Change starts by sowing seeds

We live in an era of unparalleled richness where many choices are available to today’s consumer, particularly around food and food products.

Each year a mind-boggling 20,000 new food products get added to our grocery shelves. Many of these products aren’t really that new, nor do they stick around, they’re mostly the same ingredients repackaged or reshaped into new variations.

The shiny, supermarket packaging and setup hides a disturbing reality that: a) many people don’t know where or how their food is produced, and b) there is an alarming loss of genetic variation of food occurring across the globe.

The global population is expected to reach nine billion, which means that food production needs to double. Current crop yields aren’t growing fast enough and new plant diseases threaten the shrinking number of plant species that we depend upon right now. Across the globe, nations are experiencing a loss of food diversity.

In the United States, 90 per cent of all fruits and vegetables have become extinct since the 1800s. Meanwhile, in the Philippines thousands of rice varieties no longer exist with only a hundred remaining. And in China, over 90 per cent of the wheat varieties have been lost.

Some might ask: “Well, what’s the big concern? The varieties we use are the highest yielding, best plants out there.” While yield is a factor, most of the plants under cultivation are chosen for their ability for high yields and ability to weather transportation. Many of these plants are grown in climates and systems that are inappropriate, therefore requiring massive amounts of energy, fertilizers and pesticides.

A small gene pool creates a less resilient food system, particularly when it comes to a worsening climate and new pests and diseases.  An example is the ongoing fight against a particularly aggressive strain of stem rust that is impacting wheat crops worldwide. Estimates indicate that if this rust were to gain a stronger hold in Asia and Africa, it would result in billions of lives being threatened. If the stem rust were to make it to North America, billions of dollars of lost revenues would result.

Since the birth of agriculture, 10,000 years ago, humans have been breeding plants for desirable traits. These centuries of experimentation and hybridization have led to species that are well adapted to local climate conditions and adverse impacts. There are crops that have been bred to have resistance to drought, salt, pests and other conditions. Even livestock have been locally adapted, with diet change, litter size and weather tolerance.

What can be done? People can make efforts to grow plants and to allow these plants to go to seed. Choose to grow in your backyard, garden plot or planter boxes organic and heirloom varieties. Many of these can be found through local seed breeders, farmers, or seed exchange events.

Members of the Richmond Seed Library can “borrow’”seeds from the library with the intention of returning seeds back as the growing season ends. After harvest, allow your plant to go to seed or save some seeds from the fruit of the plant (e.g. cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers) for yourself or to trade with friends, family, or other gardeners.

The ability to develop local seed varieties for our present and future conditions is being lost. Traditional plant breeding is under attack as large corporations buy up seed companies and make efforts to patent seed stock worldwide. Educating ourselves about where our food comes from and taking the next step to learn how to grow and harvest food and seeds is an essential skill that all citizens of Richmond should have.

For more information on how to save seeds or to become a member of the Richmond Seed Library, contact us at info@richmondfoodsecurity.org.

Richmond Food Security Society works to ensure that all people in the community have access to safe, nutritious, culturally appropriate foods that strengthen our environment and society.

Colin Dring is executive director at Richmond Food Security Society.

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