A three-pronged approach to seed security: Research, education, policy

A three-pronged approach to seed security: Research, education, policy

by in News

One of the challenges Canadian organic growers face is finding high-quality organic seed of the varieties and quantities they need, according to a recent study. While the research focused primarily on supply, it also examined the potential for developing the organic seed sector, says Jane Rabinowicz, director of The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security at USC Canada.

The study estimates the current value of organic and ecological seed in Canada at over $78-million per year, including $28-million in vegetable seed and $20-million in purchased field crop seed, says Rabinowicz. “This number shows that organic and ecological farmers are an important market and their needs should be considered in seed research and development.”

Presently, organic growers often have to opt for conventional untreated seed or source outside of Canada, Rabinowicz states. “While price is a concern, growers consistently tell us they are willing to pay a premium for local organic seed if their quality, quantity and variety needs are met,” she explains. “Our aim is to help build a resilient and sustainable Canadian seed system; the organic sector is a big part of the equation.”

 Seed

To evaluate the situation, the study posed a number of questions: Where do organic growers source their seed? How much are they buying? Which crops are most valuable? Which are hardest to source organically and locally? “The answers help us orient our programming in the field. And crop-specific figures and regional data allow seed producers to identify where there is potential to develop the local market,” Rabinowicz explains.

For Rabinowicz, seed security is a local and a global issue. It means ready access by farmers and farming communities to adequate quantities of quality seed and planting materials of crop varieties adapted to local growing conditions. These seeds must be affordable and available at planting time, under normal and abnormal weather conditions.

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“Beyond the benefits to individual producers, seed-saving has broader implications for food security and

maintaining access to the biodiversity we need to adapt to a changing climate.”

Jane Rabinowicz is director of The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security at USC Canada

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Seed Matters, a Clif Bar Family Foundation initiative, has similar objectives, says Matthew Dillon, Clif Bar’s director of agriculture policy and programs. “Our projects improve the nutritional density of food, provide farmers with a greater diversity of crops and income, extend availability of local fresh produce by breeding for season extension, and reduce the ecological impact of crops by breeding for characteristics like weed competition, drought tolerance and ability to uptake nutrients from the soil.

“Today, most of the seed used to grow organic crops is conventional seed, which is bred for the needs and environment of high-input chemical agriculture,” Dillon explains. “Organic farmers using this seed are at a competitive disadvantage, often getting lower yields from their crops.”

Farmers need seed bred for specific environments, says Dillon, who notes that the use of synthetic fertilizer and spray-on pesticides in conventional farming create a very different environment than the one in organic farming. “In organic farming, soil fertility is created through cover crops and compost, and pests are managed through crop rotation, cultivation, improved soil and insect biodiversity. We can breed crops that are adapted to synthetic fertilizer or crops with root systems that are more efficient at getting their nutrients from organic fertility.”

Dillon believes the answer lies in a “three-pronged approach – increased funding for organic research, more organic plant breeders and a shift in public policy that levels the playing field for organic.”

As part of Clif Bar’s commitment to organic, the company is spearheading a $10-million investment to fund five endowed chairs in organic plant breeding, says Dillon. “Endowments provide funding in perpetuity, and this puts a deep organic stake in the ground at our public [North American] agricultural institutions.”

Rabinowicz recommends that public policy be designed to support the continued growth of the organic sector, including the practice of seed-saving. “Seed-saving is important for all growers, but especially for organic producers, whose needs can be distinct, and are not prioritized in conventional plant breeding,” she says. “Selecting the seeds that perform best – and saving them to replant the next year – is an investment in the vitality and productivity of the farm. Beyond the benefits to individual producers, seed-saving has broader implications for food security and maintaining access to the biodiversity we need to adapt to a changing climate.”

Content from: Organic Week feature
THE GLOBE AND MAIL
Published Monday, Sep. 21, 2015

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