Could a government trial around seed sales revolutionise UK grain markets?
21st August 2023
As farmers, business and governments across the UK look towards more sustainable farming practices, an exciting development in cereal markets could see more diverse grains make their way onto our plates. Last week, the government announced a seven-year trial derogation making it legal to sell and trade heterogenous cereal seeds, also known as populations.
A population or heterogeneous crop contains extraordinary variation in both genes and traits, enabling it to respond and adapt to unpredictable environments. This means that individual plants across the crop are different while in standard pure line varieties, every plant is almost identical – which is what you see in a field of monoculture wheat.
Many in the sector hope that the government will incorporate the derogation permanently into legislation. With 52% of our total cropland given over to cereal production – with wheat making up a significant majority of this – it could accelerate the transition to a more diverse, resilient and agroecological farming landscape in the UK.
We spoke to farmer Fred Price and grain specialist Dominic Amos about what this means for their business and the sector as a whole.
Fred Price runs Gothelney Farm in Somerset, a small family farm that has embraced regenerative practices and an agroecological approach for the past 12 years – using mixed, rotational farming to improve soil biology, lock in carbon, explore new levers for profitability and develop meaningful relationships within what they call their ‘small food economy’.
Fred Price uses mixed, rotational farming and other agroecological practices to build resilience on his family farm in Somerset.
Fred is also a keen advocate of cereal populations. “If you’re a farmer embedded within the commodity system, you don’t set your price. Your only levers for profitability are yield and scale. This encourages simplistic farm systems that manage yield, at scale. I’m advocating for something more diverse and complex – and the seed derogation is a really important step towards this.”
“Over the next few years, farmers like me will be responding to questions from DEFRA and the Animal and Plant Health Agency (APHA), and demonstrating that firstly, there is a benefit to having heterogeneous cereal seed and secondly, that this change to legislation is viable.”
Population crops are a lot less reliant on chemical inputs than modern breeds grown in monocultures – and are equally or more nutritious. While this might mean that yield goes down, productivity and profit go up as farmers spend less on fertilisers, herbicides and fungicides. More diverse crops are also resilient to disease and changing weather conditions and can grow well in poorly drained or low-quality soils as the population adapts to the surroundings.
What does diversity look like at Gothelney Farm? “We're an old-fashioned mixed farm, with heavy livestock integration and high fertility. We grow some heritage wheats, population cereals and intercrops of peas, oats and barley for our pig feed. We also have an on-farm butchery and host Rosy Benson's Field Bakery.” A diversified farm in every sense of the word.
“Diversity builds in productivity and resilience on the farm,” Fred says, “which means the economic model is more stable. But it also taps into wider questions about what we want our food system to look like. For me, you can’t just think about what happens on the farm itself, you need to consider where the farm is and what kind of ecology it fits into.”
He also wants farmers to embrace traditional breeding methods again. “Why should the breeder and the farmer be a different person? Why do we breed our own livestock, but we think grain breeding is something a big corporation has to do in a lab. It never used to be like that.”
Cultivating diverse grains with no synthetic inputs bring a whole host of benefits to both the farm and natural environment – they produce less per acre but it results in higher value products. Gothelney Farm, for example, supplies some of the best restaurants in the UK.
Heritage grains from Gothelney Farm.
But while some of Gothelney’s produce ends up in high end restaurants that value healthy, sustainable produce, though are inaccessible to people on low incomes, it’s also distributed within surrounding communities via their butchery and bakery – either on the farm or at farmers markets.
Gothelney Farm are part of the Southwest Grain Network, a collective of bakers, millers and farmers who are taking steps to build an alternative grain economy – resulting in a supply chain that includes up to 100 different bakeries in the region.
This kind of regional supply chain model could offer real potential in bringing the types of grains Fred grows to a bigger market, while also supporting local food systems and independent farmers, producers and retailers. “It’s a great example of a middle ground solution between farm shop and supermarket that’s based on collaboration and trust.”
Dominic Amos is a grain representative at Organic Arable, a specialist, farmer-owned organic grain business that markets organic grain, supplies seed and provides advice and technical support for farmers in the UK. And like Fred, he’s incredibly hopeful about the difference the seed derogation will make.
Dominic Amos is an arable expert working to bring organic grains to a mass market.
“Now that it’s legal to trade and sell heterogenous seeds, I think we could see real change in how much diversified grain is available and accessible to the population as a whole. It could start to rebalance the industry. What I’m seeing is that the big, traditional seed merchants aren’t interested as it doesn’t really fit with their business model – so the change is going to come from the ground up.”
Dominic works up and down the supply chain to bring organic cereals to a mass market, and right now, they’re seeing particular success with oats.
“Oats are now the widest grown crop organically because agronomically, they're great. There's a strong market for milling oats and we've developed a very close relationship with a mill over in Ireland that’s committed to organic oats. They produce a porridge that we supply Lidl and Aldi with and that's something we're very proud of. We want good quality, healthy, nutritious, sustainably produced food to be available to everyday people.”
What does he see as some of the barriers to more agroecological and organic farming? “There’s certainly a complexity issue. These systems are knowledge intensive, and the industry is only just catching up. There's still a dearth of really good, reliable advice for organic and low impact farming, for example. The system's just not geared up for it – the business model of traditional breeding and the agrochemicals these varieties rely on are more about selling and less about providing advice.”
Dominic also wants to see national-level policy changes that makes diverse and organic grain varieties more accessible to citizens. “We need to talk about procurement. No one’s making the link between healthy, sustainable food and people’s recovery in hospital or children’s ability to learn.”
Of course, some of this comes down to cost. “There’s an economy of scale problem with sustainable food. If it’s going to be affordable, there must be larger quantities of it. It’s already starting to happen with wheat and oats, but we need bigger grain markets for more alternative crops and heritage grains – and we need to make the seeds more available and accessible.”
On the question of scale, Fred agrees with Dominic, but maintains there needs be a consideration of scope if we’re encouraging fairer, more equitable supply chains. “Scale is important, but we need to think about scope: joining up different parts of the supply chain on a human scale and embracing the connectedness of the food system – not just trying to produce more and more.”
Fred advocates for a food and farming system that operates on a human scale.
He goes on to add that “there are certain economies of scale for grain, whether you’re thinking about harvesting, storage, drying, cleaning or transportation. So, if we’re trying to find a middle ground between supermarkets and farm shops that feeds people affordably and sustainably, and pays farmers properly, grain would be a good crop to start with. But farmers need to be at the heart of the supply chain. It needs to be a bottom-up model where farmers decide what their farming system looks like, and ultimately, set their own prices.”
In a spiralling cost of living crisis and food system dominated by multinational corporations, this is easier said than done. But Fred’s approach at Gothelney shows that a different kind of food and farming system is possible – one that’s more in tune with nature and people.
“15 years ago, when we ran the farm using conventional, high input methods, I was trying to impose myself on the farm, to change the environment and to get the farm to do what I wanted it to do. Now I feel part of the system and I think that’s what agroecology is. Farming this way is less of a battle. In fact, it feels like you’re pulling everything together.”
This summer, FFCC is convening supply chain experts, farmers and
leaders in the food and farming sector to carefully consider the complex
challenges at the heart of the food system value chain, and the
barriers that prevent progress towards a more balanced system
Fred Price is part of a group of millers, bakers, farmers, traders and plant scientists who have been working together to change seed laws through the UK Grain Lab.
Watch their session at Groundswell 2023 here.