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Canada won’t meet its UN Sustainable Development Goals, 2020 biodiversity targets unless it takes urgent action

By Martin Settle      

The good news is that some urgent action may be simple, such as supporting on-farm seed diversity.

Julie Gelfand, Canada's federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, pictured in Ottawa. The Hill Time photograph by Andrew Meade
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Canada will fail to meet both its UN Sustainable Development Goals and 2020 biodiversity targets unless it takes urgent action. That is the conclusion of Julie Gelfand, Canada’s federal commissioner of the environment and sustainable development, in two reports recently tabled in the House of Commons: “Canada’s Preparedness to Implement the United Nations’ Sustainable Development Goals” and “Conserving Biodiversity.” The good news is that some urgent action may be simple, such as supporting on-farm seed diversity.

In her report, Gelfand highlights that investing in sustainable agriculture and on-farm biodiversity are strategic ways for Canada to meet its ambitions for a “clean environment and a strong economy that leaves no one behind.” Gelfand specifically recommends that Canada review or develop indicators to better protect on-farm biodiversity. The international community agrees. Last month, the UN’s FAO Symposium concluded that investing in sustainable agriculture contributes to 15 of the 17 SDGs and also enhances biodiversity.

On-farm biodiversity starts with seed diversity. Crop biodiversity is rapidly vanishing. It shrank 75 per cent over the 20th century and the FAO predicts one-third of what is left could disappear by 2050. This tremendous loss of agricultural biodiversity exposes us to crop failure and food shortages in unpredictable and rapidly changing environments. We must reverse this trend, and quickly.

In recent years, Canada’s seed diversity efforts have primarily focused on off-farm conservation of key commodity crops. Both on-farm conservation and overall crop diversity have been overlooked. Canada must take serious measures to support on-farm seed conservation across the country, including funding for public research and breeding programs. Farmers must be at the centre of this work, because unlike wild biodiversity, agricultural biodiversity hinges on the people who grow and steward it.

Innovative on-farm seed conservation programs are already happening coast-to-coast-to-coast. These programs, led by farmers in partnership with non-profit organizations, are ready to be scaled-up, but they need public support.

The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, supported since 2013 by the W. Garfield Weston Foundation and delivered by USC Canada and Seeds of Diversity Canada is one such program. The Initiative works with a large number of Canadian seed breeders and farmers, as well as with over 90 non-profit groups, academics and others to conserve and diversify Canada’s seed supply. They’ve achieved great results.

Through the Seed Grow-out Program, the Initiative has engaged more than one hundred farmers—including many women, young farmers, and the leaders in heritage seed conservation—in saving, growing-out, bulking up, and adapting to their local conditions 499 different varieties of vegetable and herb seed. This project has also brought under-utilized and forgotten varieties back into production by connecting Plant Gene Resources of Canada (Canada’s seed bank) with farmers across the country, extending the benefits of Canada’s limited investments in agricultural diversity. While the many private partners remain enthusiastic and committed to this work, its long term impact would be secured by government funding/support.

Locally adapted seeds have the capacity to grow well without the use of synthetic chemical fertilizers and pesticides that can harm soil, water, and wild biodiversity. Locally adapted seeds can reduce the carbon intensity of agriculture. Locally adapted seeds open market potential for high-value sales to local food retailers, processors, and restaurants, and make farming a more attractive and viable living.

Investing in the multiple benefits of on-farm seed conservation programs would help Canada remain a leader in climate-smart agriculture, and maintain pace with initiatives elsewhere, such as the European Union’s recent investment of €7.5M in its Liveseed project.

The message from the commissioner’s report is clear: Canada must do more to meet its international obligations. Environment Minister Catherine McKenna, International Development Minister Marie-Claude Bibeau, and Fisheries Minister Dominic LeBlanc have all accepted her findings. The question is: will Canada join farmers and civil society in innovative, locally adapted programs that fight climate change and ensure healthy ecosystems, thriving communities, and a strong economy?

The farmers we work with are waiting and watching. And they are ready to help.

Martin Settle is executive director of USC Canada.

The Hill Times 

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