Stars' Amy Millan Gets Award For Seed Saving Campaign Featuring Feist, Sam Roberts

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On Oct. 22 Stars/Broken Social Scene musician Amy Millan will receive an award for something decidedly non-musical — promoting seed saving.

The 2015 Planet In Focus film festival's Canadian Eco-Hero of the year, Millan will be joining an esteemed list of past winners such as David Suzuki and Col. Chris Hadfield. This year's International Eco-Hero will be University of Punjab physicist Vandana Shiva, an honour she'll share with former winners like actor Robert Redford and wildlife illustrator Robert Bateman.

Seed saving, a big tent movement that not only supports actual saving of seeds, but things like supporting your local farmers and farmers markets, encouraging people to grow their own food, and promoting environmental protection initiatives, outwardly seems like something Millan would be an unlikely poster gal for. In these things, though, the downtown Toronto-born, Montreal-living Millan is a passionate if self-deprecating advocate.

Particularly, Millan was one of the point persons behind USC Canada's recent "I Am A Seed Saver" campaign, which attracted high profile fellow musicians like Leslie Feist, Sam Roberts, Blue Rodeo's Jim Cuddy, Arcade Fire's Tim Kingsbury and Bruce Cockburn to the cause.

Samaritanmag spoke to Millan before a slate of Stars tour dates and her receipt of the Eco-Hero award happening at the Planet In Focus Opening Gala in Toronto on Oct. 22.

What is seed saving?

That's kind of a very complex and long answer for a very simple question. I'm in the school of music, I'm a musician and I don't claim to know to be the a professional and expert on these matters. I just think that having a kid and watching climate change and watching people who don't thinking that water is a human right... these things are very dangerous because they are human rights and they are basic human needs — food, shelter and water.

Jane (Rabinowicz, national director for The Bauta Family Initiative on Canadian Seed Security at USC) got me involved in a campaign to try and make people more aware of the importance of seed saving. Another thing that got me into it was this thing going around social media which was a map showing how there used to be 75 different kinds of pears and now there are five and this diversity that we've lost just from not seed saving and a lot of nutrition that is being lost in the food that we are eating.

So I've learned so much through Jane and USC and them kind of adopting me and bringing me along to day trips at certain farms. It's like you go to the store and they have garlic. Then you go to a farm and they had seven different kinds of garlic, which as a garlic lover, completely blew my mind. It's a whole new world and it's an amazing journey because I'm a city girl. I grew up in downtown Toronto, in Cabbagetown, but believe me I was growing no cabbages.

You mentioned that you're a city person and you're constantly touring the world for your work. What do you have opportunity to do yourself when it comes to growing?
Well, I don't have a lot of opportunity. I made a small garden. I put lavender in my front. Honestly, I've got about four inches wide and the length is probably about three feet. So I really don't have much space, but it's enough space to plant something. I don't have a yard or grass, I did some potted seeded plants and my herbs and I'm lucky enough that my husband [Evan Cranley] that's in the band Stars with me, he's an incredible chef and an amazing cook so I planted all sorts of herbs back there that he could cook with. So it made it functional. My lettuce failed miserably so I'm not so sure my thumb is green, but I'm trying.

That said, just trying, the act of planting what you can, isn't that the whole point?
It is and it isn't. It's not just about you being able to grow fruits and vegetables. If you don't have the space you can still put your money and time towards encouraging organic local producers .It's also about where you put your money and learning about your farmers who are actually doing the work, especially the organic farmers in your community. We're lucky enough that things are really changing and there are farmers markets readily available to people in the city now. I live in Montreal in the Plateau and right down the street from me twice a week are nine farmers and local cheesemakers who come, it's 80 per cent organic, and that's where I do my shopping.

As a touring musician one advantage you've had is you've been able to see how people all across the country eat and live. What kind of perspective has that given you?
I think a lot of the things that are grim about it is you produce a lot of garbage going across the country and touring. And there were a couple of articles this summer about different festivals, there was one particular festival, I don't want to mention any names, but they didn't do anything in terms of the environment and the entire place where they had their festival got completely trashed. It's just absolutely taken over by litter and garbage. But there was another festival where you had to pay a dollar for your cup and that's cup you had for the festival. If you had a plate of food you got one plate. And at the end of that festival there wasn't a single solitary piece of garbage on the ground.

Another terrible thing to do with the environment and touring is water. Nowadays every single photo taken of a band is going to have six plastic water bottles in it. And I've tried so hard to eradicate this, but it's so hard to get into people's minds that we don't want a case of water and it's so difficult to get people out of the habit of just being able to grab a water bottle and not take responsibility to fill a reusable water bottle and go to a tap with some of the cleanest water in the world.

What people should try to get out of the concept of seed saving? It's not really about treating seeds like hockey cards, this thing you're trading around, but it's about paying attention to where your food comes from, right?
Definitely. That's what it is for me. My ability to be involved with it is just recognizing what's the story behind that apple you're about to eat? Where was it born? Where did it come from? And how far did it have to fly? This is a particularly interesting time of year because it's harvest time and you'll see this old school approach of preserving, which is something we don't feel we have to do anymore. Because if I want a piece of garlic in January it's going to come from Argentina. Which is fine, but it's interesting how we've changed our views on how accessible and fast everything is right now. And with the price of gas and food going up I think it's time to step back and look at what the cost of that is.

Now, to play devil's advocate a bit, humans have been cultivating food for 20,000 years, actively cross-breeding and massaging various produce. Are things like genetically modified seeds really any different than what farmers have been doing for centuries?
Again, I can't speak in terms of expert knowledge. This is a new territory to me. But what makes me nervous obviously is when you start having to copyright the seeds and the seeds are getting blown on to another property and those people are getting charged. But again, I'm not pointing any guns at any heads. I don't know the answers. I just know that it can only help the community if we know where are food is coming from.

It's one of those things where you hope for the best outcomes from science and politics, but...
It's the big business versus the little, it's always going to be David versus Goliath. It's not so far from pharmaceutical companies, where they can save lives and decide to quadruple the price of a drug because they can. This is why we have to keep our human rights intact. And food is one of them, being able to eat and grow our own food, I think, is a basic human right.

I'm not sure people think about that as much as they should.
It's easy to forget, especially when you live in a big city. But I have my child and I have relatives who live in Quadra Island, B.C. and they have huge gardens there. Watching my kid pull carrots out of the ground and seeing her mind be blown by discovering where they come from, it's a very magical thing to teach the kids. And I think that it's becoming more and more important in schools and I think Michelle Obama has had a huge voice in this area. It changes with politics, trying to get good food and gardening. There's so many levels to it that are beyond seeds. Like, they're trying to do way more gardening in mental health centres because there's something about gardening that lowers depression. That's another beautiful thing about us. But it's just this thing about calling out any Goliaths that might be coming after the ability to grow and feed yourself.

You're getting the Planet In Focus Eco Hero Award. How does it feel to be sharing something like this with past winners such as David Suzuki and Robert Redford?
If I could send you a gif of my mother's face when I told her it would be something to behold. Jane called me and she was really excited because she was my champion in this. I don't understand why, but she believes that I have movement in the community that tries change things for the better. I would hope that I do, but I don't think I do nearly enough. But I try. And I say thank you with the most humble of chins.

Who got all the people together for the USC video? Was it you?
I called Sam Roberts, who's got a beautiful garden actually, he's an amazing gardener and a pal and a neighbour and we spend Halloween together with our kids. Feist has been my friend forever and Jim Cuddy has been so kind and generous with his time and he was very sweet to get on board.

So I did some of them and Jason (van Bruggen) did some of them. Jason and his wife Blaine, who's incredible, they really helped rally the troops and they went to each town to film everyone and they had the ideas behind it and if this is an award for the seed saving campaign I share it 100 per cent with them. Because without them there wouldn't have been a campaign.

Now, I know doing something like this is a good gesture, but I can't imagine sitting around backstage after a concert talking about seeds isn't very rock 'n' roll, is it?
Well, I think the term "rock 'n' roll," I don't know where we are in that life, but more and more music is becoming a venue for change and charity and raising awareness for many different things and I think that's the most rock 'n' roll thing you can do.

What's the best thing someone interested in seed saving can do to be on the side of good?
I would say the best thing to do is go to your local farmer's market and really try to get to know the people who are working to feed you. And how you can support them even if it costs a little bit more.

Watch Feist, Sam Roberts, Jim Cuddy and more talk about seed saving:

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