This is the time of year when we gardeners like to indulge ourselves by browsing through seed catalogues and deciding what we want to grow in the year ahead.
A proportion of the vegetable seeds I will be sowing this year are seeds I have saved from last season’s vegetables, all of them heritage (“true seed”) varieties.
Some vegetable seeds are easy to collect, for example beans, peas, tomatoes and squash whilst others, such as parsnip, carrot and brassicas are less so. For these more difficult varieties I resort to a commercial supplier, but I try to buy my seeds from small seed suppliers who I know I can trust, such as Chase Organics and the Real Seed Catalogue.
Back in the 1980s many more small-scale seed companies were in existence but few now remain, a consequence of the involvement in the seed industry of large corporations from the United States and Europe, which have suddenly and rapidly swallowed up the smaller companies.
In the space of just thirty years one of these corporations, Monsanto, has become the world’s largest seed company. Along with multinationals Bayer and Syngenta it casts a huge, dominant shadow over the world seed market.
One of the key attractions of this market for these companies has been the favourable patenting legislation in Europe and the USA which allows them not only to patent seeds but also to patent methods of growing or producing seeds.
A consequence of this domination has been a decline in farmers saving and sowing their own seeds, an age-old tradition which many have been persuaded to abandon in favour of buying hybrid seeds. Hybrid seeds, which have to be purchased annually, are of no long-term use to the plant gene pool and cannot be saved successfully, but on a commercial level they can provide favourable results and yields.
Another consequence of multinational domination has been a shift in research activity away from improving heritage varieties (which are able to be saved and sown) towards the development of hybrid varieties and genetically modified seeds (which aren’t).
In recent years we have also started to see higher seed prices and fewer seed choices, a further inevitable consequence of market domination by a few corporations.
Patents on seeds have nothing to do with patent legislation as we would normally understand it, a key principle of which is to balance of the interests of inventors on one hand and the interests of the public on the other hand. It does not serve humanity to allow Monsanto to hold the patents for some of the most basic agricultural resources needed for food production. The last 30 years have shown us that patenting seeds reduces choice, concentrates corporate power, drives up costs to the grower, inhibits public sector research and undermines our ability to save and exchange our own seeds.
If we want to rescue our food security from the hands of those who do not have our interests at heart then we need urgent revision of European and US patent laws to exclude plants and seeds. At an individual level, those of us who grow heritage varieties need to continue to save and sow and share those varieties, and we need to support the invaluable seed preservation work of organisations such as the UK’s Heritage Seed Library.
Beyond the obvious money-making opportunities that current seed patenting laws provide, it is worth asking why Monsanto has chosen to developed its hold over the global seed market so rapidly. The answer lies in a far more sinister strategic objective, revealed back in 1996 by Monsanto Executive Vice President Robert Fraley to the US farming magazine Farm Journal : “what you’re seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it’s really a consolidation of the entire food chain”.
For this recipe I have used some of the organic heritage vegetables I grow on my allotment plot, the Circus Garden.
These leek, potato and chive cakes are easy to make and really tasty, especially accompanied by the shallot, tomato and oregano sauce. Perfect as a midweek veggie comfort food dish on a chilly winter’s evening.
leek, potato and chive cakes with shallot and tomato sauce
for the leek, potato and chive cakes
600g potatoes, peeled
150 g leek, finely sliced
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
15 g fresh chives, finely chopped
25 g vegetarian Parmesan, grated
1 free range egg, lightly beaten
½ tsp sea salt
30 g potato flour (if unavailable use cornflour or rice flour)
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
for the shallot and tomato sauce
75 g shallots, peeled and finely chopped
400 g tin organic chopped tomatoes
1 red chilli, finely chopped (keep the seeds in for extra ‘bite’)
10 g fresh oregano leaves, finely chopped
½ tsp sea salt
1 tbp extra virgin olive oil
1. Boil the potatoes until tender. Drain and leave them to cool for 10 minutes, then either mash or push through a potato ricer. Place the mashed potato in a large bowl.
2. Pour one tablespoonful of the olive oil into a frying pan or skillet and place over a medium heat. When the oil is hot add the chopped leeks. Cook, stirring frequently, for 3 minutes, then add the chopped garlic. Cook for a further 3 minutes, or until the leek is soft. Remove from the heat and add to the mashed potatoes. Add the sea salt, chives, Parmesan and egg. Mix together then form into eight flat cakes, each weighing around 70 g. Dust generously on both sides with potato flour (this helps prevent the cakes sticking in the pan), place on a flat baking tray and refrigerate until you are ready to cook them. The cakes can be frozen at this stage if you prefer, for use on another occasion.
3. For the sauce, heat the olive oil in a pan over a medium heat. Add the shallots and cook for five minutes, stirring, until soft. Add the chilli and the sea salt and cook for a further two minutes, continuing to stir. Now add the tomatoes and the chopped oregano and stir. Bring the mixture to a simmer and reduce the heat to its lowest setting. Cook for a further five minutes, stirring every so often. Remove from the heat.
4. When you are ready to cook the leek and potato cakes, pour 2 tbsp olive oil into a frying pan and place over a medium heat. When the oil is hot add the cakes and cook for 3-4 minutes per side, until golden brown.
5. To serve, place two of the leek, potato and chive cakes on each plate, together with a generous spoonful of the shallot and tomato sauce.