In the last 100 years, 80% of the crop varieties in Europe – 75% in the World – have been lost.
This is huge: we need a rich diversity of crop varieties for our future. Not just for the wonderful stories and diversity of flavours that each variety brings, but also for the genetic variety. The more genetic variety we have, the better our chances will be of finding varieties to grow well in the changing climate of the future.
One of the major causes of this loss is the “F1 hybrid”. F1 hybrid seeds have been filling more and more of our seed catalogues for the last forty to fifty years.
What does F1 hybrid mean? An F1 is created by breeding two different lines of a crop together to create a cross or a hybrid. (NB F1s are different from genetically modified or ‘GM’ crops. The issues of GM are a seperate issue and well publicised).
F1 hybrids have become popular because they are usually more vigorous than their parents, and will often produce fruits of a more consistent size and shape.
So why are F1s a problem?
There are at least two major issues with F1 hybrids.
- F1s are nearly all bred for commercial growers not home growers or container growers. Commercial growers want uniform produce to satisfy supermarkets. They also want the crop to ripen all at the same time as this makes harvesting easier. But neither of these traits are useful or desirable for most home growers. Most of us would prefer our veg to taste better and crop longer!
- You cannot save good seeds from F1 hybrids. The plants that grow from them will be different from their parents, often weak and unproductive. As a result the skill of saving seeds, once practised by nearly every grower, is being lost. We are all becoming totally reliant on the seed companies. Good for the seed company, not for diversity, not for us (as seed saving can be a richly rewarding part of growing).
And because F1s are profitable, seed company’s invest their research into breeding exclusive new F1 varieties – rather than breeding superior versions of traditional varieties (which is possible but less commercially attractive).
The result? As the seed industry focusses on F1 hybrids, traditional varieties (sometimes know as ‘open pollinated’ or ‘heritage’ or ‘heirloom’ varieties) are being lost. This rich and wonderful diversity – developed by farmers and growers over hundreds of years – is simply disappearing, fast. The problem is not really F1s themselves – a few would do little harm – it is the sheer number of F1s and how they are replacing traditional seeds.
New laws like the EU seed law, which could actually make it illegal to sell many of our heritage varieties, put diversity at even greater risk (for a summary of the current situation, see Ben Raskin in the Guardian here)
Peter Brinch, of Open Pollinated Seeds, explains more about F1s in this short video:-
What can you do to help?
If you’re growing in the city, you may be wondering if you can do anything worthwhile to help protect our rich seed heritage.
The answer is YES!
You may be growing in a small space but there are an ever growing number of us ‘city growers’! Together, I truly believe we can help change things.
Here are five ways you can help seed diversity.
1. Try to avoid buying F1s
How can you tell if seed is F1?
By law it must always tell you on the packet somewhere. Usually ‘F1’ is written on the front but sometimes on the back. If the pack does not say F1 you are OK: it will be a traditional or open pollinated variety. The Open Pollinated Seeds website has more info on the benefits of open pollinated varieties.
Some crops – like sweetcorn, spinach and cucumber – can be more tricky to find as non F1. They do still exist in some catalogues and are worth searching for if you have the time.
2. Support small independent seed companies
3. Learn to save your own seeds
There is a skill to saving high quality seed but, for many crops, it is not difficult to learn. It can also be fun and hugely rewarding. An easy one to start is the tomato – you can find a detailed video to show you how here.
4. Write to you MEP
If you live in Europe, write to your MEP for example – here are some ideas from the Soil Association on what you could say.
If you’ve grown an open pollinated or heritage variety that has done well in containers, I’d love to hear from you in the comments below. By learning from each other we can discover great new things to grow in containers.