A Glebite’s farm-to-table learning curve

By Sharon Johnson

Three years ago, I was introduced to some life-changing lessons about the vulnerability of sustainable food supplies. Shelley Spruit, local heritage grain farmer-entrepreneur and seed steward from Against the Grain Farms in Winchester, was speaking about climate uncertainties and other challenges faced by farmers and food growers.

My eyes opened to the importance of open-source, open-pollinated (OP) seeds and the significance of the long-evolved genetic biodiversity of such seed for local weather adaptability. OP seeds are precious, self-generating resources with the inbuilt capacity for sustainable food security. Shelley’s impassioned, knowledgeable presentation quickly dispelled any notion that I was an educated food consumer.

My subsequent farm-to-table learning curve has also helped me to grasp the serious ecosystem threats to food production posed by corporate seed patenting and privatization of first-generation (F1) hybrids and genetically modified organism (GMO) seeds. Such seeds are heavily dependent on chemical inputs, creating problems that threaten soil health. More on that later; first, let’s explore the seed world.

Open-seed pollination involves plant-fertilizing processes carried out by wind and weather, insects, birds and by human plant breeders. OP seeds carry a full, long-evolved, biodiverse inheritance and genetic stability. These seeds reproduce “true” and reliably pass on traits like distinctive flavour, vigour, cold or wet weather adaptability, resistance to drought or excess water. OP seeds can be reliably saved and planted in self-generating cycles.

In adverse conditions like the current chaotic weather patterns, OP plants have the resilience to adapt to new conditions. Both adaptability and resilience contribute to sustainable local food sources because the seeds are locally adapted. However, when this rich genetic biodiversity is gone, it’s gone forever. This fact accounts for ecological warnings about the genetic losses that threaten us.

By contrast, one key problem with lab-bred hybridized F1 seeds is that its F2 and subsequent seed generations are trait-erratic and unreliable, so new seed must be purchased every year. Commercial food growers use F1 hybrids for vigorous growth and reliable traits like high yield, uniform size and ripening time, pest and disease resistance, transportation endurance, taste and colour. However, trait-limited standardization is unconcerned with local adaptability and resilience. Hybrids and GM seeds come with incremental costs – economic, ecological and health-related.

GMOs are engineered in labs to produce otherwise-impossible plant breeds by splicing a selected gene from a totally different organism, animal or microbial, into the DNA of the parent plant. GM seeds are heavily patented and corporately privatized – whatever the origins of the now-modified seeds – so legalities dictate that new seed be purchased every year. What a business model!

While acknowledging the many complicated issues raised by hybrid and GM seeds, it’s important to understand that the chemical inputs on which these two seed types depend deaden and destroy the soils meant to grow our food. Such soils become susceptible to severe wind and water erosion. They become depleted of carbon and lack the necessary underground resources to sink and store carbon.

Healthy, living soils, by contrast, are rich and complexly interdependent systems that include extensive microbial networks of bacteria and fungi. All these systems support numbers of diverse, vital functions. Put very simply, sponge-like soil structures developed below ground and the vital plant cover above ground function efficiently during drought or flood. The biochemistry of all plants draws carbon and other greenhouse gases out of the atmosphere and into the carbon-blackened ground. There, carbon’s life-giving energy supports the many interdependent processes that promote plant, soil and overall ecological health and sustainability. Taken together with the self-generating capacity of OP seeds, these life-sustaining processes create the sustainable food economies that support human communities and cultures.

I joined the National Farmers Union (nfu.ca) last July, drawn by its informed education and advocacy work, like the Save Our Seed campaign. Due to corporate lobbying, existing regulations have already downgraded farmers’ seed-saving rights to “privileges” that can be removed without direct legislative action. Last December, the NFU protested to Navdeep Bains, then Minister of Science, Innovation and Industry, about the misleading name “Seeds Canada” being proposed by the hybrid seed industry because it mimics legitimate government names like Health Canada or Service Canada. This gives private corporations and their industry association an undeserved air of government authority.

Urban communities are important contributors to farm-to-table partnerships. We help to empower ecologically sustainable and climate-mitigating farming practices implemented in the name of true seed and food security. Remember: Whoever owns the seeds owns the food system. Please consider joining me as an NFU associate member.

Sharon Johnson, bead and fibre artist and lifelong learner, writes the monthly field notes for Against the Grain Farms.

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