Oxford Real Farming Conference; 4-5 January 2017

Open Pollinated Seed, antiquated relic of a past agrarian age or the vital ingredient for a sustainable farming future?

On the first day of the Oxford Real Farming Conference, the UK’s community owned seed company, Seed Co-operative, starts a vital conversation about taking back control of our food:

The biodiversity of agricultural seeds has reduced by more than 90% since 1900, and seed sales has been concentrated within a small group of global corporations (just 5 corporations sell 75% of the worlds seed). What can farmers and growers do to influence which seeds are available to them, and at what price?

Open pollinated seeds provided the basis of the food system for centuries, rooted in the diversity of varieties that had been bred by farmers and passed from generation to generation.

The use of F1 hybrids and modern breeding techniques have taken work related to seed out of the hands of farmers and largely restricted it to laboratories. Professor Gunter Backes (University of Kassel) will outline new breeding techniques that include genetic editing. Some might consider these techniques as GMO’s but seeds bred in this way are not being sold as such.

Iain Tolhurst, an organic vegetable grower, will describe how he chooses between F1 hybrid and open pollinated varieties; with tight economic margins F1 hybrids can make the short-term difference between profit and loss.

Catrina Fenton will describe the work of the Heritage Seed Library in conserving vegetable diversity in the UK with the involvement of gardeners and growers.

David Price will outline how the Seed Co-operative is setting out to produce more organic open pollinated seed in the UK through a network of growers supported by a community of co-owners of the Seed Co-operative.

Lawrence Woodward (Whole Organic Plus) will Chair the session with a large part devoted to a wider question and answer with all those present.

The Challenge

Open pollinated seed adapts though natural processes providing natural resilience for diverse agro-ecological farming. Currently many varieties of open pollinated vegetable seed have been poorly maintained and this leads commercial growers to use F1 hybrid seed in order to compete within the economic framework in which they farm.

Biodiversity is our natural insurance policy; underwriting the ecology on which our food supply depends. Seeds derived from natural open pollination, and the traditional field-based plant breeding undertaken by generations of farmers, are rooted in biodiversity, providing this insurance.

F1 hybrids are increasingly being developed using techniques which could be considered GM, or close to it, and reduce genetic diversity in the process. Latest techniques are undetectable and so even if regulation required the use of these techniques to be disclosed (which it doesn’t right now) it could be impossible to enforce. Organic farmers could already be using these seeds without knowing it.

This session is designed to open up discussion on this topic and make people aware that biotechnology is advancing so fast that growers, consumers and even regulators are struggling to keep up.

We are very keen not to cast growers who are using F1 hybrid seed as the bad guys, but look to discuss what people want to see for the long-term.

What are the choices growers would make if it were not for the economic drivers that force commercial decisions?

How do we take the necessary steps to ensure that open pollinated seeds are still to be an option in the future?

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