- Introduction to Canberra Seed Savers Cooperative
Canberra Seed Savers Cooperative is a not-for-profit registered cooperative and network of local food growers and farmers who grow food from seed to seed (eating along the way) and harvest and share those locally grown seeds across our community. We work to protect our abundant, common heritage of open-pollinated food seeds. We are passionate about educating and inspiring more Canberrans to grow food from seed and to save and share those seeds with the local community. We are all volunteers and our work is funded by selling locally grown seeds at markets and local cafes as well as through access to ACT Government grants for some of our programs. Canberra Seed Savers was incubated and nourished by the Canberra City Farm and is now based at the Canberra Environment Centre.
Canberra Seed Savers’ current programs include:
- Seedlings for Community – connects volunteer seedling growers with Canberrans who would like to try growing their own food but may not have the means. Seedlings are grown by a network of volunteers (who communicate through group email and Facebook group) with seeds, materials and support from Canberra Seed Savers; seedlings are given away through organisations such as Communities@Work, Canberra City Care, St John’s Care, and Community Services No. 1. The program has been running for two years (supported in its development with a grant from ACT Government via the Community Connections Grants program) and has brought together more than 50 volunteers to raise and give away thousands of food seedlings. In the Autumn 2022 season, there are 24 volunteer growers and distributors working with twelve local charity and community organisations and special needs schools.
- Native Seed Saving – Canberra Seed Savers has a permit for collection of local native seeds and a group of keen seed savers who are learning about local native plants and their preservation and protection as well as collecting small amounts of seed which can be used to propagate and distribute more plants. This program is in its infancy and hopes to engage with local traditional custodians to learn and to develop a sustainable and culturally appropriate approach to community based native seed saving.
- Dwarf Tomato Project Seed Saving – several local volunteer growers and seed savers have been growing and saving seeds from locally bred (Sth Coast NSW) Dwarf Tomatoes. These tomatoes are unique, with names like ‘Kangaroo Paw Green’ and ‘Sturt Desert Pea’ and, being dwarf sized, the plants are perfect for urban growing. The seeds and their genetics are also protected from restrictive commercial ownership, and therefore available for the free use of all people in the future, by a ‘reverse patent’ scheme, the Open Source Seed Initiative (www.osseeds.org/). This program is important to protect the public ownership of these unique seeds and to build local food and seed sovereignty.
- Seedy Saturdays – monthly get togethers where people can meet other seed savers, swap seeds, work together to save and process seeds for the seed bank, and learn all about seed saving.
- Practical Educational Workshops and online resources including videos and leaflets on seed saving and growing from seed, free for anyone to access.
See our website: www.canberraseedsavers.org.au,
YouTube channel: https://www.youtube.com/channel/UCHuv74GzylAHod1E5Fbp8sw; Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/canberraseedsavers,
Facebook group: https://www.facebook.com/groups/364390024160783 and
Instagram page: @canberraseedsavers
- Mobile Seed Libraries – ‘lending’ out food seeds to local community gardens and providing education workshops and support to grow and save seeds. Gardeners are encouraged to save and return seeds if they can but not required to. The program helps to encourage more local seed saving and growing plants from seed as well as building community connections.
We are working to build a “living seed bank” for the Canberra community. Seeds are the foundation of our food system: without seeds, there is no food. The “living seed bank” has grown from the idea that seeds are most viable, productive and adaptable when they are grown every season rather than stored; and that people and communities thrive through connection and interdependence. Community control of, and equitable access to seeds facilitates community control of, and equitable access to food.
We see a local “living seed bank” as integral to the success of a local food strategy.
- Seeds are the source of our food and are our common wealth
Access to seeds and the right to grow, save and share seeds without restriction is a fundamental human right linked inextricably to the right to food. This right, which is the source of sustenance of human communities, is under threat. Industrial agriculture and the domination of the global seed trade by a very few multinational agrochemical companies contributes to the impoverishment of farmers, reduces genetic biodiversity and variety in our food seeds and threatens the food security and food sovereignty of people everywhere.
Legal restrictions which protect the interests of corporations such as patents, plant variety rights and – in some countries, outright prohibition – prevent farmers from saving and using their own seed. This creates cycles of dependence and poverty through requiring participation in a market economy for what should and has traditionally been a low cost agricultural input within the control of farmers. (For a good introduction to this topic see https://grain.org/en/article/5739-the-right-to-seeds-a-fundamental-right-for-small-farmers and https://www.navdanya.org/site/living-seed/seed-freedom. In Australia, particularly in the grain industry, plant breeders’ rights can restrict the trading and selling of farm saved seeds (see https://www.grainsearch.net.au/plant-breeder-rights-pbr/ ).
Canberra Seed Savers advocates and practices the use of open-pollinated, heirloom varieties of seeds which can be grown and saved freely by anyone and the genetics of which are available to backyard and professional breeders alike.
Seeds defy the market-based logic of scarcity. Plants that are happy and healthy produce an abundance of seeds toward the end of their life. A single lettuce seed produces a lettuce which, when it in turn sets seed, produces many thousands more seeds. One lettuce will produce enough seeds for a neighbourhood to grow lettuce for the next season at least. This massive reproduction rate, with almost no inputs required beyond normal growing conditions for crops and extra time to grow, is the natural abundance in our food system which means that seeds – and food – do not need to be scarce commodities. We should be harnessing and distributing this abundance for the benefit of our community. With infrastructure and coordination, Canberra could easily have a sustainable seed system to support local food production. A community seed bank grows and produces almost inexorably once it is established and supported by a network of growers who are provided with support, education and coordinated opportunities to swap or trade their seeds. Seeds will multiply and there is no need for them to be scarce, expensive beyond the cost of the land, other agricultural inputs and labour to produce the plant, or restricted from common use and propagation.
- Locally grown is better – for producers, the environment and people
Eating seasonally is one great way to overcome Canberra’s shorter “growing season”, which is often cited as a reason why lots of fruit and vegetables are imported into our region. Although we tend to focus on summer produce in our diets, there are plenty of vegetables and fruit that thrive in colder weather and that can be produced in the Canberra region. This is demonstrated by the year-round local production of fruits, vegetables and meat available at farmers’ markets and food hubs such as Southern Harvest (https://southernharvest.org.au/ ). The year round availability of summer produce in supermarkets, while convenient, comes at a heavy cost including increased carbon emissions from transportation and use of energy to promote out of season growth. Having locally-adapted seeds is central to successful seasonal growing, as they will be better suited for local climatic conditions and variability.
Locally grown seeds have important social and environmental advantages over those that are imported from other regions or countries:
- Seeds adapt to their environment gradually across seasons of growing and reproducing. We have observed that seeds that are continuously locally grown and saved will produce plants more likely to thrive in similar environmental conditions. This is particularly important in the context of a climate with increasing extremes. Seeds grown in subtropical and tropical environments or colder northern hemisphere climates will be less equipped to thrive in our region.
- Seeds that are grown locally do not need to be transported or imported. Currently the vast majority of food seeds are imported into Australia, requiring international transportation and contributing greatly and unnecessarily to emissions associated with our food system. Even for seeds that are domestically grown, there are none grown to sufficient scale close to Canberra for food security in vegetable and herb growing.
- Seeds that are grown locally are a way for growers to connect with each other and create food networks and communities. The advantage of a networked seed community is that no single grower needs to save seeds from every plant every season. Through relationships of cooperation and interdependence, growers can swap and share and trade seeds along with produce. This maintains genetic diversity in seed stocks, promotes biodiversity as growers have more capacity to try different varieties, and encourages peer to peer education and support networks.
- How seed saving works and what we need for a thriving local seed system
Seed saving has been the basis of our agricultural system for millenia. It is the process whereby a plant grower identifies and selects plants for their desirability (adaptation to local growing conditions, nutrition, flavour, size for e.g.) and nurtures those plants until they produce seed. The seed saver then harvests the seed, stores and replants it in future seasons. Seeds are regenerative: plants naturally produce them. Seeds are adaptive: they learn and change to thrive in local conditions as they grow in each season. Seeds are abundant: plants ensure their survival season to season by producing many, many more seeds than originally planted. Seed saving is not a specialised skill or expert craft, it has been an everyday practice of farmers and backyard growers for as long as agriculture has existed.
Local seed groups and networks are an important part of seed security, but so is infrastructure capacity and access to land for growing larger quantities of seed. Growing sufficient seed to produce a variety of future crops may not be feasible for market gardeners and farmers who, driven by shrinking margins, are often pushing the limits of the space and capacity (physical and temporal) of their land and human resources to produce as much food as possible. In many cases, seed growing takes more time than production of a food crop, and so requires holding back some of the best produce from market (for example you need to cut open your best tomato to save seeds from it). For this reason local seed production by a network of growers is an important part of an overall seed security strategy.
Groups like Canberra Seed Savers Cooperative (and, on the NSW South Coast, the Bega Valley Seed Savers) are working to grow, save, share and sell seeds in good quantities for urban growers. However, this production is currently neither scaled-up nor scaled-out sufficiently to provide seed security for our local food system.
Alternatives to commercial, for-profit enterprises would make valuable contributions to the development of local food and seed systems. Even at a very large scale, food producers currently operate with very tight margins and these margins threaten the viability of smaller scale producers trying to operate on a commercial basis. Less capital intensive but community based approaches like cooperatives (and CSAs as distribution systems) can very effectively and viably promote local food and seed growing and distribution in a way that benefits producers, consumers and the whole community. Cooperatives as business structures promote values-driven, ethical, environmentally and socially responsible and community building practices. Cooperatives are democratically run and enable people to work together and share in both risks and benefits inherent in food production and distribution.
- How seed saving builds community, connects people and creates community resilience
Growing, swapping and sharing seeds bring people together in community. Canberra Seed Savers runs Seedy Saturdays once a month – a skills and knowledge share/ working bee where local growers with all levels of seed saving experience can come along and learn from and teach others and work together to process, package or sow seeds. New growers who participate in Seedy Saturdays can take seeds to help them get started with growing from seed and seed saving at home. This community continues in our Facebook group “Canberra Seed Savers Cooperative” with advice, encouragement and support (moral and material) being sought and offered freely and also at semi-regular events like Seed Swaps and social gatherings.
Four of our current programs – Seedlings for Community, Native Seed Saving, the Dwarf Tomato Project Seed Saving, and Mobile Seed Libraries – have all created their own communities and networks both within the Canberra Seed Savers community and networked with other groups and organisations. For example, the Mobile Seed Libraries program connected with various community garden plot holders (including some Canberra Organic Growers Society gardens and the Acton Community Garden at the Canberra Environment Centre) to provide seeds through an informal library system and education program; the Seedlings for Community program connects more than 20 volunteer seedlings growers and distributors with local emergency food services and community services such as St Johns, Communities@Work etc. to give away food seedlings to those who can’t afford to buy them so they can try growing their own food at home. Canberra City Farm has contributed to this program. Two of these programs have previously received direct support from ACT Government grants. Currently we are working on a program to network seed savers together in their own neighbourhoods and to encourage the establishment of more local seed groups and networks.
An urban agriculture system, a community food system, builds relationships between people and farmers. Seed saving inevitably leads to seed sharing and swapping due to the overabundance produced from even small-scale backyard growing. Not every grower has to save seed from everything every season – we just need to be networked and interdependent and to swap and share. Seed saving brings people together and brings us all closer to the source of our food and to nature. By stewarding plants from seed to seed, you observe and learn more about seasons, climate and climate change. Growing food is a day to day experience in understanding biodiversity and its contribution to environmental and human health. A food community brings people together to share their knowledge and the triumphs, joys and frustrations of growing as well as sharing the harvest and seeds.
- Seed saving is part of a holistic regenerative approach to agriculture that can help sequester carbon, protect biodiversity and increase drought resilience
How we grow our food can contribute positively (or negatively) to our response to climate change. We need to rethink our dominant industrial agriculture model and focus instead on growing food for people and communities in ways that promote the health of the environment and the health of humans. Regenerative, closed loop food production systems will help to sequester carbon, reduce climate impacts and improve drought resiliency. We must urgently act to protect and promote biodiversity through organic growing. Seed growing and saving is an integral part of an environmentally sustainable and climate proof local food system.
Integrated land management can make landscapes more resilient while integrative pest management and promotion of biodiversity are necessary to ensure that our food system thrives along with our natural environment, not at the expense of it. The use of biocides – pesticides, fungicides and insecticides – must be eliminated for the health of our soil and water and animal and plant life. We need to capture and store water at all points in the system through the use of clever landscaping, tanks and storm/grey water harvesting and by building up soil carbon. Good soil is essential for moisture retention, nutrient uptake and resilience against pestilence and drought. We can build soil carbon and improve soil health, on which our food production depends, by returning carbon to the soil through composting and worm farming. We need to adopt more intelligent urban design including planning for shade and cool and incorporating public food and seed gardens as part of the neighbourhoods. Using seed that is locally and organically grown and shared between producers, is one of the strategies that contributes to the systemic change which will make our agriculture better for people and better for the planet.
There are many producers (including market gardeners, community gardeners and urban farmers) in our region already successfully using these approaches. The knowledge they have gained can be recognised and harnessed to assist more producers to adopt ecologically sustainable practices.
How and where seeds are produced is a very important part of new systemic approaches to producing food. If we import the majority of our seeds, we import additional biosecurity risk which is then addressed through use of biocides including fungicides, which is incompatible with soil health and environmental biodiversity.
More green spaces, and green food spaces, for example public food forests, community seed gardens and native food spaces (in Canberra especially grasslands used to grow native grasses) are also an important part of a more climate friendly and drought resilient system. Currently underutilised urban land can be used by local communities to produce food and seeds while still maintaining community access to open, natural spaces.
- Technology and Innovation in the Food System
Canberra does not need high technology systems and we instead advocate returning to the roots of proper soil and integrative management systems and focusing on regenerative agriculture. Innovation must be a holistic approach that will benefit the environment through adoption of appropriate new technologies alongside tried and true traditional ‘technologies’ and innovative agricultural practices. It should not just be focused on “quick solutions” that may seem to create short term benefits but do not provide longer term benefits and sustainable solutions. Unfortunately the focus of agricultural practices has drifted away from methods such as permaculture and regenerative agriculture which have over many years proven to be efficient and benefit both the environment and people.
While some new technologies can provide fantastic benefits for agriculture – such as soil moisture monitoring – too often these approaches are geared more to large scale corporate industrial agriculture and are priced beyond the reach of small-scale, local producers. We should not focus on supporting and adopting technology that benefits large technology producers and industrial agriculture, but instead look at how to make technologies appropriate and accessible and compatible with innovative and traditional agricultural practices which centre health of humans and the environment. Vertical farming and aquaculture can be appropriate solutions as intensive farming methods in some circumstances, provided that it is appropriately scaled, the system is closed-loop and it is adapted to the environment to prevent ecological damage such as excess ammonia and water pollution.
We advocate that the strategy should provide support for innovation in low cost, low technology and accessible ways to store seeds and technology for seed processing. A key challenge in this is creating climate control for seed storage and capacity for testing seed germination and viability.
- Supporting the incorporation of First Nations land management and traditional farming expertise
We do not have any First Nations people currently working within Canberra Seed Savers and cannot, and would not presume to, speak from the position of a First Nations persons’ perspective. Working together with and supporting First Nations individuals and organisations, respecting their leadership and custodianship of the land must be central to a local food system. We believe the best way to work together is by directly asking First Nations people what they need and what they think should be priorities, and to give them space and support to implement their ideas and initiatives. Farmers and community organisations should be supported to work collaboratively with and learn from First Nations custodians and the work and contributions of First Nations people should be valued.
ACT government could support connections between local organisations and local First Nations groups and people by creating platforms and opportunities for interaction, learning and sharing. For us specifically, this would mean supporting us to interact with local First Nations individuals and groups to learn about local plants and native seed saving, with networking and financial opportunities. This is central to the plan to develop our fledgling Native Seed Saving program.
For much of Canberra’s green, natural spaces, weed and pest management of invasive species in native vegetation is a key strategy to protect our biodiversity. Seed saving from local endemic species is crucial for this, enabling revegetation of native habitat within shared spaces, parks and recreation areas. Our region has the potential to cultivate native vegetation as food sources with the benefits including high nutritional value, increased biodiversity, drought resistance and improved soil conditions. Native species cultivation has potential of multiple uses, does not require use of biocides and uses less water.
When Canberra was settled it was called the Limestone Plains, with perfect fields for grazing sheep and was described as “created for them by god” (referred by the English settlers and their Christan god). In contradiction to this, native species are not only excellent for grazers but also can be harvested to make spices, flours and vegetables. Research has been done on the benefits of kangaroo grass (Themeda triandra) as a flour and for sheep grazers in its ability to withstand drought. Yam daisies (Microseris lanceolata) were once a staple food in Canberra for the Ngunnawal people, now rare or extinct in areas it once covered because of sheep.
The benefits of promoting the growth of native foods and native species and respecting and facilitating the leadership and millenia old custodianship of the land by traditional custodians has huge potential to benefit our community, as well increase resilience to environmental threats such as drought and climate change induced environmental risks. The strategy should include funding to adopt land management practices to reintroduce extinct species, control weeds and improve soil quality. Canberra is the Bush Capital with vast grassland habitats which should be utilised to its full potential as a food resource. Less than 10% of the grasslands in south-eastern Australia are in high ecological condition. Improving grasslands for harvesting native species will increase its ecological health and contribute to achieving net zero carbon emissions in production of food in Canberra.
More than ever it is important that genetic diversity is preserved for the future of food security with climate change and growing food that is adapted to Canberra’s climate. The strategy should focus on ways to store seeds and technology for seed processing. Creating ideal climate control for long term seed storage and laboratories that test germination and growing food that is ideal to grow in Canberra’s climate.
- Enabling younger generations and people from diverse cultural backgrounds to gain the skills and experience to generate new agricultural enterprises in the ACT
Enabling younger generations to gain skills and experience to generate agricultural enterprises begins with instilling values of sustainability and self-sufficient food production early on, through school kitchen garden and sustainability programs. Creating pathways for people who have been through these school programs would be a good start.
Enabling people from diverse cultural backgrounds requires community-building and recognition of differing needs and skills from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) communities. Understanding these differing needs would need to be done in consultation with different CALD community groups, migrant services and other multicultural groups, and may include things such as identification of food types grown, needs for growing these types of foods, interpreter services, translated agricultural educational resources, and support for different groups, e.g. a South East Asian food garden. Canberra Seed Savers strives to incorporate food seeds that are popular in diverse food cultures as part of our seed growing and saving.
Access to land is a crucial factor for both these groups of people. Just because Canberra has ample blocks of land does not mean these are accessible to all, and both young people and people from CALD backgrounds are more likely to be in insecure housing and therefore insecure land, particularly new migrants. Granting access to crown land for such gardens to flourish, or providing financial incentives for community groups to set up in urban and residential spaces could help to alleviate these issues and grow food in non-traditional settings, such as verges, parks, other peoples’ backyards, and schools. One great example of this is Patchwork Urban Farm, who network young urban farmers with homeowners who would like to see their land used. There are plenty of people in Canberra who would be well-placed to further build these networks with the right funding and infrastructure.
- What is the role of government?
We believe that the government has a strong role to play in helping to create the regulatory and cultural conditions that assist community organisations, producers and distributors to adopt and adapt to more sustainable food and fibre production. This may be in the form of creating regulatory constraints that push change – for example, the caged hen ban – or regulatory incentives that encourage change – for example, discounted fees and charges, land etc.
We would particularly encourage the ACT government to take urgent action to ban biocides to the greatest extent possible in order to support the protection of our remaining biodiversity of insect and animal species. Another important and powerful measure would be to provide financial and regulatory incentives for local producers who adopt good environmental stewardship practices, and encourage the involvement of these producers in ‘farmer-to-farmer’ exchanges to spread knowledge. In seeking to promote change, government has a role to assist those making the change to ensure that the costs borne by producers who do the ‘right thing’ does not put them at an economic disadvantage to others.
ACT Government could also play a very useful role in helping acquire infrastructure elements that are key to a local food system, but which can be beyond the means of individual or small scale producers or community groups, or need not be duplicated. For instance, cool storage facilities are expensive but vital for short term storage of food. Cool storage also lengthens the viability of many seeds. Seed processing equipment would also assist many small scale seed savers to share and trade their seeds.
You can’t build a local food system without a local seed system! Seeds are the foundation of plant life and play a huge part in creating locally-adapted, strong and resilient food system.
- Ideas and recommendations for inclusion in the Food and Fibre Strategy
In summary of our submission, below are some ideas for how we believe the ACT Government can best help to build a thriving urban agriculture sector which prioritises community wellbeing and environmental sustainability. All of our recommendations are premised on the importance of a local food and fibre system valuing, respecting and centering the leadership of local traditional custodians.
- Specifically in relation to seeds:
1.1 Acknowledge the key role of seeds and seed saving in the food system and acknowledge their importance in future discussions of the development of the Strategy
1.2 Promote use of local seeds and seedlings, as they are better adapted for local conditions and can be grown organically.
1.3 Provide financial and administrative support for the establishment of local seed saving groups and local seed banks
1.4 Provide financial and administrative support for community infrastructure required for seed saving including seed processing and organic treatment to ensure biosecurity control
1.5 Provide financial and administrative support for communities to establish seed gardens by facilitating access to land and water
1.6 Promote and support educational programs and opportunities that teach about seeds and seed saving
1.7 Continue to promote and support programs which connect people in community and with nature while teaching skills and building confidence in food growing and seed saving and expand the financial support available. For example our Seedlings for Community Program received a grant from ACT Government to get established.
- In relation to the broader local food and fibre system:
2.1 Support small-scale, decentralised urban farming enterprises similar to Patchwork Urban Farm as well as micro-farms and community garden market-gardening
2.2 Support for medium and high-density housing residents to garden and compost with rebates, education programs and small grants
2.3 Support for renters to garden and compost with rebates, education programs and small grants as well as legal protections
2.4 Provide financial incentives and training for people to start food connection + production businesses
2.5 Expand territory-wide food waste and garden waste composting and support home composting, particularly in apartment blocks
2.6 Support the community to create and run food hubs (e.g. Southern Harvest)
2.7 Provide infrastructure and access to land to support food hubs, community and market gardens and for education and training purposes. Canberra has big blocks as well as lots of available crown land and this potential could really be harnessed. this could be done with grey water systems, water tanks, soil-building initiatives, community + market garden spaces
2.8 help large organisations to support and/or sponsor the community, e.g. provide incentives for them to create partnerships, networking opportunities for example
2.9 Promote and model organic gardening through major events such as Floriade
2.10 Ban or severely restrict the use of all biocides including pesticides, insecticides and fungicides and promote Canberra as a clean, green city which prioritises biodiversity and ecological sustainability and has a thriving urban agriculture without sprays and poisons
2.11 Promote use of closed-loop self-sustaining systems i.e. grey water, nutrient cycling, composting, solar at a domestic and commercial scale through rebates, grants and education programs (and expanding existing programs such as the Sustainable Housing Scheme)
2.12 Create food connection opportunities within the urban environment – i.e. promote CSAs, harvest swaps, food hubs
Prepared by Canberra Seed Savers sub-comittee for Food and Fibre strategy, February 2022