It is safe to say that when I joined the USC Canada team in November 2011 to explore seed security in Canada, I did not know what I was getting myself into. I had worked in food security for over a decade, and while I knew I had a lot to learn, I figured the leap to seeds wouldn’t be that much of a stretch.
Now, two years into focusing on this issue through The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, I see that on one hand I was right. A discussion of food security without seed, is incomplete. Seed security equals food security – nine out of every ten bites of food taken around the world begin with seed. These “packets of potential”, as my colleague Sheila likes to call them, are the starting point for nutrition, agricultural biodiversity, and community self-sufficiency.
On the other hand, so many unique elements distinguish seed issues from food issues. For example, producers of food are buyers of seed; with the notable exception of field crop growers, farmers purchase or exchange seed, which they plant to grow the food consumers eat. Local food does not necessarily mean local seed. In fact, most vegetable seed planted on farms in Canada comes from beyond our borders. It is not bred for Canada’s diverse growing environments, or organic production systems. These facts have not yet made it to the forefront of the local food movement, in part I believe due to the fact that seed producers are that extra step removed from the consumer.
Seed Matters, a US-based organization, describes the “story of seed” as the “greatest story never told”. I believe this is changing.
In visiting seed producers and farmers across Canada in 2012, I witnessed incredible levels of engagement and commitment to this issue. Through the generous support of The W. Garfield Weston Foundation, The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security was launched on February 1, 2013. On July 9, The Globe and Mail published an article by Sarah Elton titled How Farmers are Saving Seeds and Building a Canadian Collection. A few days later Bob Wildfong, Executive Director of Seeds of Diversity Canada, was interviewed about seed biodiversity and conservation on Canada AM. After decades of work by seed advocates across the country, it seems we are now gaining broader public awareness and interest in seeds.
Still, this is one of the most challenging, uphill battles for ecological farming in Canada today. In the pilot year of The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, we explored the regulatory, economic, and agronomic challenges to ecological seed production. Here is a sample of what we discovered, and a couple of stories of how Canada’s seed leaders are responding:
i) Conventionally bred cultivars are less suitable for organic production than ecologically bred seed, and the market for ecological seed cannot develop without programs to identify and develop varieties that respond well in organic production systems. In response, farmers and researchers are partnering to develop nutritious, regionally-adapted, ecologically grown varieties of major food crops such as oats, potatoes, corn and wheat. Producers are also conducting variety trials to explore how to diversify their operations with varieties that respond well to organic production and have strong market potential.
ii) Trust in regionally produced seed is essential to achieving seed security. Even if seed producers scale up and other growers integrate seed into their operations, the market will not develop unless Canadian farmers feel confident enough to substitute Canadian seed for what they currently procure elsewhere. There is a need for in-depth, on-farm training, extension services to seed producers, peer support, and more online resources. We need to grow the number of people offering seed saving training, and expand the range of training topics available in order to address this fundamental issue of trust.
iii) As many COG supporters are already aware, Canada’s seed regulations are best suited to the production and distribution of seeds for large-scale, high-input, conventional farming. Engaging with policymakers to explore regulatory solutions that acknowledge the resources and effort that are required to develop varieties, without limiting producers’ capacity to save, replant and exchange seed, is critical to building a more sustainable seed system. Similarly, strong processor and retailer commitment must be a core part of the effort.
Inspiring projects are underway in every corner of the country to develop, produce, process and market ecological seed. I believe the key to success lies in coordination –seed producers and their supporters need to connect and learn from each other’s work. When one compares the resources and influence of the conventional, proprietary seed market, with those of the ecological seed market, it becomes clear that members of this community simply cannot afford to be isolated from each other. We must work across sectors and geographies, coordinate our efforts, and engage people outside of our traditional communities of support.
So, what is the story of the future of seed in Canada? The real impact of this work will come as increasing numbers of Canadians make the connection from food to seed, finally understanding that Canada’s seed growers and seed savers not only deserve to be a visible part of the food system, but are, indeed, the pillars it rests upon.
To learn more visit www.seedsecurity.ca