A sustainable seed system is the foundation of a sustainable farming future that can feed us without exploiting or damaging the land.  For many years, the legislative backdrop to seed production and marketing in Wales and the rest of the United Kingdom (UK) has been European Union (EU) legislation.  Although seeds policy in Wales is a devolved matter, to date it has followed the UK lead in interpreting that legislation.

Currently, all seed varieties marketed in the UK for commercial use must meet strict DUS (Distinctiveness, Uniformity and Stability) criteria, and also VCU (Value for Cultivation and Use) requirements.  These are based on the needs of conventional chemical farming, and don’t take into account the very different needs of organic and agro-ecological producers.

As most of you will be aware, there has been a great deal of very successful work with population grains for agro-ecological production.  This development of what is called in the regulations ‘organic heterogenous material’ (OHM) was carried out under the auspices of a seven-year experiment within the EU seeds variety legislation.

The potential value of work with OHM / populations is huge, especially in the context of climate change and extreme and uncertain weather conditions.  We need this work to continue further and to expand to include vegetable seeds.  However, right now it is unclear how this will be possible under post-Brexit seeds marketing legislation in Wales and the rest of the UK. 

Returning to seed varieties in the more traditional sense, the UK (based on EU legislation) has an ‘amateur varieties’ list.  This enables vegetable varieties that would not be eligible for listing under DUS / VCU rules to be sold with a much lower bar set to registration (and much lower costs).   

In addition to this, over the last 25-plus years DEFRA (and following their lead the Welsh government) have operated what they refer to as ‘light touch regulation’.  This means in practice that there has been little enforcement of variety legislation for small quantities of seed sold to amateur growers.  However these options have only covered seeds sold in small quantities, and have explicitly not covered seeds for professional growers.  

Smaller scale growers, those selling direct through markets or box schemes, growers producing in more challenging locations, and low input agro-ecological systems all need different varieties to conventional chemical based horticulture, where the soil is little more than a medium to support crops.   

But because of both the strict criteria involved in DUS / VCU, and also the costs of registration, the range of varieties currently available that can meet these needs is very limited.

Now, following Brexit, DEFRA (with the Welsh and Scottish Governments and DAERA in Northern Ireland) have put out a ‘Call for Ideas’  for a new Plant Varieties and Seeds Strategy for the UK.  The danger, of course, is that this consultation process will be dominated by big agri-business and the gene-tech lobby. 

We need to take this opportunity as agro-ecological and organic farmers and growers  to make our voices heard, and push for genuinely appropriate legislation that can meet our needs.

Contributing to this push, there will be two sessions at the Wales Real Food and Farming Conference in Lampeter talking about our seed supply.

The first looks at how we can build a sustainable seed system for Welsh farmers and growers.   We will explore to what extent the current seed supply is meeting the needs of agroecological farmers / growers in Wales, and identify gaps & problems.   The plan then is to take this information, & feed it into responses to the DEFRA Call for Ideas on Plant Varieties & Seeds Strategy.

In addition, if there are practical problems that don’t relate to legislation, we’ll feed them into the UK Seed Sovereignty programme and discuss how we can tackle them as a movement. 

The second session “New GMOs: risk, opportunity or distraction?” tackles the question of gene editing head on.  We’ll look at key issues with the Genetic Technology Bill, why it is a risk in Wales, and what we should be aiming to do about it. 

If you’re a farmer or grower, and you’ll be at WRFFC, please do come along to these sessions on Wednesday.  We need as many voices as possible to contribute to building a genuinely appropriate seeds policy that will sustain our agriculture in Wales for the long term.   

Kate McEvoy

Real Seeds Ltd.

Picture: Kate McEvoy