Kenton Lobe of CMU - Reclaiming Agricultural Biodiversity through Seed Saving
Written by Anna Sigrithur Chew on This! is a bi-weekly mini speaker series hosted at the South Osborne Farmers’ Market that aims to bring market-goers and local food champions together with the idea that a market should be a meeting place and a place of critical ideas as well as commerce.
Last week at Chew on This! we welcomed Kenton Lobe, a farmer, a seed saver, and a professor of International Development and Environmental Studies at the Canadian Mennonite University (CMU). Kenton began his talk by asking the audience whether we were aware of the fact that the land we were sitting on (at the Lord Roberts Community Centre in South Osborne, Winnipeg) had once been divided into river lots along the Red River occupied and cultivated by Métis farmers at the time of the city’s birth. Most of us did not-- nor could we imagine quite what those people might have been growing-- but we knew it was not the genetically modified seeds of conventional agriculture today. In asking this question, Kenton implored us to consider the history of the human relationship with seeds and plants that has extended as far as 10,000 years and is ongoing. It’s a relationship many of us don’t think that much about, but one that merits rekindling. Much of this relationship between people and seed has been damaged, disconnected and exploited in recent decades. Says Kenton, our agricultural biodiversity is in crisis: 75% of agricultural species have been lost over the past 100 years, and at the moment, 60-70% of the world’s seed supply is controlled by four multinational corporations whose primary interest is profit for their shareholders. For the first time in the classes he teaches, he is assigning readings on ‘ecological grief’, the phenomenon of feeling profound despair at the state of the climate and our disconnection with natural systems and other species. But within all of this is a window of hope: seeds can provide a powerful physical tool and metaphor for social and ecological change. Just think about it, he says: a towering, 2000 year old sequoia tree grew from a seed that weighed 1/16th of a gram. That’s powerful. Saving seed is a way and place where we can begin to regain and reclaim our relationships to other species. Doing so is the practice of gaining what Kenton calls ‘ecological literacy’. Ecological literacy is just what it sounds like: the knowledge about natural systems that allows us to ‘read’ their many variables, and to make educated guesses on how best to interact with them. When he first started saving seeds, he started with squash and quickly realized that to do so meant that he had to understand much more than just seeds; he had to learn how the flowers are pollinated and what the bees, birds, the wind and the humans were doing within a several kilometer radius of the squash patch! He realized that seed saving required learning the whole natural system that surrounded and supported that seed. And when it came to the moment for his direct influence, he had to choose which squash to save and let reproduce another year, and which to eat or compost-- a process called ‘roguing’. It was the beginning of a long relationship that is now bearing its own fruits; Kenton now often teaches squash pollinating workshops at CMU in the summer times. Through his work at CMU, Kenton got to know other seed savers who have influenced this relationship to seeds, and he cites one person in particular named Caroline Chartrand, who calls herself ‘the landless Métis seed saver’. Caroline worked tirelessly to research any records of seeds from the Red River Valley to determine what her Métis ancestors would have cultivated and eaten-- on possibly the very same river lots we were gathered on the day of Kenton’s talk. Caroline works to grow out these seeds where and when she can find them, and in doing so, is connecting with her ancestors. Yes, her ancestors who grew the seeds-- but also, from an Indigenous perspective, seeds themselves are living ancestors. Regaining a relationship with them is a way of healing from on-going colonial violence, as well as a celebration of connection. Kenton recalled one of the seminal (har har!) moments in which he came to understand this. He was visiting the White Earth reservation in Minnesota and spending time with the renowned elder/activist Winona Laduke when someone came and brought some seeds to her-- seeds that they had brought over the border in a bag of “Spitz”. When she saw them, Winona exclaimed with joy, “Oh, you’ve brought my grandchildren home!” Kenton said he was taken aback by this at first, but her genuine appreciation and warmth towards these seeds stuck with him: it challenged his european, settler farmer view on what a seed was.
This is an important distinction in the face of the state of seeds internationally, with the aforementioned multinational corporations who control seed through patenting and intellectual property laws, and genetic manipulation to ensure that seeds from GM crops cannot be saved. Though this market share is still a global minority-- most of the food grown and eaten in the world today still comes from small-scale operations using non-GM seeds-- its implications about the right to control and patent life are significant. From Kenton, and many other seed savers’ perspectives, there is a philosophical, cultural and justice-based logic that seed should not be owned or controlled by the few. It is a living entity, a resource-- and for many an ancestor-- that we all have a right to engage with. And so, Kenton and other seed savers find satisfaction in working the land in a way that honours these relationships, and teaches in a way that he hopes he can inspire students and other farmers and gardeners to gain ecological literacy. It’s one of the things we can do in the face of shrinking agricultural biodiversity and seed monopolies-- to literally work against these forces. For many years, Kenton and colleagues have organized the “Seedy Saturday” event at CMU, where seed savers from all over Winnipeg and Manitoba can come to freely swap or give away their seeds. He teaches about seed saving and seed banking (we’ll give some information about local seed banks and libraries below), and encourages as many people to grow out and save seed as possible: the more something is grown out by attentive seed savers, the more adaptability we will see in our crops-- something we’ll need in the times ahead. Resources: The Osborne Seed Library Project: https://wpl.winnipeg.ca/library/pdfs/downloadables/SeedLibraryInstructionSheet.pdf Seedy Saturday: https://www.facebook.com/WinnipegSeedySaturday/ Book: The Organic Seed Grower by John Navazio https://www.goodreads.com/book/show/14636453-the-organic-seed-grower