Sustainable Food Systems and Food Security

Graduate Student Paper

Seeds for Food Security and Sustainability at KPU

Emily Burkholder and Mary Tress
SFSS 6110 - Environment and Food Systems (Instructor: Michael Bomford)
December 2021


Food security at KPU requires that all our community members have access to healthy, safe, and appropriate food. The KPU Seed Library offers opportunities to “increase community member’s engagement with our food system and overall level of self-sufficiency” (Richmond Food Security Society, 2021), aligning with KPU's commitment to “add value by contributing to the social, economic and cultural life of our region and beyond” (KPU, 2018). Through the KPU Seed Library, faculty members, staff, students, and community members can foster “community building and boost local knowledge" (Dean, 2018). 

Seeds are the foundation of our food system because they hold the power to grow food for coming years. Seed diversity is recognized as a critical component of global food security, and there are multiple approaches to the conservation of seed diversity for a food-secure future (Commission on Genetic Resources for Food and Agriculture, 2012). Seed banks such as the Svalbard Seed Vault offer long-term cold-storage of seeds off-farm (Crop Trust, 2015), while another method of seed conservation takes place in farmers' hands as they select and save seed for the following season. Yet another type of seed conservation takes shape in seed libraries: community-focused organizations centered around seed access for food gardening.

Like true libraries, a seed library typically has seeds available for members to “borrow” free of charge to grow food for themselves. In addition, seed libraries often have helpful resources for local gardeners, and organize educational events and seed swaps (Soleri, 2018). This diverse programing provides an opportunity for growers of all abilities to develop skills in gardening and seed-saving, to share experiences and to forge community connections (Dean, 2018). By facilitating food access and personal connections to food, seed libraries have the potential to foster personal connections to the role of seeds in agriculture, and critical engagement in the food system.

Agricultural seed production is connected to two significant biodiversity issues globally: declining crop genetic diversity and diminishing global wild biodiversity. First, declining global crop diversity has significant consequences for human nutrition. Current global agricultural production is sufficient to meet human caloric needs, but most of those calories come from relatively few crops including include grains, oilseeds, and sugar (IPBES, 2019). While global production of these staples provides sufficient calories, notably insufficient are nuts, fruits, and vegetables that provide the nutritional diversity needed for a healthy low-risk diet  (Khoury et al., 2014).

The increasing homogeneity of food crops globally also represents a loss of crop genetic diversity that puts future food security at risk. The genetic diversity in food crops and agro-ecosystems is a critical tool for adapting food crops to climate change (Dwivedi et al., 2013). For the narrowing selection of staple crops, maintaining genetic diversity remains a priority in order to provide genetic material for future climate-resilient crops (Crop Trust, 2015).  

In addition to the decreasing global crop diversity, wild species biodiversity decline is also worsened by conventional agricultural production. Land use change, for example converting a diverse grassland or forest into intensively cultivated agricultural production, is a major driver of biodiversity loss (IBPES, 2019).  

To consider community seed programs in this global context, the scope of a seed library is ostensibly small. Producing vegetables in an urban environment has no immediate effect on the environmental impact of the agricultural practices used to produce most of a person’s food, namely their grains and oilseeds. However, growing small-scale vegetables in an urban environment represents a significant opportunity to increase dietary diversity, to support biodiversity in urban areas, and to enable community members to learn about and engage with the greater food and seed systems.

The resources available at seed libraries for local gardeners do help foster a sense of community. Libraries globally have been a center for connecting and learning for local people. Seed libraries are no different in their opportunity to educate and connect local communities around the importance of seed, the process of saving seed, and how to strengthen our food systems. These libraries are often created to go further than traditional libraries and address issues that are a part of the overall food movement (Soleri, 2018). Seed libraries have an integral role in higher education as they create new educational opportunities for the community.

While seed libraries offer important resources within their communities, one challenge these organizations face is maintaining a supply of viable and high-quality seeds to share (Soleri 2018, p. 339). There are many plants from which a gardener can easily save viable seeds to use next year or to “return” to the seed library as a donation. However, many plants require more specific growing conditions in order to yield seeds that are “true to type.” One such requirement is maintaining the required “isolation distance” between plant varieties of the same plant species, a technique which can be difficult for new growers (Brinkerhoff, 2021). Many people “borrowing” seed from a library are learning to grow food. They may have great success learning to grow food at home, even if they are not able to save seeds from all their plants to “return” to the library.

Not all seed libraries require members to "return" seeds at the end of the growing season, but a supply of high-quality true-to-type seeds is required for continued library operations. This challenge doesn’t need to be seen as a paradoxical problem for seed libraries. Rather it presents an opportunity for collaboration between community members, academia, and local growers (Dean, 2018). Seeds are abundant by nature, and we can take the spirit of their abundance into seed work to ensure that community-centered seed libraries are supported in providing resources, connection, and seeds to people growing food.

KPU’s Seed Library is one of several seed libraries and seed programs in the Lower Mainland of British Columbia. FarmFolk CityFolk is a non-profit organization with a BC Seed Security Program that works to “support both farmers and home gardeners to build a resilient seed supply” (FarmFolk CityFolk, 2021). Some of their programs include Seed Saving 101 or Variety Tasting Events. These programs involve knowledge sharing of seed saving and the availability of produce across BC (FarmFolk CityFolk, 2021). The Richmond Community Seed Library and the North Vancouver City Library also hold regular events to foster community. In addition to local organizations, regional schools like BCIT and UBC also have seed libraries. 

Current context and challenges

Many members of the KPU community engage in seed-saving or seed work in some way, including students, faculty, and staff. Three campus organizations offer leadership and direct involvement in seed work on campus; discussed here are the KPU Seed Lab, the Seed Library, and the Richmond campus farm at the Garden City Lands.

The KPU Seed Lab is a research-grade laboratory with capacity to process agricultural seeds through the stages of cleaning and germination-testing (Dr. R. Harbut, KPU Dept. of Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems, pers. comm., October 25, 2021). The intention of the laboratory and the associated KPU Seed Program is to support British Columbia farms with post-harvest seed processing, and to promote high-quality agricultural seed production in the province (FarmFolk CityFolk, 2021). The Seed Lab is housed at the KPU Richmond campus, and it engages the province’s farmers, as well as students enrolled in relevant science courses or conducting research.

Another party involved in seed work on campus is the KPU Seed Library. The Seed Library is a community-centered program, focused on providing freely available open-pollinated food seeds to community members and sharing educational resources related to gardening and seed-saving (Brinkerhoff, 2021). Community members who access the Seed Library include the KPU student body, but it is not limited to students, and includes local members of the public beyond the university (C. Brinkerhoff, KPU Library, pers. comm., October 20, 2021). 

The KPU Seed Library provides seeds and helpful learning resources to support personal skill development around food gardening and food security. Even with these supports, access to suitable garden space remains a significant factor limiting urban food production, and at KPU, available on-campus garden plots may not be suitable for students who are away from the school during the summer months (Dr. M. Bomford, KPU Dept. of Sustainable Agriculture & Food Systems, pers. comm., December 10, 2021). Notably, the seeds most commonly borrowed from the KPU Seed Library are for vegetables that can be grown in containers and in partial sun, springing from students’ desire to grow food in small balcony or window spaces (C. Brinkerhoff, KPU Library, pers. comm., October 20, 2021). This indicates students’ interest in growing and learning about food, even with limited access to land on which to garden. Here, the Seed Library presents an opportunity for students to learn about and critically engage with food and seed systems. The common challenge of maintaining seed quality while sharing seeds and accepting donations from gardeners, as discussed in the Introduction, is also a challenge at the KPU Seed Library.

Finally, the Richmond campus farm at the Garden City Lands engages in important seed work as well by participating in plant varietal trials, such as the participatory plant breeding radicchio trial (The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security, 2021). The campus farm is an organic research and training farm, whose work engages faculty, students, and staff (Kwantlen Polytechnic University, 2021).

The interrelation of the three campus parties involved in seed work is especially important to the current context of seed work at KPU. While the Richmond campus farm, the KPU Seed Library, and the KPU Seed Lab all engage in critical seed work, each organization approaches its work with a different focus, engages different community members in its work, and offers a different educational experience to participants. There are already some strong connections between some parties, for example, the Seed Lab and Richmond Campus farm are both housed within the Institute for Sustainable Food Systems with a strongly connected faculty engaged in both projects. However, there is an opportunity to strengthen connections between all parties engaged in seed work at KPU.

Of particular importance to community-centered learning is the Seed Library itself. The current context and challenges of KPU’s Seed Library equate to multiple other community-driven libraries around the world. The community engagement programs of KPU’s Seed Library have been a victim of the COVID-19 pandemic. This section will be used to highlight the potential the Seed Library has in community engagement based on their pre-COVID programming. A club of Horticulture students, called CoHORT previously worked with the Seed Library to hold events around seed saving, cleaning, and other local food issues. The group would team up with the library to grow seedlings and sell them to the community (M. Valana, KPU School of Horticulture, pers comm, November 25, 2021). Pre-COVID, produce they grew was sold to KPU employees, local residents from the community, and students. “Unfortunately, this is no longer happening” (G. Jones, KPU School of Horticulture, pers comm, November 24, 2021). A community was built around this production. It was often community members from inside and outside of KPU who supported the Seed Library programming (C. Brinkerhoff, KPU library, pers comm, November 23, 2021). Despite staff’s willingness to resume programming, COVID-19’s impact and the disbanding of the CoHORT club puts a lot of the burden onto the library staff. 

This magnitude of workload within the Seed Library has also presented itself as a problem, even before the pandemic. The Seed Library is not set up for longer-term succession planning (C. Brinkerhoff, KPU Library, pers comm, November 23, 2021). There is a high turnover of students, as their studies are only for a few short years, which makes it difficult for staff to retain volunteers. The Seed Library at KPU came as a suggestion from a local farmer and has since been set up and run by Celia Brinkerhoff, with the support of students. Without Celia’s investment of time and resources, the Seed Library would have never gone past a nice conversation. Celia is the rock and driver of the KPU Seed Library (G. Jones, KPU School of Horticulture, pers comm, November 24, 2021). This library, because of its potential for community engagement, needs the support of committed volunteers for its success. 


KPU has a network of organizations engaging in seed work, including the Seed Library, the Seed Lab, and the Richmond Campus Farm at the Garden City Lands. These parties approach seed work in different ways and collectively contribute to the food and sustainability educational work of KPU, and to campus life and food security. Based on a review of the current context and challenges within the system of seed work at KPU, the following recommendations have been developed. 

To continue to support and improve the interrelated network of seed organizations at KPU, and to foster a campus community that is critically engaged in the food system:

  1. Support the development of mutually beneficial connections among campus organizations engaged in seed work
    1. When possible, support efforts by faculty to share seed-saving expertise with other seed-saving organizations on campus, including the Seed Library
      • Faculty can lend expertise to Seed Library community programming
      • New opportunities for education, food-security, and critical engagement with the food system arise from this type of collaboration (Dean, 2018)
  2. Enable collaboration between agriculture-focused experiential learning programs and the community-centered work of the Seed Library
    1. Consider collaborations between productive campus spaces, including campus farm and gardens, and community-centered activities of the Seed Library 
    2. Consider sharing bounties of any future seed production from productive spaces,
    3. Consider extending the reach of farm-centered experiential learning activities by growing out larger volumes of seeds in collaboration with the Seed Library
  3. Support and strengthen existing connections between campus organizations and community members engaged in seed work
    1. Continue to house the Seed Library in the KPU Langley Campus Library, stewarded by library staff, enabling long-term accessibility of Seed Library resources to the community
    2. Consider the feasibility of increasing the presence of the Seed Library to other campus libraries

The KPU Seed Library has the opportunity to bring back its community engagement programming by partnering with other organizations. Since their capacity is an issue, they don’t have to run engagement projects alone. To bring back workshops based in learnings around seed sovereignty, KPU could partner with BCIT or UBC. These education institutions are all located within Metro Vancouver and all suffered losses over the COVID-19 pandemic. A partnership between local schools could benefit not just KPU, but the communities in which the other schools operate as well. 

KPU’s Seed Library could partner with other local seed initiatives. The Richmond Seed Library holds workshops and community engagement events to connect people and get them talking about seed. These include, “how to save seed” and Seedy Saturday's events that are focused on “empowering the public to make environmental choices and grow food locally” (Richmond Food Security Society, 2021). The Seed Library can engage with the Langley Sustainable Agriculture Foundation or the Langley Environmental Partners Society. These organizations already have connections to KPU and are working towards similar goals (G. Jones, KPU School of Horticulture, pers comm. November 24, 2021). These organizations would be an excellent way for the library to engage with local partners outside of the school community.

Finally, KPU’s Seed Library is in need of a strong long-term succession plan for its survival. By developing and continuing with the community engagement efforts mentioned above, the library can continue to foster relationships with locals who may be interested in supporting the library. This is the angle the Seed Library needs to take to engage community volunteers, master gardeners, or retirees who are looking for an opportunity like this. (C. Brinkerhoff, KPU Library, pers comm, November 23, 2021). These volunteers would be tasked with the maintenance of the library which includes culling old seeds, processing donations, and helping with events. Since there continues to be a high turnover of students or drastic impacts from the pandemic, the library needs to consider sustainable community options. The success and longevity of KPU’s Seed Library depend on the volunteer engagement and resource allocation to this unique and valuable library, full of knowledge.