Debate over reviving old varieties

Laws on historic crops may be relaxed

By Sophie Barnett New legislation looks set to come into force to relax strict legislation on the sale and use of historic varieties of fruit and vegetable seeds later this year. DEFRA has been active in Brussels to bring about changes in EU law introduced in the 1950s, which means only seeds on the National List or EC Common Catalogue are eligible for certification — restricting growers and amateur gardeners to certain seeds that have met quality criteria. In his new book, the Prince of Wales has given high-profile publicity to efforts to make historic seed varieties more readily available. He criticised the ban, saying that fruit and vegetable varieties are becoming endangered and old varieties, including those from Victorian times, should be more easily available for people to judge for themselves. In the new book, previewed in the Daily Telegraph, he said: “Too many of these ancient varieties, often developed over hundreds, if not thousands, of years have been rashly discarded, or even prohibited by curious European legislation, and have only been kept in existence through the farsightedness and determination of some organisations such as Garden Organic.” But Processors & Growers Research Organisation director Geoffrey Gent said there is no point in bringing back old varieties — the new cultivars are about “progression”. “All this sentimentalising does not hold up in our sector. New ones have served us well so there is no point in going back in time.” He said new varieties, especially peas and beans, have been tried and tested, and have taken their role in the seed hierarchy by proving their reliability. Old ones are more “haphazard”, rendering them largely unreliable for commercial use. Head of Garden Organic’s Heritage Seed Library Sandra Bywater said the restrictive law was affecting the conservation of heritage varieties — and organic growers who may be interested in growing them were prevented from doing so. Among its collection there are 200 varieties of tomatoes, beans, more than 20 types of lettuce, tens of carrots, leeks, onions, Brussels sprouts, cabbages and peas. Members get limited seeds but they are not allowed to sell them. It is felt there may be a market for organic growers interested in growing unusual varieties, but they are prevented from doing so. A DEFRA representative said: “DEFRA understands the concerns expressed. Although the seeds law was put in place to protect consumers, it is now clearly impinging on people who want to grow the older types, in a way that wasn’t intended. DEFRA has been working to improve things.”

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