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Chapter 6 of "Short Circuit" - page 2

So far, Astley's staff haven't even been able to get seeds from everywhere in Europe the first time around, let alone try to re-collect them to 'capture' any new genes and gene combinations for conservation and to see how varieties have changed since they were last collected and which have been lost. "There are still areas in which no-one has ever collected and I'm still trying to arrange national collection programmes" he says wearily. "International efforts are piecemeal and fragmented because of lack of funds. I get upset when I hear people saying that the gene banks have enough material in them. It does considerable damage if fundholders perceive that collection is no longer important and regard proposals for collecting trips to Spain or Portugal as pleasure jaunts."

While the EC has provided some funds for seed collecting, thousands of varieties have been lost as a result of its policies. On July 1st 1973, only months after its entry to the Common Market, the British government introduced regulations under the Plant Varieties and Seeds Act of 1964 making it an offence punishable by a 400 fine to sell seeds after 30th June 1980 unless the variety was listed on the UK national list or that of another EEC government. The regulations were introduced as a result of lobbying by an international organisation representing big seed companies, the Union for the Protection of New Varieties in Plants, UPOV, ostensibly to protect breeders from having varieties which had cost them a lot to develop being dishonestly 'adopted' by other seeds firms and sold under other names. They required that all new varieties be submitted to the Ministry of Agriculture for a DUS test to ensure that they were Distinct in form and shape from other varieties, Uniform in genetic structure and Stable - in other words, that they bred true. Testing cost 90 in 1976, when fees were first introduced, and had risen to 815 for cereals in 2002 15, plus an application fee of 300, which has to be repaid each year. A variety can be entered on the National list if it passes the test and undergoes a trial, for a fee of 1300 in 2002. The seed company responsible for the variety could also be asked to maintain an inspection plot so that the variety's uniformity could be checked.

If the regulations had been confined to varieties just coming on to the market they would have been fair enough. However, the legislation - and similar laws were enacted in the US, Canada, Australia and New Zealand as a result of OPOV's activities - covered old varieties as well. This caused a crisis for many smaller, family-run seeds companies which, since they lacked the financial resources to run breeding programmes, tended to specialise in traditional strains. Most of these firms were unable to list their varieties because landraces, or any strains of seeds with some genetic variability were automatically excluded by the DUS test's stability requirements. Realising that their business would be so restricted that they would become unviable after July 1980, many sold out to their bigger rivals. The milling and bakery combine, Rank Hovis McDougall, bought up 83 small seeds firms in one week alone 16.

In any case, no firm was going to pay for a DUS test for a variety it only sold in small quantities and since sales to professional growers generated nine-tenths of the average seeds firm's turnover, only those varieties popular with farmers and market gardeners were generally considered worth registering. This was more than unfortunate since amateur gardeners and organic growers require very different seeds from the mainstream professional. High yield, uniformity and the ability to travel well are some of the characteristics the commercial producer seeks whereas the amateur, above all else, wants a crop with flavour. With peas, for example, a farmer orders a variety which does not have to be supported with sticks, in which every pod ripens simultaneously so that it can be combined at exactly the right moment for the frozen food market, and which has little leaf or vine to block the harvesting equipment. An organic or amateur gardener on the other hand wants a tall pea to avoid getting an aching back from picking, which has pods ready for eating over a long period and which is best fresh rather than frozen. And yet, despite these different needs, as the seven-year notice period ran on, dozens of tall peas and thousands of other older varieties were gradually deleted from seed company catalogues and, the lesson of the Old Cornish cauliflower forgotten, allowed to become extinct.

Last minute hunt to save Irish apple varieties (Click for panel from original book)

The listing legislation also caused genetic material to be lost because only one strain of a traditional variety was allowed on the National List: all seeds firms' versions were regarded as identical although in many cases it was clear that they were not. In the 1970s for example, the Bedfordshire Champion onion was one of the most popular varieties with amateur growers and versions of it were listed in various seeds catalogues under such names as Bedfordshire Champion Hurst Reselected (a name which indicates that the basic variety still had some genetic variation within it and that a Mr. Hurst had tried to eliminate some of it), Golden Globe, Nuttings Golden Ball, Cambridge No. 10, Sutton Globe and Up-to-Date. After July 1980, all these strains had to be sold just as plain Bedfordshire Champion, completely disregarding the fact that reselection, both intentional and as a result of their having been produced on seeds grounds in different parts of the country had taken place over the years to such an extent that some of the strains now had resistance to downy mildew which the parent variety lacked.

Even if a popular old variety was registered, it only stayed so as long as the seeds firm responsible for it thought it worthwhile to pay the annual fee. In the years since 1980 as a result of cost-cutting exercises, hundreds of vegetable varieties have been dropped from the list and thus made illegal to sell. At the time this book went to press, if these varieties still existed, anyone wanting to sell their seeds would have had to have paid the full DUS test fee to get them restored to the list. In 1995, two decades too late, the British and French governments unsuccessfully asked the EU to relax its directive and allow unlisted seed varieties over 15 years old to be sold in small packets to amateur growers. "Our request is still on the table in Brussels" a Plant Variety Rights offical told me in 1996. "We ran into trouble with the Dutch, who don't think that you can distinguish varieties for amateur growers. We're still hopeful." Simon Hickmott, HDRA's full-time seed grower, is not: "It will never happen" he says.

Because HDRA is the only amateur gardening organisation concerned with organic methods, it was the only one to know what the loss of the old varieties might mean and to kick up a fuss in the media, a campaign which, incidentally, played a large part in enabling and encouraging Oxfam to open the gene bank at Wellesbourne. HDRA also took action itself. For example, in order to get round the restrictions on selling unlisted seeds, Lawrence Hills organised a seed library and a network of members to grow old varieties for exchange with each other. It also wrote to seed companies asking to be kept informed of any varieties they planned to drop so that these could be taken into the library and published the first edition of its Vegetable Seed Finder in 1977 listing firms from whom listed older varieties might be purchased without breaking the law.

Almost twenty years later, these activities are still going on. HDRA's Heritage Seed Programme now has around 700 varieties in its seed library and the 4,000 members of the programme, who are not necessarily members of HDRA itself, are sent the library's catalogue annually so that they may order five of them - free, of course, as it would be illegal for them to be sold - to grow in their own gardens. They also get a quarterly bulletin, Leaflet, containing practical advice on seed saving and a Lost and Found section so that they can exchange rare varieties. The rare seeds the members order are produced in the project's gardens at Ryton near Coventry and by members who have volunteered to act as Seed Guardians and grow at least one variety for seed year after year. "We had 160 guardians in 1995 and will have more in 1996" Simon Hickmott told me . "At the moment, the number of people in the programme is growing very quickly and we badly need more guardians to produce seed for them because having varieties grown in several different places does a lot to reduced genetic drift."22 Click for 2002 update

Drift is, in fact, very likely to affect seeds in the Heritage Programme as Hickmott realises: "We differ from other seedbanks in that we have a very short period between generations, with very little seed being left in long-term storage - seeds are only kept back as insurance against failures. This leaves many varieties open to change and evolution from their original characteristics but we feel that our approach at least allows our members to use the seeds. Our emphasis is always on making varieties available which are essentially suited to the amateur grower."

Pure no more? Seed mixtures cut chemical use (Click for panel from original book)

Seed Savers' Exchange in the United States is a much bigger operation, although in its early years it received a donation from HDRA to help it get going. It was set up in 1975 by a gardener, Kent Whealy, who had inherited some seed from his grandfather-in-law and shared the old man's conviction about their importance, and now has around 5,000 varieties in its library. Many of these were not in US government seed banks in 1985 when a study commissioned by a committee of Congress revealed that, of, for example, the 1,799 varieties of beans which Seed Savers' network of 630 farmers and gardeners were storing or growing, only 147 could be found in official collections25. And, while Seeds Savers had 554 varieties of tomatoes and five of spinach, the government had 133 tomatoes and no spinach.

In Ireland people know only too well what happens when a country relies on a crop with a narrow genetic base. All the twelve or so varieties of potato grown in Ireland before 1845 had been bred from just two introductions and consequently the plant had an extraordinarily narrow range of genetic variability, particularly as farmers never grew them from seed but planted setts cut from the tubers, a process which made every plant exactly the same as the next. When the potato was first grown in Ireland in the late 16th Century, it had left all its enemies behind in the New World and was described as being 'peculiarly exempt from blights and mildews' and 'more tenacious of life than couch grass'26. As a result, it was particularly useful as a standby against summers so wet that most of the cereal crop was lost and is credited with preventing several local famines. In the West of Ireland, however, potatoes came to be grown on a huge scale by people whose holdings of boggy, stony land were too small to allow them to plant the crop in different places each year on, say, a four-year rotation, even had there been other crops with which to rotate them. In most cases, only the potato would grow.

As the years passed and trans-Atlantic sailings became more frequent, the potato's enemies made the crossing too. In the 1750s a dry rot arrived which would destroy potatoes in store. Leaf curl, a virus disease spread by aphids which can reduce yields by 70%. arrived in the 1770s. Then came botrytis, a blue-grey mold which rots the leaves and stems in 1795, and blackleg in 1833, a bacterial disease which poisons the plant, blackening the stems and rotting the tubers in the ground or during storage. And finally came blight. It was first reported in the Isle of Wight in June 1845 and had spread to every country in Europe by August. Whole fields became blackened and stinking almost overnight. There was nothing anyone could do.

As these diseases arrived, potatoes became progressively riskier to grow. In each of the three quarter-centuries between 1724 and 1799, there were five years in which the potato crop was bad but only three or four of the fifteen were serious enough to be officially rated as famines, with relief works being organised on a wide scale. Between 1800 and 1824, there were nine years of bad crops of which five were judged to be famines. The worst was in 1821 when a quarter of a million people died. Between 1825 and 1849, however, there were fourteen years of bad or disastrous crops, at least eight involving famine. Over a million people lost their lives and two million emigrated. Moreover, the effects of the loss of life and the enforced emigration which Henry Hobhouse documents so well in Seeds of Change27 will be with us for ever.

Had a gene confering blight resistance not been found amongst the thousands of types of potato peasants were cultivating in the Andes and in Mexico and bred into our modern varieties, it is unlikely that anyone in Europe would be able to grow it today. Despite this, however, the crop almost had to be written off again sixty years later as a result of potato wart disease, a fungus which causes spore masses like black cauliflower curds to grow from rotting tubers. The fungus spreads in soil and even muddy boots or windblown dust are enough to take it from place to place. In 1908 the problem had become so serious that it was made a notifiable disease. However, the following year a Ministry inspector noticed that two varieties, Snowdrop and Golden Wonder, were never affected and it was from these that all other resistant varieties have been bred. As a result, for the moment, wart disease is no longer a serious problem.

When Lawrence Hills told this story in a HDRA newsletter in 1980, he pointed out that it was only because a range of potato varieties was being grown that people found out that genetic resistance to wart disease existed and in which varieties. If only one type of potato had been cultivated and the rest all kept in gene banks, rectifying the situation would have taken much longer than it did.

The potato is currently threatened by blight again: a second form of the disease has crossed the Atlantic and scientists fear that it will interbreed with the first and produce a hybrid so vigorous it proves uncontrollable 28. Most other major crops face similar threats and according to Fowler and Mooney, current trends make it almost inevitable that at least one of them will become impossible to grow: "If enough diversity is lost, the ability of crops to adapt and evolve will have been destroyed. We will not have to wait for the last wheat plant to shrivel up and die before wheat can be considered extinct. It will become extinct when it loses the ability to evolve and when neither its genetic defences nor our chemicals are able to protect it. And that day might come quietly even as millions of acres of wheat blanket the earth."

Animal genes at risk too (click for panel from original book)

The consequences of genetic inadequacy overcoming a major crop would be much worse than those of the collapse of the world's financial system. It is therefore absolutely imperative that each community re-create landraces suited to its area by planting and saving mixtures of seeds.This would mean that its crops stood a fighting chance of being able to maintain their resistance to pests as rapidly as the pests developed new ways of overcoming it. Communities should also establish their own chapters of organisations like HDRA and Seed Savers so that, just as with money and credit, they can exchange seeds locally and have an alternative, independent source of genetic material available should the mainstream multinational one fail.

"Who would survive if wheat, rice or maize were to be destroyed? To suggest such a possibility would have seemed absurd a few years ago. It is not absurd now" Jack Harlan wrote as long ago as 1972. "How real are the dangers? What is the potential magnitude of the disaster? One might as well ask how serious is atomic warfare. The consequences of failure of one of our major food plants are beyond imagination."


It is not enough for a community to grow its own food from seed it has saved. It also has to end its reliance on other external inputs as well. The following table32 sets out how extensive the changes in agriculture needs to be if communities are to become more self-reliant:

SUN Main source of energy Supplemented by fossil fuels
WATER Mainly rain and small irrigation schemes Large dams, centralised distribution, deep wells.
NITROGEN Fixed from the air and recycled in soil organic matterPrimarily from inorganic fertiliser
MINERALS Taken from soil and recycled Mined, processed, imported
WEED & PEST CONTROL Biological, cultural, mechanical and locally available chemicals With pesticides and herbicides
ENERGY Some generated or collected on farm Dependent on fossil fuel
SEEDS Most produced locally Most from elsewhere
VARIETIES Thrive in difficult conditions Need high input levels
ANIMALS Integral part of farm Produced in special units
CROP SYSTEM Rotation and diversity Monoculture
LABOUR Labour-intensive; Most work done by farmer's family Low labour requirement; most work done by hired labour and machines
CAPITAL Provided by farm family or community shares. Any surplus reinvested locally.External loans or shares; any surplus sent away
MARKET Primarily local Primarily far away

Switching to the sort of low-external input system outlined in the table is not the same thing at all as reverting to traditional farming and the difficulties and increased costs attached to doing so are less than most people imagine. This is because many of the problems associated with high-energy, chemical agriculture are created by the system itself and become much less serious when the approach and scale are changed. For example, the use of nitrogenous fertilisers makes pesticide applications almost inevitable because they encourage plants to make lusher, sappier growth which is much more liable to insect and fungal attack and which contains more free amino acids, substances particularly attractive to bacteria which cause decay. Avoid using artificial sources of nitrogen and you can usually avoid using artificial pesticides too. Another cause of pest problems are the larger fields needed by farmers if they are to use bigger, more powerful equipment because the hedgerows bulldozed to create them were the predators' habitat. A low-input agriculture would use less power machinery and either restore the hedgerows or plant special areas in which predators could thrive.

In any case, just as we saw with renewable energy in the last chapter, food produced in a community using a low level of inputs from outside is highly unlikely to cost more than its brought-in equivalent if the community has unused resources such as land and labour and it can express the costs of using them in local terms, perhaps through pricing them in its own currency. Even when this is not the case, food produced using low external input techniques need cost no more more than conventionally-grown food by normal accounting standards. For example, a study of the costs and returns from winter wheat production in Britain in 1979 showed that the gross margin per hectare was 393 on the organic farms and 399 on chemical ones if the higher price paid for organic grain was ignored33. A similar survey of 200 conventional, organic and biodynamic farms in Baden-Württemberg in Germany showed that organic methods can produce almost as heavy crops as chemical ones34. A lot depended on the quality of the soil, there being much less difference in yields on the better soils, and as organic farming improves soil quality, the longer a piece of land was farmed organically, the closer to the chemical yield its output became. Winter wheat, for example, yielded on average 3.3 tonnes per hectare on an organic farm three years after it had been converted from chemicals but 4.2 tonnes after seventeen years. The average chemical yield for the area was 4.7 tonnes and, as this figure can be expected to fall slowly as a result of soil loss unless counteracted by the introduction of improved varieties, after a decade or two organic output may well surpass the chemical one.

Graph 6.1  Danish organic farmers are paid a little more for their wheat and milk than their conventional neighbours. The big difference between the price of organic and conventional produce in the shops is due to the higher mark-ups imposed by the distribution chain.
Graph 6.2  Although the market value of food sold in the US doubled in 1975-85, the amount going to the farmer stayed almost constant, rising from $40 billion to $45 billion over the period.

One particularly impressive 1993 study of four mixed farms on Minnesota showed them to produce net incomes for the families which ran them between 50 and 100% above the average for the conventional, chemical farms in their area despite the fact that their acreages were significantly below the local average35. Their higher profit margins came about because although they used more labour, they spent nothing on buying fertilisers and pesticides, inputs which could make up around 40% of their neighbours' total costs36.

Jules Pretty looked at the results of many similar studies for his book Regenerating Agriculture37 and concluded that low external input farms could be more profitable than conventional ones because while yields per hectare were lower, their input costs were lower still. "Generally, the loss in yield per hectare is some 5-10% for crops and 10-20% for livestock" he writes. "Livestock perform less well mainly because of the substantially lower stocking rates necessary for clover-based pastures. Grassland in Britain has very large amounts of nitrogen fertiliser added and it is almost impossible to match returns when switching to clover pastures. But there is good evidence to suggest that the animals are better off. In Germany, cows in 'alternative' herds are more fertile and live longer". What he might have added is that male farmers who don't use chemicals have higher sperm counts which makes them more fertile too 38.

Even if the low-input yield is lower, the loss in weight will almost certainly be counterbalanced by a gain in nutritional quality. A study by Werner Schuphan showed that vegetables grown organically with only natural compost as fertiliser gave on average 24% lower yields than their chemically-fertilised equivalents but contained 23% more dry matter39. In other words, the chemical fertiliser was causing the plant to water itself down. The organic vegetables were sweeter as, weight for weight, they contained 19% more natural sugars. They were also better food, containing 18% more protein, 28% more vitamin C and 77% more iron. Not unexpectedly, they also had a much lower proportion of undesirable chemicals, containing 93% less nitrates which can be turned into strongly carcinogenic nitrosamines by mouth bacteria, and 42% less free amino acids, substances attractive to decay-causing bacteria.

So, although fertilisers, pesticides and herbicides are artificially cheap in the mainstream economy because their price does not cover the cost of the environmental damage they do (A US estimate is that a dollars-worth of pesticide does a dollar's worth of environmental damage, implying that a tax should be imposed on pesticides to double their price)40, and the extra labour that low-input farming requires is artificially expensive because of the taxes placed on it, low-external input food products should prove highly competitive with conventional chemical ones, especially if they are sold more directly to the customer.

Page 3 of Chapter 6

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