Why You Should Grow Forgotten Food

The front line of the battle for biodiversity is in the garden. Stephen Silverbear McComber, a Kanien’kehá:ka seed saver, is part of a growing movement of gardeners cultivating heirloom fruits and vegetables.

Text—Joel Balsam
Photos—Stephanie Foden

With additional reporting by Mark Mann.

In the garden behind his home, Stephen Silverbear McComber slips seeds into his mouth, just the way his grandparents taught him when he was a teenager. Then he plunges his fingers into the soil to plant counter-clockwise from east to west.

McComber, a Mohawk from Kahnawá:ke, teaches Iroquois gardening traditions across North America. He’s also an award-winning sculptor, grandfather to 14, and an elected council chief. Throughout spring, he only plants when the moon phase is right: first in the new moon, then in the half moon, then the full moon. He doesn’t plant when the moon is waning.

“That’s how we’ve always planted,” he explains. “Everything that revolves around planting begins with ceremony.”

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Indigenous peoples have been champions of biodiversity since long before settlers arrived, passing varieties of seeds down from generation to generation. Today, Indigenous communities continue to protect 80 per cent of global biodiversity. But colonization has weakened some of these practices. “Our parents were put in residential schools, so a lot of that Indigenous knowledge was stopped,” McComber says.

The 68-year-old Elder is doing his part to revive traditional practices and preserve seeds. He talks to Elders in various communities and, with their permission, shares heirloom seeds with the Seed Savers Exchange, an organization that has been cataloguing and preserving seeds since 1975.

Meredith Burks, head of communications at Seed Savers Exchange, says that maintaining and growing heirloom seeds allows us to connect with those that gardened before us: “It empowers individuals and communities to take an active role in preserving and celebrating our agricultural heritage.”

But what do we mean by “agricultural heritage”? 

Keeping seeds for next year’s growing season has long been a basic practice among gardeners. It’s only recently that most household gardeners have tended to buy new seeds each spring, rather than save them from last year’s harvest.

Consequently, most food growers in the past naturally cultivated unique varieties, simply by propagating their own plants year after year and decade after decade. A lifetime of seed saving unfailingly produced unique distinctions, practically on a garden-by-garden basis. These differences were selected by each grower’s preferences for colour, shape, taste, hardiness, and other factors.

“Try to imagine for a moment the incalculable number of varieties created by agriculturalists around the world, as each producer had the potential to develop local versions!” writes nutritionist and author Bernard Lavallée in his book À la défense de la biodiversité alimentaire [In Defense of Food Biodiversity].

In truth, the number would be impossible to calculate, though the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in northern Norway is attempting to document and protect the incredible diversity that still remains. At the time of writing, it holds 1,214,827 seed samples.

Confronting the threat of crop monocultures

Though he practises traditions from the past, McComber’s focus is on the future and the perils we all face. It isn’t enough to share his ancestors’ traditions about how and when to plant seeds, he says. “We need to talk about challenges.”

Since the 1990s, multinational corporations have undermined seed diversity around the world.

Companies like Bayer (Monsanto) and ChemChina have engineered super seeds that produce a whole lot of uniform-looking produce while fending off weeds, but tend to rely on dangerous pesticides, many of which are made by the same companies.

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The modified seeds sold by these companies also only last a single growing season, forcing farmers to buy new seeds every year. Just four companies sell 60 per cent of the world’s seeds, according to a 2018 study by Philip Howard of Michigan State University.

Seed saving offers a way to reclaim the tradition of agriculture as a common heritage. “Heirloom varieties belong to everyone and not to anyone in particular,” says Jean-François Lévêque, a well-known horticulturalist and the co-founder of Jardins de l’écoumène, which cultivates heirloom seeds in Lanaudière, Québec. “Unlike modern varieties, these aren’t owned by one company. They have to be preserved.”

The epicurean argument for seed diversity

For lovers of fruits and vegetables, a monopoly of companies has created a monotony in seeds. Instead of various corn varieties — some sweet, some not — farmers can only get their hands on a few species. That limited selection is passed on to consumers, who are led to think an ear of corn or a melon or a pear should only look one way.

“Consuming a diverse diet is a fundamental human need,” says Lavallée. “Our biology is such that we need to eat plenty of different kinds of food with different nutrients in order to meet all the needs of our bodies.”

The concept of embracing many different varietals of a single species isn’t so strange if you consider our relationship to apples. Most people are familiar with choosing different types of apples for different purposes, such as for baking, preserving, or snacking.

The principle applies for other fruits and vegetables. Each species has thousands of potential varieties to explore.

Heritage varieties aren’t necessarily better or more nutritious than today’s fruits and vegetables, says Lavallée. Rather, it’s the diversity that counts.

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“Our ancestors developed varieties of fruits and vegetables in order to meet certain needs and desires, for specific shapes, colours, tastes, uses, and rituals,” he explains. “When we lose those varieties, we lose not only those characteristics, we also lose the relationships that people had with them.”

Losing seed diversity also makes crops more vulnerable. For instance, Tropical Race 4 (TR4), also known as Panama Disease, has ravaged banana farms for the past 30 years, putting the world’s most popular fruit in grave danger. The threat wouldn’t be so severe if growers produced more varieties of bananas.

Genetic diversity in plants helps them resist disease and adapt to different climates and preserves a wider range of flavours, Meredith Burks says. It’s also good for pollinators like bees, butterflies, and birds: “By providing a habitat and food source for pollinators, biodiverse gardens contribute to the maintenance of healthy ecosystems and enhance crop productivity.”

A simple solution to a complex problem: just get started

Stephen McComber says he’s heartened when he sees others growing biodiverse, organic gardens without industrial seeds. He runs a Facebook page called Steve’s Garden Tips to make sure everyone feels encouraged to grow their own food.

For him, preserving Indigenous growing traditions and heirloom seeds isn’t just critical for his own community. It’s a matter of survival for everyone.

“All this knowledge, no matter where it’s from, everyone’s gonna need it,” he says.

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If you’re wondering how to get started, this seed saver has some sage advice: “​​Just get up and do it,” McComber says. “That’s it.”

Four heirloom plants to try at home

Not sure where to start? Here are four heirloom fruits and vegetables worth cultivating in your garden and serving on your dinner table, especially if you live in Zone 5 or higher.

The Montréal melon, which grew to the size of a basketball in the Notre-Dame-de-Grâce neighbourhood of Montréal in the early 1900s, was so beloved for its light, rich flavour that a single slice could sell for the same price as a steak at fancy restaurants in New York. It disappeared in the 1940s, but the seeds were preserved, so when it was finally rediscovered in the 1990s, growers were able to start cultivating it again, and the melon has made a dramatic comeback in recent years.

This cucumber is as vigorous as the person who developed it, Marie-Alice Laflamme Gosselin, who cultivated this cucumber her whole life and continued growing it into her nineties. She would soak the seeds in milk before planting and without fail put them in the ground on June 13th, the Feast Day of St. Anthony. Despite the late sowing, the crop was always highly productive. Resistant to disease and easy to digest, this robust cucumber is now treasured by gardeners across Québec.

While renovating an abandoned century-old home in the Beauce region of Québec, a worker noticed a small bag of seeds under the attic floorboards, where they had lain for decades. Of the 300 or so seeds inside the sachet, three sprouted and produced an astonishing tomato: weighing up to a kilogram, this giant variety is juicy and delicious.

Maximilienne Corbeil Dinel received these beans as a wedding present in 1907 and continued growing them year after year for the next eight decades. The plants keep flowering right up until the first frost, giving an abundant summer-long harvest. Grandma Dinel liked to serve them with butter and salt, whether straight from the garden or canned and preserved for midwinter feasts.

 

– GO DEEPER –

Video
Stewarding Indigenous Seeds and Planting by the Moon with Stephen Silverbear McComber

Platform
Seed Savers’ The Exchange is a platform for gardeners to swap homegrown, heirloom, and open-pollinated seeds.

Organisation
Indigenous Seed Keepers Network

Book
Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future

Joel Balsam is a Montréal-based freelance journalist and travel guidebook author. His work has appeared in TIME, National Geographic, Lonely Planet, the Globe & Mail, Atlas Obscura, and more. Follow his travels and work on Instagram and his website.

 

Stephanie Foden is a Montréal-based photographer and visual storyteller whose work explores themes of climate, culture, and identity. She has photographed for National Geographic, TIME, the New York Times, ESPN, Amnesty International, and Dove. She’s a proud member of Boreal Collective and Women Photograph. You can find more of her work on Instagram and her website.

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