Sowing the Seeds of Food Security
March 23, 2014
Everdale organic farm is at the centre of a project designed to create a self-sufficient organic seed industry in Canada.
Aabir Dey readily acknowledges he was a typical suburban kid, raised in Mississauga, who didn’t know how to grow so much as a tomato, arguably the most widely cultivated plant in Canadian home gardens. So it may be one of life’s surprising twists that the 26-year-old now finds himself working at Everdale organic farm near Hillsburgh at the heart of an initiative to promote and expand the security and diversity of Canada’s – and the world’s – seed supply.
Dey is the Ontario regional co-ordinator of the national Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security. Led by USC Canada in partnership with Seeds of Diversity, the four-year project was inspired by the idea that producing diverse, regionally adapted organic seed will enhance the country’s food security. The goal is to create a self-sufficient seed industry by helping organic growers develop their own seed-breeding programs that will remain vibrant long after the program has ended.
“In conventional terms, I’d say we’re creating a stimulus package, but for the ecological seed industry,” explains Dey, who has an undergraduate degree in business and a master’s in environmental studies. “We’re providing a shot in the arm for growers and organizations that are working on organic seed production, hopefully building the capacity for those groups to continue the work they are already doing – but to a degree that’s more national than they are doing on their own.”
On a cold February day, the hills visible from Dey’s office in a straw bale building at Everdale are covered in snow. But that doesn’t mean enthusiastic plans for this year’s crops aren’t already in the works.
This summer, garlic, squash, spring radishes, lettuce and beets, as well as heritage field crops, will grow in Everdale’s 8- to 10-acre vegetable garden. And eggplant and okra will be cultivated at Everdale’s Black Creek Community Farm, a seven-acre urban market garden near the intersection of Jane St. and Steeles Ave. West in Toronto.
Winter is also a time for grappling with some of the challenges involved in organic farming and seed production. Dey is concerned, for example, about a particular carrot seed being contaminated by Queen Anne’s lace, aka wild carrot, which can be very persistent in open fields. “It takes a lot of skill to isolate carrots to grow true to type,” he says. “It also speaks to the challenge of seed production as a whole; it takes quite a bit of knowledge to grow good seed.”
Founded in 1945 as the Unitarian Service Committee of Canada, USC Canada is one of this country’s oldest international NGOs, with global experience in working with smallholder food producers. In recent years, the non-profit organization has focused on promoting ecologically sound agriculture in countries around the world. A key element of this work involves seed and food sovereignty.
Launched last year the Bauta project is the first domestic application of USC’s field work, says Jane Rabinowicz, director of the Bauta Family Initiative at USC Canada. “The Canadian program is informed by our work overseas,” she says. The project was founded by Gretchen Bauta, the daughter of Garfield Weston, and is funded by a grant from the W. Garfield Weston Foundation.
The initiative is organized into five regional hubs across the country. In addition to Ontario’s Everdale, the hubs include the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network, or ACORN; FarmFolk CityFolk in British Columbia; and Organic Alberta, which co-ordinates the program in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba. In Quebec, USC Canada is responsible for programming as well as overseeing the project at the national level.
Given its long history of community engagement, Everdale was a natural choice to co-ordinate the Ontario program, says Rabinowicz. Located on some of the most fertile farmland in southern Ontario and accessible to the Greater Toronto Area, Everdale is also a working farm. “It allows us to demonstrate seed production and seed saving on site,” she adds.
Since 1998, Everdale’s mandate has been to provide practical learning and hands-on experience that promotes sustainability. Education has been a function of the farm since its inception in the mid-1960s as Everdale Place, one of Canada’s first alternative schools.
The farm continues to host visiting students from kindergarten to high school and provides a number of seed production workshops, as well as seminars on other subjects. The workshops and seminars are part of the farm’s internship program, which offers new and aspiring farmers the opportunity to earn a sustainable farming certificate after spending a season gaining practical and theoretical knowledge about operating an organic farm. The public is also welcome to participate in the one-day events, which kick off in mid-April with a focus on starting a seed garden and continue through the growing season. In late September they wrap up with a seminar on seed saving.
“The whole thing about building a movement is it starts on individual farms,” says Rabinowicz. “The powerful parts of this program are teaching individual growers in a kind of personal way and then linking them to each other within a region and across the country. That’s why I like the structure of the program.”
Dey was the perfect choice to take on the regional co-ordinator’s role in Ontario. After all, his 2012 master’s thesis focused on developing a co-operative business model for agro-ecological vegetable seed production in Canada. He had also been involved in conducting research during the Bauta project’s pilot stage, says Jane. “He had a pretty unique profile, I would say, that made him suitable for the position.”
The Bauta initiative’s other national partner is Seeds of Diversity, which was founded 30 years ago when gardeners noticed many of their favourite varieties were disappearing from annual seed catalogues. The Waterloo-based non-profit organization works toward protecting and promoting Canadian seed by conserving the biodiversity and traditional knowledge of food crops and garden plants.
As an intern at Everdale in 2011, Dey worked with Bob Wildfong, executive director of Seeds of Diversity, and credits his mentor’s enthusiasm with inspiring his own passion for seeds – and helping him define the focus of his master’s thesis.
Wildfong, who has been involved with Everdale since he gave the first seed saving workshop to a group of young farmers in 2001, recalls his student fondly. “It’s really satisfying to see [Dey] find his way into the position he’s in now,” says Wildfong. “I remember him being a keen intern with some very challenging questions, which I had to struggle to answer.”
In Wildfong’s view, the Bauta project advances Seeds of Diversity’s goal: to reclaim the production of Canadian seeds. “We know that there are in the range of 30,000 to 50,000 kinds of seeds that you can grow in Canada, and out of that only about one-tenth are available from commercial seed companies,” he says. The other 90 per cent are maintained by individuals and likely shared only with friends and family. “You think, ‘Wow that’s unusual,’ but we run into that all the time. There are thousands of people who are doing that. They need to realize that we need a sample of those seeds, because at some point people will stop growing them and very often believe someone else has them – and no one else has that particular seed.”
Canadians are not alone in their struggle to preserve homegrown seeds. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the world has lost 75 per cent of the genetic diversity of food crops since 1900. Today, more than three-quarters of human dietary energy comes from only nine crops, and just three of these – wheat, rice and maize (corn) – contribute nearly 60 per cent of the calories and proteins obtained by humans from plants.
Food Tank, an American-based think tank devoted to food-related issues, believes that the food system is broken as a result of factors that include extreme weather, over-exploitation of ecosystems and habitat loss, as well as a lack of public awareness. Conservation techniques such as creating seed banks and seed exchanges can play an important role in preserving and strengthening seed production for important food crops and ensuring the sustainability of the world’s food supply.
Seeds of Diversity and Everdale jointly operate the Everdale seed library, considered the largest and most comprehensive publicly accessible seed library in Canada. Stored in a low-humidity freezer below Dey’s office are nearly 4,000 samples of more than 2,000 varieties of seed. Each sample is verified by volunteers or Seeds of Diversity staff, who carefully catalogue its name and characteristics, noting everything from the size to the flavour of the fruit.
While the inventory may not rival the famed “doomsday vault,” the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, which has the capacity to conserve up to 4.5 million seeds and is located emphatically inaccessibly 1,100 kilometres from the North Pole, Dey emphasizes that as a library rather than a bank, the Everdale project seeks not only to collect but to disseminate seeds.
This year Everdale will collaborate with other Bauta hubs to expand the national seed trials, lending seeds to as many as 30 farmers in each region to grow and return feedback. Training sessions will be offered, and Everdale will join the Quebec and Atlantic hubs, as well as the Eastern Canadian Organic Seed Growers Network, in hosting a conference on organic seed production.
The Bauta initiative has played a vital role in promoting these projects, offering grants totalling $160,000 to help ecological seed producers continue their painstaking and labour-intensive work. In addition, the initiative has helped finance 27 local seed sharing events and 17 community seed library projects.
“Last year was a huge learning experience and just kind of getting our feet wet,” says Dey. “Hopefully what we’d like to see every year is this kind of level of activity in Ontario, and then more broadly in every other region.”
Before the advent of genetically modified seeds, farmers and gardeners traditionally saved seeds. They took them from the best fruit and stored them for planting the next year. This continuing process produced different varieties and strains that could survive extreme weather, such as heat and flooding. Critics say that modern conventional farming, which uses patented seeds, including hybrids and those that have been genetically modified, have cut short the natural evolution of seeds and relegated the selection of traits to a laboratory.
The result may be a consistent product – genetically identical plants growing uniformly and ripening at the same time to make large-scale mechanical harvesting easier – but the process leaves farmers without the ability to save their own seed.
Pat Mooney, executive director of the Action Group on Erosion, Technology and Concentration, believes the world’s food security should not be left in the hands of agribusiness conglomerates. A small, Montreal-based international civil society organization, ETC Group has been monitoring the reach of agro-industrial corporations for several decades. The group’s statistics show that in the past 50 years, small-scale growers have donated 2.1 million varieties of 7,000 crops to seed banks around the world. At the same time, seed companies have contributed just 80,000 varieties.
“One of the figures that always shocks me is that the top six companies in agribusiness are responsible for 76 per cent of all agriculture private sector research and 45 per cent of all their research is on one crop: corn,” says Mooney. When it comes to diversity, agribusinesses “don’t like diversity; they don’t want diversity.”
Mooney, who was at Everdale when the Bauta initiative was launched in June 2013, has high praise for their model. “The big grand initiatives usually don’t survive,” he says. “I think people should know that it has been small farmers, small producers who’ve managed to get us through the massive changes before in agriculture and climate change.”
The Bauta initiative dovetails nicely with the United Nations’ designation of 2014 as the International Year of Family Farming. Many international events will be geared toward promoting public policies that encourage the development of family farming, “whose role and potential as guarantor of food security,” says the UN, “is not sufficiently acknowledged.”
In this country, Statistics Canada’s 2011 census of agriculture revealed that agriculture is rapidly changing. There is increased consolidation, and farm size is growing at an unprecedented rate. Though Ontario still had the most farms (51,950), this number had declined 9.2 per cent since 2006. Only 774 of these farms were certified organic or transitional, a designation meaning they are involved in the three-year process of having all or part of their operations certified organic.
Canadians consumers seem to be doing their part by buying more organic products than ever, according to data compiled by the Canada Organic Trade Association. In late 2012, COTA launched a comprehensive study of the country’s organic marketplace, the first since the federal government introduced national regulations in 2009. The study found that sales, both domestic and export, of Canadian organic products had grown to a value of $3.5 billion a year, a 300 per cent increase since 2006.
The study also found that 58 per cent of Canadians buy at least some organic products every week. This rate is even higher among ethnic Canadians, people living in the country’s largest cities, households with young families, and university-educated consumers. Ontario is Canada’s largest consumer market for organics, with annual sales valued at $1 billion.
More than half of those surveyed by COTA believe organic farming is better for the environment, and nearly half consider organic food healthier and more nutritious. They also believe ecological sustainability is an important consideration when choosing food products, and they prefer to buy products that are not genetically engineered.
After this year’s long, cold winter, gardeners in these hills are no doubt eager to get outside and sink their fingers into the earth. In preparation, many will make a point of attending one of the seed exchanges that have become a harbinger of spring in communities across the country.
“By purchasing seeds from smaller growers, you can help them scale up and produce those kinds of seeds, and ultimately have a stronger seed supply,” says Wildfong. For him, Dey and those who work with them, a stronger seed supply is key to maintaining biodiversity and ensuring a secure food supply.
Every year, more than a hundred community-based seed exchanges are held in Canadian town and cities, mostly between February and April. The Seedy Saturday events attract home gardeners, seed savers, native plant enthusiasts and community groups who want to exchange seeds, connect with local seed producers, learn about plants and support biodiversity across Canada.
On May 3, Everdale hosts its own Seedy Saturday. Visitors are invited to buy, share and sell seeds, learn about seed saving, and take a tour of the farm.
For information about these events and others, visit: