Is Climate Change Affecting Seed Growers/Keepers?
By Cate Henderson
Over the course of more than a dozen years of growing many seed crops organically, seeds became very visible to me. At the same time, this accentuated how invisible, ignored and underappreciated they remained in general. In 2019, my job growing seeds for the Heirloom Seed Sanctuary became redundant, as the seed collection was rematriated to two organizations, and I continued working only part-time for one of them. Finally, I had the time to pursue some answers to questions like:
- why was I so lonely growing community seeds?
- why was Kingston, ON, one of only two communities with a Seed Sanctuary in this relatively well-off country of ours?
- why were people who grow gardens NOT growing seeds?
- why do farmers who pride themselves on growing local food, regularly source their seeds from half-way across the world?
So many questions, and so little time to pursue the answers-the gardening itself had taken up all my time! To solve this, I enrolled myself in the Master of Arts: Sustainability Studies program at Trent University where I could do some formal interviews to finally get to the bottom of all these questions.
“I believe that climate is definitely affecting them [home-saved seeds]. ‘Cuz last year, when I planted all my different bean varieties, I had to water the seed to get it to grow, which I've never, ever done! In 20, some odd years of growing anything <laugh> to actually have to water what I planted. I know some people do it … just to make sure it gets germinated, and there's probably been a couple of years, a year or two prior to that, you know, like thinking back there's been a year where I should have done that because they didn't germinate till late. And of course, I didn't get any dried beans that year, or very few. But last year was the first year that I had to actually water to help germination in May and June.” – Interview participant
There are seed growers in Canada, of course, and Seedy Saturdays and Seedy Sundays originated here and have spread around the world, so there are gardeners willing to grow and share their seeds and knowledge, but it just isn’t enough to make us food secure as a nation. Some growers sell their seeds in packets, and some share and trade them. Canada is famous for its grain-growing. Indeed, we could likely be self-sufficient in certain grains, but we fall far short in vegetable and flower seeds. That seems so odd since we have such unique conditions including some very short seasons! Not to mention the changing climate... Many of the garden crops we grow come from seeds grown in Mexico, but the climate there is so different from anything we have in Canada that this doesn’t really make sense. Surely, it’s no wonder that crops often underperform for people here in our climate? Especially in a time of climate chaos: shouldn’t we be actively trying to adapt our food crops through saving seeds? Otherwise, how will we feed ourselves as the climate shifts? Can we really just keep importing seeds and food from all over the globe?
Jennifer Burns-Robinson photo
It is quite well understood that, for plants, a strong adaptation mechanism is engaged at the time of genetic recombination-that is, when an ovule is fertilized by a male gamete so that a seed can form. Characteristics from the male are combined with those of the female in new ways, which naturally can result in new adaptations. But the “proof of the pudding is in the tasting”. Do seed savers see adaptation happening among their crops, and how does that manifest? It turns out that all of the experienced seed savers I interviewed for my research affirmed that they saw their crops were adapting to the changing climate as they saved the seed, although many, like the gardener quoted above, have had to adapt their own growing strategies as well.
As one gardener of “close to 42 or 43 years” observed: “So that tells me stuff about adaptation, whether that's to climate or whether that's the plants resiliency or whether that's some other special miracle that's happening. But no, in the past, when I was younger, there were certain things that just cannot, could not survive our winters. And then I started noticing things during the melt every once in a while, like when things were melting sometimes, over our garden, there would be like an ice shelf, where the warmth of the land would melt the ice from below. So then you could see underneath the ice and snow… and there was a lot of things alive and …I was surprised to start noticing how many different things were making it through our winters, like kale and other vegetables and things or like, you know, I guess mostly like the parsley, the kale, um, the tomato plants, even we've had potatoes regrow from places that weren't all harvested out completely. Like if one or two got left behind, they grew and they actually produced! We'd mark them off, to see what would happen, I guess.”
Even professional seed growers confirm: “Yes, I do think they are, adapting to the local changing climate. How, I think? Well, they're becoming more resilient to the changes that we see and to the, the more extremes of the weather patterns that we're seeing. And we're seeing that because we grow, you know, a fair amount of, of plants in, in one variety. So, a fairly big population. And we can see that, over the years, more and more of them are thriving. Um, and fewer and fewer are succumbing to weather patterns, especially the extreme weather patterns. So an example is that a lot of our crops don't or seem to be pretty resilient when we think they will succumb to drought. They keep surprising us of how well they still survive and produce fruit and seed, in times of drought. Especially in times when we weren't able to get them water either at all or water at the right time. They seem to, to thrive. And so, I think they've adapted…”
Another seed saver claimed their peppers mature earlier when grown from home-saved seed: “but definitely the peppers I find now are [ripening] on par with the tomatoes. And usually they're solid months, like a few years ago, they would've been definitely a month behind. So… especially sweet peppers. I find them maturing faster now whether or not it's because it's warmer and they like it… that would be like a climate change notice is that they are definitely faster than they used to be.”
As gardeners, and particularly as organic gardeners, climate change offers an opportunity to engage nature’s own mechanisms for adaptation by growing, observing and gathering seeds from our favourite plants. The plants offer their seeds freely, because they want to survive, as do we! This research has affirmed for me that there is potential to work together with plants in order to provide food, beauty and habitat for humans and non-humans into the future. I don’t believe that this is something the larger seed houses can do for us, although of course all good seeds themselves may well carry the potential. Indigenous seeds are of particular importance, because they have been adapting here for such a long time and have been feeding and providing medicine to whole communities for millennia. Many of the common Indigenous crops moved north through trade from South and Central America and gradually adapted to the growing conditions as they went-so they are already accustomed to dealing with various climatic changes over time. Honouring these crops by growing them respectfully in community may well be one of our best strategies for decolonizing, not to mention surviving within, and adapting to, an uncertain future.