Heirloom seeds exposed

The New York Times carried a long article on heirloom seeds on Wednesday. It is both balanced and iconoclastic, but anyone reading in Europe, might, like me, have raised a metaphorical eyebrow at this paragraph:

But the “universities have basically shut down all their programs for home gardeners,” Mr. Gettle said. “Most plant breeders are owned by a few large seed companies. I wish they would develop more things for the home garden.”

You don’t get to be a large seed company by paying any attention to home gardeners who, in any case, say they want to be able to save their own seeds from year to year. Nevertheless, the NYT went on to talk about some of the backyard breeders and small, regional seed companies that are doing precisely that, developing varieties for home gardeners and smaller commercial growers. In the US, and many other places, the market determines what people can get. If the marketing claims made for heirlooms are sketchy, the New York Times will find people to say so. And if large seed companies are failing to satisfy some market segments, other suppliers can try to do better.

European growers and breeders still don’t have that luxury. Directives on conservation varieties do nothing to encourage future breeding efforts, they merely permit old varieties to be marketed under certain conditions. In England and Wales, at any rate, new varieties will still need to be formally listed on the Common Catalogue. As far as I know, the conservation directives so far have been implemented only in Ireland,1 and a report assessing the value of the directives, due in late 2010 or early 2011, has not surfaced either.

Anyone in Europe wishing to grow unregistered varieties — whatever their motivation, and no matter how misguided they may be — has to find other channels. Of which, I’m glad to say, there seems to be an increasing number.

  1. Please correct me. []

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