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Seeds of Change

I was extremely fortunate to be invited to visit Howard-Yana Shapiro and his wife Nancy at their home in New Mexico. Howard is one of the foremost authorities on organic seed farming and biodiversity in the world.

He is the Vice President of Seeds of Change, the foremost organic seed company in the world. Established in 1989, the company’s catalogue contains 2500 varieties of organic seed, many uniquely available through Seeds of Change. The range includes fruit, vegetables, medicinal and culinary herbs, and flowers.

So what’s so special about Seeds of Change’s seeds, apart from the fantastic range of varieties? They are organically produced.

Almost all organic food produced in the UK, Europe and the USA is grown from conventionally produced seed. Organic growers who cultivate with pride of attention to every organic detail almost always start their crops from conventionally grown seed. And intensive agrochemical seed production is one of the most pesticide and herbicide laden crops on the planet.

Because agricultural seed is not directly consumed, agrochemical usage with this crop is much less stringently monitored than for food crops. Seed producers are also attracted to heavy chemical application because seed crops cannot be contaminated with weed seed or insect pollination from neighbouring fields. On top of that, seed crops have a longer growing season than food crops because most plants go to seed after the flower and fruit of a plant have ripened and bolted.

Organic consumer are protected from consumption of agrochemicals in their diet even if agrochemical seed is used to grow their organic food. However, an important environmental alarm bell is rung by the use of conventional seed in organic agriculture. The EU is addressing this ‘pesticide loophole’ by enforcing a new law. From April 2004, all organic food grown in the EU must be grown from organic seed.

Seeds of Change is the only seed catalogue in the world that is 100% organic. The company grows their products through a network of privately owned farms across the US. They have also recently founded two European research farms in Scandinavia.

Seeds of Change is also unique in that it grows all of its seed through open pollination. This technique is the opposite of the copyright protected varieties produced by the GM industry. Copyright-protected GM seed cannot reproduce, with farmers reliant on purchasing new seed stock seasonally from seed companies. Open pollination also challenges most non-GM seed growing practice. Conventional seed is hybridised. Saving and sowing seed from hybrid plants produces a startling mixture of plants that share only selected genetic material with the hybrid parent plant. Open pollinated seed grows plants capable of reproducing genetically similar seed. Seed from plants grown from the Seeds of Change catalogue can be collected and replanted by the grower for a new crop. In effect, Seeds of Change encourage and facilitate the age-old practice of seed saving. That said, the company is formulating a range of hybrids specifically for organic large-scale agricultural use.

In the UK, the Seeds of Change brand is best known as an organic convenience food company. Their pastas, soups and sauces are available from all major supermarkets, supported by television commercials and an extensive print media advertising campaign. The link between the two sides of the business is not automatically obvious. However, the food side of the business is an extraordinary modern day organic good news story.

In Autumn 1992, a young man called Stephen Badger turned up at the farm offering his services. Howard and Nancy were impressed with Stephen’s enthusiasm and intelligence, and he soon became an integral part of the team. As time went on, it became apparent that Stephen was a member of the family behind Mars, Incorporated. Although the food products manufactured at this time by Mars was anything but organic, the company has a strong history of food quality and efficient resource usage.

Mars was looking for a way to develop these principles and enter the organic food market. At this same time, the Shapiros were looking for a way to communicate their organic mission to the widest audience possible. The marriage of Mars’ world-class business sense, finance and food industry knowledge with Seeds of Change’s organic vision and integrity was mutually beneficial and harmonious. In 1997, Mars bought Seeds of Change, launching a range of quality organic convenience foods in the UK, Scandinavia, USA, Australia and Ireland. Howard has remained at the forefront of the organisation as well as becoming Research Manager of Plant Science for the entire Mars operation.

For more information about Seeds of Change, go to www.seedsofchange.com

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