Vegetable landraces of England and Wales

While lawyers and some scientists jump through hoops in their efforts to define — or at least describe — what they mean by “landrace” the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) in Britain has quietly published the results of a project entitled “Vegetable landrace inventory of England and Wales”. ((Heads should roll for the typo in the first sentence on the UK Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture portal. But they won’t.)) We haven’t had time to even skim the full report, but judging by the Information Bulletin that accompanied it, this is a very important piece of work. The Bulletin, which is extremely readable, explains clearly the importance of landraces and why they are under threat. It outlines the sources of information, from commercial seed companies that still maintain varieties on the UK Vegetable ‘B’ List (which is also explained) through to NGOs, smaller seed companies, and individual farmers. It offers a snapshot of the landraces that have been preserved, and even valiantly attempts to answer the question “What is a landrace?”. As for another question — How many English and Welsh vegetable landraces are there? — I can do no better than to quote from the Bulletin:

The answer to this question is we currently dont know and may never be able to give a precise estimate, partly because some varieties are marketed or grown under different common names, but also because gaining access to information about who is growing landraces is hampered by a number of challenges as highlighted earlier. However, if we are to retain this national resource we need to continue to build the inventory and gradually increase our knowledge of the diversity that exists before it is lost forever.

If ever there was a universally applicable set of ideas, this is it, and it deserves to be taken up widely around the world. The Defra project has shown that it is possible to gain an accurate understanding without spurious precision, and should be a model for any organization interested in gathering information and materials. You insist you want numbers?

Four UK seedbanks are primarily responsible for the maintenance of English and Welsh vegetable landrace diversity — the Heritage Seed Library (HSL), the John Innes Centre (JIC — notable for pea and bean collections), Science and Advice for Scottish Agriculture (SASA) and Warwick HRI’s Vegetable Genebank (WHRI). Collectively, they are responsible for the maintenance of seed samples of at least 327 vegetable landraces; however, we know that the actual number is higher because at present not all landrace samples are distinguished as landraces in their database maagement systems. Work is currently in progress to ensure that all landace material is identified.

Again, that should be resonating loudly around the world.

The project examined the identity of varieties on the B list (essentially traditional varieties that were in place before the EU Common Catalogue and its registered varieties came along) and discovered that the greatest number of varieties is among the brassicas, which account for 91 of the 345 landraces listed on the B list. No great surprise there, given that outbreeding Brassica oleracea makes it possibly the easiest species in which to find some slightly different characteristics (although that also makes it one of the hardest in which to maintain all the characteristics of a variety).

One of the interesting trends that the project identified is that government genebanks are increasingly taking on the work of maintaining traditional varieties landraces when, for one reason or another, their maintainers lose interest. SASA is currently responsible for 42% of the landraces. That represents a sea-change from when I was personally directly involved with this kind of thing. Are they making the seeds available, though, to gardeners and others less interested in breeding than in simply growing the varieties? They do offer a back-up scheme, which will replace a landrace should a grower lose it for some reason, an effort that the study says should be extended to England and Wales. The report also mentions Seedy Sunday and Seedling Saturday as community-organised events to promote the exchange of diversity and the knowledge to use it, and praises grower and breeder days organized by the four main genebanks.

One thing I’d suggest to expand the range of landraces of England and Wales would be to go looking in other government and NGO genebanks, especially in ex-colonies. Emigrants invariably took their seeds with them. Some that may no longer be available in the old country have surely survived in the new and could be repatriated to the delight of all.

A final quote:

[W]hile the loss of old varieties and the irreplaceable diversity that has gone with them is of concern, we may now be in a new period of expansion of locally-based vegetable crop diversity as a result of a strong resurgence of interest in growing traditional varieties and in grower-based breeding amongst both amateur and professional growers — the formal sector needs to work with the maintainers to put in place strategies to capture this diversity, as well as nurturing the culture that is responsible for creating and maintaining it.

All in all, this is very heartening news about the state of vegetable landraces in England and Wales. But is it a bit too heartening? We’d love to hear from people there who have on-the-ground experience.

One Reply to “Vegetable landraces of England and Wales”

  1. Jeremy, thanks for your positive review of our report and of the information bulletin.

    Regarding SASA taking on official maintenance of a high proporion of B list varieties, this was following a major review of the B list to see whether the listed maintainers were indeed maintaining the varieties. As you know, maintainers are mainly seed companies—some small, some large—who respond to customer demand. When modern varieties are available that out-compete their traditional counterparts for whatever reason, the traditional ones are dropped. It is heartening to find that a few companies, notably E.W. King, W. Robinson and Church of Bures continue to maintain traditional varieties partly because they understand their conservation value. Kings even continues to maintain some varieties that they don’t have in their seed list. Any that they drop permanently are sent to the HSL at Garden Organic. Another reason for B list varieties being dropped is that some companies had gone out of business or the maintainer had passed away.

    Your suggestion about going to collections outside of the UK to source material was certainly something that came up during this short 4 month project, but not something that was feasible in this time-frame. We wanted initially to focus on the status quo within the UK (or England and Wales as that’s Defra’s remit), but also, determining the origin of varieties from collections is not straightforward (see note on country of origin on page 55). Interestingly, quite a number of B list varieties are actually maintained by overseas seed companies. Also, as the UK is such a multi-cultural country, we can’t ignore the diversity that has been introduced. For example, many Asian vegetable varieties are maintained on allotments or in people’s gardens. A couple of generations of growing these crops on UK soil and you have new UK-based genetic diversity to take care of.

    Re. your specific question about seed availability from the SASA collections, availablity depends on the origin of the material (see bottom of page 17). Some of the B list varieties they maintain are likely to be available in small seed packets through commercial companies that aren’t official B list maintainers. Interestingly, at least 1000 unregistered vegetable varieties are available from small seed packet companies, mostly via the internet. Defra turns a blind eye to this, probably partly because they can’t control it and partly because they understand the importance of maintaining diversity. They’re only really interested in large-scale agricultural seed production.

    Note that the SASA-initiated Scottish Landrace Protection Scheme currently only covers a few traditional varieties, Shetland Cabbage being the only vegetable covered. However, it provides a good example of a system that could be extended to other genebanks, others areas and other varieties.

    Based on my experience as the researcher for this project, the statement about the state of vegetable landrace diversity is realistic. When you start to dig around, there is a lot going on around the country, much originally spurred by the work of HDRA and still linked to the organization now, but also many other groups that are keen to work with traditional varieties, including seed-saving and variety improvement. Their work may be a small component of UK agriculture and horticulture, but it is an important contribution to genetic diversity conservation nonetheless. It would have been very short-sighted of us not to positively highlight their work and contributions—what we need to do is to try to learn more about what they are doing, try to ensure that as far as possible samples are collected regularly for conservation ex situ, and open and maintain communication channels.

    The main problem if we want to have a handle on this diversity is how to get the formal PGR conservation sector working with the maintainers. I like to think that this project (and an earlier research project conducted by our colleague Maria Scholten that focused on cereals and forages) may act as catalysts for opening communication channels. I found that a few phone calls went a long way towards getting growers on our side and in setting their minds at rest that what we are trying to achieve is not counter to their own objectives. The information bulletin was designed specifically as a vehicle to communicate the results of the project to the stakeholder community—the same people that contributed their knowledge to the research project. I think more of this type of easily accessible literature is needed. Many people don’t want to wade through a 117 page report or read a journal article laden with scientific terminology. However, a colourful, 6-page document like the one we produced is accessible to a lot of people and quick to read. I believe that a regular information bulletin like this one to communicate with landraces maintainers would be really helpful in maintaining a dialogue and closing the gap between the formal and informal PGR sectors.

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