Seeds demystified: biological heritage, genetic diversity and food security

Seeds constitute a food source for billions of people. They contain the genetic material of the plants that feed us. However, we observe a loss of genetic diversity in food crops, which can have catastrophic consequences on our diet, as well as many other issues.

The status report:

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) estimates that 75% of crop diversity was lost in the 20th century. Of the 7,000 plant species cultivated by humans since the beginning of agriculture, only 30 provide about 90% of the dietary energy that the world’s population needs – wheat, rice and corn providing alone about half of the dietary energy consumed in the world.

This loss of biodiversity poses a significant risk for our future, since it is the genetic diversity that allows the survival and adaptation of these plants to environmental changes.

To combat this phenomenon, part of the precious seeds is stored in the Svalbard global seed bank in Norway. At -18°C, the seeds sent by participating States are stored in case of future environmental and socio-economic changes. In the event of a disaster, countries that wish to do so can withdraw their seeds and cultivate ancient plants again in order to feed their people. It already happened in 2015, when the war decimated the Syrian seed bank and left the country in dire straits.

How did we get here ?

Agriculture has changed tremendously since the green revolution of the 1950s. Intensive monocultures have become the norm to feed the growing population, and genetically modified crops have become more widespread, leading to the neglect of ancient varieties that had been cultivated for centuries. By favoring yields above anything else, these crops are also responsible for the excessive use of pesticides and chemical fertilizers polluting our soil, air and water.


Mechanical harvest in a monoculture of cereals.


How to act?

In contrast to so-called “conventional” farming, locally grown seeds of ancient varieties will produce plants that are adapted to the local environmental conditions and more resistant to diseases in a given region. The diversity of ancient varieties also means a more varied diet for us, and therefore a better nutritional intake for better health.


You want to grow your own vegetables? to rediscover forgotten varieties? to promote local varieties adapted to your growing conditions? help preserve the genetic diversity of edible plants for food security purposes? Read this.


You will not find ancestral varieties (also called heritage or Heirloom varieties) everywhere, but their availability is gradually increasing due to their success; in fact, several specialized seed producers have emerged in recent years in the Province and offer a growing catalog of heritage seeds as varieties are rediscovered and cultivated to make them accessible to the public, like Lyne Bellemare from Terre Promise is doing.


You can also turn to sharing platforms of seeds and vegetables to find heirloom varieties. Whether it’s the Plantcatching website, specialized Facebook groups or seasonal events in urban agriculture, you can probably find amateur gardeners willing to share the precious seeds that you covet.

The so-called heritage seeds are stable ancient varieties (whose subsequent generations are identical to the parents) cultivated for several generations (at least 50 years). These are open-pollinated seeds, that is, naturally viable seeds can be harvested at the end of each season and sown the following years to get new plants. In contrast, some hybrids do not produce viable seeds or the plants will not be identical to the previous generation, and harvests will be random and unsatisfactory.

Ancestral varieties also have other qualities: their flavour and nutritional quality are exceptional. The more productive hybrid varieties were selected for their resistance to transport and their longer shelf life, parameters useful for large-scale distribution. But one of the most important factors, taste, has been lost in the process…


Harvest of heirloom tomatoes in one of our gardens


Cultivating heirloom, rustic and local varieties is a good way to go, since these varieties are adapted to local environmental conditions and will therefore be less affected by certain diseases or pests. Making this choice helps preserve delicious forgotten varieties and bring a little diversity to the garden.

Montreal Melon, Kahnawake Mohawk Bean and Cherokee Purple Tomato are a few examples of ancestral varieties in southern Quebec.


To continue reading, we recommend the following resources:

La Semaine Verte – Episode of March, 25th 2017 on the importance of seeds and their preservation: 

Here is a list of 100+ seed keepers and other canadian businesses or  organizations shipping to canada