Seed Week guest Charlotte Bickler from the Organic Research Centre sets out what you need to know in order to share grain seed in the UK. 

Towards a Decentralised Grain Economy

“There is a growing movement across the UK towards decentralised grain economies, where grain is traded directly from field to fork without getting embroiled in commodity markets. If you haven’t already, then I recommend listening to the fantastic Farmerama mini-series: Cereal. This series explores how industrial food production has led to systemic changes in how we produce seed, grain and cereal products.

Alternative initiatives are popping up across all corners of the country, from the Western Isles and Highlands to Shropshire and Wales.  This creates space for diversity in farming systems, end-products and the range of cereals that are grown. Indeed, this approach, due to its smaller scale and responsive capability, is leading to the exploration of new and exciting cereal seed. By this I mean a range of different cultivars of cereal species including:

  • Registered varieties
  • Genebank resources e.g., landraces
  • Mixtures and populations.

However, trade of cereal seed is regulated via the Seed Marketing Regulations 2011, although how and the extent to which this regulation applies varies depends on the type of cereal that you are working with. If you are in doubt of the situation, then do get in touch with the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA) in England, Scotland and Wales or the Environmental Farming Branch in Northern Ireland. After developing ORC Wakelyns Population, which does not comply with the methods commonly used to monitor cereal varieties and certify their seed, we at Organic Research Centre (ORC) began to explore seed regulations and how they work, or not. Below I summarise some of the key learnings that may be useful for you to consider when sharing cereal seeds.

Navigating the Regulation

The regulation around seed can understandably be a source of trepidation when looking to set up small-scale initiatives to share grain seed. Yet, we should remember that, in part, it is borne from two principles that we would all agree that we would want to maintain. That is:

  1. To uphold our commitment to the Nagoya Protocol on Access to Genetic Resources and the Fair and Equitable Sharing of Benefits;
  2. To protect seed health and maintain phytosanitary requirements e.g. preventing the spread of seed-borne diseases such as common bunt.

If you are seed saving or sharing seed from pure-line varieties, or mixtures of pure-line varieties, that have been registered on the National List then you are at risk of breaking the rules if you do not pay Plant Breeder’s Rights to the person/organisation that registered the variety. This is administered by the British Society of Plant Breeding, see here for more information.

Plant Breeder’s Rights do not apply to cultivars that are not registered on the National List, however. In the case of resources from genebanks, such as the Germplasm Resource Unit at the John Innes Centre, the collections are available for end-users to request samples of in order to grow up etc. This exchange is documented via a Material Transfer Agreement (MTA) between the genebank and recipient of the seed. This is in line with the Nagoya Protocol and aims to ensure that any commercial gains from the exploitation of the resource pays back to the source.

The key when working with seed received as part of an MTA is to keep good records and, if you pass on seed to others in your networks, encourage the recipient to register that they are working with this seed as well by sending an MTA to the genebank. You are custodians of this genetic resource and are welcome to share it!

Mixtures & Populations

Things get more complicated when it comes to advanced mixtures (where you have lost track of what exactly is in them now!) and populations (where you have crossed individual plants, or are working with an outcrossing species, and bulked the seed together) created using these resources. But the first thing to ask is “what am I trying to achieve with this population?” If you want to create a registered variety, or even brand, trade or make money selling seed of the mixture/population (or indeed a landrace or old variety sourced from a genebank), then this might be tricky…

We explored this concept extensively with ORC Wakelyns Population a.k.a. ‘YQ’. YQ is a Composite Cross Population and as such genetically diverse or heterogeneous. As I mentioned, heterogeneous cultivars do not comply with the rules that are used to monitor registered varieties and certify their seed.

So, we had to investigate what might need to change to allow seed from such cultivars to be marketed. We worked across Europe and with DEFRA, APHA and NIAB in the UK to explore how it might work and the results from all this can be read in this report. The relaxation of the European seed laws, under a specific derogation, allowed the growth and further development of experimental populations across Europe, including ORC Wakelyns Population. Ultimately, 31 populations were registered and over 100 tonnes of seed have been successfully marketed.

The outcome of this work was that the need for trade of heterogeneous cultivars have been recognised within the new EU Organic Regulation 2018/848 and, as part of the LIVESEED project, where we proposed how seed certification for heterogeneous cultivars might work. This includes recording the constitution of the cultivar, methods for traceability and description (another report here).

As we are no longer part of the European Union, we are in the position to reopen dialogue with DEFRA, APHA and NIAB: to explore what processes they feel are appropriate for monitoring heterogeneous cultivars moving forward. They were interested in the concept as it developed with YQ and, if and when quantities of seed are such that it is deemed necessary to inquire, they are likely to be open to evolving what is needed based on what the community has developed.

In the meantime, the most important thing when considering the regulation around seed sharing of cereals is to keep track of what has been grown where, when and by who with the support of an MTA as applicable and be mindful of seed health. These resources on developing mixtures and populations may also be of interest. If you are planning on selling seed developed from a genebank resource, then you need to consider how your work complies with the Nagoya Protocol and the condition of the MTA. Don’t be put off by the regulation though, research and development are encouraged!”

Charlotte Bickler from the Organic Research Centre sets out what you need to know to share grain seed in the UK. is Knowledge Exchange and Policy Manager at the Organic Research Centre (ORC) where she works to bridge the gap between knowledge development and its application and use in a practical setting. She previously worked as a Senior Researcher in Crops and Breeding and has led research into the application of genetic diversity within seed systems. She has a passion for biodiversity conservation and has previously worked at the RGB Kew’s Millennium Seed Bank and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust.