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”.1 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.