Community Shared Agriculture & Salt Spring Seeds, Canada

COG’s last issue on Community Shared Agriculture was really informative and inspiring. I’d like to add a few ideas to Rupert Jaanasch’s excellent article in which he asks us to imagine the shape of things to come as we enter “a period of economic and cultural upheaval.”

Food security is indeed already a phrase on many people’s lips and it’s important to think of ways we can work together to feed ourselves if we are to ride out the coming changes.

I‘d like to describe innovative ways of saving seeds as well as new ways of growing our food together.

Food security and seed security go hand in hand. You can’t grow vital food without good seed. In a few short decades, most seed production has been taken over by corporations pushing poisons and genetically modified seed. North Americans have been eating food products from GMO seed for over 10 years now. GMO corn, canola and soybeans are the big 3 and they are found in over 70 per cent of processed foods. In reality, “fast food” North Americans have been subjected to a mass experiment, a perversion of our food unprecedented in ten thousand years of agriculture. Some of the results are already well documented and include an unprecedented lowering of life expectancy because of epidemics of obesity, diabetes, heart failure and cancer.

The situation is only getting more sinister and it is worth mentioning some of the latest developments in the proliferation of bad seed.

In May of this year the Canadian Parliament voted down a bill to label GMO food despite the almost universal desire on the part of Canadians to know what they are eating. In the same month, the US Farm Bill maintained subsidies to the tune of 250 billion dollars a year to the huge farms producing GMO corn, cotton, canola and soybeans. Canada and the US refused to sign on to a March UN report that was four years in the making and involved 400 international agricultural experts: the report concluded that genetically modified seed is not the way to go for food security. Rather, at the G8 Summit in July, Canada and the US led the way in declaring that food security would be solved by more GMO seeds and the removal of subsidies to farmers in developing countries.

I own one of the larger seed companies in Canada that sells its own organic, heirloom seeds and doesn’t buy and repackage seeds from large corporations. This past seed season I could barely keep up with orders. I know that other seed companies were similarly swamped. I know also that Monsanto Corporation is actively buying North American seed companies including organic ones.

There are not many organic seed companies in Canada and we are quite vulnerable to the likes of Monsanto. Monsanto Corporation contaminated decades of important canola breeding by Saskatchewan farmer, Percy Schmeiser. They took him to court for having their seed, harassed him and his wife no end, then won their case. There are lots of reasons to think they could similarly visit any seed company, casually drop some GMO seed on the ground and then sue the company for growing patented seed. Bye-bye organic seeds.

Yes, the reality is that we need community seed banks to ensure sustainable and safe food choices in the future. Thousands of seed preservers all over the country are much more difficult targets than a few small farms. That many people wisely choosing seed would translate into strong agriculture.

A union of plant lovers working together to save seeds for everyone’s healthy diet is quite new a new concept in North America but things are happening quickly these days. In recent months, five communities have approached me for suggestions on local seed security.

What I have been saying to these communities is straightforward and uncomplicated.

More growers need to learn about allowing plants to complete their natural cycle by going to seed. The logistics of keeping seeds true are quickly learned and keeping varieties pure would be easy with lots of different places to isolate varieties. In environments with a short growing season, plants might need to go to seed in greenhouse or indoor spaces.

Once or twice a year, seed savers should get together to exchange seeds and in-depth information about them. Seed collections can be stored in people’s homes or garages.

Community seed banks, though ever threatened by industrial agriculture, are still common in many countries of the world. We have good beginnings in that direction with our Seedy Saturdays in Canada. Many Canadian cities, towns and rural areas hold this annual event where there are seed swap tables, local seed companies and lots of seed lore. With just a little more formality, Seedy Saturdays could provide an important focus for community shared agriculture and could be the place to organize local seed banks.

Garden clubs could also initiate and maintain seed banks by simply dedicating one monthly meeting to them.

Community seed banks across the country could exchange information about local adaptation of seeds and could replenish each other’s seed stocks when one bioregion has a poor season.

It’s easy to imagine that community seed banks could help provide a very liberating sense of self-reliance in seeds. Money would be taken out of the equation and sharing would be put in.

Imagine also if sharing were the basis for food production as well as seed production.

Walk down any city block and there is almost always someone who has a glowing garden that takes advantage of any nook, cranny or open space to grow food and herbs. What if it became the norm that every house on the block used available space for growing? It is not a big stretch to imagine that a family on the shady side of the street could grow enough peas and greens to trade some for beans and tomatoes from the sunny side of the street. Someone with a few established nut or fruit trees could get lots of other food in trade. People with berry bushes could provide enough berries and jam for many other households.

If communities started thinking of food as a resource to share, people who preserved or prepared food could also share in the bounty even though they weren’t able to do the growing. Neighbourhood blocks could combine energies and the blocks would start to feel like circles. Add as well, the possibilities for growing in empty lots, church grounds, allotment gardens, school spaces and rooftops. This kind of community-shared agriculture could provide a large proportion of food needs.

In the past year there has been an enormous change in consciousness around food. The reality is that people are thinking a lot about food security and putting it in a context of community self-reliance and not just self-reliance. The number of emails, letters and phone calls I’ve received from people wanting to start growing food more than tripled from the year before. People everywhere are putting up greenhouses and converting lawns into gardens. They are trying crops like barley, wheat, flax, quinoa and amaranth.

The most remarkable thing for me about the resurgence of gardening is the positive, optimistic attitude people are bringing to it. No one seems to be dwelling on fear of impending food scarcity. Everyone seems to be buoyed by the belief that growing food is something they can and want to do.
I’ve had a few radio interviews lately in which I was asked if I thought that the new gardening craze was just a fad. It’s definitely not a fad. It’s the way it’s going to be now. As someone said to me-“The beauty of it is, it’s the best thing we could do anyway.”

I have the feeling that this garden resurgence will come on even stronger in the next few years. If community seed banks serve as the resource to explore food diversity, we’ll likely end up with a much more diverse, exciting and rewarding diet.

The breakdown of our current food system doesn’t have to be an impending disaster. Rather, it’s likely to be a very good thing if it helps us return to a healthier, more connected relationship to the land. People saving seed and growing food together plus connecting with local farmers can become a recipe for sanity and sustainability.