Jane Rabinowicz, Program Director, Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security

Growing up in Toronto, Canada, Jane Rabinowicz began her involvement in food security at an early age, working in community gardens and soup kitchens in her local community. For the past 20 years, she’s pursued her passion for food justice on a local and international scale. Now, living in Montreal, she works with the Bauta Initiative and USC Canada, both nationally and internationally, as the Program Director.

How did you begin your professional career?

When I moved to Montreal and went to McGill, I started volunteering with Santropol Roulant, as a way to get to know the city. They deliver meals by bike, all across the city; you see neighbourhoods that you never would’ve otherwise seen, going down hallways and you never know who’s going to open the door. For a lot of people, you may be the only person that they’re going to see in that day, so that interaction is really important. After I graduated from University, I decided that I wanted to work with this organization, Santropol Roulant. I went from being a volunteer, to an intern, to volunteer co-ordinator and then became an executive director, for the last five years that I was there. I feel like that was really my first love; it’s where I grew up, professionally.


As the Program Director, can you tell us a bit about the Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security at USC Canada and it’s significance in the food world?

USC Canada is an international cooperation organization, based in Canada, with fundraising, communications and administration that work with partners in eleven countries around the world on biodiversity, conservation, agro-ecology, and farmers rights. I was hired by USC Canada, four years-ago, to develop a program to do all of this work with Canadian farmers.  I have developed the program, the Bauta Initiative, and secured funding from the W.Garfield Weston Foundation to launch the seed security initiative three years-ago. A lot of people don’t think about seeds, or the only thing they think about seed is Monsanto and GMO’s. The fact is that, nine out of ten bites of food that we take per-day start with seed -- it’s the foundation of our food system. The vast majority of vegetables grown here in Canada, are grown from imported seed; there’s basically no vegetable seed that’s produced in Canada. The grains that we grow are bred for conventional farming with synthetic influence; they’re not biodiverse and they’re not bred for ecological agriculture. We’re in a context of narrowing biodiversity and we don’t believe that the current seed system is supportive of the type of food system, a resilient one, that we want to be a part of. The goal of the Bauta Initiative is to help build a better food system for Canada.


What is seed security?

Seed security is a resilient seed system. It has biodiversity; varieties of crops that are adapted to the local environment; varieties that are bred by farmers; farmers that have the right to grow, save, exchange and sell their varieties; and it’s ever evolving. You’ve got the production system, the environment, and the seed, all evolving at the same time in a continuous process and you’ve got varieties that are productive in organic farming system. Fundamentally, seed security is having enough seeds, of enough varieties, to know that we have the genetic materials that we need to draw on, as conditions of change in the field over time. This is especially important when we think about climate change. We think of biodiversity as a climate adaptation strategy.


Is this adaptation of plant species happening in ways that may be perceived as unnatural -- for example, what people might imagine when they think about “GMO’s”?

The idea of adapting seeds to changing climates is happening both naturally and unnaturally. I think that what reaches the public is this kind of romantic vision of heritage varieties and heirloom vegetables, but we’re also excited about developing new diversity. We work in partnerships with researchers and farmers to make crosses, using traditional breeding techniques, not genetic modification, to take, for example, great attributes from an old variety and the characteristics of a new variety, cross them, grow them in the farmers fields, and then the farmers select the traits that they like the most. One of our goals is to bridge the scientific expertise of researchers with the knowledge and reality of a farmer's system, to bring new diversity into the food system,  and to adapt to climate change. One of the reasons that people always talk about organic farms being not as productive as conventional farms -- which, by the way, isn't true -- is that organic farmers, for the most part, are planting seeds that are breed in conjunction with chemical inputs, so they’re not necessarily starting out with the materials that are most appropriate to their system. We’re breeding for organics, diversity, performance, flavour, nutrition -- all of these things.


What are the fundamental differences between organic plant breeding and GMO?

There are so many different types of plant breeding. There’s always that one extreme, where you’re in a lab and you’re distributing the seeds to farmers, as part of a package which also includes all of these chemicals. We have a participatory plant breeding program, in partnership with the University of Manitoba, Agriculture Canada, and ninety farmers across the country. The idea is to breed under the conditions that the crop will eventually be grown in, so we’re making the crosses, and they’re grown on organic farms where they’ll be selected for performance on organic farms. So, from the get go, there’s this idea of selecting in the environment in which the crop will eventually be grown.


And this whole process sort of demands the existence of regionally-based breeding.

Exactly, the whole notion of local adaptation is extremely important, especially, when we consider marginal growing environments such as, Cape Breton or Northern Manitoba, for example. Most farmers and producers want to eat the best, but if you’re a seed grower, you know to save the best and eat the rest. For years and years, if you keep selecting in your field the produce that ripens the latest, for example, over time, you’re going to change the genetics of those seeds as they co-evolve with that place and you will eventually end up with a whole field of produce that will ripen later because of the selection. We have partners in Honduras who have been doing this with beans. They had periods of the year where the food supply, in storage, would run out a few weeks before the new harvest was ready -- they called these the hunger periods -- but, through selection, they’ve shortened the hunger period by about three weeks, now.  Local adaptation is extremely powerful and important to maintaining food security.


In which ways can and should people show their support for seed security?

Starting with the awareness that most of the food we eat starts with a seed -- just making that connection is important. In order to save diversity, we have to eat diversity. The more that people are aware of the importance of seed, take an interest, and talk about it, the more awareness can build and support can grow for those of us who are really engaged in this work all-day, everyday. Eventually, we need to start supporting efforts to shift policy in a direction of being more supportive of biodiversity conservation, farmers’ rights and ecological agriculture, and I think that we may start to see more campaigns along those lines. Making a donation to organizations, such as USC Canada or others who are involved in supporting seed security, also makes a big difference.


Since starting your work in seed security, you’ve managed to remain heavily involved in your community-based work, in Montreal. For what reasons have you retained your commitment to your local work and what role does it play in your life?

I think you do what you’re passionate about, and all of the things that I do are based on relationships. For example, the Silver Dollar Foundation was something that I co-founded with a friend who I met while I was running Santropol Roulant. We launched this foundation to support organizations in investing in their space, as a means to further their mission and their work with their members. It’s like my baby; I love it and it’s all just emerged out of personal relationships. I guess I’m also just not good at giving stuff up, though! You can’t just keep on accumulating, of course, because then you’ll drive yourself crazy, but I do think you need to be anchored.


And, at the end of the day, do you feel like there’s a common thread between your work in both social and food justice?

Yeah, like I was saying earlier, what I do is a vocation, but at the same time, it’s so random that I choose to work in food, it could've been anything, really. I’ve worked on women’s rights, and Centraide is not focused on food either; that’s why I don’t think I’d describe myself as a food activist or something. It’s just that, part of life is the choices that you make proactively and part of it is what happens to you. I look at other organizations doing incredible things and I think that when you reduce any of this work down to it’s essence, it’s about love. You can relate this to anything.


What are you looking forward to sharing at this year’s Terroir Symposium?

I want to get people thinking about seed in a different way. I don’t think that people have had much exposure to these kinds of ideas, but I think that it makes sense to bring them now, because there is already such a growing amount of support for local food and for ecological agriculture. There’s a certain readiness and it’s time for seed. We can work with the breeders and the producers, but it won’t go anywhere if no-one eats what being bred, what’s being grown. That’s why we need to be opening the dialogue with chefs and consumers. We’re breeding oats, potatoes, maize and wheat and, because it can take between 7-10 years to develop a new variety, we’re only going to have enough material out of our breeding program to do our first real taste tests, this year. You can talk about this stuff but, ultimately, we need to taste it to develop a connection. It’s only now that we’re ready to share these new varieties, and I’m excited to start these conversations.