We may not be sure which came first, the chicken or the egg, but we can be pretty sure the seed comes first in plant- based agriculture.
Protecting the right to farm requires that we develop and protect regionally appropriate seed systems. Organic Alberta has joined in this process with several initiatives.
John Navazio, senior scientist with the Organic Seed Alliance, shared his passion for growing high quality seeds and building strong regional seed communities at Organic Alberta’s farmer field days in July.
He feels local seed communities are the best way to maintain genetic diversity and assure that farmers have choice.
“We rely on farmers’ knowledge, working with farmers as equal partners,” Navazio said.
“We have some tricks of the trade we can share, especially if you are not getting the varieties you need.”
He told market gardeners that having crops work well with their rotations means increasing number of crops flowering each month. This diversity supports pollinators and other beneficial insects and provides a valuable revenue stream.
Navazio illustrated some of the problems with the industrial seed system using his own research. Golden beets were not considered desirable by the large commercial vegetable seed companies.
Growers found golden beets popular at market, but varieties available to them had poor agronomic quality. Navazio disregarded conventional wisdom to screen golden beet varieties. He selected Touchstone Gold, which has now become the most popular variety for market gardeners.
Although producers aim for clean fields, “stress is important in seed selection; it provides a crucial selection pressure,” Navazio said.
Commercial varieties are bred for production under high inputs.
“Why would you breed for resistance when all growers spray,” he said.
However, selecting under weedy conditions encourages more competitive varieties of carrot. Testing spinach selections in a field with “every disease known to spinach” results in disease resistant varieties.
“Always grow in less than optimal conditions,” Navazio said, both to improve the lines for seed saving and to improve the crop’s nutrient scavenging and nutritional value.
Navazio also spoke to oat growers about ClifBar’s interest in oat seed stocks. ClifBar, a maker of organic energy bars, buys oats from Alberta. It is interested in the long-term stability of supply, which includes making sure that farmers have the oat seed stocks they need.
ClifBar funded Navazio’s visit to Alberta and is encouraging the interaction of the Organic Seed Alliance with organic farmers in Alberta.
Organic Alberta’s oat committee is working with Jennifer Mitchell Fetch, an oat breeder from the Cereal Research Centre in Winnipeg. Organic producers in Alberta are growing seed she has selected for organic producers and making selections of their own from her material.
Although the relationship with Mitchell Fetch is valuable, her facility is one destined to be closed as part of recently announced federal cuts to research. This points out to producers the need to be ultimately responsible for their own seed needs.
Navazio hopes to work with producers to improve their ability to maintain high quality in saved seed and to improve their seeds’ regional adaptation.
USC Canada also sent representatives to Organic Alberta’s farmers’ field day. Formerly the Unitarian Service Committee, USC has a strong history of action to develop food security systems in the global south.
The organization has recognized that Canadian farmers have some of the same problems: a shrinking diversity of seed, increasing concentration of seed ownership among a few corporations and a loss of traditional knowledge of seed production.
USC manager Suzie Walsh ex-plained her desire to promote “food sovereignty and the farmers’ right to grow what they want.”
USC is launching the Bauta Initiative in Canada to facilitate a more secure and diverse seed system, with particular emphasis on small-scale and organic farmers and local seed production and seed saving. It is eager to work with groups such as Organic Alberta and Seeds of Diversity to strengthen the work that is already underway.
Organic Alberta is working with organic producers and organizations that are interested in preserving a farmer’s access to high quality seed to produce high quality food. In this, it is showing leadership in developing and maintaining a strong and healthy food system.