It’s estimated that nine out of every 10 bites of food people eat every day is because of planting of seeds. And, according to Jane Rabinowicz, director of the Bauta Family Initiative for Canadian Seed Security (BFICSS), that’s why it’s so important to protect the world’s seed supply. BFICSS is an organization that works closely with farmers to build a more secure, diverse supply of seeds in Canada.
“Today, about 95 percent of the seeds that grow major food crops are being bred by agribusinesses for genetic uniformity, performance under controlled conditions, and the routine application of synthetic fertilizers and pesticides,” Rabinowicz explains.
Crop diversity has declined significantly since 1900. According to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), just three of the world’s 50,000 edible plants — rice, maize, and wheat –provide 60 percent of our food energy intake. Diversity within individual crops has plummeted 75 percent over the same period. What’s more, the nutritional value of modern crop cultivars has fallen. For example, over the last 60 years, studies show that the average Canadian potato lost 100 percent of its vitamin A, 57 percent of its vitamin C and iron, and 28 percent of its calcium.
The BFICSS aims to reverse these trends by partnering with Canadian farmers and researchers to develop seed varieties that are well-adapted for use in the country’s varied growing conditions. The initiative takes a comprehensive approach that includes: applied research; training and networking; financial support for scaling up; greater public access to seed; and more. “We’re very excited about the level of farmer involvement,” Rabinowicz says. “It’s a reminder of the critical role that farmers play as stewards of food.”
Among the program’s applied research activities, it facilitates seed grow-outs of different strains of existing vegetable and field crops. Participating growers benefit from the opportunity to experiment with crop varieties, observe seed production in different geographic areas, improve their seed-saving skills, and increase supplies of local, ecologically-grown seed.
Seed samples from the grow-outs are stored in a seed library maintained by Seeds of Diversity Canada to ensure public access to more diverse seeds. In addition, the BFICSS posts farmer observations about the grow-out crops on its online Seed Explorer to promote information sharing.
The BFICSS also collaborates with farmers and researchers on a participatory, organic plant breeding program. “This is a unique program that creates a new model for plant breeding in this country,” Rabinowicz says. “Farmers help establish the goals and decide which crops they’ll work with. Selection is then conducted on farms, by farmers, instead of at research stations. Data from other countries where this approach is used show that it yields varieties that perform better than conventional seed, especially under organic or high-stress conditions.” Long-term outcomes for the program include the widespread distribution of new, high-quality, biodiverse varieties of maize, wheat, oats, potato, and carrot seed adapted to local Canadian growing conditions.
But creating a more diverse seed supply isn’t only for farmers and researchers: everyone can play a part, Rabinowicz says. “Start by visiting websites on the topic, spread the word in your community. If you’re a gardener, find out where you can buy local organic seed close to home. Become a seed saver yourself.”
“It can be hard to see how seeds relate to your everyday life, but once you get the connection, you understand how fundamental they are to our survival.”
The BFICSS is part of USC Canada’s Seeds of Survival program, which works with farmers in 11 countries, including Canada, to promote vibrant family farms, strong rural communities and healthy ecosystems worldwide. The program is delivered by USC in partnership with Seeds of Diversity Canada, and supported by The W. Garfield Weston Foundation. It owes its start to the vision and leadership of Gretchen Bauta, a member of the Weston family.