A variety of seeds available at a Seedy Saturday seed exchange Photo credit: Brian McInnis


Island farmers save seed to assert local ownership over food production

Food sovereignty: the central element of a food system in which communities control the production and consumption of their food. It prioritizes local, affordable, sustainable, and culturally appropriate food. On PEI, farmers believe that the Island can become food sovereign. The movement begins with a network of farmers saving locally adapted seed.

As Reg Phelan understands it, food sovereignty is concerned with the food system as a whole. “[It’s] the way food is produced and how it’s distributed —and not just having enough food, but having the quality of food— and for it to be in the hands of producers to have some say [in the food system],” he said. Phelan farms just south of Morell at Seaspray Organics and as a member of the National Farmers Union, he is part of La Via Campesina, an international peasant’s movement for food sovereignty.

Amy Smith owns Heart Beet Organics with Verena Varga. It is a certified organic farm in Darlington. “PEI likes to brag about being ‘Canada’s Food Island’, and yes there is a lot of land in agriculture here, but the truth is most of the crops being grown are not being grown for fresh produce consumption [locally],” Smith said. Five of the top ten export products from PEI in 2014 were food products. The top export product was processed potatoes. “That becomes a real issue about food security,” she said. Smith thinks this can change if farmers start growing more of a variety of crops for the local market.

Smith and Varga learned about food sovereignty as they began to save their own seed. “It’s a skill that, generationally, we’re losing. Having varieties that we know do well in PEI is really important,” Smith explained. These varieties may have certain traits that make them better adapted to climate change and local conditions.

Knowledge is a valuable asset within systems of food sovereignty. Heart Beet Organics takes on two young apprentices every year. Most of them did not grow up on farms. Passing local knowledge on to new generations of food producers is a way for seasoned farmers to contribute to food sovereignty.

Afaf Arara, centre, explains some seed facts to Mohamed Enbaya, with the help of Jeanne Maki,
a volunteer with Seedy Saturday. Photo Credit: Brian McInnis

Tina Davies is part of the PEI Seed Alliance, which is dedicated to the concept of food and seed sovereignty on PEI. “From the beginning of time, farmers have fed their families and communities by observing their crops, selecting the best specimens, and saving those seeds for the next season and for future generations. Seed offers security for the future,” Davies said. To her, saving seed is a human right.

The most drastic change in PEI food systems since Phelan began farming has been the move to monoculture. This system has paved the way for a select few companies to gain monopoly over seed sales by patenting varieties that are resistant to chemical herbicides and sensitive to chemical fertilizers. This system of farming requires a continual increase of chemical inputs year after year as the quality of soil degrades. Crop rotation is mandated by the government in the Agricultural Crop Rotation Act, but there is still cause for concern for many farmers and food producers. “It’s a race to the bottom is really what it is,” Phelan said.

Smith is also concerned about monoculture farming. “I think if we put more effort into finding those varieties that don’t require such inputs, don’t require such expense of chemicals, I think we would also be taking control over our food production,” she said.

A local system of diverse crops increases community resilience. “Industrial monoculture is the biggest obstacle to food sovereignty on PEI,” Davies said. “When catastrophe hits, transportation grinds to a halt, and the grocery stores are empty, who will provide our sustenance?”

Both Phelan and Smith are convinced that Island communities would be healthier if the province had a more local food system. “You are what you eat,” Phelan said. Smith would like to see more locally-grown produce and meat being served in centres such as schools and hospitals in PEI. Better food quality leads to better health, which is vitally important for the healthcare and education systems.

There is ample opportunity for farmers to contribute to food sovereignty on PEI. “I think there’s still lots of room for new farmers to […] set up in PEI,” Smith said. The Island has the best growing conditions of any place she has ever lived. On PEI, food production skills are integrated into community-wide systems of support. This makes it an ideal place for new and existing farmers to contribute to an independent, sustainable, and local food system.

Nevertheless, government has a responsibility to support food sovereignty. “We’re going to have to move in a lot of different policy directions,” Phelan said. Land on Prince Edward Island has been used to grow food for centuries, and local communities have a deep history of protecting their lands and livelihoods. To Phelan, this represents an opportunity for Island farmers to lead the movement for food sovereignty.

About Shelby Downe

Shelby Kendra Downe is a social justice organizer at Cooper Institute in
Epekwitk (known as Prince Edward Island). She is interested in the ways
in which systems of oppression shape our interactions with the land, and
how cultural resistance can actively subvert those vertical relationships.

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