Pot Luck December 2014

Wrestling with seeds

    It is a beautiful Saturday morning after a hard cold night. I stuff the outdoor boiler with wood and wonder where the truck that was going to deliver several cords of maple and birch disappeared to.
    The sun shines bright on the bay and only a gentle wind stirs the water. We don’t want white caps this day that’s set aside for the sixth annual bird count in the Port Joli Migratory Water Fowl Sanctuary and surrounding inlets. The count is organized by provincial chapters of Bird Studies Canada and the Nature Conservancy of Canada. I counted about two dozen birders taking part this year, most of whom gathered on the hill at the Harrison Lewis Centre before fanning out in teams of five or six to count geese, ducks, and any other birds encountered in this, one of about 30 IBAs (Important Bird Areas) in Nova Scotia. Last year about 4,000 birds were counted despite miserable weather that made the survey difficult. 
    There is similarity between this bird count and the Mycological Society’s annual mushroom forays, in that both bring together those who know their stuff, complete novices, and every level of knowledge in between. Some birding events bring out an unfortunate competitive streak in individuals who vie to be first to identify a black speck on the horizon. Not this event. The flavor is friendly and collaborative. 

    The effort to pin a seed directory to the mat for this issue of Rural Delivery was a tougher match than anticipated. When last we listed companies there were perhaps three in the Maritimes – Rawlinson, Vesey’s, and Halifax Seed. An organic category did not exist and in fact was a word almost exclusively Rodale’s. GMOs were unheard of.
    The seed industry is in flux. There is consolidation and fragmentation at the same time. It is similar to the situation in agriculture – and business in general for that matter. Large players, like Monsanto and DuPont in the case of seeds, are growing as is the number of very small (on the national and even regional scale) niche companies. 
    The middle, as with family farms, is being squeezed.
    One of the more disturbing stories of consolidation, nearly a decade old at this point, is Monsanto’s purchase in ’05 of seed giant Seminis, a company created by Mexican billionaire Alfonso Romo beginning in the early 1990s. Acquisition of Seminis made Monsanto, leader in genetically modified field crops, the largest player in vegetable seeds – 40 percent of the U.S. market. 
    Say you buy a package of your tried and trusted carrot seeds and the variety is now owned by Monsanto. Are you supporting the GMO industry? That’s a concern among those opposed to mixing genetic material beyond what occurs in nature; reason enough for some companies to drop varieties known to be owned by companies engaged in the GM business; enough for other companies addressing the needs of their organic growers to drop Semenis seeds, period.
Concerned buyers must research their sources or, as more are doing at the home and small market garden level, save their own seed.
    Av Singh, organics and rural infrastructure person with Perennia, Nova Scotia’s extension service, replied by email to questions about engineered seed, saying, “ if you want to avoid GMO seeds then you are trying to avoid certain varieties of corn (including some sweet corn), soy, canola, sugar beets, and now some alfalfa and a few varieties of crookneck squash (we don't have to worry about papaya).
    “So, for example, 95 percent of the corn (feed) and soy varieties offered to Nova Scotia farmers are all GM (owned largely by Monsanto and Dupont). However, Rick Rand from Fox Hill (Fox Hill Dairy in Port Williams, N.S.) is growing non-GMO corn and soy. . . . Other grains and forages are not GM and therefore can be either purchased at conventional seed suppliers like Scotian Gold or organic ones like Homestead Organics from Ontario. And of course our local seed companies like Hope Seeds, Annapolis Seeds, The Incredible Seed Company, Pumpkin Moon, Mapple Farm , and Tourne-de-Sol (Montreal).”
    An organization based in Cambridge, Mass., the Council for Responsible Genetics, responded to the controversy by offering seed houses the opportunity to sign a Safe Seed Pledge. It states: We pledge that we do not knowingly buy, sell or trade genetically engineered seeds or plants.
    Companies signing the pledge, and there are many, may still purchase seed from a supplier owned by Monsanto or offered by any other company in the genetic engineering business. Just not ­– knowingly – a GM seed. (Turn to AtlanticFarmer.com and the “Seeds” link for more about the Council for Responsible Genetics.)
    High Mowing in Vermont, one of several companies that worked together to come up with the pledge, says online: “We feel that the regulatory framework for the introduction of genetically modified crop varieties is flawed, and that GMO seeds themselves present a threat to plants’ genetic diversity through their ability to pollinate non-GMO plants.”
    To a question regarding organic (and non GMO) seed for field crops Av Singh replied, “The list is not that deep: forage seeds are carried by Bishop Seeds and distributed by Scotian Gold. Homestead Organics will carry organic field crops (corn; oats; buckwheat; etc.) and are distributed by Scotian Gold. Barnyard Organics will sell such grains as spelt, sunflowers, soybeans, oats, and perhaps even flax. Alpha Mills in P.E.I. also carries beans, peas, and grains, as well as canola. There are a few other producers that sell potato seed, fall rye, oats, and spelt.”
    Asked where he might turn for certified organic seeds for field crops if he were farming in Atlantic Canada, Jack Lazor of Butterworks Farm in northern Vermont, ACORN presenter, and author of “The Organic Grain Grower,” recommended, “Grow your own.” Of course there’s getting started, but after that, as he has done, select the best and mill the rest, over time developing varieties best suited to the farm’s unique conditions.
Enough already. Happy seed shopping. Happy holiday season. DvL