Food security starts with seeds

In the produce aisle of the grocery store, labels tell you where vegetables traveled from: oranges from California, grapes from Chile, beets from BC. But where did the seeds come from?

This simple question underlies a major issue in farming, and by extension a major issue in food security. According to UBC researchers and advocates, BC farmers are paying more to import seeds that aren’t adapted to local climates, and that farmers don’t own the rights to reproduce.

“Especially for organic farmers, it’s hard to afford seeds,” said Jenn Bywater, the volunteer coordinator at the UBC Farm.

The greenhouses at the UBC Farm house rows of carrots that researchers hope can be part of the solution.

The Canadian Organic Vegetable Improvement (CANOVI) is a seed-breeding project trying to develop BC carrot, lettuce and pepper varieties. Unlike the majority of commercial seeds, these are open-source, meaning farmers can harvest the seeds and save them for next season.

For CANOVI researchers and collaborators, food system revolution starts with plant evolution — but it’s a slow process, propelled by its failures as much as its successes.

Bringing seeds back to BC

CANOVI began in 2018 as a collaboration with the UBC Centre for Sustainable Food Systems, the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security andFarmFolk CityFolk. This year is the culmination of a five-year study.

“Organic growers in Canada … rely largely on seeds that are produced outside of Canada,” said plant breeding postdoc Weijia Wang. “So the seeds might not be well adapted to the specific environment here.”

Importing food and seeds is costlier and produces more carbon emissions. According to research by Chris Thoreau, one of the leads on the CANOVI project, BC farmers have a particularly low degree of seed security, as they import approximately $7.8 million of seeds every year.

According to Wang, there’s also the ever-present risk that any disruption in the supply chain could threaten farmers’ access to seeds.

Wang and Thoreau are motivated by the concept of “seed sovereignty” — the movement, growing from Indigenous advocacy, against patents on heritage seeds. Seed sovereignty means that growers, not seed companies, should have control over a secure seed supply.

David Catzel is the BC Representative on the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, an organization dedicated to fostering seed sovereignty through connecting growers, advocates and seed-saving resources (such as seed libraries).

He also worked as an organic farmer in the Fraser Valley for decades, where he firsthand observed seed insecurity.

According to Catzel, up until five years ago, almost all commercially-grown carrots in BC were the same type — until the seed company suddenly discontinued it. The seed variety that replaced it has to be shipped from France.

That’s why farmers asked CANOVI to develop a new variety of local carrots.

“Growers from across Canada grow our seeds on their farm and they tell us how the varieties perform,” said Wang. “A lot of time plant breeders in ... universities make their selections [within] the research team. A unique aspect of our project is that we involve the growers across Canada.”

They also involve consumers in the form of taste-tests.

At UBC Farm’s Fall Fest on September 16, the CANOVI stall tested their carrots on an enthusiastic focus group. While most stalls sold vegetables, the CANOVI stall gave them away for the price of feedback.

“We want to know how people liked them, so [we asked] people to tell us how they liked the appearance, the texture and the flavor of the carrots.”

Participants rated the carrots on a scale of one (bad) to five (excellent). According to Wang, their last carrot testing brought in average scores of over four, and over fifty people participated in tasting a rainbow of carrots.

While their classic CANOVI carrot line is orange, they also breed other lines, including purple carrots and a purple-orange gradient.

“Some people are not aware that there are other colours of carrot,” Wang said.

While this might seem like a basic farmers' market quirk, Wang said that exposing people to more varieties of familiar crops is an important part of creating a more resilient and abundant food system.

While their classic CANOVI carrot line is classic orange, they also breed other lines, including purple carrots..
While their classic CANOVI carrot line is classic orange, they also breed other lines, including purple carrots.. Isa S. You / The Ubyssey

Agrobiodiversity makes food systems stronger

The more diversity there is in a gene pool, the more capacity it has to adapt to change. With climate change putting new stress on crops, different varieties can pick up the slack if dominant types succumb to pests or natural disasters.

According to the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO), 75 per cent of agrobiodiversity has been lost since 1970.

According to Catzel, the homogeneity of conventional carrot varieties represents a bigger issue that plagues farmers, and by extension, food. Agribusinesses, not farmers, own seeds and those agribusinesses are increasingly powerful.

“150 years ago, 200 years ago, every farmer grew seeds, and the diversity of varieties out there was way more than it is today,” said Catzel.

That changed with the rise in proprietary breeding of hybridized seeds. Hybridized seeds are bred to include desirable traits, like high yield and pest-resistance, but they can’t reproduce.

In the 1990s, with the rise of genetically-modified crops, seed licensing and patenting systems turned genetic resources into a commodity.

“These big seed giants are really trying to take ownership of seeds, and it's a scary thing, to be honest.” said Bywater.

While hybrid seed innovations enabled agriculture on new scales of yield and consistency, modern seed hybrids are not only infertile — they’re snarled in intellectual property law that give seed companies exclusive rights over their genetic material. This means seed companies own the rights to the seeds which don’t yield new seeds, leading farmers to buy new seeds every year, from the same companies.

This also means that seed companies profit from the work of Indigenous growers, who have created seed cultivars through generations of labour and culturally-specific knowledge.

Now, 9 crops account for 66 per cent of cultivated land. 4 companies account for 67 percent of global seeds.

Seed sovereignty movements, including Catzel’s work at the Bauta Family Initiative and the UBC Farm CANOVI project, are responding by trying to develop seeds that put power back in the hands of growers.

Bywater is open to trying CANOVI seeds again — to her, farming is always an experiment.
Bywater is open to trying CANOVI seeds again — to her, farming is always an experiment. Isa S. You / The Ubyssey

Seed-saving is climate adaptation

While the CANOVI team is optimistic about their work, the carrots at the UBC farm struggled this year under unusual May heat.

I sat down with Bywater under an apple tree at the farm on a golden early-October afternoon. Although the setting was idyllic, farming is hard and risky labour, and as the climate warms, it’s getting harder.

She planted half a row of carrot seeds from a variety developed by CANOVI at another BC farm.

“They did not go so well,” said Bywater. Hot temperatures, a slightly shifted seeding time and where the seeds were bred all make a difference.

However, Catzel said that a bad year for growing might be a good year for seed selection. The plants that survived heat, drought or pests to produce seeds are more likely to be able to handle similar or worse future conditions.

“Anytime you save a seed from one year to another, you're actually adapting to climate change because that seed has had to go through that year,” said Catzel. “All the work we do in saving seeds is about climate adaptation, because the seeds need to continually evolve with the changing climate.”

Bywater is open to trying CANOVI seeds again — to her, farming is always an experiment.

Although the stakes are high, so is her enthusiasm. UBC Farm is also in a better position than most.

“We're very fortunate here at UBC farms just because as much as it is production, it's education and research,” said Bywater. Since they’re a UBC-funded nonprofit, they can take risks smaller farms can’t.

Although the study has been running for five years, there’s a ways to go. Carrots only flower and seed every two years, and although the UBC greenhouse speeds that up somewhat, new cultivars don’t emerge overnight.

“It's very slow work,” said Catzel.

To Wang, the end result — a carrot you can take a bite out of — is worth it.

“I enjoy the process … because the development of a new variety might take years, but by the end you see your work,” said Wang.

“When people like the variety you develop, that’s a really good reward.”