You know where your meat comes from, but what about your seeds? I watched this video by Paolo Arrigo of Franchi Seeds of Italy / UK and it inspired this post.
This is the time of year when we gardeners go a bit squirrely. Thankfully, the seed catalogues arrive and we thumb through the full-colour pages and dream of having bumper harvests of Calabrese broccoli or Romanesco, another broccoli that produces those gorgeous fractual florets. But where do these seeds come from? And how do I know what varieties of lettuce, tomatoes, broccoli, and such will grow easily, ripen and taste the best in my own garden in Western Canada?
I've been thinking about seeds a whole lot in the past year. Seven or eight years ago, I bought some green shiso seeds (Perilla frutescens, variety crispa) and grew beautiful bright green bushes of the floral Japanese herb that belongs to the mint family. I didn't save seeds and have been unable to buy the seeds ever since. Everywhere I asked, no one could give me an answer as to why this seed was impossible for me to find. When an answer was offered, I suspected it was a guess. I was told it wasn't a 'good seller' but really no one knew why I couldn't buy green shiso anymore. I just couldn't.
A couple of years ago, a chef friend had some red shiso growing in his rooftop garden his hotel in downtown Toronto. One of the plants had bolted and I asked if I could nick some of the seeds. At least I'd have red shiso, but it wasn't the same. The red leaves are tougher, furrier, and have a muskier aroma. It is no substitute for the crunchy, light, clean mint-basil perfume of the green.
This may not be the best example of what happens when a seed variety does a vanishing act, but imagine this happening on a massive scale. Many seed companies, producers of those drooly catalogues, don't actually produce their own seed, but buy from other sources. As the concentration happens, the selection withers. And some varieties just don't make the cut in a mass-market scenario. The United Nation's Food and Agriculture Organization estimates that 75% of crop biodiversity has been lost in the global food supply due to globalization and concentration of seeds under the commercial control of a handful of companies. (See The Economist, March 10, 2012, Agricultural Biodiversity: Banking Against Doomsday.)
It's all economics. Seed companies in countries and continents on the other side of the globe are simply not going to be interested in preserving local varieties of carrots, peas, tomatoes, etc. that have been developed to survive in places like Edmonton, Winnipeg, Yellowknife, or Kelowna. There is no money in it on such a local scale. Unfortunately, this means that often food grown locally will be a homogenous, standardized, product. Sigh.
What to do? I encourage you to buy seeds from the catalogues, but hopefully you can find local seed producers as close to your garden as possible. There are a number of great seed producers who are keeping the variety in our food supply alive but definitely need us to buy their seeds to keep their businesses viable. Seeds of Diversity has a fairly good up-to-date list of local seed producers here in Canada. I'm partial to a Kelowna seed producer, Jon Alcock, of Sunshine Farm. In the US, a good place to start is the Seed Savers Exchange catalogue and website. In the Eurozone (inlcuding UK), Franchi Seeds - a generational seed company from Italy - seems to be a good choice. But also in the UK, you can tap into the Heritage Seed Library and become a "seed guardian."
And after you've marked up your seed catalogues, the seed exchanges will begin in February. Go to the Seedy Saturday or Seedy Sunday exchanges in your community and buy seeds. They're cheap. I have packets of seeds that I bought just for fun. One day I'll plant them. Seeds are amazing structures. Kept in a dark, coolish location, you can store them for a few years until you're ready to watch them sprout.
Here's a listing of Canadian seed swap events from coast to coast via Seeds of Diversity.