Tomato seed sales rocket 40% with First World War varieties the flavour of the month – but gardeners fear EU clampdown
- Foodies and tomato lovers tiring of buying mass-produced supermarket varieties
- Most popular tomato seeds include varieties introduced before WWI, like ‘Harbinger’
Sales of ‘heirloom’ British tomato seeds are soaring as foodies and tomato lovers tire of buying mass-produced supermarket varieties and turn to home-growing.
Tomato seed sales were up 40 per cent in the 2013 season according to figures from The Organic Gardening Catalogue, which has specialised in supplying seeds – some originating from before World War One – to organic gardeners for 50 years.
Some of the most popular tomato varieties driving the demand include the ‘Harbinger’ (introduced in 1910), ‘Golden Sunrise’ (1896) and ‘Ailsa Craig’ (1925) in an ever-expanding range of more than fifty colours, shapes and sizes.
The demand for more flavoursome fruit and vegetables has expanded alongside British households’ growing fussiness over their groceries and the origin of produce.
But niche tomato varieties stocked by retailers like Waitrose and M&S are often expensive and sometimes disappointing in flavour.
Michael Hedges, managing director of Surrey-based The Organic Gardening Catalogue, said: ‘Tomatoes remain the most widely-grown crop for home growers in the UK, and we’re seeing an increase in interest in the old varieties, ideally suited to home garden growing.
‘They typically have thinner skins, rich flavour and a long harvest and ripening period. It would be hard to find anything like these in the supermarket.
‘Another reason for the growth in demand for these older “heirloom” varieties of British seeds is the proposed EU Plant Reproductive Materials Regulation, which threatens the existence of many historic and favourite garden seed varieties.’
The Soil Association says the proposed EU rules are set to reduce the number of seed varieties available for us all to grow, damage biodiversity and drive small seed merchants out of business.
Seed laws were originally intended to prevent people from selling poor-quality seeds of unknown varieties.
The Soil Association, which has a Save Our Seeds campaign to fight the new EU legislation, said the proposed directive would mean that most seed varieties and plant reproductive material such as cuttings, rootstocks, module plants, and even potted plants intended for planting into your garden would have to be registered by the Food and Environment Research Agency.
It said: ‘To become registered, all varieties must pass Value for Cultivation and Use and Distinct Uniform and Stable tests. Currently, registration costs £2,565 per variety.
‘The proposed law will mean more varieties to register and added costs from VCU and DUS tests, meaning people who sell plants, such as horticultural businesses and garden centres are likely to reduce the number of varieties they sell, or possibly even go out of business.’
Hedges said: ‘In many cases it would not be economic to register them, making it illegal to sell them or even share home saved seed with friends. Biodiversity will suffer as a result and the European seed market would be controlled by a handful of large seed companies. This regulation is ill-conceived and needs to be resisted.’
In March 2014 MEPs voted to reject the regulation in the European Parliament.
The Soil Association said: ‘What happens next is uncertain; but most likely is that the European Council of Ministers is going to produce an amended version of the regulations and take them back the Parliament over the summer.’
The Organic Gardening Catalogue supplies to organic gardeners across Britain and Europe. It also sells British seaweed extract to farmers and home gardeners.