Heritage seed rules relaxed

The Food & Environment Research Agency (FERA) plans to relax regulations on selling thousands of heritage varieties of plant seeds, giving gardeners "a whole new raft of varieties" in the marketplace.

Seed companies have made representations over the years about scheduled vegetable seeds. EU rules state that if a variety is not on a national list, you can't sell it.

Suttons Seeds sales and marketing director David Arnold said: "These rules are set up to protect commercial growers. But interesting stuff such as tomato heritage varieties are not maintained/scheduled so are not on the national list so you can't sell them. But this is something Defra might relax."

Revived varieties of tomatoes, cabbages and lettuces could come onto the market in two or three years. Seeds cost around £1,500 to register at present.

Arnold added: "We would want minimum germination levels and purities. This would give the average consumer a whole wealth of new stuff. Thousands of varieties would be made available and after testing hundreds would be up to our standards.

"Many are the parent lines for hybrids and have good taste, growth properties, pest and disease resistance and adaptability to climate conditions. But because they are not seen as being commercial they cost producers money to maintain on the national list.

A FERA representative said: "FERA will be consulting on the introduction of simpler national listing requirements for vegetable seed sold to amateurs. This follows the introduction of commission Directive 2009/145/EC. FERA is working on options, through discussion with interested parties, before formally consulting.

"We're speaking to a number of different companies and organisations informally before the formal consultation. The time frame is by the end of this year. We can't give any specific examples but the new legislation will be open to any variety sold only to amateurs and heritage varieties."

Suttons technical manager Tom Sharples said the EU system was designed for commercial growers and home growers "got sucked in unnecessarily". He added that many "heritage and nostalgia" vegetables were not suitable for revival but new varieties bred for home gardeners from the USA and Europe could come in. Technically cut and come again salad mixes were against the regulations because they mixed varieties but the public would create a "furore" if Defra stopped these "vast" sales.

HTA consultant David Brown said: "I think it will be a good move to open up the amateur market to some of the older varieties that have disappeared. It will be good for gardeners to be able to try varieties that have effectively been overtaken in the marketplace. It will be important that quality seeds are put on the market to avoid disappointing gardeners.

"I can see older gardeners harking back to varieties they grew in the past but have been unable to source more recently and can also well imagine younger gardeners being encouraged by parents and grandparents to try varieties that they remember."

But Westland head of horticulture Dr Mark Fletcher said consumers wanted reliable seeds rather than older, often poorer varieties.

Robinsons representative Susan Robinson said there was now a "huge market" for heritage varieties, many of which were already being sold. She added that the new rules would stop Defra having to "turn a blind eye" to the selling of heritage varieties.

- See www.eur-lex.europa.eu/en

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