O Canada, How Can I Grow For Thee?

There’s a revolution that is happening in Canada. Not many people know about it yet but a lot of people are part of it.

   The revolution is about as basic as you can get. It has to do with the way we grow and eat food and take care of ourselves. It has to do with the way we nourish and sustain ourselves as a nation.

   The 2010 Olympics brought out a lot of pride and passion in Canadians, including myself. The Olympics got me thinking that Canada should be going for the gold in agriculture as well as in sports.

   My intention in this article is to talk about some big steps that are already being taken in the direction of self-reliance and sustainability and to encourage you to join the team. I think that there is a real possibility that Canada one day soon will “own the podium” atop all other countries for best agricultural practices.

   There’s nary a word about this enthusiastic collaboration in the media. Nevertheless, it is happening in cities and towns across the country and it is growing so quickly that it’s likely already spread to your very own neighbourhood. This movement is uniquely Canadian and multicultural. It is about as grass roots as you can get. There is no one leading it or funding it or trying to make money from it.

   It’s only in the past few years that this big change is gathering momentum. We’ve been bedazzled and boondoggled by industrial agriculture to the point that we’ve missed the most important work of all: keeping the “True North strong and free”.

Where We Took The Wrong Turn

   After the Second World War, many factories that had created chemicals for warfare were converted to factories that created fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides for agriculture. Farms became war zones where farmers attempted to annihilate weeds and insects. Farms that grew only one crop replaced those that grew a diversity of crops. The philosophy of “bigger is better” came on stronger and stronger. Agriculture became something that people with economic and political power used to further goals that have nothing to do with feeding people.

   Fast forward to 2010. Now we have herbicides and pesticides bioengineered into crops such as genetically modified (GMO) corn, canola and soybeans. These days, most grocery store items are packaged products containing various combinations of such GMO plants with chemical additives created in labs. GMO crops are the result of transferring foreign genes into food crops, something never done before in the history of agriculture. These crops have never been really tested for safety because the corporations that make them also make the rules about them.

   We hardly need tests to show us that genetically modified food is not the real thing. Fast food junkies, on a diet of GMO products, become grossly overweight, eating and eating to get the nutritional satisfaction that never comes.

   Sixty years later, it’s still all about poison, whether it’s in the plants or on them. The poison factories are upping their production every year and creating more deadly pesticides and herbicides to attack the bugs and weeds that are adapting to become superbugs and superweeds.

   Where we took the wrong turn was swallowing the warfare model for agriculture, thinking that nature needed to be subdued like an enemy. Now we’ve ended up poisoning the earth, the air, the water and every living thing on earth, including ourselves. How did we ever buy into the contradictory notion that we could grow healthy food by using poisons?

Agriculture Canada

   Where has our Canadian Government been in relation to food matters? Shouldn’t a government know what food crops could grow in a country and provide leadership in food research, promotion and production? Our federal government was actually good at this until about twenty years ago. There used to be excellent research stations in every province that worked at developing quality crops for domestic consumption as well as for export.

   However, the federal government subsidized the “bigger is better” approach at the expense of small, sustainable farms. Canadian agriculture became solely designed for export markets with less and less thought given to feeding Canadians. Then, in the early 90s, in an effort to cut budgetary expenses, the federal government eagerly handed over responsibility for the agricultural sector to multinational corporations.

   These corporations came in with big proclamations about how they were going to breed higher yielding, more nutritious, better-tasting food crops with genetic technology. In reality, poison is clearly the name of their game and they are awfully good at selling more and more of it and perpetuating the game endlessly. Food research in Canadian universities is under the supervision of biotechnology corporations now. Twenty years ago it seemed a weird notion that seeds could be patented and owned; now it seems commonplace as our food system has come to be lorded over by corporations that are not interested in human beings except to control and exploit them.

   Why have we allowed our government to abdicate almost all responsibility for feeding its citizens?

Forget the Government

   It’s hard to believe we have allowed such an insane approach to agriculture. Canada is one of the richest countries in the world in terms of good farmland and abundant water yet we import most of the food we eat from the United States and export the food we do grow to countries around the world. Agriculture as we now practice it requires huge inputs of fuel, fertilizer and biocides and gives us back one calorie of energy for every ten we put in. We violate the beauty and abundance of nature with a model that takes no account of future generations.

   People are realizing the futility of initiating change at the federal level. States like California and Florida, from which we import so much of our food, are becoming agricultural disasters zones, yet no one in government is addressing what will happen when that food stops coming up here. Countless polls have shown that over 90 per cent of Canadians want genetically modified ingredients to be labeled as such, yet the corporate lobby makes sure that doesn’t happen.   Gardeners and farmers everywhere are experiencing the effects of climate change, yet the federal government hasn’t a clue that industrial agriculture is a big part of the problem.

A Canadian Social Movement

   I’m in a unique position to talk about the revolution in food growing that’s happening in Canada because, for 25 years, I’ve been promoting a safe and sustainable agriculture through my seed company, Salt Spring Seeds. I am also President of the Seed and Plant Sanctuary for Canada (www.seedsanctuary.com), a non-profit society that’s worked since 2003 to preserve, enhance and proliferate our heritage food and medicinal crops.

   People phone and email me daily about the sheds or garages they are converting into greenhouses and about lawns they are digging up so they can grow food. Churches, societies and charitable foundations ask me for donations of seeds so they can plant community and allotment gardens. People forward me news from their towns or cities about how they are connecting people looking for land or garden space with people who have it to offer.

   Initiatives to further local growing and eating are germinating everywhere across our vast land. Community Shared Agriculture Programs (CSA’s) and Box Programs, in which people pay local farmers up front for future food harvests, are making it easier for farmers to plan their season. Vibrant Farmers” Markets are also strengthening the connection between consumers and farmers.

   This new surge in growing food is definitely a response to an increasingly obvious need to address food security, an issue that is mostly ignored by our federal and provincial governments. However, most new gardeners quickly get absorbed by the positive and joyful aspects of gardening and don’t think of what they are doing as being political.

Seeds of Change

   What is happening is definitely political though, and nowhere more so than in the realm of seeds. You can’t grow good food without good seeds. It seems we have a very clear choice these days between dubious seeds and good seeds. On the one hand, we can buy into the corporate seed world of patented seeds, genetically modified seeds and Terminator seeds that are designed to self-destruct. These seeds require high levels of inputs to work well and they establish an increasing dependence on the companies that produce them. On the other hand, we can choose our heritage, open-pollinated seeds that have been around for the whole history of agriculture on this earth.

   Tens of thousands of Canadian gardeners are choosing the latter. Not only are individuals learning the time-honoured and vastly rewarding practice of saving seeds, they are getting together in groups and communities to save seeds. There are now close to 100 Seedy Saturdays that precede the growing season across Canada. These events, which feature small seed companies and seed swap tables, have become sophisticated and well-organized celebrations of all things seedy and local. Some of the ones I attend on the west coast, such as in Courtenay, Qualicum Beach and Victoria bring out over two thousand people. I’ve been seeing more seed varieties on the seed exchange tables every year as well as more cultural information about the seeds.

   In the past two years, many Canadian communities have initiated their own seed banks. I know of at least a dozen in BC alone. Seed banks take Seedy Saturdays a step further and create a permanent place for seeds and an ongoing network of seed savers. Cities and towns are finding their own unique ways to organize these living gene banks but often it only takes a few meetings a year thanks to the fantastic ability of computers to facilitate record keeping and maintain communication.

Going For Gold?

   Can all this new fervour for saving seeds and growing food add up to a gold medal for Canada in terms of providing a healthy diet for all her citizens?

   There’s long way to go.

   Right now food is certainly all about money and not much about feeding people. A lot of people are going to be out of a job if we start seriously eating locally grown whole foods instead of food products. What would happen to the food truckers, producers, packagers and promoters if we went back to eating potatoes instead of potato chips? What would happen to the poison pushers if we learned to grow food in harmony with nature? What would happen to the money brokers if we stopped exporting our apples to New Zealand and importing New Zealand apples to Canada? What would happen to the oil barons if we stopped packaging food products in plastic and transporting them thousands of miles to our grocery stores?

   The way things are going in the world, it seems these questions will be answered fairly soon. Money and wealth used to be directly related to the resources and industriousness of a country; now money is a hocus-pocus game that is pure fiction. How many more times can big business bail themselves out of their financial chicanery by printing more money? Many of the people who have made their living off the backs of farmers may soon find themselves in farmers’ shoes!

   Going for gold in agriculture is going to involve taking food somewhat out of the money realm. Food should come first not money. We have to start thinking about how all our citizens can be well fed ahead of how many export dollars we are generating.

What to Feed the Nation

   I started Salt Spring Seeds in 1986, especially promoting beans and grains as essential components of a well-rounded diet. It’s always amazed me that Canada exports massive amounts of grains and beans to places such as South America, the Middle East, Africa, China and India, where they are cooked whole in a multitude of ways. However, we don’t eat much whole grain in Canada nor lentils, dried peas, chickpeas, fava beans, regular beans or soybeans. For example, we consume only 1 per cent of the dried peas grown in Canada. Maybe it’s time we had pea soup once a week instead of once a year.

   The bottom line, to my mind, is that we don’t have to figure out what to grow for Canada to be self-sufficient in food. We just have to learn to eat what we already do grow!

   It is backyard growers and small farmers who are now exploring the wonderful multitude of grains and legumes and encouraging larger-scale farmers to do the same. A friend of mine, Sharon Rempel, has re-introduced one of our most famous heirloom wheats, Red Fife, back into agriculture. I’m proud to say that I’ve helped with the popularization of quinoa, hulless barleys and non-GMO soybeans. New and enthusiastic Canadian seed savers are bound to discover diverse adaptable whole foods plus innovative and interesting ways to prepare them and, in doing so, help create a uniquely Canadian cuisine. This is going to be a refreshing change from the top-down approach to crop selection we’ve had for so long. These foods will be very inexpensive because there will be a much more direct connection between grower and consumer.


   Diversity is the key to a strong and resilient agriculture. Our current practice of planting vast acreages to a single crop is an invitation for one insect, disease or spell of crazy weather to wipe out everything. Weather patterns are increasingly unpredictable and it’s crucial to keep growing out and saving seeds from a large number of plant cultivars. The new blossoming of Seedy Saturdays and community seed banks across the country is sure to be effective in preserving and enhancing the most adaptable crop varieties.

   It’s a common belief that modern expensive hybrid seeds are better than heritage open-pollinated seeds. However, this is only true from lack of work. Huge amounts of money are spent to develop hybrid, patented and GMO seeds. With careful observation and selection, ordinary gardeners and farmers can breed earlier, more disease resistant and higher yielding crops. My friend, Andy Pollock, up in Houston, BC, has spent 35 years developing a delicious, very high yielding tomato that can stand temperatures below freezing.

   It’s important to foster not only the diversity of food crops but also the diversity of possibilities within each crop. For example, there are salad beets, soup beets, sugar beets and beets for beet greens, there are beets for early, late and winter harvests, plus there are beets with all manner of shapes and sizes amenable to different styles of cooking. There are grains best used for bread or pastry, grains for brewing, sprouting, juicing or to be cooked whole. The rich possibilities of every kind of food are awaiting our exploration and who better to explore them than the people who love to eat well.

Sharing and Caring

Many of the people and groups who are contacting me about personal and community gardens are talking about sharing their harvests with friends, neighbours and local food banks. I’ve also heard from many gardeners who are collaborating with other gardeners to share the foods that they and their gardens grow best. People with shady exposures grow peas and greens while those in sunny spots grow tomatoes and peppers. People are trading berries for nuts and beans for bread. People who love cooking food are working out deals with those who love to grow it.

   Sales for fruit and nut trees are mushrooming these days and seed sales for food crops are displacing seed sales for flowers. There’s an enthusiasm for local food growing that seems to be growing every day.

O Canada, How Can We Grow For Thee?

   There is indeed a revolution that is happening in Canada and it is a joyous and peaceful one. It is replacing the “winner take the gold” mentality with the belief that we can all share the gold. There are bushels of ways to catch, enjoy and spread the spirit whether it is in school gardens or seniors’ gardens, allotment gardens or community gardens. Gardeners, farmers and eaters are learning from each other through CSA and Box programs, organic gardening and cooking classes, Farmers’ Markets, Seedy Saturdays and seed banks.

   With all the possible ways things can fall apart in this very unsettled time, people are realizing that abundant availability of good food is a tremendous security against uncertainty. If we, as a nation, can grow and eat our own food, we can keep celebrating Canada, “glorious and free.”