At the dawn of agriculture, 11,000 years ago, the practice of seed saving was inseparable from the act of farming. If you didn’t save seed, you wouldn’t have any crops to grow next year – it was as simple as that. It wasn’t until very recently that farmers stopped producing seed in the UK, leaving it to specialist seed companies to provide us with seed each year.
The UK Seed Sovereignty programme supports a different kind of seed sector. One that is defined by diversity, resilience and environmental responsibility. One that is supported by many skilled hands.
This vision is the driver behind our training workshops for growers across the country. In June, we ran a workshop on Selection for Seed production with Ben Gabel from The Real Seed Catalogue for 20 agroecological producers based in Dorset, Devon, Somerset and Cornwall. The aim of the workshop was to consolidate the knowledge of the growers attending by bringing together genetics theory with practical methods for plant selection in the field.
The day was framed by focusing on two different crop groups: the inbreeders and the outbreeders. Although not strict groupings, the words inbreeder and outbreeder refers to the crops preferred reproductive strategy. The first group favours self-pollination, whilst the second prefers to cross-pollinate with many other individuals. This difference in reproductive strategy means that we must use different methods of selection for inbreeding crops compared to outbreeders.
Inbreeding crops, such as lettuce or tomato, tend to have very few ancestors. For these crops, the mother is the same individual plant as the father, so for the most part, seeds collected from any one plant will yield plants which are all genetically identical to the parent as well as being identical to each other. It’s therefore very easy to maintain a uniform population of inbreeding crop varieties. Its also much easier to stabilise a particular trait in just a couple of generations. For example, imagine you grew 50 lettuce plants, all of which were a bright green variety but one of those lettuces grew leaves with red spots. You liked the red spots so you saved seed from that individual plant and grew them the following year. It’s likely that all of those plants would also have red spots too because they are genetically identical to the mother/father plant.
Outbreeders, are the complete opposite, if they are forced to inbreed they may not set viable seed and often suffer from inbreeding depression (when plants become sickly and weak due to a small breeding population). Varieties of outbreeding crops need to be thought of as a herd – no one individual represents the variety – the variety is only apparent when looking at the population as a whole.
As a rule, these crops need much larger populations of plants to produce good seed (at least 80 plants). Selection in these crops is a slow process and shouldn’t involve unnecessarily harsh selection criteria.
Growers gained a fuller understanding of selecting crops for seed production and most importantly made them realise that they already had a lot of the knowledge needed to save and select good seed. Now its just a case of going out and doing it!
If you’d like to hear about future workshops or you would like to organise a seed training workshop near you then please get in contact with your regional coordinator.
Article by Ellen Ridnell, Regional Coordinator for west England – firstname.lastname@example.org