Fighting for the Future of Food: The Movement to Save Crop Biodiversity in Canada

A black krim tomato (with penny for scale). Photo by /Flickr

Amidst the sounds of trickling water from a nearby fountain and large, industrial fans creating a breeze for the colourful palette of flowers in his family’s large, commercial greenhouse, Shea Doherty talked tomatoes, in all their round, purplish-black, bruise-coloured glory.

When Doherty, whose family owns Our Farm Greenhouse, near the city of Portage la Prairie, Manitoba, talks tomatoes, he doesn’t just stick to the quintessential round, red fruit most of us see in television commercials or in fast food restaurants. He could be talking about any number of the dozens of varieties the greenhouse sells.

He described the Black Krim variety as looking like when you’ve had a bad bump.

“It looks like a bruise,” he explained, “like when you get a really bad bruise.”

Despite its appearance, Doherty said, the Black Krim variety has a slightly sweet taste to it.

Another tomato that doesn’t look like what most people have come to expect the fruit to look like is the Green tomato, a cherry variety that has a whitish green colour when it’s ripe. It has a really sweet flavour to it.

The Black Krim and Green varieties are what’s known as heritage (or heirloom) varieties, meaning they haven’t been altered by genetic engineering and turned into hybrids.

During its usual selling season for vegetable starters, which begins just before Mother’s Day each year, Our Farm Greenhouse sells over 70 different varieties of tomatoes.

But, just like how animal species decline in numbers and become endangered, some heritage varieties of tomatoes are at risk, too, Doherty warned.

Many of the seed suppliers Our Farm deals with have dropped both the Manitoba and Champion variety of tomatoes.

Those types of tomatoes are really only sold in Manitoba and the neighbouring province of Saskatchewan, Doherty said, which isn’t lucrative enough for the seed suppliers to keep them stocked.

“A lot of people just aren’t willing to try them,” he said of the heritage varieties.

People’s fear of trying the heritage varieties stems from years of conditioning, Doherty opined. As children, he noted, in the grocery store, most people will recall their parents and grandparents hunting for that perfectly round, red tomato to buy.

And similarly in advertising, he said, when fast food restaurants and grocery stores talk about fresh ingredients and produce, the tomatoes are invariably round and red.

This doesn’t bode well for the bruise-coloured Black Krim or the Ox Heart, which is usually folded in at the bottom and can kind of resemble a heart when it grows.

“When people have guests over for dinner, they just don’t want ugly tomatoes on the table,” Doherty said.

The greenhouse operator pointed to Heinz as an example, when it tried producing orange and purple ketchups several years ago from different types of tomatoes. The non-red ketchup quickly disappeared from grocery stores. Even he was a bit “weirded out” by the thought of orange and purple ketchup, Doherty admitted.

Heritage varieties of tomatoes are open pollinated, meaning they have to have the male and female plants present to reproduce. As these varieties become endangered, they are replaced with hybrid tomatoes and, to a lesser extent, genetically-modified tomatoes. Hybrid tomatoes, which are self-pollinating, as they have both male and female parts, are produced when two varieties of tomatoes are crossbred so characteristics of both varieties are present in the resulting offspring.

The varieties are often bred together to produce fruit with a prolonged shelf life for shipping or faster ripening for growing in short growing seasons.

The danger with creating hybrid plants is genetic diversity is lost, said Judy Newman, administrator with Seeds of Diversity (SOD), a Canadian charitable organization dedicated to the conservation, documentation and use of public-domain non-hybrid plants of Canadian significance.

“The heritage varieties provide us with the diversity of genetic material,” Newman pointed out.

Without that diversity, she said, catastrophes such as the Irish Potato Famine from 1845–52 can occur, where only one variety of crop is grown and can be wiped out by a single disease. The United States suffered through a similar incident with corn in the 1980s, she recalled.

“If there was diversity, of course,” Newman noted, “that wouldn’t have happened in the first place.”

As Doherty also pointed out, plant diversity is important because if one type of tomato is found to grow poorly in any given season’s weather conditions, another type of tomato can be grown instead, one that is suited to that weather.

In the sometimes wet weather conditions that southern Manitoba can experience, he said, the Manitoba and Brandy Wine tomato varieties would do well.

And, Doherty said, life would just be plain old boring if there was only one variety of tomato.

The genetic diversity of tomatoes and other vegetables and fruit has been steadily falling, though.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations compiled in 2019 and found that more than 6,000 plant species have been cultivated for food, but fewer than 200 make major contributions to food production globally, regionally or nationally, and just nine account for 66% of total crop production.

On the SOD website, it states that “75% of global food biodiversity has become extinct in the past 100 years; 60% of the remaining gene pool of crop plants is inadequately conserved and studied;” and “90% of the remaining gene pool of crop plants is not being used commercially.”

Furthermore, the website says: “Today, only a tiny fraction of Canada’s crop genetic diversity is available to farmers. Most varieties are forgotten and all but abandoned in seed banks. Of the 7,098 apple varieties documented as having been in use between 1804 and 1904, for instance, about 86% have been lost. Similarly, 95% of the cabbage, 91% of the field corn, 94% of the pea, and 81% of the tomato varieties no longer exist.”

Newman pointed to the industrialization of farming just after the Second World War when corporations got involved in the food industry, as a turning point for plant biodiversity.

“Once you put this kind of stuff in the profit system,” she lamented,” it’s all about money.”

The SOD website explains that a century ago, millions of gardeners and farmers maintained heritage varieties as part of traditional agricultural practices. But, people no longer do this, instead leaving it up to seed companies and gene banks to save heritage varieties. With only about 250 seed companies in all of North America and only a few governmental seed banks, saving heritage varieties has become much more difficult.

But, there is hope to save heritage varieties.

Doherty recalled several years ago when most seed distributors decided to stop carrying the aforementioned Ox Heart tomato seeds. Enough people voiced their displeasure with this decision, Doherty said, that seed distributors started carrying it again.

SOD is also doing its part with its , where SOD members from across the country can exchange heritage seeds, and its Canadian Seed Library, which boasts “a collection of over 2,900 regionally-adapted and rare seed varieties.”

The organization also has a number of other initiatives and publications aimed at preserving Canadian crop and plant biodiversity, like Community Seed Libraries, the Vegetable Seed Producers Network, and resources to help people start saving their own seeds.

Newman, who used to own a farm in Ontario, but has since moved into a town, says her favourite heritage variety of tomato is the Stupice.

“I like Stupice because it’s a northern-Canadian tomato,” she said.

Stupice tomatoes. Photo by /Flickr

As for Doherty, he prefers the Jubilee, which has a firm skin, but a fleshy inside and grows to about the size of a softball.

Our Farm Greenhouse sells both heritage and hybrid tomatoes at the nearby Portage Farmer’s Market and sells the plants at the greenhouse in southern Manitoba just off Highway 331, throughout the season. When people come and ask for a specific hybrid variety of tomato, Doherty said, he always tries to steer them in the direction of the heritage varieties.

“After they’ve tried it, I find they start coming back for the heritage,” he explained.

For more information about Seeds of Diversity, visit .

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Rob Swystun

Rob Swystun

I strongly believe that business communication is still human communication and businesses should connect with people, not Google algorithms.

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