Monday 13 May 2013

Save Our Seeds - Update

The draconian new seed laws described in my last post passed the EU commission last week, with some important last-minute changes for the better. The law will now go to parliament for modification or approval, so there is still a chance of further changes, with competing and vested interests trying to change it for their own benefit. What follows are extracts from Real Seeds' press release (read the whole article here) describing the good and the bad of the final draft of the law:

The law starts from the premise that all vegetables, fruit and trees must be officially registered before they can be reproduced or distributed. This obviously is a major restriction on seed availability, as there are all sorts of costs in both time and money dealing with the bureaucracy of a central Plant Variety Agency. Then, after making that the basic rule, there are some exceptions made in limited cases:
  • Home gardeners will be permitted to save and swap unregistered seed without breaking the law.
  • Small organisations can grow and supply unregistered vegetable seed - but only if they have less than 10 employees
  • Seedbanks can grow unregistered seed without breaking the law (but they cannot give it to the public)
  • There might be easier (in an unspecified way) rules for large producers of seeds suitable for organic agriculture etc, in some (unspecified) future legislation - maybe.
No, not really. These concessions might be helpful, but are still limited. They are subject to all sorts of 'ifs' and 'buts' in the small print. And the small print hasn't been written yet, and in fact won't be written until long after the law has been approved.
And the rest of the law is still overly restrictive - there are all sorts of rules about labelling & sealing packets for example - and in the long run will make it much harder for people to get hold of good seeds they want to grow at home or for small scale sustainable agriculture.
For years the availability of freely reproducible open-pollinated seedsuitable for sustainable agriculture has been shrinking due to the seed laws, and this new law doesn't address the problem. It just considers the needs of the agri-tech industry and makes it easier for them to market their industrial seed on a big scale.

The real problem is having a starting point that all seeds are prohibited unless officially tested and registered, and then adding some small exceptions as an afterthought.
This is really back to front - testing and registration should be voluntary. Then some people (like massive industrial farmers) who might want the sort of seed that can pass certain types of test - they can choose to use the 'officially registered' seed. And normal people would be free to choose freely what they want to grow from all the myriad of normal seed in the world.
There are also clauses that mean the above concessions could be removed at any time in the future without coming back to the Parliament for a vote.
This law was written for the needs of the globalised farm-seed industry, who supply seed by the ton to industrial farmers. It should not apply at all to seed used by home gardeners and small market growers, who have very different needs.
Freely reproducible seeds are an inalienable part of our heritage. Listing and official certification of vegetable seeds might be helpful for industrial-scale farmers, but it should be a voluntary scheme that people can choose to use if they need it.
So we are calling for registration and testing to be voluntary for all non-GMO, non-patented, non-hybrid seed. That would fix all the problems with the law, while still allowing the giant agri-companies to protect their business the way they want.
But if that does not happen, then the law needs improving - because allowing tiny organisations to supply seed outside the regulations is a good start, but it is not sufficient.
Only in this way will we have a broad supply of quality seed for the needs of home gardeners and small growers.
Do keep signing the petitions if you haven't already, and keep an eye on Real Seeds or Bifurcated Carrots for updates - this isn't over yet.

Wednesday 1 May 2013

URGENT: Save Our Seeds

On May 6th, the EU will vote on new legislation governing plant varieties, proposed by the Directorate-General for Health and Consumers in response to hard lobbying by the globalised agricultural seed industry - Monsanto and its buddies. This legislation will mean that no seed (or other plant reproductive material) can be sold, swapped or given for free to anyone anywhere in the EU unless it is registered on the EU Plant List as an 'approved' variety.

If the legislation passes, it will kill off innumerable heirloom, heritage and amateur varieties. It won't (I believe) impact the varieties already licensed for commercial use, but it will impact the huge number of 'amateur' varieties, all those that breed plants on a small scale at home, all those that forage seed and propagate wild plants, and all the rare seeds being preserved and brought back to cultivation by small businesses. It will mean high costs for seed merchants to put their varieties through rigorous tests to get them on the list - and since the tests are designed around high-output industrial varieties, many are unlikely to be approved anyway. Once a variety is approved, the seller will have to pay an annual fee to keep it that way. Heirloom varieties and other less-popular varieties will undoubtedly be lost. Small seed merchants preserving and supplying rare varieties will undoubtedly not be able to continue. Biodiversity will fall dramatically. Consumer choice will be reduced. Food security will be damaged. With every variety that dies out, the pool of genetic material for breeding future varieties will be diminished. That unique heirloom bean your grandfather gave you will be outlawed - it will be illegal to pass it on to anyone else. There'll be no seeking out local varieties when you move to a new area. There'll be none of the seed-saving and -swapping and -sharing that we growers enjoy so much - unless they're on the EU Plant List. And all this so that agricultural giants can make more money and take yet more control of our food supply.

This legislation flies in the face of nature, which propagates, adapts and evolves freely, constantly creating sub-species and sub-sub-species. It's an attempt by corporations to claim ownership of the plant world, and it's an assault on our right as earth-dwellers to enjoy and interact with the earth's natural world.

I personally grow many unusual and heritage varieties which are at risk; seeds I've saved myself and seeds I've bought from Real Seeds and others - many listed as 'amateur' varieties 'not for commercial exploitation', which Real Seeds must get round by charging 1p per year to join their 'club'. Many of these are my favourite varieties. I have a Caucasian vining spinach plant which I've only ever seen shared informally and sold by one-woman company Backyard Larder. I suspect most of these varieties would quickly become endangered if the legislation passes, and next year I'd have to grow a dramatically different selection.

I'd like to think there's no way this insane law would pass when put to the vote, but Monsanto seems to have ways to get anything it wants. I have had no replies so far to my letters to MEPs and it's simply too important an issue to just wait and see without expressing my opposition.

Whether or not you grow food yourself, this legislation has implications for your food security, the natural world all around you, and thus the future of the planet. PLEASE inform yourselves about this issue and TAKE ACTION.

Here are some links to help you:

Please share this post. We must not let this happen.

Thursday 21 February 2013

Winter catch-up!

By the end of October our garden beds were looking good, full of pak choi, turnips, kale, radishes, winter lettuces, perpetual spinach, kai lan, lamb's lettuce, purple sprouting broccoli and carrots, not to mention self-seeded claytonia everywhere.

The greenhouse was full of pots of rocket, mustard, pak choi, lettuce and spring cabbages.

The saffron came up but didn't flower, which was disappointing. I've been feeding it all winter to try to build it up for next year. I'm not sure whether it's supposed to be this floppy...

On the plot, we had a few leeks doing well, and our over-winter onions and garlic got off to a great start. We even managed to pick a couple of big bags of chickweed for the dinner table, and turned them into a creamy green sauce to serve with rostis and poached eggs with lots of parmesan.

In November, I was given a mushroom growing kit for my birthday, and proceeded to grow lots of lovely pearl oyster mushrooms. The kit, from Fungi Futures, is easy to grow indoors and produces three flushes of mushrooms over a couple of months.

Good, huh? Growing mushrooms like this is fun and a great experience, and it's amazing to watch how fast they grow! This kit makes a great gift, but it's a rather expensive way to get your mushrooms and there must be more cost-effective alternatives to grow them long term... I've always been a bit put-off by 'gourmet' mushrooms as I find some varieties rather rubbery and weird, but now I can safely say I like oyster mushrooms so maybe I'll see what I can do about growing some more...

In December I discovered this wonderful recipe for Seville orange cheesecake - the best orange cheesecake you're ever likely to taste and possibly the bestest ever cheesecake ever. And, being someone who doesn't like traditional fruity spicy Christmas desserts, I made this equally awesome choc-and-nut Christmas pudding for the big day. The recipe is adapted from a Delicious Magazine recipe, but after a trial run I decided there was plenty of room for improvement, so here's my version.

Choc-and-nut Christmas Pudding
  • Grease a 1.5 litre pudding basin and dust with cocoa powder to prevent sticking.
  • Beat together 175g unsalted butter (at room temp), 100g caster sugar and 60g soft brown sugar until light and fluffy.
  • Beat three medium eggs into the mix, a little at a time.
  • Stir in then sift in 100g plain flour, 45g cocoa powder, 2 tsp baking powder and 1/2 tsp bicarbonate of soda and fold in thoroughly.
  • Fold in 50g chopped hazelnuts and 50g ground almonds, 1 tsp vanilla extract, 2 tsp mixed spice, 75ml full-fat milk, the zest of one large orange, and 150g chopped dark chocolate (or dark chocolate chips).
  • Pour into the pudding basin and seal with greaseproof paper, foil and string - Lesley Waters shows how here. Then put the pudding basin in a large pan with a lid, add enough hot water to come halfway up the sides of the basin, cover, and simmer for two hours. Make sure the pan doesn't dry out.
  • For the sauce, place 125g dark chocolate (broken up) in a jug with 2 tbsp golden syrup and a good splash of brandy. Heat 250ml double cream and 150ml full-fat milk in a pan until almost boiling, then pour over the chocolate and stir until it makes a smooth, glossy sauce. (If it doesn't come together, transfer to a bain marie and keep stirring, or microwave it for a few seconds at a time, stirring in between, until it does.)
  • Unwrap the pudding, run a knife carefully round the edge, and turn it out onto a serving plate. Dust with icing sugar or add other decoration as desired, and serve hot with the chocolate sauce.
It's dense and crumbly and rich, just like a Christmas pud should be, and full of chocolatey goodness with lots of nutty crunch and just a touch of spice to keep things festive. It's best served hot, and don't forget the brandy and chocolate sauce!

In January, during a mild spell, we harvested our Jerusalem artichokes. The crop was smaller than I was expecting - I don't know if they didn't do very well (I didn't notice them flower) or if we just missed them in the heavy clay soil! I read somewhere that they were good for breaking up heavy soils but they were extremely hard to dig and even harder to find, caked in clay! I'll soon find out how many we missed when those we left behind start growing in spring...

I picked a few more bits and pieces from the garden, and was delighted to find I could put a whole meal together with homegrown ingredients - in January!

I slow-roasted some pork shoulder with herbs and red wine til it was fall-apart tender, and served it up with pureed Jerusalem artichokes, fresh patio-grown new potatoes, braised turnips and baby onions (stored from summer), and garlicky kale and chard. It was a fab meal and so satisfying to be able to do that in January, even if it was just the once! The Jerusalem artichokes were a new one on us and we were both very pleasantly surprised by their sweetness and flavour. I do hope we get more next year!

I've had three chilli plants overwintering on my windowsill, all full of fruit which I seem to use up terribly slowly (I'm too used to just chucking some powder in), so I picked them all, strung thread through their stalks and hung them up to dry.

We're in February now and the garden's looking a bit sorry for itself, having spent several weeks under snow recently. My remaining radishes are rotten, the pak choi is bolting (already??), and the outdoor winter lettuces have vanished. The carrots are doing about as well as they always do for me - I might as well give up sowing carrots altogether! The greenhouse lettuces are doing really well, but a late family of caterpillars ate most of the rocket and the rest has now bolted. The broccoli is not really big enough in its containers - I'm getting the feeling it really needs to go in open ground.

I've had quite a few pickings from my winter garden - kale has probably fed me most, and the Jerusalem artichokes and winter potatoes (fleeced on the patio) were definitely worthwhile. There are still quite a few turnips, winter lettuces, lamb's lettuce and pak choi to be eaten, claytonia as always, and some very small spring cabbages which I hope will reach a useful size as spring comes on. The perpetual spinach and chard are just starting to get going again and signs of new growth are everywhere. Hurrah!

And of course, the sowing has begun for the new season, with leeks in pots outside, and slow-growing chillies, peppers and aubergines on the windowsill. I started them early this month - later than last year, as they got a bit much to cope with before planting out, but still early enough, I hope, to give them a decent head start and an earlier crop.

Writing this, I've just remembered I started my first early potatoes about this time last year, and this year I haven't even bought my seed potatoes yet! I must get a move on! The plastic greenhouse is on its last legs, poor thing, and needs replacing, and I must find a pot for the plum tree I've ordered too. I haven't even thought about broad beans yet and I dread to think what the allotment is looking like right now! February 21st? It's practically March!
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