Dan Jason, Salt Spring Seeds, and Food Sovereignty
By Kristy Gardner • Photos By Michael Levy
WHAT DOES FOOD SOVEREIGNTY MEAN, ANYWAY? It’s a divergence from the term sustainability — a word that has been co-opted by transnational corporations and stripped of its intended meaning. Sovereignty, on the other hand, alludes to a supreme power or authority, independence, self-government, self-rule, home rule, self-determination, and freedom — in this case, over our food choices.
Meet one man who’s empowering people to grow their own food and save their own seeds in an effort to resist the genetic pollution of mass-produced corporate food. In essence, doing magic.
Dan Jason of Salt Spring Seeds and the Seed and Plant Sanctuary for Canada is living that reality. For 25 years, Jason and his team have been growing, saving, and producing untreated, open-pollinated, non-GMO heritage and heirloom seeds. They’re attempting to establish safe, sovereign, and locally based agriculture on the Gulf Islands.
Jason describes Salt Spring Seeds as “basically a mail-order seed business that is trying to keep our heritage of simple, saveable seeds alive and in the public domain.” Such work is imperative at this stage of the food-production and consumption game. “The threat to the seeds that have been so lovingly passed on to us by countless generations is accelerating year by year. Our governments have given over the production and selection of seeds to transnational corporations that hybridize, genetically manipulate, and patent seeds for their own ends, namely profit and control. Salt Spring Seeds encourages farmers and gardeners to appreciate the wonderful wealth of diversity we still have, and to help preserve our heirloom seeds by learning the basic and easy principles of saving seeds.”
When asked how he came to do this work, he reflects with an interesting combination of horror and fondness. “In the late 80s, early 90s, I started to become aware of Roundup Ready soybeans and was shocked by how Monsanto was perverting a wonderful ancient food.” He was aghast to see the spread of chemically dependent soybeans as Monsanto pushed to buy up seed companies worldwide. “I was growing other soybean varieties of different colours and flavours which I liked a lot, and so I decided to start a seed company to make them available.”
In the face of such adversity — not to mention monetary wealth and political clout — Jason has to ask himself what is really important in relation to our food ways? What really matters?
SOVEREIGN IS AS SOVEREIGN DOES
It wasn’t the inefficient technical process of becoming certified organic that made sense to Jason, but the very principles of organic growing, especially diversity and heritage, that lay at the heart of his vision. Central to his farming philosophy is the basic belief that “if you design seeds so they need to be grown with poisons, you quickly get poisoned land and poisoned people.”
“Farmers around the world have been bribed and coerced to grow agribusiness seeds only to find when the gifts of chemical fertilizer, herbicides, and pesticides are over, the crops need those inputs if they are to grow,” he continues. “They also have to compete with the subsidies given to North American farmers for the same crops.
They are not allowed to save their own seed. The farmers become virtual slaves to the corporations. Many have to give up and move to the cities. Hundreds of thousands have committed suicide.”
This is why he currently works with eight different producers on Salt Spring Island. While he supports the need for organic-style production, not all his growers are officially certified, “because it is rather a costly and tedious affair. My customers know I’m really organic, though, because I’ve written about six books on organic growing. Fortunately we are an island, so that really lessens the possibility of contamination by genetically modified crops.”
However, in an ever-changing ecological-social economy, many people around the world are under the impression that growers need these various “-cides” and chemical inputs to grow food — in particular with respect to feeding the world. Jason dispels that myth. “That is definitely not the case! Everything on the planet was grown organically until the past 50 years, and since then corporate agriculture has practically destroyed the planet. Organic growers have many strategies for dealing with pests and weeds, which can’t be summed up in a few sentences; most important is to work with nature instead of against it, and to plant a diversity of crops, instead of huge monoculture plantings which bring on disease and pests,” he says. “Genetically modified seeds require more water than regular seeds. They do not grow well and yield poorly unless they are grown with high levels of chemicals. They do not adapt to climate change. They are the worst possible choice for a sustainable future.”
WHAT WE CAN DO
The present state of our food system isn’t in total peril, however — as we can see from Jason’s work. People are making choices to help create a more sovereign and equitable food system. Jason recommends we get involved in ways that move beyond our consumer culture and actually do something. If we want to make a difference we can “grow food from heritage seeds and save seed. Join local seed banks,” he says. “I’ve been very inspired lately by all the communities across Canada that have been addressing food security by starting local community gardens and seed banks.”
This is where the Seed and Plant Sanctuary for Canada enters the picture. An off shoot of Salt Spring Seeds, this charitable organization is dedicated to the health and vitality of the Earth through the preservation and promotion of heritage seeds. Utilizing seed-saving efforts by fellow Canadians, Jason and his team are building a grassroots reserve of over 900 varieties in their living gene bank of natural, patent-free seeds that are safe from the chemical inputs and influence of corporate global-agribusiness.
For more information on how to get involved with the sanctuary or to purchase seeds to grow your own sovereign food, visit saltspringseeds.com or seedsanctuary.com, or e-mail Jason directly at firstname.lastname@example.org. You can also pick up a copy of his book Saving Seeds As If Our Lives Depended On It. Judging by Jason’s remarks and my personal experiences as a food activist, our lives — or at least our sovereignty — really do.
Kristy has been involved (and in love) with food politics for the past several years. Focusing on local, small-scale, organic, seasonal, pastured agriculture, she relishes growing her own food and encouraging similar production in and around Vancouver Island. She can also be found ranting about her culinary adventures at gastronomicalsovereignty.blogspot.ca
Salt Spring Island photographer Michael Levy is hard at work on a book about Fitz-Roy Farms (pictured) and another, Salt Spring: portrait of an island, a follow up to his highly successful collaborative book from 2004, Salt Spring: the people, the place. flatearthphoto.com
Here are some local resources where you can learn to save seeds, or swap and purchase open-pollinated seeds.
• Cedar Cottage Seed Savers Collective, Kensington-Cedar Cottage, East Vancouver. ccseedsavers.wordpress.com
• The Environmental Youth Alliance (EYA) offers the Urban Seeds program. Find them at East End Food Co-op, Drive Organics, Eternal Abundance, Home Hardware on the Drive, VanDusen Botanical Garden, and Olla Flowers. EYA is also looking for Urban Seedsavers to grow and save organic, heritage seeds. Phone 604-689-4446. eya.ca
• FarmFolk CityFolk will present BC Seed Gathering, November 9th to 11th, at Kwantlen Polytechnic University, Richmond campus. 604-730-0450. farmfolkcityfolk.ca
• There are seed-swapping opportunities annually at Seedy Saturday events held in communities throughout BC, usually in February, March, and April.
IDEA: We know you’re not ready to hear this, but Christmas is coming . . . eventually. Why not save seeds from your garden, wrap them in whimsical packaging (old greeting cards and calendars can be transformed into beautiful seed packets), and give the gift of food sovereignty to friends and family?