A large proportion of the fruit and vegetables I grow on my allotment plot are so-called heritage varieties. In other words, I can save the seeds from the best of each year’s crop and sow them again the following year and expect to get pretty much the same plant again.
Quite a few of the heritage varieties I grow are illegal to buy or sell, not because there is anything wrong with them but because they have not been registered with the European Union, a process which costs on average several thousand Euros. Only seeds which are registered with the EU can be bought or sold on the open market.
Beautiful as many of the varieties I grow are, they are often not commercially viable (for example, my rambling, seven foot Victorian Purple Podded pea plant produces great peas and looks magnificent on my allotment plot but is of no use to a farmer with a mechanical harvester designed to deal with specially bred dwarf pea plants of uniform height). And only a philanthropist would spend so much money registering a seed with the EU that will not at least pay for itself through future sales.
This EU registration requirement is thus leading to the loss of increasing numbers of heritage seeds. For example, 383 varieties of pea that were available commercially a century ago are no longer available. Some, like my Victorian Purple Podded pea, are being kept in existence by individual growers but many have been lost forever.
Most of the seeds which do get registered, and which therefore have full protection under EU law, are not heritage varieties – true seeds – but hybrids or F1 varieties.
These F1 seeds take a lot of time and money to produce. They are designed to produce plants which combine different commercially desirable characteristics from two separate parent plants, for example the colour or taste of one plant combined with the disease resistance of another. This hybrid is then crossed further to produce a stable plant whose seeds produce plants that are what is known, ironically, as “true to type”, in other words which look like the photograph on the seed packet.
To create the F1s the developer must maintain two separate seed lines which are deliberately inbred. After several generations, inbreeding leads to a population of very similar plants. Although these inbred plants are weak, vulnerable and expensive to maintain, when they are crossed with a similar but separate inbred plant, the resulting F1 seeds are uniform, strong and vigorous.
This somewhat surprising horticultural alchemy is known as heterosis.
The value of F1s and heterosis, however, is fleeting, lasting for just one generation. If you saved and sowed the seeds of an F1 variety the following year you would have very disappointing results – either nothing at all or very weak, spindly plants.
Farmers and other growers who depend on F1 varieties are therefore forced to buy their seeds each year, providing the big seed companies with a guaranteed annual income.
In contrast, those of us who save and sow our true seed are able to pick seeds from our best performing plants, so that over time we naturally develop varieties that are adapted to the local climate, soil and other growing conditions.
The F1 seed market is big business, but the enormous profits to be made from F1 varieties encourage the big seed businesses to focus on the most profitable lines and discard others, further diminishing the seed gene pool.
As the F1 seed business, bolstered by protectionist EU legislation pushes the growing of true seeds more and more to the margins – to the extent that many are disappearing and that growing them is regarded as a fringe activity – it represents a growing threat to our long term food security.
I have been growing heritage pak choi on my allotment plot, the Circus Garden, for several years now, but it was only this year that I realised that they actually produce a better crop when planted late in the year.
My first, early planted, crop bolted in the heat of early summer, so in late August I planted a second crop, which is thriving and that I am now starting to harvest.
This week’s recipe uses some of that pak choi in a hot, sour, spicy soup, which takes very little time to put together but is packed with wholesome ingredients and exhilarating flavours.
noodle soup with pak choi and lemongrass
350 g moong bean noodles
300 g pak choi, shredded finely
150 g beansprouts
2 banana shallots, thinly sliced
6 spring onions, white and green parts sliced diagonally
2 lemongrass stalks, crushed with the flat of a knife blade
3 cm piece fresh ginger, finely chopped
2 red chillies, seeds in, finely sliced
5 cloves garlic, finely chopped
100 ml soy sauce
20 ml maple syrup
2 litres vegetable stock
juice of 1 lime
1 tbsp fresh coriander, roughly chopped
1 tbsp fresh Thai basil, roughly chopped
2 tbsp peanut oil
1. Pour the stock into a large saucepan with a lid and and add the crushed lemongrass. Place over a medium heat and bring to a simmer. Reduce the heat, place the lid on the pan and simmer for a further 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and set to one side whilst you prepare the other ingredients.
2. Cook the noodles in accordance with packet instructions. Once they are cooked, drain them, rinse them in cold water, drain again and set to one side.
3. Place a large wok over a high heat and when hot add the oil. As soon as the oil being to shimmer add the shallots and cook for 2 minutes, stir frying vigorously, before adding the garlic, chilli and ginger. Cook for a further 2 minutes, continuing to stir fry vigorously to make sure the garlic does not burn.
4. Remove the lemongrass from the stock and carefully add the stock to the wok. Add the soy sauce and maple syrup. Stir and bring to a simmer. Add the pak choi, beansprouts, spring onions and cooked noodles. Bring back to a simmer and then remove from the heat. Stir in the coriander, Thai basil and lime juice and serve whilst steaming hot.