Food – Agricultural Biodiversity

OBEC organizes a public workshop on individual Themes of Sustainability to gather information on issues or opportunities, and identify possible actions.

In April 2011, 52 people attended a workshop on Agricultural Biodiversity at 430 Churchill Ave.


  • educate people on the importance of Agricultural Biodiversity

This was addressed through presentations by speakers representing local, national and international activities promoting Agricultural Biodiversity.


  • Learn how we can conserve it locally
  • Develop a methodology to conserve Agricultural Biodiversity and share with other cities

These were addressed by table discussions and a plenary to capture the ideas of all participants. The initiative continued with the formation of a working group to carry out recommendations of the workshop.

Jim Birtch, the project leader, facilitated the presentations and discussions.

Agricultural Biodiversity is the genetic variation of plants and animals that developed over thousands of years


Agricultural Biodiversity. Food and Agricultural Organization.

Agricultural Biodiversity is the genetic variation of plants and animals. It developed over thousands of years as farmers carefully selected seeds and bred livestock that thrived in their local areas.


Local differences in climate, soil, diseases and farming methods led to incredible variety. They produced agricultural plants and animals suited to every agricultural area on Earth.

Importance of agricultural biodiversity for humanity’s future

Ancient maize in Mexico. Photo: Crop Science Vol. 57

Agricultural Biodiversity is very important for humanity’s future. It is a huge genetic bank of food types, and its existence can help humanity adapt to major changes and threats. Ultimately, having plants and animals that permit agriculture to adapt to different conditions – warmer, drier, wetter, colder – or to different soils and to various diseases, can ensure people’s survival. For example, experiments have shown that fields planted with several older varieties of crops were untouched by diseases that ravaged the newer varieties of those crops in the same regions.


The financial benefits of Agricultural Biodiversity are surprising too. For example, researchers in the Sierra de Manatlán Biosphere Reserve in Mexico found a type of wild maize (corn) that was resistant to many modern crop diseases. Cross-breeding this plant with commercial corn in the United States, in the 1970’s, prevented crop losses of over $4 billion. Yet in many areas of the world, the value of Agricultural Biodiversity cannot be calculated, because the survival of local food simply allows people to live.


Three-quarters of the world’s agricultural biodiversity have been lost

Three-quarters of the world’s agricultural biodiversity have been lost in the past hundred years. The main reasons are:

  • Farmers worldwide using a few highly productive types of plants and animals are letting the old varieties disappear;
  • Loss of traditional agricultural lands for development.

There is a real opportunity to conserve our remaining Agricultural Biodiversity

Yet there is a real opportunity to conserve remaining Agricultural Biodiversity for several reasons:

  • In 2010, Global Crop Diversity Trust began collecting wild relatives of food crops
  • Sustainable Food movements are educating people about Agricultural Biodiversity
  • Heritage fruit and vegetables are becoming popular because of their superior taste
  • International NGOs are promoting Agricultural Biodiversity in regional development
  • Communication among agricultural producers and consumers is increasing

Agricultural Biodiversity is a potential area for urban-rural cooperation in a Biosphere Eco-City.


Panel presentation. Photo: E. Nadolny


Faris Ahmed spoke as Director of Policy at USC Canada. His work was to strengthen agricultural biodiversity and food sovereignty policies, in Canada and internationally. Faris explained Agricultural Biodiversity and linked it to:

  • Improved nutrition
  • Prevention of disease
  • Food security
  • Adapting to changing growing conditions.

Improved nutrition

When farmers in South America or Africa use traditional agricultural practices, they produce a combination of foods that will meet their nutritional needs. In contrast to this, poor farmers who grow commercial crops for export keep little of what they are growing. Those farmers may therefore not have enough protein and other essential nutrients in their diets. We can support good nutrition in a region by maintaining heritage crops and animals.

Traditional crops and species diversity are effective at resisting disease.

Prevention of disease

Species diversity in plants is a defense against plant diseases and even against some insects. There are many varieties that can resist those natural threats to their health. Farmers who plant a variety of seeds can ensure that much of their crop will survive. USC Canada’s work overseas has shown that maintaining traditional crops and promoting species diversity are effective at resisting disease. Traditional agriculture also supports human health, because it does not rely on the herbicides and pesticides that threaten the health of farmers.

By saving and trading seeds, farmers keep their farms productive

Food security

Potato varieties in Peru. Photo: USC

When farmers save seeds and breed their own animals, they have control over what they grow and raise. They are not dependent on money from farm sales to finance the next growing season. So they can always have something in and on the ground. More than that, by breeding seeds they are constantly improving what they plant. This keeps their farms productive and permits them to feed their families.


Farmers know which crops and seeds work well in different growing conditions

Adapting to changing growing conditions

In local areas, farmers have knowledge of which crops and seeds work well for different growing conditions. For example, if they have a variety that resists drought, they can plant more of it when the climate becomes warmer and drier. At the same time, traditional farmers are continually breeding seeds and trading seeds with other farmers in the region. This further allows them to adapt to changes in growing conditions.

Most sustainable farms are smaller in size. Yet productivity of small farms is generally higher than that of large farms, on several continents. This is partly due to better integration of inputs and outputs. But it also can reflect greater Agricultural Biodiversity in small traditional farms.


Dr. Allan Grunder spoke as the Past Chair of the Eastern Ontario Chapter of Rare Breeds Canada, which has more than 300 members nationally. He explained the importance of maintaining breeds and how his organization involves Canadians in conserving endangered breeds of farm livestock and poultry.

From 2001 to 2007, 62 breeds became extinct. This represents 62 types of farm animals that had supplied human needs for centuries. The genetic diversity in them has been lost.

Success stories: the Newfoundland Pony, pink Hungarian Chicken, and others

Yet there are success stories. The Newfoundland Pony – a semi-wild animal that people would recruit for farm work for specific jobs and then let them roam free – disappeared from Newfoundland, yet was conserved by Rare Breeds in Ontario. As well, the pink Hungarian chicken had disappeared in its native country but still existed on a farm near Perth, Ontario.

Alan described activities Rare Breeds used for conservation of heritage animals:

1. Support individual efforts

  • Use magazines and local meetings to connect members and pass on tips
  • Organizing farm visits to view members efforts
  • Help farmers keep small flocks
  • Assist farmers to find breeding stock

Rare Breeds helps to market products such as wool from heritage sheep

2. Conserve previous commercial breeds

Chantecler Chicken. Photo: Rare Breeds.

  • Identify commercial breeds that have existed in Canada for 50 years or more
  • Encourage keeping of endangered breeds such as Tamworth Pigs, and Barred Plymouth Rock Chicken
  • Help to marked products such as wool from heritage sheep
  • Supporting soaring demand for Canada’s only native breed of chicken, the Chantecler

3. Rescue endangered breeds

  • Find homes for endangered Canadian breeds such as the Lac La Croix Indian Pony
  • Help farmers to breed their endangered animals
  • Research farms keeping original strains of cattle or poultry
  • Exchange breeding stock with other countries to keep them viable

Rare Breeds publicizes the disease resistance of certain breeds

4. Educate Public

  • Explain how many breeds have been pushed aside by modern genetics
  • Publicize the disease resistance of certain breeds
  • Explain hardiness of some breeds, such as Highland cattle
  • Maintain booths at fairs, farm shows, and Organic Growers meetings


Colin Lundy spoke as the Outreach Coordinator for Canadian Organic Growers. He discussed how organic farming supports Agricultural Biodiversity. His main points were:

1. Organic Standards Increase Sustainability

  • Conversion to organic restores agro-ecosystems that greatly increase yields
  • Organic mulching increases water infiltration and reduces evaporation
  • Organic systems use diverse planting that keeps agricultural systems stable
  • Organic farms produce all their needs, reducing external inputs and waste
  • Pollinators (e.g. bees) thrive in an organic system

Recycling organic material supports beneficial soil organisms

2. Soil Biodiversity is Key

  • Composting of agricultural waste maintains soil health
  • Recycling organic material supports beneficial soil organisms
  • Crop rotation supports beneficial insects and wildlife that protect crops
  • Hay and pastures support countless animal species
  • Rotation increases organic matter and improves water management

3. Buffer Zones Protect Biodiversity

  • Trees, shrubs and wild areas protect organic land from drifting chemicals
  • They provide habitat for predatory insects (that eat harmful bugs), pollinators and useful animals

Having many organic varieties increases agricultural resilience in changing conditions.

4. Organic Farming Promotes Resilience

Question to an organic grower. Photo: L. Nadolny

  • Plants that do not depend on chemicals can survive through hard times
  • Having many organic varieties increases Agricultural resilience in changing conditions
  • Organic farming often uses old varieties which provide a base upon which new breeds are developed


Rebecca Last, a member of Master Gardeners of Ottawa Carleton, discussed how:

  • Gardeners can foster biodiversity
  • Very small city gardens can make a difference
  • Older gardens may contain varieties and species thought to be extinct

Native plants will support native insects and birds that feed on them.

Gardeners can foster biodiversity

  • Research on home gardens has found higher genetic diversity than in gene banks
  • Home gardens are multi-functional and this may support biodiversity
  • Native plants will support native insects and the birds that feed on them
  • Stratified plantings can increase biodiversity
  • Mulch soil to maintain the diversity of soil organisms

Urban gardens help sustain pollinating insects

Very small city gardens can make a difference

  • Urban gardens help sustain pollinating insects

    A wildlife-friendly garden going into winter. Photo: R. Last

  • Ornamental plants or berries in vegetable gardens attract pollinators and birds
  • Plant diversity supports more threatened and endangered species
  • Maintain heritage fruit and vegetables
  • Support production of organic and heirloom seeds
  • A wildlife-friendly garden going into winter contains: leaf litter to protect over-wintering insects, birdhouses for shelter, and suet for a calorie-rich feed for migrating birds (see photo, below)

Older gardens may contain varieties and species thought to be extinct

  • Wild species may survive in gardens when their natural habitat disappears
  • Old farmers are keepers of unique varieties passed on through generations
  • Trees in orchards may come from a chain of grafting hundreds of years old
  • Rare fruit trees and related species, such as lichens and mycorrhizae, may be discovered in old orchards


By sharing the financial investment in agricultural products, both producers and consumers benefit, and agricultural biodiversity may be maintained.

Community Supported Agriculture. Photo: Edible Ottawa.

Robert Oechsli is co-owner of Alpenblik Farm near Ashton Ontario. He explained Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) as a marketing system that supports small farms. In this system, a consumer will purchase a share in a farm at the start of the growing season. By selling a number of shares, the farmer can cover their production costs. The subscribers (share purchasers) then receive a weekly or bi-weekly box of products through the growing season. This box may include heritage crops and meats. So by sharing the financial investment in agricultural products, both producers and consumers benefit, and agricultural biodiversity may be maintained.


Alpenblik Farm has been fully organic since 1974. It uses natural grass pasture for all its livestock. This produces much healthier food with high levels of Omega 3 fatty acids. It also completely eliminates toxic waste in the soil and water.

CSA subscribers are encouraged to visit Alpenblik Farm to view its operation. But so are the general public and school groups. Children, in particular, enjoy the tame animals and old log buildings on the farm.

Direct shipping is ideal for heritage fruits and vegetables, which usually have superior flavor and texture.

Ottawa CSA can direct consumers to a large number of farms in the region. Also, to make it easy for CSA subscribers, there are many drop-off points throughout Ottawa where they may pick up their farm products through the summer and fall. This direct shipping is ideal for heritage fruits and vegetables, which usually have superior flavor and texture, but cannot tolerate the time delays and handling that are normal for grocery stores.


George Wright grows many types of organic grains at Castor River Farm near Metcalfe, Ontario. He sells these at the Ottawa Farmers’ Market. There you can find him grinding wheat, oats, or rye etc. for shoppers. George explained that grinding just before use maintains nutrition in the grains. He noted, for example, that wheat flour loses 40% or its vitamins within a day of milling, and 90% within three days. His customers take their freshly ground flour home for baking that day and put unused amounts in the freezer.

At the market, people can find a tremendous variety of products at affordable prices.

Oats for granola or porridge. Photo: Castor River Farm.

The Ottawa farmers’ market has 100 vendors. They bring their products to market at optimum times and transport them with care. So they can sell products that may be too delicate to ship to a store. As well, customers at the market often look for something a bit exotic. Both these conditions support the marketing of heritage farm products, which may be more difficult to ship and more expensive to produce. But at the market, where producers sell directly to consumers, people can find a tremendous variety of products at affordable prices. The proportion of agricultural diversity installs at the Ottawa Farmers’ Market is high.


George told a story of driving back from the American mid-west with some old farm equipment he had purchased. All he saw for hundreds of miles was corn and soybeans – the staple of modern American agriculture. Then he arrived in Ottawa where the rural area has great diversity in its farms. He is happy to live here.


Working to save Canada’s plants, seeds, and pollinators

Bob Wildfong, spoke as Executive Director of Seeds of Diversity Canada. This organization of farmers and gardeners is working to save Canada’s agricultural plants, seeds, and pollinators. Bob talked about: seed saving and testing, the importance of growing heritage varieties, and roles that individuals, governments, and businesses can play. He noted that other efforts on agricultural biodiversity are going on around the country, but this was the best public workshop he has seen so far.

Seed Saving and Testing

The most important reasons for saving seeds are:

Photo: Seeds of Diversity.

  • Control your seed (and food) supply,
  • Keep plants adapted to your area,
  • Maintain quality by selecting the best seeds,
  • Preserve biodiversity
  • Create new varieties,
  • Grow what tastes good to you.

Bob recommends that gardeners and growers test their harvest for a year or two until they feel that their saved seeds are of good quality. Then they can share them. Members of Seeds of Diversity share seeds through a catalog of over 2000 varieties.

Growing Heritage Varieties

There are many reasons why people grow heritage varieties of fruits, vegetables, and grains:

  • They usually taste better;
  • They are adapted to local conditions;
  • They may resist certain diseases and insects;
  • They do not require the pesticides needed to support modern plants;
  • They thrive in organic farms
  • They cost less in the long run

We need a simple methodology to help stakeholders develop agricultural biodiversity together

Roles for Individuals, governments, and businesses

Bob noted that people and organizations can support collecting and conserving seeds. This is important. But we need to move beyond that too. We need to fill the gap between the seed bank, and the gardeners and growers. We need cooperation and coordination. The goal of this workshop – to move towards the development of a simple methodology to help stakeholders develop agricultural biodiversity together – is worthwhile.


Alpenblik and Credible Edibles. Photo: E. Nadolny

Participants spent 45 minutes in six table discussions that developed the recommendations listed next.





1. Evaluate heritage seeds in seed banks (and grow them out to regenerate)

  • on Agriculture Canada Lands
  • on Foster Farms

2. Organize Foster Farms for heritage crops and animals

3. Create mini experimental farms for agricultural biodiversity

  • performance under different conditions with a standardized method of recording

Develop web protocols to assist gardeners to inventory their biodiversity


1. Get people to convert lawns to gardens for heritage vegetables

2. Inventory heritage plants through gardening organizations

  • develop web protocols to assist gardeners to inventory their biodiversity
  • organize through community gardens, garden groups etc.


  1. Get TV Ontario to run a competition for Canada’s most agriculturally bio-diverse city
  2. Put agricultural biodiversity projects on Ottawa Biosphere Eco-City’s database
  3. Conserve heritage plants in University of Ottawa’s Rooftop garden
  4. Demonstrate how to resolve challenges to biodiverse small-scale agriculture

Develop branding for agricultural biodiversity

Link to Economic Development

  1. Facilitate a sales venue for agricultural biodiversity (e.g. heritage apple market)
  2. Develop branding (such as Germans used to protect heritage sheep and soft fruits)
  3. Use Ottawa’s BIAs (Business Improvement Areas) for agricultural biodiversity
  4. Persuade universities to use local heritage farm products in cafeterias



  1. Improve shipping and marketing infrastructure to support local farmers
  2. Create Cooperative of farmers and consumers
  3. Foster urban CSAs (community supported agriculture)


  1. Encourage people to develop victory gardens
  2. Create more community gardens
  3. Get NCC to release Green Belt lands for gardens
  4. Do guerilla gardening of unused lands and ditches
  5. Increase social justice by giving people gardening skills
  6. Promote chickens in city gardens (for rare breeds)

Create a sense of place through urban farming & gardening


Networking in refreshment break. Photo: E. Nadolny

  1. Create a sense of place through urban farming & gardening
  2. Create neighborhood small groups for sustainability
  3. Mobilize community associations for sustainability


1. Build on existing networks

  • Oxfam Canada

2. Link to networks of heritage conservers

  • Seeds of Diversity
  • USC Canada
  • International Youth Accord on Biodiversity
  • Canadian Biodiversity Institute

3. Create an online or email-based discussion group on agricultural biodiversity

4. Partner with the sustainability coordinator at the University of Ottawa

5. Exchange information with Agriculture Canada

6. Link youth to retired scientists

7. Help consumers meet farmers


Train and mentor people on heritage crops and breeds


Information display. Photo: E. Nadolny

1. Educate consumers, property owners and public (a role for TV Ontario and Télévision française de l’Ontario ):


  • where food comes from
  • the true cost of food
  • agricultural biodiversity
  • what organic means
  • Small plot intensive (SPIN) vegetable gardening

2. Train and mentor people on heritage crops and breeds:

  • young people
  • schools
  • young farmers
  • second career farmers
  • immigrants

3. Involve universities, regular colleges and agricultural colleges in agricultural biodiversity



  1. People’s Food Policy For Canada
  2. Canadian Federation of Agriculture National Food Strategy


Participants now understood the importance of Agricultural Biodiversity and how to conserve it

The workshop met its first goal:

  • Understand the importance of Agricultural Biodiversity

It made progress on its second goal:

  • Learn how we can conserve it locally


To continue the work, 26 people volunteered to be part of a working group to carry workshop recommendations forward. Meetings were held on 15 June and 7 November 2011. The following action items were identified:

  • Develop a network for Ottawa (urban & rural) but allow nearby people to join
  • Contact key people to discuss the idea of Foster Farms
  • Develop a relationship with Savour Ottawa
  • Consider developing a brand for Agricultural Biodiversity
  • Ask Just Food about adding agricultural biodiversity to the Local Food Guide
  • Ask Algonquin College’s Horticulture Program to create an Ottawa agricultural biodiversity database

After two meetings, however, it was realized that none of the participants had the time to manage this project, even though the need was clear.

We still need a methodology to conserve Agricultural Biodiversity. Would you or your organization like to develop it?

So the third goal of the project is still to be met:

  • Develop a methodology to conserve Agricultural Biodiversity and share with other cities

Follow-up now will require either:

  • A team of enthusiastic volunteers within OBEC to complete the project, or
  • another organization to carry it forward.

If interested in this task, please contact