At the southwest corner of Prior Street and Hawks Avenue, a struggle to preserve plant diversity is taking place.
Here at Strathcona Community Garden, where the chirping of birds mixes with the surrounding urban drone of East Vancouver, a group of young people are growing organic, heritage crops in order to harvest, preserve, and distribute their seeds. At a time when huge agribusiness interests are genetically modifying seeds so they produce sterile second-generation seeds that can’t be sown, it’s a single fist raised against increasing corporate control over our food supply.
Stepping away from a patch of freshly turned soil, Samantha Charlton, a coordinator with the Environmental Youth Alliance, explained the reasoning behind her group’s urban seeds program.
“One is to educate people how to save seeds and the importance of seeds, and facilitate connections to nature through that,” Charlton told the Georgia Straight. “Another aspect is just providing our own seeds, being self-sufficient in terms of seeds. Another thing is to promote genetic diversity”¦and as much as possible, we grow heritage varieties that are rare, and may be on the verge of extinction.”
To raise most types of seeds, the fruit of a plant is left to ripen. Then the fruit is gathered, and the seeds are collected, sifted, and dried. In a nearby shed, Charlton showed racks where seeds are left to dry. A portion is given away to other urban gardeners, while the bulk is packed in recycled paper and sold at affordable prices. The seeds can be found in the VanDusen Botanical Garden shop, Capers on Robson Street, and the Home Hardware store and East End Food Co-op on Commercial Drive.
Among last year’s crop are the seeds of the Cherokee Trail of Tears bean. According to various sources, this black bean seed was one of the few possessions carried by the Cherokee on their deadly forced march to Oklahoma during the 1800s after they were driven out of their traditional territories to make way for gold prospecting.
The EYA also harvested the seeds of the Beam’s Yellow Pear tomato, an old hardy stock that produces pear-shaped, yellow tomatoes said to be good in salads.
“One really neat one is called Painted Mountain corn,” Charlton said. “It’s a corn that is red and maroon, and it grows in a kind of range of reddish hues.”
She noted that many commercial seed varieties being used locally have a large carbon footprint because they’re grown elsewhere and have to be transported long distances.
Charlton has been with the EYA for four years, and she has solid academic and practical training to back up her advocacy.
She’s a graduate of the University of Guelph’s school of international development, where she learned about global issues, including the environment. She also has training in the different uses of herbs, as well as in horticulture and ecological landscape design. She did an internship in Havana, Cuba, where she helped develop school-ground gardens.
“I choose to apply that [education] on a more local context,” Charlton said. “I basically thought that instead of sort of trying to fix the problems of the world, we should try to address some of our issues in Canada. And I see urban agriculture as a strong component of community development.”
Before he moved to Pender Island, agrologist Derek Masselink was a coordinator with the UBC Farm. In 2005, he authored a paper noting that as recently as the 1980s, Canada had a “public seed system”, wherein farmers, seed breeders, government agencies, and university-run breeding programs shared and exchanged seeds.
“This seed system—now an industry—is being transformed, succumbing to the effects of patent law and other intellectual property regimes, corporate consolidation, government manoeuvring and cutbacks further encouraging the participation and interest of profit-hungry transnational corporations,” Masselink wrote in Seeds of Change: The Changing Nature of Seed Ownership and Control in Canada.
In a phone interview from Pender Island, where he is a farmer and a local trustee (the equivalent of a municipal councillor), Masselink noted that through seed-saving programs like the EYA’s, youths and the public in general are made “aware of the kinds of rights that are being taken up that they might not have been aware of before”.
“The critical aspect is that seed-saving is a way of taking responsibility,” Masselink told the Straight. “It’s also a way of, over time, developing races of plants that are suited to a particular environment.”
This month, the EYA is training a new batch of volunteers to raise seeds. The group is recruiting 20 individuals or families who have space to plant, grow, and save seeds this year. An orientation meeting will be held on Saturday (April 24) from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the Eco-Pavilion at Strathcona Community Garden.
The volunteers will keep half of their crop to eat, while the other half will be devoted to growing seeds that will be returned to the EYA. The group will provide the training and materials. For details, contact Georgia Campbell at firstname.lastname@example.org.