    On 04/01/2013

    One thing you mentioned is that not many plaecs have cover crop seeds. I have found several plaecs that sell them, and I am always interested to read about all the benefits that each variety/mix provides. Have you checked into Peaceful Valley? They are one of the plaecs that have a really good number of the cover crop products, and also very helpful info about gardening in general. As to Baker Creek, they are at the top of my list as well!!! Thanx for the rundown of your faves!

    By Mathieu
    On 07/10/2012

    I'm trying to organise a Seedy Sunday event in Melbourne, Australia. My only question is, what if people bring seeds collected from F1 grown foodstuff, and how would I, or they know whether they are these kinds of seeds? Are they to be avoided? Any help on this would be much appreciated.

    By Rosanna
    On 04/12/2013