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Saving older seed varieties may avert global disaster


The Seeds of Diversity Program is actively seeking seeds

your relatives, forbearers or acquaintances might have stored

for generations. Samples of these, with the varieties name (if known),

size, shape, taste, particular cares, and origin can be sent to:

Antoine Davignon, 529, chemin des Sables,

Pintendre, Ct. Lévis, (Quebec) G6C 1B5.

He will get back to you if the samples prove interesting

and refund postage fees, if necessary.


by Ann Rhodes

Biodiversity: note well this word, for you will almost certainly hear it often in the future. Like acid rain and the greenhouse effect, biodiversity - or the lack of it - poses a global hazard. Fortunately, it's a hazard many nations, organizations and individual gardeners are already taking steps to remedy.

Biodiversity is short for biological diversity. It refers to the variety of all life on this planet, be it flora, fauna or microorganisms. Biodiversity is critical: without a wide variety of healthy and viable biological resources, many life forms are threatened, including our own. While we've long been concerned that many species of animals are threatened with extinction due to a number of causes including pollution and deforestation, so this, you say, is nothing new?

The focus of concern is new: it's plant life, especially food plant life. Around the world, commercial growers - and most home gardeners - no longer grow the numerous old varieties of food crops. Instead, they grow a smaller number of modern hybrids. So the "heirloom" varieties - generally speaking, those that go back 50 years or more - are fast becoming extinct.


Tastier, more tender

This is sad: the old varieties, developed in an era when consumer enjoyment was more important than the ability to survive machine picking and long-distance shipping, are often far tastier and more tender than the hybrids. Worse, their demise is dangerous - for two reasons.

One: plant breeders need an abundance of material to breed resistance to pests and diseases into current crops. Two: if commercial growers raise crops with little or no genetic diversity, there's a real danger of crop failure on a massive scale.

This has already happened - and a long time ago: in 1845 and '46 Ireland's potato crop consisted of one or two closely related varieties, both wiped out by blight. In the ensuing famine, nearly a million people died and more than a million were forced to emigrate. By 1851, Ireland's population had diminished by 23 per cent. If Irish farmers had been growing many varieties of potatoes with different genetic backgrounds, the disaster would never have happened.

A more recent example: in 1972 several varieties of corn in the U.S., all with similar genetic backgrounds, were killed off by blight. The country lost 15 per cent of its' corn crop; in some southern states the loss was as high as 50 per cent.

The safety of our food supply depends on biodiversity, and we are losing biodiversity. In North America, in the past few years almost half of the already existing seed companies have been taken over or have gone out of business. As small companies become part of a larger corporation, they almost unfailingly drop regionally adapted heirloom varieties and sell only modern hybrids. As well, most seed companies in Canada no longer grow their own seeds, but buy from a small number of wholesalers across the world; if even one stops growing a heritage variety, it could have a serious effect. In the past three years, 950 varieties of vegetables have become extinct, and of the survivors 74 per cent - or almost 4,000 varieties - are endangered.

But at least we have awakened to the danger. On a global level, more than 160 countries were signatories to the United Nations Convention on Biological Diversity. Among early ratifiers were Canada, Papua New Guinea, Norway, Belarus, Japan and Tunisia. Among other requirements, participants must develop national strategies to maintain biodiversity and must contribute to the conservation of global biodiversity.


Critical and rewarding

At the other end of the scale, individual members of organizations such as Canada's Seeds of Diversity Program are growing a wide variety of heirloom fruits, vegetables, grains and herbs in their own backyards. Their work is critical and rewarding.

The Seeds of Diversity Program came into being in 1984 when Canadian members of the Seed Savers Exchange based in Decorah, Iowa (the world's first and largest grass-roots seed-saving organization), and Canadian Organic Growers (COG) believed Canada should also have a seed-saving group. As a result, the COG held a conference which led to the founding of the Heritage Seed Program which recently changed its name to Seeds of Diversity.

Today, the organization has 1,800 members, a network stretching from British Columbia to Newfoundland and up into the Northwest Territories. Of these members, 134 save the seed from plants they grow. If this sounds like an extremely small step for biodiversity, you should know that, according to Heather Apple, some seed savers grow more than 100 varieties of heirloom plants.

Apple has been Seeds of Diversity president since 1987. She has an honors degree in biology, but had planned to become a writer and illustrator of children's books. "I was torn," she says. "But one part of me felt really happy about reaching people about biodiversity and organic gardening."

What do the seed savers actually do?

They "grow out" heirloom seeds, ensuring genetic purity by practising proper seed-saving techniques, which might involve isolating plants from other plants and pollinating by hand. The seeds could be from their own plants, bought from seed companies, obtained from neighbors or supplied at no cost (except for a small amount to cover packing and shipping) from other Seeds of Diversity members through an annual December listing.


  • Thousands of varieties

  • The Seeds of Diversity Program - which has counterparts in several European countries and in Australia as well as the Seed Savers Exchange in Iowa - is also involved with Plant Gene Resources of Canada (PGRC), a division of Agriculture Canada. The PGRC has thousands of varieties of seeds, and needs help growing them out.

    "Our members agree to grow out seeds supplied by PGRC, returning some seeds to PGRC and keeping some for themselves," Apple says, "so members get seeds they wouldn't otherwise have."

    The modi operandi of PGRC and the Seeds of Diversity Program differ in one marked way: the PGRC's seeds are kept in conditions of controlled temperature and humidity and accordingly, in many cases, don't need to be grown out often because the seeds stay viable longer. Most Seeds of Diversity Program members, however, don't have controlled storage spaces and have to grow out seeds on a regular basis, so their plants are exposed to - and hence adapted to - different conditions, a factor that may prove valuable if we experience drastic climatic or other environmental changes.

    A couple of years ago the Seeds of Diversity Program embarked on another project: preserving heritage and endangered varieties of fruit trees.

    "With a little grant money and a lot of nerve, we bought an old nursery in Merville, B.C., with 350 varieties of whips of apple and other fruit trees, and moved them to some donated land on Salt Spring Island," says Heather Apple.

    The nursery, named Tsolum River Fruit Trees, is being carefully tended by nursery manager Michael McCormick and some volunteers. The Seeds of Diversity Program has planted three "preservation orchards" in British Columbia using scions (wood slips for grafting) from the nursery, and hopes to develop similar orchards across Canada.

    "Our collection is especially rich in apple varieties, including 'Roxbury Russet', a U.S. dessert apple that originated in the 17th Century, "Orleans Reinette', dating back to 1776; and 'Lady', a dessert apple that once grew in the garden of Louis XIII."

    The Tsolum River operation is important because there has been considerable loss of diversity among apple varieties. A survey done at the turn of the century listed 8,000 apple varieties growing in North America; in 1981 only 1,000 of the 8,000 were left.

    Seeds of Diversity Program members who grow out seeds of heirloom varieties take pleasure in the activity for two main reasons. One, they get to enjoy eating some of their crops and hence experience flavors unknown to those who buy all their fruit and vegetables at supermarkets. And two, they know they're helping to ensure the survival of species. While commercial growers will never voluntarily abandon modern hybrids and grow heritage plants, they might be forced to do so if a blight as lethal as the one Irish growers experienced 150 years ago were to decimate their crops. In other words, Seeds of Diversity Program growers know they're doing their bit to stave off a potential global disaster.

    Reprinted from Canadian Gardening Magazine.

    Copyright © 1995 REAP Canada

    Reprinted with permission. All rights reserved.

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