Fighting Scarcity One Seed at a Time

The Plant Collective

Photo Credit: The Plant Collective/Marcus Jolly

Claire Gendron, Emma Kohl, and Annah MacKay spend a lot of their meetings discussing how to fight what they call artificial scarcity; the irony is that they often have to postpone meetings due to a lack of time.

“It is forced prioritization,” Kohl explains from across the table.

“Challenge number one is trying to create an accessible project while still existing in the current system, where we have to pay rent and feed ourselves,” MacKay clarifies. But the bigger issue extends beyond busy schedules. It is about accessibility in general, she continues.

“Capitalism functions on the practice of inaccessibility and necessitates scarcity,” Kohl adds.

The three friends founded the Plant Collective, a local community organization that supports the growth and preservation of plants and fungi for food, medicine, bioremediation, and art. They ground their practices in the belief that plants and plant-based knowledge are integral elements to social change at large.

A scarcity of resources – time, space, food, land, housing – inherent in any urban economy, affects the living practices of everyone.

Under the tide of a recent municipal election campaign, Vancouver residents were struck with the reality that there is increasingly less space to live a sustainable life.

On housing, which was arguably the campaign’s defining issue, competing parties grappled with a problem for which there is no easy remedy: how to accommodate the presently underhoused and an expected population influx in the coming years without resorting primarily to more high-rise living units. Such high-rises will increase what are already notoriously unaffordable property and rental prices, and upset neighbourhood groups.

Former city councillor Gordon Price even sympathized with the current administration. “We had the luxury of not having to deal with this [in the past],” he said. “We could put growth in the industrial lands.”

“That option,” The Tyee remarks bluntly, “is no longer available.”

Vancouver is already Canada’s most densely populated Canadian city, and neighbourhoods overburdened with underprivileged citizens are struggling to accommodate everyone.

As of 2013, Vancouver had less than 100 community gardens and 10 farmers markets. By correlation, over 10% of British Columbia residents reported, in 2007, regular household food insecurity, referring to accessibility to healthy and culturally appropriate food.

Thus a trend emerges of forced inaccessibility, which affects our bodies in specific ways and challenges social-change efforts.

“A plot of land would be great, with an experimental garden and an indoor space with a kitchen,” Gendron continues.

“Or a community-education hub,” Kohl adds. But it is just not possible given our current landscape, “so we focus on the resources that are already there to promote skills that do not require mastery. We foster respect and symbiotic relationships, not total control over the plants and their natural processes.”

The Plant Collective recently had built a mobile seed-saving workshop cart. The idea is that if gardening spaces and opportunities for food autonomy are both limited, bring them to people instead.

“It has a built-in seed library, with instructions and tools for saving seed,” says Gendron.

Seed preservation is really important, adds Kohl. “It strengthens plant integrity and increases biodiversity,” essential for sustainable communities if they are to rely on local food.

“And you cannot preserve seeds from genetically modified organisms,” Gendron explains.

Which is silly, MacKay says, because mullein, for example, “can produce millions of seeds in the long-run.”

Most commercial vegetables are grown from seeds originating from companies like Monsanto, a multinational agricultural company that produces genetically modified plant seeds, who are almost single-handedly compromising the ability of food markets and farmers to diversify local food systems.

Especially after their highly publicized Supreme Court victory in the United States last year against an Indiana farmer concerning patent violation, Monsanto’s near-ubiquitous stranglehold on controlling seeds, the foundation of the world’s food supply, has been heavily controversial.

And you do not need an environmentalist around to suggest that if you control seeds, you can control life.

This is why we focus on community building, Kohl explains. “Within communities, the knowledge of growing food has been passed down for generations, so it is possible for us to reclaim this knowledge.”

“And it demonetizes life practices,” MacKay adds.

The Plant Collective also works towards strengthening their communities by partnering with other local organizations for events and tutorials. They collaborated with Rising Tide, an environmentalist group, to participate in the recent Party Against the Pipeline protest, where they set up an outdoor seedball-making workshop.

They are also in talks with housing organizations in the Downtown Eastside to potentially host gardening workshops for single-room occupancy buildings.

“We want to promote a healthier, more caring, more sustainable society,” says Kohl. “Ultimately, the system in which we function works against a culture of accessibility.”

“And really, what is scarce about a million seeds?” MacKay asks.