In late March, as Covid-19 rapidly spread throughout the globe and the UK braced itself for an extended period of lockdown, a fascinating pattern began to emerge in our collective buying habits.
As well as the panic buying of a staggering amount of toilet roll, a story began to emerge of a far more surprising shortage: entire seed stocks around the country running completely dry.
Does this mark a turning point in our desire to become self sufficient? Or is it simply a passing distraction now we have a few extra hours in our day to fill?
We sat down for a (virtual) brew and a chat with Ronja Schlumberger, one half of the two-person operation that is the Devon based Vital Seeds, to find out more.
How have you guys been holding up during lockdown?
Ronja: It’s been interesting, really full on to be honest. With the weather being so nice and everyone having the extra time to be in their gardens we’ve been really busy. And due to the social distancing measures, we have only been able to have one of us working at any given time!
We’ve also definitely noticed the pandemic having an effect on the the demand for organic, locally grown seed. During the first few weeks of lockdown a lot of our varieties completely sold out and we had to shut the website and start to limit orders.
Can you tell us a little more about Vital Seeds and the work that you guys do?
Ronja: We’re a small, independent organic seed company that produce and sell our own ‘open pollinated’ vegetable, herb and flower seeds down here in Devon. What we are offering is an alternative approach to the widespread, profit driven industrialised agriculture of F1 hybrid varieties and the high-input systems they rely on. We are also passionate about educating people on how to save their own seed – our newest venture is an online seed saving course that guides users through each step of the process.
Is it a difficult process saving your own seeds?
Ronja: It’s not particularly difficult although it can sometimes end up being a challenge in the UK climate. Vegetables that are grown for eating are harvested when they are ‘immature’, whereas seed crops have a longer season and are likely left to complete their whole life cycle, increasing the time the crop is in the ground and risking extra exposure to damage from the weather or disease.
What is interesting though, is that as little as 50 years ago it would be very common for home gardeners and farmers to save their own seeds. It’s a practice which has just kind of been lost in a very short period of time and now people don’t think twice about buying new seeds each year from a garden centre or shop. Most of the seeds we buy here in the UK are not produced here but are shipped in from countries like the US, China and India.
What is the difference between an organic and non organic seed?
Ronja: When we consider if a plant is organic we really need to be asking that question of the entire cyclical system, an organic seed will not have been dependent on the use of heavy chemical input at any stage of its production. Some chemicals can still be used in organic farming but they have to be environmentally sound and are very well regulated. Non organic seeds will have been produced using pesticides, herbicides and other potentially environmentally harmful chemicals.
You mentioned that Vital Seeds only produce ‘open pollinated’ varieties in contrast with much of the food industry that plant F1 hybrids. Can you describe the difference between an open pollinated variety and an F1 hybrid variety?
Ronja: Open pollinated varieties are the natural way for a plant to reproduce. You isolate a plant from the same species and let it go to seed. The seeds that are produced will be what we call ‘true to type’, which means they will have the same characteristics as their parent plant across many generations. They can continue to be harvested and planted in this way in a continual, low input process and will over time adapt to the local conditions and produce genetic diversity.
An F1 hybrid is produced when you cross two very distinct and different parent varieties in a deliberate act. Two parent lines are selected that offer specific traits, often productivity over taste, and are crossed to produce a uniform, standardised variety. If you then attempted to grow them on into their next generation, their F2 generation, they would become incredibly variable and a much poorer quality of plant than their first generation parents. They’re an evolutionary dead-end essentially, not to mention very labour intensive and costly.
It is still the case, however, that a very high proportion of the seeds we currently depend on are hybrids. And we are not saying they don’t have their place but generally we want to move into a system of agriculture that is genetically diverse, more resilient and localised.
It feels like a shift has taken place over the course of the pandemic and people are beginning to accept we simply can’t return to ‘business as usual’. Are you hopeful that the trend of the last few months of buying local and organic is here to stay?
In 2008, the United Nations and the World Bank published a report from 400 leading scientists on the state of global agriculture, both its history and its future, called the ‘International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science and Technology for Development’ (IAASTD). What it found was alarming but also interesting. Instead of agreeing with the conversation we often hear which states the need to increase yield and productivity through industrialised agriculture and genetic modification, the scientists actually argued the opposite. They said the only way to fix our broken food industry is through reverting back to localised systems of production, tackling social and cultural issues and applying more planet-friendly, sustainable methods of production. Education is key to achieving this, people need to know how to save seed. The future needs to be in the hands of growers and gardeners the world over.
Do you have any recommendations for things people can grow right now if they only have limited space at home?
Ronja: The main time for seed sowing has already been and gone this year but certain vegetables will still work well if sown now on a balcony or little terrace. Chard would be great to plant at this time of year and grows really fast and you can also plant kale, beetroot and turnips. It’s the perfect time to be sowing salads and greens ready for picking in the autumn – winter lettuce, corn salad and all the orientals such as mizuna, komatsuna and pak choi.
We actually refer to sowing at this time of year as ‘second spring’ and this year we’ve decided to put together a Second Spring Seed Collection that will contain all the seed packets that will do well at this time of year, that should be available on the website at the beginning of July.
Read more on the Vital Seeds website here