A Seedy Business

Old plant varieties have been criminalised by a series of draconian laws intended to protect big corporations

By George Monbiot. Published in the Guardian 15th August 1996.

Plant breeders are dream merchants. Theirs is a trade in impossible fantasy, transformed into scarcely more credible reality. This week we learnt that strawberries the size of pears have gone on sale in California. Within three or four years, according to New Scientist, we’ll be able to grow them in Britain.

It’s easy to believe, as you cruise the supermarket aisles, past sugar snaps and baby sweetcorn, spaghetti plants and red brussels sprouts, that, thanks to the genius and persistance of the scientists who made them, the variety of fruit and vegetables has never been greater.

But nothing could be further from the truth. Since the Second World War, while innovative plant breeding has blossomed in Britain, we have gained some hundreds of new varieties, and lost some thousands of old ones. The wierd and wonderful breeds our grandparents knew – Potato Onions, Pig’s Snout Apples, Hedgehog Pears – are now all but impossible to find. What we see in the supermarkets is, for some fruit and vegetable species, just about all there is.

It’s sad, you may think, but scarcely surprising. The market is maturing, and maturation means concentration and economy of scale. If vast numbers of people are to be adequately fed, then food production must take place on a vast scale. Were there a mass market for Hedgehog Pears, then Hedgehog Pears would doubtless be cramming Tesco’s shelves. So it’s a shock to discover that most of what we have lost has not been marketed away but legislated away. Specialist trading in many of the old varieties is now illegal. We have been cut off, by the harshest plant breeding laws on earth, not only from our history and our heritage but also from what is surely the foundation stone of self-determination: the ability to grow your own food, on your own terms.

The trouble began, like so much of our asinine farm legislation, with good intentions. Plant breeders could spend decades developing a disease-resistant radish or a new hard-milling wheat, only to see other traders multiplying it and selling it as their own. Sharpsters would pass off inferior seed as a brilliant new variety, and their hapless clients wouldn’t know whether they had bought a beanstalk to the giant’s kingdom or a shrivelled stick, until the trader was over the horizon.

But even as the first Plant Varieties and Seeds Bill was drafted in 1964, it became clear that the legislators’ intentions had already been suborned. Instead of protecting both buyers and sellers of seed, the bill concentrated only on the interests of the sellers. As more and more of the trade has subsequently been swallowed up by a few vast petrochemical and food processing companies, the noose has tightened every time the law has been revised.

The Act demanded that a register, or National List, of plant varieties be compiled. Anyone marketing a breed not included on the list can be prosecuted, even if that marketing meant swapping a handful of seeds for a box of eggs. To get onto the National List, a plant variety must pass a series of rigorous tests. It must be deemed distinct from all other varieties. It must produce a uniform and true-breeding crop, and it must be commercially viable. If it qualifies, the person seeking to register it must pay a fee – generally around £2000, plus £350 for every year it stays on the list.

At a stroke, thousands of varieties were ruled outside the law. Many WERE distinct, but were not recognized as such by the inspectors. Others had been bred NOT to be uniform, but to produce a crop which didn’t need to be harvested all at once. Seeds deemed to be of little commercial value to farmers were of great non-commercial value to gardeners. The fees rendered specialist seeds inviable, and put many of the smaller breeders out of business.

The loss of old varieties threatens not only to obliterate the past, but also to manacle the future. Just as the idea of widespread organic farming in Britain gains credibility, we are losing the crops which flourish without great doses of pesticide and fertilizer. A few have been kept alive, but only by bending the rules. The Henry Doubleday Research Association has saved some 700 breeds, giving away the seeds of de-listed varieties to its members in return for an annual fee.

Being forced to buy new varieties when you’d prefer to buy old ones would be bad enough. But the Ministry of Agriculture’s rigid interpretation of international protocols means that buying a new breed is beginning to look like a Faustian pact.

This year, new legislation entitled plant breeders to claim royalties from people growing seed for their own use. If, in other words, you let your lettuces run to seed, and save that seed to plant next year, the company you bought the packet from can demand to be paid.

As big corporations engulf smaller corporations, and take control not only of seed production, but also of pesticide and fertilizer manufacture, food processing and the wholesale trade, there’s a danger that farmers could soon be reduced to little more than contractors, forced to return their harvest at a pre-set price to the company from which they bought their seed. Already, as the agricultural economist Tracey Clunies-Ross has documented, the Scottish seed potato industry has been taken over by four or five big companies, which are forcing all other breeders to sell their produce to them for £140 a tonne, then passing it on to English farmers for more than twice that amount. It looks like a cartel, it works like a cartel but, according to the Scottish Office, it is exempt from monopoly referral.

For all its rhetoric of choice and free trade, the government has no desire to protect either the grower or the consumer from the burgeoning rapacity of the corporations. As we wander dreaming down the supermarkets’ fantasy galleries, across the farms and gardens of Britain the searchlight of big business seeks out the last tangled corners of self-reliance and autonomy. We are left as helpless and dependent as a rabbit in its beam.