Program collects cream of the crop for biodiversity

Food system vulnerable | Identifying the best crop varieties for various production systems will increase food security

A Canadian organization that promotes family farms, ecologically sustainable food production and strong rural communities has launched a new program aimed at maintaining diversity in the Canadian seed supply.

USC Canada says the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security will promote the development and use of locally adapted and biologically diverse seed varieties of crops such as oats, wheat, corn and potatoes.

The program will work with re-searchers, plant breeders and farmers to identify existing varieties and new lines that perform well under different production systems and growing conditions.

A key objective is to improve access to varieties that are well suited to organic farming and alternative production systems that rely less on pesticides and chemical fertilizers.

USC Canada launched the initiative with Seeds of Diversity Canada.

Financial support for the four-year, $4.5 million program was secured through the W. Garfield Weston Foundation, a philanthropic foundation established by the Weston family, which owns Canada’s largest retail food company.

“Seed security in Canada, in particular the links between heritage grains, nutrition and climate adaptation, has been a concern of mine for over 20 years,” said Gretchen Bauta, the daughter of W. Garfield Weston and initiator of the new seed security program.

Concerns over seed security and seed diversity stem from the fact that most crops grown in Canada are produced from a limited number of varieties.

USC said 95 percent of the seeds that produce Canada’s major food crops are bred for uniformity and predictable performance under a specific range of growing conditions.

“This reliance on a narrow range of crops … makes our food system vulnerable,” it said in a June 11 news release.

“Canadian farmers need access to a stable supply of high quality, biodiverse, made-in-Canada seed.”

USC will work with lead organizations in five regions of the country. Four have already been identified — the Atlantic Canadian Organic Regional Network in Atlantic Canada, the Everdale Organic Farm and Learning Centre in Ontario, Organic Alberta on the Prairies and Farm Folk City Folk in British Columbia — while a host agency for Quebec will be named in the near future.

In Western Canada, the program will focus largely on field crops that are widely grown in Alberta, Sask-atchewan and Manitoba.

Organic Alberta is testing several varieties of conventional oats to determine their suitability under organic production systems.

David Hobson, program co-ordinator for the region, said the program will provide financial support for Organic Alberta’s existing oat trials as well as new programming that promotes seed diversity in the West.

One of the new initiatives that will receive funding is a participatory breeding project in which organic farmers help test new crop lines developed specifically for organic production.

University of Manitoba plant breeders will develop the new crosses, which will then be distributed to farmer co-operators. The farmers will conduct trials, identify the most promising crosses and help select plant populations for further breeding and multiplication.

It is expected that more than 50 farmer co-operators will participate in the breeding program across Canada.

The U of M, which is listed as a national partner in the seed security initiative, recently launched a natural systems agriculture program aimed at promoting farming systems that are more attuned to ecological sustainability.

Plant breeding for organic production systems is a key component of that program.

Jane Rabinowicz, program director with USC Canada, said the new seed security initiative will ensure that diverse and specialized field crop varieties are available to producers who are not involved in large-scale conventional farming.

“If you look at cereal crops, for example, the system that we’re working with here in Canada is really geared toward conventional production,” Rabinowicz said.

“So on the field crop side, we’re really talking about … providing support for developing varieties and getting varieties in circulation that perform really well in organic management systems and also bringing more biodiversity into the system as well.”

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