Food security discussions are raising again the importance of preserving agricultural biodiversity and sourcing local foods. I thought it might be a good time to revisit an article I wrote a few years ago. Some info is dated, much is not. "Led down the garden path," was published in 2004 in the Halifax Chronicle Herald, The St. John's Telegram and the Atlantic Co-operator. Hope it provides food for thought!
Led down the garden path
In the face of genetically engineered crops, farmers and others are struggling to preserve biodiversity
by Alison Dyer
It’s definitely deceiving. A trip down the supermarket aisle today would make us believe we have more food variety than ever. But the foods that make up these products actually come from fewer and fewer sources.
“There are millions of plants, of which at least 30,000 are edible. We rely on no more than 30 to feed us. Rice, wheat and maize provide 65 per cent of the world's protein intake. Three crops.” So starts a slide show produced by Primal Seeds, a network dedicated to food security.
In the last few decades, plant breeding has favoured fewer and fewer varieties to accommodate large-scale industrial agribusiness. A tomato variety is bred for uniformity, enabling a monoculture crop to ripen and be harvested at the one time, and be easily sorted and packed by machinery. It’s bred for a skin tough enough to withstand the 1,000 kilometre trip it needs to make. And it is usually bred for more weight, and more profit. But these traits are often at the expense of others. Like taste. Remember that same tomato you buy in the produce section that is as exciting to the palate as coloured water?
Safety at risk
Many farmers, gardeners and food security groups are concerned about the garden path down which modern agriculture is leading us. They talk about the need to preserve and plant heritage seeds. For some, it may be that they want to know what grandmother’s garden looked like.
“It’s our living heritage, our story. Many of these seeds were grown by our great grandparents, they [brought them] from places that they emigrated from…to North America,” says Andrea Berry, the Atlantic regional rep of Seeds of Diversity. Or they were “varieties that were traditional to aboriginal communities that were used here in their agricultural tradition. Continuing to grow these seeds is making that connection to our living past.”
The single most important issue in preserving heritage seeds, however, is that of preserving biodiversity. “So many varieties of fruits and vegetables that we eat, through the commercialization and industrialization of our food system, have been lost because they weren’t appropriate for large-scale production,” says Berry. A United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) report estimates that 75 per cent of crop varieties worldwide were made extinct in the 20th century.
“We’re whittling away our genetic diversity, and what that does is put our environment and food supply at risk,” says Berry. Jack Hanlon, would have agreed. The famous botanist and plant breeder noted that genetic diversity “stands between us and catastrophic starvation on a scale we cannot imagine.”
“Traditionally the way genetic diversity was shared between farmers and gardeners, they’d meet at garden fences and say ‘that’s an interesting pumpkin you’ve got there’. That fall they’d save those seeds and share them. That was an informal way that genetic diversity got shared around the community,” explains Berry.
And these local varieties have some very important characteristics. “These are seeds that have been nourished for generations by farmers. Often these seeds have been selected for local conditions. So they tend to be hardier,” says Laura Telford, executive director of the Canadian Organic Growers.
Diversity helps plants evolve and adapt to changing conditions. In contrast modern hybrids, bred for high yields, are reliant on expensive inputs such as chemical fertilizers, herbicides, pesticides and irrigated systems. “Such uniformity invites crop failure as pests and diseases spread easier,” continues the Primal Seeds slide show, “once the buffer of diversity is removed.”
“If you think to the Irish potato blight – all these people growing the same variety…along comes this blight that affected that particular variety and wiped out the entire nation’s potato supply which was a staple for them,” reminds Berry.
Over the years, the number of companies offering seeds has also dwindled, bought out by larger companies offering fewer hybrids. “The total commercial market for seeds at present is around $30 billion. According to Rabobank International estimates, this business could triple to around $91 billion,” reports the Hindu Business Line. It’s a lucrative business, particularly when twinned with the makers of pesticides necessary for the maintenance of these seeds. Today, Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta, three vast agro-chemical corporations, now control one quarter of the world's entire seed supply.
Other trends that threaten the world’s food security are seed patenting and the introduction of genetically engineered crops. “It actually puts local farmers out of work, they can’t afford the seed,” says Telford. “You can’t save the seed the next year which is really an issue for third world farmers, and also for biodiversity – you have to throw away your seed and start over each year.”
In Canada, farmers are looking very closely at GMO (genetically modified organism) crops. In the 1990s, genetically modified canola drifted onto non-GMO crops and contaminated canola seed throughout the region. Monsanto has been pushing hard to get GMO wheat introduced into farmer’s fields.
“It’s the issue that our organic farmers are wound up about these days, and farmers don’t tend to be an activist lot, it takes a lot to get them wound up,” says Telford.
“Wheat is our biggest export crop and there are lots and lots of acres of organic wheat,” says Telford who explains the issue has united both conventional and organic farmers. “The Canadian Wheat Board recently commissioned a study that said if Canada goes GE wheat, all of Canada – and that includes organic and conventional farmers – will lose 80 percent of their international markets.”
Meanwhile, Monsanto has heard the grumblings. The multinational announced earlier this week that it is “deferring all further efforts to introduce Roundup Ready wheat, until such time that other wheat biotechnology traits are introduced.” In other words, they’ve decided to wait it out. Monsanto has not withdrawn its application for the regulatory registration of Roundup Ready wheat. Rather the company is still looking at the “potential commercialization of other biotechnology traits in wheat, estimated to be four to eight years in the future.”
“It’s great news for farmers and for consumers that Monsanto is backing off its plans to introduce Roundup Ready Wheat,” says Telford. “However, we hope that this decision will not take the onus off the government to make the right decision. The only permanent solution for keeping this product off our grocery store shelves is to refuse to license it.”
Breathing life into old ways
In Atlantic Canada, two co-ops are involved in a heritage seed program that may have important implications for wheat growers across the country. “For two years we got funding to do some evaluation work in the field on different possible varieties of wheat that could be grown in the Maritimes under organic conditions,” says agroecologist Jennifer Scott, who spearheaded the project between the Maritime Certified Organic Growers and Speerville Flour Mill. “We thought we’d go back to some of the older varieties because they might work better in an organic system,” says Scott.
“Another motivation was the whole [GMO] wheat (issue)…to maintain our organic integrity, all of the organic growers would have to have their certified organic source of seed and be very sure there wasn’t any [GMO] contamination,” says Scott.
Stu Fleischhaker, a farmer and co-founder of Speerville, took on the growing of one heritage variety, Acadia. “Acadia was one of the last wheats that was bred specifically for Eastern Canada. It was last grown in the early ‘50s. When we went to look for seed there simply wasn’t any.”
Fleischhaker recalls how they got about a dozen seeds from the government gene bank in Saskatoon, but only one germinated. “It was virtually extinct. What saved us was a wheat breeder in Prince Edward Island still had some of the old Acadia and he gave it to us, so we were able to go from there and bring it up to commercial scale,” he says.
While Fleischhaker no longer grows this particular variety – last year was particularly hard for wheat growers in the region in general and resulted in poor yields – he believes there is definite potential for it and other heritage varieties like Selkirk and Red Fife. He says that Speerville is still marketing his Acadia grain in addition to other heritage grains like spelt and kamut. “Some of the modern wheat varieties a lot of people can’t eat any more, they’re allergic to [them]. Some of the older varieties, like spelt, they can tolerate.”
And Fleischhaker’s experience with the seed or gene bank makes a good point. “Best way to conserve seeds is for them to be useful, you can’t just have museums,” says Scott.
Connecting the dots
That’s the idea behind Seeds of Diversity. “It’s a country-wide seed exchange… a national adaptation of that backyard seed sharing,” explains Berry. “Members are invited to grow heritage varieties in their gardens of fruits, vegetables, save the seeds and offer [them] to other members … through the Seed Exchange directory. It’s like a seed catalogue but members … don’t ask for payment for their seed,” says Berry about their membership of 1,600 across the country. “Many of the varieties are endangered and are not offered in seed company catalogues.”
Seeds of Diversity also has a project with the national seed bank. “[Members] sign up and get a variety…to grow out in their own garden. [They provide] a service to the national gene bank by refreshing the variety, that the seeds don’t go stale and become infertile,” says Berry.
And in many localities across the country now, Seedy Saturdays are organized by different groups offering a seed-sharing and information event for gardeners.
For Fleischaker raising heritage breeds, whether crops or livestock – the latter do not require antibiotics like modern varieties – is critical for the preservation of a rural way of life. “The fact that we’re no longer focussed on local economy has changed a lot of how we look at things and it’s affected dramatically our food system,” says Fleischaker. “Most people don’t know how far removed we’ve gotten from maybe where we should be.”
Sidebar: Consumer Power
- Ask for local. “You wouldn’t believe what a difference consumers can make when they go into a store and say they’d prefer local (food),” says Scott. “Co-op Atlantic has been very good about having the Atlantic Tender classic Beef…and Summerside Pork too. Co-op Atlantic should be patted on the back for some of their initiatives.”
- Buy local. “Sourcing your food from a local producer, [not] necessarily heritage varieties, but it supports and strengthens our rural communities, and … our local food systems,” says Berry. “Find out if there’s a Community Shared Agricultural program, a weekly food box system in your area.”
- If you garden, grow a heritage variety. Atlantic companies like Hope Seeds and Perennials specialize in heritage seeds. Or signup for Seed of Diversity’s gene bank project.
- Educate. “Finding out about GMOs [and] what that means to our environment and food supply,” says Berry.
Copyright 2004 Alison Dyer