Seeds of Hope

Seen any good movies lately? Here’s a timely recommendation: a little documentary on DVD, called "The Future of Food” by Deborah Koons Garcia. Sitting in the dark, extra-large bucket of popcorn at the ready, you’ll experience ninety minutes of thoroughly presented and utterly absorbing information. But…you probably won’t feel like eating any of that popcorn …

The documentary is a gut-wrenching depiction of our current world food reality: the systematic destruction of diversity in our food crops through economic, political and corporate control; the escalating dependence on pesticides and herbicides in farming; the enormous biology experiment that is genetic engineering and the modification of plant life through biotechnology; the incomprehensible practice of the licensing of patents to own the genes of living organisms, and the subsequent battles over the ownership of the progeny; and the boggling realization that the choices we have for the foods on our grocery store shelves are limited – very limited – by a few global conglomerates that provide us with foods that are untested, unlabelled and therefore untraceable, and whose health consequences are vastly unknown.

None of this information is new. None of it is secret. But none of it has been presented as completely and as clearly, and with such a compelling call for action by the consumer.

According to the film, the agricultural revolution has been ongoing for nearly a century. Progressively, our fascination with the wonders and availability of developing scientific technologies turned the initial hopes for a "Green Revolution,” into the "Gene Revolution.”

Since the 1980’s, a growing co-operation of concerned scientists, farmers and consumers worldwide, has been building awareness for a ‘counter-revolution.’ Their message is to "get real again” – to go back to the land, and heed its wisdom through sustainable practices like basic organic farming, Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) and local Farmer’s Markets. These public caretakers of the environment are also active proponents of seed collection and saving; creating seed banks and sanctuaries for future plant diversity.

One of the global citizens of the counter-revolution is a woman named Sharon Rempel.

An agronomist by profession, her philosophy and life’s work is: "connecting people, plant and place through community and seed." For the last 20 years, it’s been a vocation that has taken her around the world and back again, planting what she calls, "Seeds of Transformation.” Presently recuperating in Nanaimo, after a near-fatal car crash almost two years ago in Nepal, Sharon is a bridge builder between people and ideas.

She has created such programs and connections as the Heritage Gardens at the historic 1870’s Keremeos Grist Mill in B.C. and its "Living Museum of Wheat,” where the heirloom seeds of seven of Canada’s Landrace varieties of wheat were planted. (Landrace varieties of seeds exhibit a uniform shape but genetic diversity within their population.) In 1988, it set off enormous excitement and anticipation among farmers and visitors alike when "The Heritage Wheat Project” was officially begun, and half of the original acquisition of one pound of each wheat was planted, with the other half saved in case of crop failure. With the success of the Grist Mill site as an agricultural education center, hopes and plans were fuelled for a small-scale re-commercialization of the traditional wheats.

In 1989, knowing the value of connecting people with combined generations of collected knowledge and experience, and watching the alarming increase in corporate seed control, an idea germinated in Sharon’s mind: "Pat Mooney had written a book in the 80’s, called ‘Seeds of the Earth’, saying that corporate control of seeds was happening and we really had to do something.” (As of 2005, Wikipedia lists Monsanto Company as the leading producer of genetically engineered seed, with 70% to 100% of the market share for various crops, such as corn, soybeans, cotton and canola. It holds over 11,000 patents on seeds. Monsanto is now also the largest conventional seed company in the world, with its continuous purchase of independents, and the recent acquisition of Seminis, previously one of the largest seed companies. Deborah Koons Garcia stresses the point in her film that ‘Whoever controls the seeds, controls the food.’)

What Sharon wanted was to build ‘pockets’ of seeds and seed-savers, into a Canada-wide community. "As president of Alberta’s Sustainable Agriculture Association at the time, I said, if we don’t save these seeds, we won’t have seeds in the future that are not controlled by agri-business and subject to GMO (genetically modified organism) technology. So we’ve got to do something.”

What Sharon did was to gather people together from many diverse groups: colleagues from the B.C. Health Action Network Society (HANS), representatives from the Vancouver office of the Unitarian Service Committee Canada (USCC), which was working in Ethiopia (the Center of Diversity for wheat) with their "Seeds of Survival” program, the curator of Vancouver’s VanDusen Botanical Gardens, chefs from "Nyala” Ethiopian restaurant, and seed people from some of the smaller seed companies, through Dan Jason’s Salt Spring Seeds. Everyone involved shared a common vision: to save the old plants and varieties and share traditional knowledge.

Coming together with a very distinctive and ‘ground-breaking’ event, duly noted by the media, the first "Seedy Saturday” was held at the VanDusen Gardens in 1989, where over 500 people came to share their stories and plans and seeds. The event has since been cloned, spreading west to Vancouver Island and east across the rest of Canada. It remains a thriving opportunity for gardeners to connect with each other.

Studying heritage gardens and landscaping on a scholarship to England, Sharon continued to follow ‘the garden path.’ But there was another university calling to her, a spiritual university, of larger meaning and deeper understanding. "There’ve always been waves of destruction and regeneration in societies throughout history. Different people through time have had different burdens to carry. Whatever we’re being asked to carry, they are often tremendous burdens to our own personal lives, but they’re incredible gifts.”

Previously, she had been exposed to the idea of "Biodynamics,” through organic farming. (Biodynamics is an ecological and sustainable system of agricultural food production, encompassing a spiritual connection among living things.) She says she felt, "cosmic seeds” were being planted in her awareness, then, as always. And those cosmic seeds always lead her to working with wheat. "There’ve always been elders in the organic community, people (teaching this way) before organics was even named. And they’ve been carrying seeds as stewards. It’s the same with the old wheat, I’m a steward…People ask themselves, ‘What is my calling?’ Well, the only picture I can see for myself is when I’m going forward with the seeds in my cupped hands, then, always my needs are met; the doors open. I’ve travelled around the world and had friends and projects –I’ve been so blessed to have had the experiences.”

And in Greece in 1992, on a cross-country trip with a friend, an early-morning Christmas service and a lingering trip through a Greek garden inspired her to become baptized. Unusually, she received two names: Maria Demetria, in honour of Mary, Mother of Christ and Demeter, the archaic Goddess of the Grain.

For Sharon, as with other activists around the world, the awareness of our food supply as nourishment for both body and soul is an integral concept. A great many countries around the world are resisting the United States’ industrial monoculture model, which promotes economic efficiencies in one or two products. "The Future of Food” notes that whenever people are asked about it, they want a different relationship to their food: they want diversity and they want choice. People ultimately also want control over the food they eat, and what goes into it.

The preservation of the world’s traditional wheat supply and its seeds are a hotbed of emotion, in Canada and elsewhere. There are fears that conventional crops will become crossed with new "Terminator” seed technology, with its ‘suicide’ gene, where after one planting, the seed is sterile and plants cannot reproduce; or "Traitor” seeds where germination will only take place after the plants are sprayed with growth-instigating chemicals. Many European and Asian markets are refusing to accept shipments of GM wheat from North America.

Greece is the Center of Origin for wheat. An opportunity arose in 1994 for Sharon to establish connections with the Greek Gene Bank people, who were in the process of sending an all-male team on a wheat seed collecting expedition to Santorini. She asked to go with them and was initially turned down because of being a woman, who, they suggested, would want to stop continually and shop! With the aid of a $1,000.00 grant from the Canadian Gene Bank, who would receive half of the collected seeds in return, she was invited on the trip as a formal scientist. "There I was,” she laughs, "four Greek men and me in a jeep…That was the most profound in-the-field experience; learning how to sample the (wheat) population and collect. The origins of wheat – Aegilops wheat – grow wild in Greece. It’s where our durum and wild wheats come from. It’s a very rich center, the Mediterranean. The Fertile Crescent is so rich, thus we have to keep the GMO’s out of there, because they’ll contaminate the plants.”

As a collaborative consultant, Sharon’s conviction was evidenced in 1994 with the ‘birthing’ of the Greek "Heritage Seed Program” and in 1998 with the organization of "Aegilops – a Network for Biodiversity and Ecology in Agriculture” and its "Heritage Wheat Project” in Greece. She says, "The young people still call me the godmother of the Greek Seed Movement, which is a real honour.”

That same year, she went on to create "The Garden Institute of Alberta,” a registered charity, where more roots were planted for the work she is doing now. A heritage wheat collection is maintained there, including a notable Landrace variety called "Red Fife.” Grown across Canada from the 1840’s to 1890’s, Red Fife has always been considered a fine milling and baking wheat, with, as Sharon elaborates, "a ‘memory’ and an ability to adapt quickly to a diversity of environmental conditions.” As a "public organic wheat breeder,” Sharon is an active promoter of Red Fife, which is now enjoying a resurgence in popularity with organic farmers, pastry chefs and artisanal bakers, as a result of her efforts to continually connect people, plant and place.

Over the last ten years, Sharon has become her own Center of Diversity: developing community seed banks and educational programs in Nepal and Bangladesh; teaching organic agriculture, community gardens and seed conservation principles through the Garden Institute in Alberta. Scientist, researcher, teacher, writer, and lecturer, she has worked with Canada’s Gene Bank and been a participant on three Canadian delegations to the Food and Agriculture Organization (United Nations, Agriculture) on genetic resources for food and agriculture. Seed collector, saver and collaborator, she is also an instrumental organizer of ongoing Participatory Research into plant breeding, farming and most recently, organic landscaping.

This is part of a new paradigm that she sees. A contrast to the "top-heavy” research policies at universities, where intellectual diversity is curtailed through selective funding of departments and programs, and research dollars are increasingly directed by corporate and industry donors. Sharon has been witness to one reality, now she is helping to create a new one. She is working to develop education and research where the stakeholders themselves design the process. She says, the question now is, "How do you get people hooked on this new paradigm? With organic landscaping, how do you teach people who only want to have grass in their front yard? As professionals, we’re trying to be bridge builders, to bring these reductionisms back into integrations.”

A new reality – Sharon Rempel believes we can co-create it, together. She’s planted the seeds – seeds of hope, and we can leave our seats in the dark of the movie theatre and come out to help them grow. The ‘real’ taste of the popcorn is sure to be worth it.