Why a diverse local seed supply is key to a secure food system

Photo: peppergrass (via Flickr) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Photo: peppergrass (via Flickr) https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

Having reliable access to local foods, in Ottawa or anywhere else, depends on the ability to cultivate crops from a wide variety of seeds grown in the region and adapted to its soils and climate.

The problem is that the genetic diversity of seed is declining worldwide, thanks to industrial farming and industrial seed production. For example, in Canada, we now rely on four plant species (wheat, maize, rice and potato) for nearly two-thirds of the calories we eat.

According to National Geographic, in the early 19th century, 302 varieties of sweet corn were grown in the U.S.  By 1983, there were just 12. Over the same period, the 408 varieties of tomato, 497 types of lettuce and 341 strains of squash available for cultivation dwindled to 79, 36 and 40, respectively.

“About 75% of the world’s crop diversity has disappeared,” says Aabir Dey of the Everdale Organic Farm and Environmental Learning Centre and Ontario’s regional coordinator for the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security. “Of the remaining 25%, only 10% are available to farmers.”

Industrial agriculture has also eroded the age-old practice of saving, exchanging and passing on ecologically grown seed – a practice that’s essential to conserving varieties that thrive in local conditions.

If we want a secure, resilient food supply that’s able to withstand climate change, Dey insists, we need to nourish local seed capability.

Seed diversity under pressure

Many factors are taking a toll on local, national and global seed supplies:

  • a handful of companies dominates global seed production, producing high volumes of uniform seed for a narrow range of crops and crop varieties
  • 95% of the seeds that produce Canada’s major food crops are bred for uniformity
  • most vegetable seeds that Canadian farmers buy have not been bred for our soils or climates
  • the lack of diversity makes food production more vulnerable to pests and disease, as well as to the extreme weather events that go hand-in-hand with climate change
  • habitat loss and environmental exploitation put further stress on plant biodiversity; as a result, about 100,000 plant varieties around the world are now at risk

USC, Seeds of Diversity and Everdale

In response, efforts such as seed banks and libraries, and seed exchanges (Ontario’s Seedy Saturdays are a good example) have sprung up to help farmers and food gardeners preserve ancient and heirloom varieties of key food crops.

In addition, USC Canada launched the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security last year in partnership with Seeds of Diversity. The initiative works with farmers, researchers, businesses, governments and others across the country to boost production and conservation of high-quality Canadian seed that’s regionally adapted and ecologically grown.

Everdale acts as the initiative’s regional hub for Ontario. The Guelph-based teaching farm offers hands-on food and farming education, operates a CSA, hosts an on-site seed library managed by Seeds of Diversity and provides workshops on seeds and seed-saving. It also works with regional growers on variety trials and conducts “grow-outs” for Seeds of Diversity.

“Let’s say you have bean seeds in a seed library,” Aabir Dey explains. “You need to plant them periodically, and grow them out to create a crop of back-up seeds. It’s an important way to scale up the seed supply.”

But don’t think you have to be a farmer or seed specialist to help develop a diverse local seed supply for the Ottawa region. There are several easy ways you can make a difference, Dey says.

Buy local, save and swap

  • Buy from local seed providers who grow out a lot of their own seed, such as Greta’s Organic Gardens which specializes in organic fruit and vegetable seeds, and Castor River Farm, a small-scale diversified operation that focuses on different types of wheat, buckwheat and other grains.
  • Attend a Seedy Saturday event to swap seed with local growers, meet local vendors and attend seed workshops. Ottawa’s 2014 Seedy Saturday is over but, as with seed-saving workshops, you can put one together yourself.

“Seed skills are very valuable and we’ve lost touch with them,” Dey notes. “If we want more local, organic food, we need more local, organic seed.”

Where do you buy your seeds?

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