Most gardeners have their favourite seed supplier and can spend hours deciding which varieties to try each year. However, few people realise that the seed suppliers don’t actually grow the seed themselves and they probably didn’t develop the varieties either, particularly if they are F1 hybrids. Many of the big name seed companies may trace their origins to family-run businesses that sold their own seed but they are now just part of an amazing global seed production system. The seed you sow in your garden may have been bred in one country, grown in another, tested somewhere else and shipped half way around the world before making its way into the packet you hold in your hand and that raises some important issues...
The Global Supply Chain
How does the seed get from the plant breeder to the packet? Here’s the process explained:
- Plant Breeders develop the variety. This is a costly and lengthy process which involves crossing many hundreds of varieties with desirable traits and gradually refining the results for better yield, taste, disease resistance etc, testing to ensure consistency and then protecting their rights through patents etc. Tozer Seeds, the largest independent plant breeders in the UK, say that new varieties of annuals typically take 7-10 years to develop. Many vegetables are biennials and they take even longer, often 15 years or more. Hybrids are more difficult and time consuming to produce due to the many combinations of parent plants involved.
- Seed Multipliers are tasked with taking the new line and producing many millions of new seeds, all of exactly the same variety with a high standard of purity and germination rate.
- Seed Trading Floors are where buyers and sellers of the seed agree the quantities and prices ahead of production. The World Seed Congress is the best known of these.
- Seed Growers are contracted by the seed producers to do the actual growing and harvesting of the seed. This can be a very labour intensive process involving controlled pollination, sometimes by hand. Where these farms are located varies on the vegetable being grown but includes the USA, Australia, Continental Europe, South Africa and South America.
- Seed Testing Laboratories are used to test the purity of the seed (are they all the same variety?) and viability (the germination rate – will they all grow?)
- Seed Dealers/Exporters often act as an intermediary in the process of getting it to the supplier.
- Seed Suppliers are the companies who sell the seed to you. Many of these companies will also test seed themselves or have ‘trial gardens’. Just checking there are the correct number of seeds in each packet is a highly technical task as many seeds are so small that computer controlled balances (scales) and packing machinery is required, although it is nearly always operated by hand in the companies I have visited. They also have to anticipate the demand for each type of seed and ensure that it comes from fresh stock each year.
Good for Everyone?
With so many companies involved it always amazes me that packet seed doesn’t cost more than it does. The reason for this is because seed is largely produced for farmers, not gardeners, as that’s where the profits are. Whereas an amateur gardener will buy just a few packets each year, farmers purchase it by the kilogram and are more likely to pay extra for high-yield varieties that produce uniform vegetables which they can sell to supermarkets.
Understanding where seed comes from leads to several important insights:
- New Reliable Varieties: Without the scale of the seed industry we wouldn’t get the range of new varieties and hybrids that improve available crops, yield, taste etc. Although they are mainly developed for farmers, companies such as Tozer seeds also look for other lines coming through from their breeding programs which may benefit home growers. The rigorous seed testing also means that seed is more likely to grow. Companies such as West Coast Seeds in Canada have a reputation for undertaking stringent tests of all seed they sell and consumer watchdogs such as Which magazine publish annual tests for the UK.
- Genetic Diversity: There are concerns about the reduction in genetic diversity by losing heirloom varieties,which is why many seed-saving networks now exist. Commercial profits don’t always lead to the best choices being offered to gardeners who often want a spread-out harvest of good tasting crops, rather than the high-yield uniformity that farmers seek. On the other hand, plant breeders have made significant advances in disease resistant varieties and more reliable crops are always a bonus.
- Big Business: Seminis, the largest vegetable plant breeder company in the world, was purchased by Monsanto, the GM seed giant, in 2005. Many garden catalogues were left in a dilemma as their customers still wanted the same varieties owned by Seminis but they didn’t want to support Monsanto. The move by multinationals like Monsanto to own key parts of the seed supply chain is a big concern in my opinion.
- Working Conditions: With so many players in the seed production process it’s hard to ensure that trade is fair. Recent studies of farming in India exposed the huge scale of child labour used in hybrid vegetable seed production, although these crops are thought to be destined for farmers not consumers. Organisations like the Soil Association have produced excellent ethical standards for organic seed but they are currently voluntary and they rely on reciprocal arrangements with other organic certification bodies for seed production which may not include the same standards.
Whilst the seed supply industry brings plenty of innovative new varieties, the problem is that traceability is poor. Unless buying directly from a seed company that handles its production such as Tozer Seeds (UK), the Real Seed Company (UK), Wood Prairie Farm (US) or Seed Savers Exchange (US), it’s difficult to know who was involved along the supply chain and I think this is an area that seed companies need to be much more proactive about. In an era where ethical standards are increasingly important, I’d like to know whether my seed company is buying seed from Seminis or using cheap labour in South America. For me, that’s as important as the varieties themselves.
We would love to hear what you think of the global seed supply industry, so please add a comment below…
[My thanks go to Dr Frances Gawthrop of Tozer Seeds and Ben Raskin of the Soil Association for their help in preparing this article.]