Register Tuesday | April 16 | 2024
Saving Seeds Illustration by Sophie Casson  

Saving Seeds

As climate change threatens global food security, Ruth Kamnitzer explains how seeds of the past are safeguarding food for the future.

When Gilberte Doelle’s grandmother got married in Cap-Pelé, New Brunswick in the early 1900s, she brought a purebred Holstein cow and two cups of Caribee beans in her dowry. “I remember when my grandmother was angry at my grandfather she used to say to him, ‘you only married me for the cow,’’’ Doelle says. The cow may have been the big-ticket item, but the beans became a legacy that lasted. 

Three quarters of an inch round, cream-coloured with yellow eye, typically baked for breakfast and served with eggs or porridge, they’ve long been a family staple. Doelle recalls her grandmother telling stories as they shelled the beans together and eating them with her family through the long Maritime winters. Eventually, the Caribee beans were passed down to Doelle. She now cultivates them on Wild Rose Farm, in Digby County, Nova Scotia, alongside other heirloom varieties. 

Like her grandmother, Doelle is a seed saver. In the fall she harvests her beans and sets some aside to sow in the spring. She’ll choose from those that are the most prolific, or best able to withstand disease or pests, so that each year her beans are a little better suited to her farm than the year before. She’s known locally as a seed saver with a passion for beans, so people entrust her with their old varieties and the tales that come with them. There’s the Purple Peacock bean, the Marie and Joseph Dugas beans, and the Goose Gullet bean, which dates back to 1755, when a group of shipwrecked Acadians, expelled from their lands by the British for their refusal to pledge allegiance to the Queen, planted beans they had retrieved from the gullet of a downed Canada Goose.

But these old seeds come with more than just stories. Doelle can produce up to ten thousand pounds of organic vegetables per year on her farm, selling produce and seeds through community-supported agriculture and local markets. She says heirloom varieties—and the way seed saving allows her to proactively select for vigour, disease resistance and other characteristics—are a key part of her success, especially as the effects of climate change on agriculture become more pronounced. “They are predicting more floods and drought, more high winds, tornadoes. These older seeds are valuable because they’re all adapted for this area. They’re very strong, they’re productive,” says Doelle. “The more genetic variety we have, the better off we’ll be to survive this stuff.” 

At one time, all farmers were seed savers and genetic variety was commonplace. To understand why we need to look back some ten thousand years to when our ancestors began shaping wild edible plants into the crops we eat today. Both deliberately and unintentionally, these early farmers selected for larger, more palatable and easier to harvest fruits, vegetables, grains and tubers. This process of crop domestication happened simultaneously in many parts of the world: our ancestors grew wheat, barley and lentils in Mesopotamia; rice and millets along Yangtze and Yellow River; potatoes and quinoa in the Andes; and corn, squash and beans in the Americas.

As farmers moved into new environments with different weather patterns, soils, pests and diseases, the newly domesticated crops they brought with them spread, evolved and adapted. Century after century, year after year, farmers saved seeds, passed them down to their children, and shared them with neighbours. With each planting, their crops were shaped by the land, climate and cultural preferences. Over time this continuous selection resulted in an astounding diversity of landraces, cultivated varieties that displayed specific adaptations to certain geographic areas. Some were suited to mountains, others to deserts or floodplains. Some were valued for ripening early, some for ripening late, for texture, colour or flavour.

For thousands of years, diversity in agriculture was the norm, but this began to change in the mid-twentieth century. Fuelled in part by concerns over growing world hunger, and aided by new understanding of plant genetics, scientists developed high-yielding varieties of grain crops during the green revolution of the 1960s. When planted with high levels of synthetic fertilizers, supplied by a burgeoning post-World War II agro-chemical industry, and with intensive irrigation, the results were phenomenal. Across the developing world, wheat yields tripled and rice yields doubled from 1960 to 2000. 

These gains came with unintended consequences, including the loss of locally adapted landraces. The new varieties were hybrids, created by deliberately crossing two genetically distinct lines under controlled conditions to produce offspring with the desired traits. In contrast, traditional landraces, which include heirloom or heritage varieties, are open-pollinated, meaning that pollination happens naturally through bees, wind and other means. Because pollination is not controlled in open-pollinated landraces, they generally have higher genetic diversity than hybrids. 

As the new hybrids displaced traditional open-pollinated landrace varieties—India, for example, lost over 90 percent of its previous 110,000 landraces of rice—diversity was lost, both because fewer varieties were being planted and because those varieties themselves contained less diversity. Hybrids are also not suitable for seed saving. The varieties are not stable enough to breed true, meaning that plants grown from collected seeds won’t necessarily closely resemble the original plant. Commercial hybrid varieties might also be protected by patents. This means that hybrid seeds must be purchased anew each year, increasing corporate control of the world’s seed supply.

According to reports from the UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), 75 percent of agricultural genetic diversity has been lost over the past century and more than 90 percent of varieties have disappeared from farmers’ fields. Of the six thousand known species that have been historically cultivated for food around the world, fewer than two hundred now make a major contribution to global crop production and just nine species account for 66 percent of that total. Four agrochemical companies control over 60 percent of seed sales. 

In his book Eating to Extinction: The World’s Rarest Foods and Why We Need to Save Them, food journalist Dan Saladino warns of a “blanket of uniformity” spreading across our fields, the danger of which is that “like a stock portfolio with just a few holdings, they become vulnerable to catastrophes.” We are also losing this genetic diversity, which for centuries has allowed us to adapt to changes, at a time in our history when we can least afford it.

Climate change is already affecting agriculture and the impact is only predicted to get more severe, according to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Sixth Assessment Report, published in 2022. While longer growing seasons and increased atmospheric carbon dioxide could benefit some crops or provide regions with new agricultural opportunities—like the chance to grow warm-weather crops in northern areas—a general increase in climate volatility means that, on the whole, the outlook is bleak. Extreme heat at flowering or seed development stages, drought, heavy precipitation and higher nighttime temperatures can lower yields, disrupt critical plant development stages or impede access to fields. 

Globally, yields of wheat, rice, maize and soybeans—the four crops that make up two-thirds of global caloric intake—are predicted to decline by an average of 5 percent for every degree of warming, according to some studies. In Canada, changes to the frequency and severity of extreme weather events will likely bring some of the most challenging impacts for agriculture. These effects are already being felt, as the summer of 2021 demonstrated. Severe drought across the Prairies caused widespread crop failure, with ranchers forced to sell off livestock as feed supplies ran low, while in British Columbia, farmers experienced losses from multiple catastrophes. 

Erin and Ron Coghlan have been farming on Nlaka’pamux traditional territory in the Lytton, BC area for thirty-seven years. At Stein Mountain Farm, they grow nine acres of vegetables and three hundred fruit trees to sell at farmers’ markets in Vancouver. The climate in their valley always tends toward extremes—Ron jokes that it gets so windy, corn grows on a 45-degree angle—but the 2021 heat dome pushed things off the charts. 

On June 29, 2021, Lytton hit 49.6 degrees Celsius, breaking Canada’s temperature record. The next day, a fast-moving forest fire burned the town to the ground. Though the Coghlans’ farm was spared from the flames, the heat was hard to bear. “We’re used to 40 degrees here and that’s miserable enough, but with fifty it was a whole other ball game,” says Erin. 

The Coghlans grow a wide assortment of produce, everything from squash, tomatoes, peppers and garlic to cherries and apples. They mostly use heirloom and open-pollinated varieties, partly because they are not comfortable with the corporate control that patented hybrid seeds entail. Erin appreciates the fact that seeds from open-pollinated varieties can be saved year after year, increasing their self-sufficiency and suitability to their farm. 

Yet with the scale of their farm, they find it difficult to grow food for market and grow for seed saving at the same time. That means they need a dependable seed supply, which can be challenging, especially as many of their go-to staples are disappearing from catalogues every year. The deep orange and coreless Nantes carrot is now unavailable, the flat-topped Stuttgarter onion has vanished, and even California Wonder, the dependable pepper they have grown for years, has become hard to find in the quantities they require. “Suddenly they’re just gone,” says Erin.

Chris Sanford, a seed grower from Nova Scotia who grows with organic principles, is also concerned about disappearing varieties. She and her husband own Yonder Hill Farm in the drumlin hills of Lunenburg County. They grow two hundred varieties of seeds, which they sell online and through regional seed companies. Sanford started her career in market gardening, but developed a passion for growing seeds because of the link to food security. 

Sanford focuses on growing heirlooms, and personal favourites that she values for their flavour, performance and regional adaptation. One of her popular varieties is the Wentzell tomato, originally developed by and named after a family Sanford worked with early in her career. By saving seeds from the first tomatoes of the season for over fifty years, the family developed a line that’s one of the earliest ripening beefsteaks in the area. Another is the Tancook Island cabbage, brought over to Nova Scotia by German settlers and the basis of Tancook Island’s sauerkraut boom in the mid-twentieth century.

For Sanford, cultivating heirloom varieties for seed isn’t just about preserving the past, it’s also about preparing for the future. “Seeds aren’t static,” she says. She intentionally grows her seed plants with moderate amounts of irrigation, without chemical inputs, and with little pest control. By carefully selecting seeds from the individual plants that do best under these conditions, farmers like Sanford ensure that advantageous genes are passed on to the next generation. In this way, they are able to produce seeds suited to organic systems, adapted to local climates, soils and pest communities, and hardy enough to withstand the kind of extremes predicted under climate change. “We’re trying to breed resilient seeds that will perform well even in marginal conditions, but will really thrive if someone babies them,” Sanford says.

Yet despite their long histories and desirable traits, many heirlooms are vulnerable. A cursory internet search might reveal numerous companies selling a certain variety, but Sanford calls this “an illusion of abundance.” A closer look may reveal those companies are all buying from a single source. Sanford sometimes finds she is the only seed producer, or one of very few, maintaining a certain variety—and that makes her uncomfortable. “What happens when one of the growers retires? What happens if rodents get into our seeds or we have crop failure?” Sanford says. “You start to realize how easy it would be for that chain to get broken.” 

The work seed savers like Sanford are doing to safeguard regional varieties got a boost this past summer with a new initiative by SeedChange, a Canadian nonprofit promoting seed security in Canada. Supported by a $750,000 investment by Agriculture and Agrifoods Canada for the development of farmer-bred varieties for organic and climate-resilient agriculture, the organization has set up demonstration gardens in Atlantic Canada, British Columbia, the Prairies, Ontario and Quebec. 

The gardens showcase the work of seed savers, highlight some of the unique varieties available to Canadian farmers, and provide data on the performance of selected varieties. Five of Sanford’s favourites, including the Wentzell tomato and Tancook Island cabbage, are among the thirty being featured in the Atlantic region’s demonstration gardens in Fredericton and Charlottetown. 

Other demonstration sites in Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba will showcase wheat and oat varieties developed by organic farmers through the University of Manitoba’s ongoing Participatory Plant Breeding (PPB) project, led by Martin Entz, a professor of agriculture who specializes in natural systems. Unlike many modern breeding projects, it involves farmers early on in the breeding process, replicating the role they’ve traditionally played in shaping regionally adapted varieties. 

Entz’s team creates new mixes of genes by cross-breeding two different parent lines, which have included both heritage and modern varieties. Those seeds, which have high genetic diversity, are then given to different participating farmers to complete the selection process. 

The results are promising. One of the criteria researchers are looking at is yield stability—performance over time and under different conditions—a characteristic that will be important as our climate system becomes more volatile. Entz says plants that have come out of his breeding program are showing definite advantages. Plants grown under the project have higher yields than plants grown in organic systems that were not also bred in organic systems. He says that success is largely due to the farmers’ selection. 

Still, agriculture accounts for roughly 10 percent of Canada’s GHG emissions, and synthetic inputs contribute to these emissions. Climate resilient crops will need to both be able to withstand increased climatic variability and contribute less to our carbon footprint.

Alongside the work farmers are doing to maintain diversity in their fields, there’s a broader global push to preserve seed diversity in gene banks. There, seeds can be made available to researchers and plant breeders racing to find untapped genetic material in order to develop climate-resilient crops to feed our growing global population. 

The Svalbard Global Seed Vault is housed in three halls cut 100 metres inside a frozen mountainside on the Norwegian archipelago. Billed as the ultimate insurance policy for the world’s food supply, it currently safeguards duplicates of over 1.1 million seed varieties from gene banks around the world, including landraces and wild crop relatives, and has capacity for three times as many. The stored seeds are duplicates of national collections from nearly every country in the world. While the facility is primarily managed by the Norwegian government, the seed collections themselves remain the property of the depositor, much like the contents of a safety deposit box.

Collections of plant genetic resources are also held at other locations around the world, and include international collaborations, national collections and research facilities. Canada’s national collection, Plant Gene Resources of Canada, is held in three locations: the Saskatoon centre stores seed germplasm, the Fredericton centre stores potato germplasm, and the Harrow centre in Ontario stores fruit germplasm. These include cultivated plants that are important for Canadian agriculture and wild crop relatives. The seeds are stored in temperature-controlled vaults, but are grown out periodically to maintain viability. Ideally, each entry includes data on where it was collected, which can be studied in relation to heat tolerance, pest resistance and other attributes. Samples are made available to researchers and plant breeders in Canada and abroad for use in breeding programs and for scientific research. 

Bob Wildfong is the executive director at Seeds of Diversity, an organization working to preserve traditional heirloom varieties in Canada. The organization supports gardeners and farmers who want to save their own seeds and coordinates exchanges between seed savers across Canada. Seeds of Diversity also runs the Canadian Seed Library, a collection of over three thousand regionally adapted and rare seed varieties for people to grow out and multiply, thus keeping these varieties alive. According to Wildfong, the Canadian Seed Library program and other initiatives like it can act as a bridge between the formal seed banking system and the informal seed saving community. “We’re filling a gap,” Wildfong says. “People who are saving seeds in their communities might have heritage varieties that have been passed down through families or come from other parts of the world that are just not being backed up in those institutional seed banks, and vice versa.”

Indigenous seed networks and seed rematriation initiatives are also gaining strength, a continuation of the traditional and fundamental role of Indigenous seed keepers in agricultural systems. For instance, the Indigenous Seed Keepers Network brings together Indigenous seed savers across North America; Ratinenhayén:thos, a Mohawk-led nonprofit, cares for a collection of three hundred seed varieties on Tyendinaga Mohawk Territory, including many culturally significant varieties; and in 2020 the Cherokee Nation deposited nine squash, bean and corn seed varieties into the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, becoming the second Indigenous nation to do so. 

Adapting our food systems to our changing planet won’t be easy. We’ll need to feed a growing population on dwindling land under an ever-shifting climate, with crops that won’t make the problem worse. Ultimately, our ability to adapt will rely on the diversity created over tens of thousands of years, and the ingenuity with which we’ve moulded our crops since the very first seeds were planted by human hands. It’s the work farmers have always done—and it remains as valuable and relevant as ever for our food system to be sustainable. 

Doelle, who has watched the Caribee beans growing since she was a small child, has also watched the climate change—droughts, heavier rainfall, early and late frosts—and the beans persevere through it. “It’s a joint effort from the plant itself and the seed saver,” she says. “If humans want to live on this planet, they also have to create the living organisms needed to adapt.” ⁂

Ruth Kamnitzer is a freelance writer living in the East Kootenays, BC. This year she is growing five types of heirloom tomatoes in her garden—Anait, Pink Grapefruit, Double Rich Slicer, Fruhe Liebe and Victoria Dwarf—and saving seeds for the first time.