Preserving heritage crops has become an important environmental aim for a number of reasons. On one hand, creating a food system that's as local as possible reduces the carbon footprint of our food. But perhaps the most important need to preserve heritage seeds is to maintain the genetic diversity of our food, which has dropped to just 20 to 30 major varieties feeding the majority of the world's population.
Relying on a just a few staple crops makes our food supply more vulnerable to a whole range of potential threats, from disease to drought to pest infestations to climate change. But a wider diversity creates a more robust food supply: a pest that wipes out one type of potato may not be attracted to a different type.
In Canada, farmers have heavily favored imported seeds from Europe and the United States. Karen Pinchin, writing for Modern Farmer, reports on new initiatives to encourage the use of home-grown seeds and the effort to increase crop diversity. She interviews Susan Walsh, executive director of the agricultural non-profit group USC Canada:
"In order to secure a reliable food supply, Walsh says the development of seeds must not focus solely on yield but on diversity; where five kinds of wheat are grown she wants to see 50. In order to do this, one project aim is to build a permanent network of community seed libraries in every corner of the vast country, as well as an online database that will act like an online dating site, pairing farmers with seeds that have the qualities, like disease resistance, that they need. There will also be a farmer support component that will provide training, market research, market development and a fund to help Canadian seed producers grow and supply increased quantities of viable, adapted seeds."