|By Robin Carpenter
Originally in print for Edible Marin and Wine Country Magazine
These are the original monies of the earth, In which invested as spark in fire, They will produce a green wealth toppling tall…
—Opening lines from the poem “A Cabinet of Seeds Displayed” by Howard Nemerov
“Our seed supply is of much greater importance than Wall Street or the irresponsible behavior of those running the banking industry and this country. Forget money. We must save our seed supply!”
—Eric Herm, Son of a Farmer, Child of the Earth (Dreamriver Press, 2010)
Harsh realities face us regarding our food sources and genetically modified organisms (GMOs), as I’ve covered in Parts I and II of this series. One of these is that 10 companies control over two-thirds of global seed sales. Just three—Monsanto, DuPont and Syngenta—own a combined total of close to 50% and they’re continuing to buy up smaller seed companies at a rapid pace. Additionally, not only are companies like these patenting the genes they discover and the organisms they create, they’re also seeking ownership over indigenous and heritage seeds. This creates a corporate and governmental elite that could result in genetic and food supply control over our entire planet.
In the face of grim predictions and seemingly irreversible mistakes on the part of science, government and corporate interests, a tiny talisman uplifts me. A repurposed pimento jar with a spoonful of mustard seeds from my grandmother. Mammaw’s handwriting is slowly fading from the taped piece of paper on the jar stating, “Mustard seeds/Robin.” Handed to me as I was leaving the Gulf Coast for my new home in California I asked, “For faith?” Mammaw smiled and said, “For remembering.”
Those miniscule round seeds are a reminder of her stories and lessons shared as we gardened side by side. Living in a deeply Christian area that often confused me, my religious questions to Mammaw were invariably answered with, “God is in the plants, the soil, the seed, the water and in the air we breathe…” followed by a story. I preferred climbing trees and fishing to gardening, but Mammaw’s stories kept me wrist-deep in soil enough to understand that, if God had a covenant with us, it was through seeds.
My favorite story was of how okra came to America. A young West African boy was the apprentice to the village shaman. Sleeping in the shaman’s hut, he was awakened on a moonless night by the sound of slave traders raiding his village.
Knowing they would soon seize him, he grabbed fresh pods of okra, split them open and rubbed the slime and seeds deep into his scalp. He knew the cherished plant’s seeds would be safely hidden in his hair and if he survived he would have saved a treasure for his people.
For at least 10,000 years, humans have practiced saving and passing seeds from generation to generation. Seeds and the knowledge of seeds were crucial to the survival of ancient cultures and they remain so today. Seeds were once widely used as a form of currency throughout the world. In our time, this gift to humanity is being claimed as corporate property. And yet, there are many passionate activists, farmers, plant breeders and citizen gardeners working to preserve and reclaim our heritage. There are also scientists and plant breeders working to find ways to protect many of our crops from GMO contamination. We must have faith, perhaps only the size of a mustard seed, and remember that nature will be on the side of those who honor her power and our sacred covenants.
Locally, two people keeping the faith and spreading the good word are Matt Hoffman and Astrid Lindo, owners of The Living Seed Company. Their combined story began when Matt Hoffman, former co-creator with Dr. Jane Goodall of the Giant Peace Dove puppet movement, stepped outside of his Minnesota bakery one winter morning. He saw a woman emerge from a dense snow flurry and realized it was environmental activist Julia Butterfly Hill. Hill was speaking in town that evening and in their brief conversation she suggested that Matt come to California to visit some fellow giant puppeteers living at Solstice Grove in Nicasio. Not long after Matt’s arrival at Solstice Grove, Astrid, a certified Green Building designer from Southern California, also arrived to study and deepen her connection to nature. Love blossomed and marriage plans quickly followed.
Discussing their future, they agreed to start a seed company that would promote the power of people growing food together and learning to save and share their own seeds. As a first step, Matt attended “seed school” in Arizona with Bill McDorman, author of Basic Seed Saving (Higher Ground, 1994). Bill graciously helped Matt and Astrid start The Living Seed Company. The company provides seed collections that are non-GMO, heirloom, highly productive and intended to create a diversified garden to meet the food needs of a family. Their services include instructions on saving your seeds after your first growing season.
Matt and Astrid are frequently asked to define the designations of “heirloom” and “hybrid.” “Heirloom” traditionally means the seed variety was bred using a single type of plant chosen for its desirable traits and the seeds were then passed down from generation to generation. A “hybrid” is created when compatible, but different, types of plants are crossbred to create progeny with the desirable characteristics of both of the “parents.” If you save the seeds of the “offspring” of a hybrid, the plant those seeds produce might be one with only the characteristics of one of the “grandparent” plants and not necessarily the hybrid “parent.” Some heirloom plants may have begun as hybrids, but over many generations they were repeatedly selected and grown and their seeds have eventually been stabilized.
Astrid Lindo and Matt Hoffman
Photo: Sarabek Images
Another local keeper of the faith, Margie McDonald of Wild Blue Farms in Tomales, produces some of the most stunning and delicious heirloom winter squash in our area. They make love to your eyes with unique textures, colors, curves and endearing warts. The Galeux d’Eysines squash is an elegant French heirloom with beautiful salmon-colored skin “blemished” with sugary warts vaguely resembling peanuts. The orange flesh is velvety smooth and beautiful in pies, soups or baked and drizzled with olive oil. Margie’s Marina di Chioggia is blue-green and bumpy with a very enticing turban bottom. The sweet dry flesh is magical for using to make gnocchi instead of potatoes. All squash originated in South America, but this beauty was perfected in a small seaside village on Italy’s Adriatic coast close to Venice and is also known as the “sea pumpkin.”
Photo: Robin Carpenter
As her plants begin to bloom, Margie rises with the sun and ventures into the cool coastal mornings near Tomales Bay to gently hand-pollinate the blossoms from boy flower to girl flower. She then tapes them shut to avoid her Marina and her Galeux engaging in an illicit pollination. She said that she feels connected to the generations of women who have passed down the seeds of these squash and knows that she is now saving the past for the future.
On a larger scale, an inspirational gathering of seedsmen and women happened this fall at the Sonoma County Fairgrounds when over 10,000 people attended the first National Heirloom Exposition. Organized by Baker Creek Seed and the Petaluma Seed Bank, the Exposition was a “World’s Fair” of heirloom foods and speakers included heroes of the organic and non-GMO food movements including Vandana Shiva and Alice Waters. Home gardeners and farmers alike displayed over 3,000 varieties of heirlooms from all over the country. At the close of the gathering, these faithful returned to their communities with new seeds, stories and inspiration, further spreading the good word.
Can heirlooms and seed saving be the salvation of promiscuous pollinators like corn and stop their contamination by GMOs? Well, maybe… I recently discovered work being done on an “organic ready” corn (mocking the Roundup Ready corn produced by Monsanto) by Frank Kutka, a plant breeder and coordinator of the Sustainable Ag Research and Education program at North Dakota State University. Using his own backyard as a test lab, Frank is doing research on a naturally occurring trait in corn—gametophytic incompatibility (GA1S)—that causes the corn to reject and block incoming foreign pollen and can, thus, prevent it from being contaminated by the pollen from GMO corn (which is freely airborne in fields). His work is not funded through the university and was on his own dime until he recently received an $11,500 grant from the Organic Farming Research Foundation. GA1S is not a new discovery. According to Kutka, “The trait has been known and used for decades. It was first used in corn bred to produce kernels good for popcorn in the 1950s to prevent cross-pollination.” There are currently three known pollen-blocking traits—GA1S, GA2S and Teosinte Crossing Barrier (TCB).
But, are these the natural solution we have been searching for? Well, not so fast—there are patents issued on both the GA1S and TCB traits. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation owns a patent on TCB and Tom Hogemeyer, a corn breeder at Hogemeyer Hybrids, patented the GA1S trait in 2005. Kutka along with other “open source” corn breeders such as Margaret Smith at Cornell University are opposed to the patenting of these traits. They argue these traits have been used openly for decades. Others in the non-GMO hybrid business told me they feel Hogemeyer patented the GA1S trait to prevent Monsanto from doing so. They report that he’s “flexible” and willing to work with non-GMO breeders. A breeder called Blue River Hybrids has already licensed PuraMaize/GA1S from Hogemeyer Hybrids and is releasing three corn hybrids for the 2012 growing season. SK Food International also licensed the GA1S trait from Hogemeyer and is releasing an organic Red Crimson Corn variety for 2012 and claims their test fields experienced no crosspollination. Whether publicly available for seed saving or patented for hybrids, having organic corn that is resistant to cross-pollination from GMO corn is a huge step.
Seed Saving isn’t just a mitigation against the onslaught of GMOs. It’s also key to surviving climate change. In a secluded spot off Horseshoe Hill Road in Bolinas, Peter Martinelli’s Fresh Run Farm produces collards, kale, arugula, squash and other crops that are stronger, healthier and smarter than your average vegetable. Seed saving from year to year creates plants uniquely suited to his farm’s locale. With respect to arming himself and his farm against climate change, he already takes note of which seeds worked best during certain types of growing seasons, recording comments such as “great arugula during a cool, wet spring” or “the arugula that came well during the hot spell in August.” This enables farmers or gardeners to save the seeds that will work best with changes that are occurring their area. As Peter explains it, “It’s a different approach; instead of warfare against nature, we’re in partnership.”
Can biotechnology be used in a way that respects nature, empowers farmers and creates healthy partnerships from seed to farmer to food producer to consumer? Dr. John Schillinger and his company, eMerge Genetics, is making that happen. Schillinger is a 73-year-old research scientist who worked for Asgrow Seeds, which was bought by Monsanta in 1996. His team worked on the first Roundup Ready soy. He retired in 1998 and struck out on his own to start eMerge Genetics. There, he utilizes biotechnology to do research and test samples, but works with traditional breeding methods to create quality non-GMO seeds (specializing in non-GMO soy).
His company also matches farmers with end producers who want to use non-GMO soy, like specialty tofu makers. This gives the farmers an option to grow non-GMO plants and get out of the commodities pricing trap. Schillinger points out that there’s a worldwide demand for non-GMO soy. The majority of European countries don’t want GMO soy for food or feed. Regulations in Japan’s and Korea are very strict on keeping GMO soy out of their food supply. In the fall of 2010, Brazil launched a program to move away from growing GMO soy, based on the increased demand for non-GMO soy from Europe and Asia. Schillinger also sees the demand in America increasing as the public becomes aware of the existence of GMOs and demands labeling.
“Remember, the seeds are the story carriers. They are the messengers from the past and our hope for the future. They preceded us and assisted us when Homo sapiens evolved as part of this planet.” Words of wisdom from another hero in this story, Claire Hope Cummings. An environmental lawyer, journalist and author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds (Beacon Press, 2008), Claire has a deep wisdom about the sacred nature of the relationship between humans and seeds. We’re neighbors and comrades and both feel despair at times. We speak of recent activist gatherings in our area—Bioneers, Justice Begins With Seeds, the Marin GMO Symposium—but primarily we revel in her lettuce seed endeavor. She’s enamored with allowing her lettuce to get “ugly” and go to seed. The tiny flowers, full of thousands of seeds, seem like bursting stars to her. In life and decay and “going to seed,” nature is generous. Nature invites us to be a part of her rather than apart from her. We laugh together as “seed sisters,” knowing our ages bring us closer to the time that we, ourselves, will “go to seed,” as we willingly plant our stories of hope for new generations.
Robin Carpenter is a freelance writer who grew up in Ragg Swamp on the Gulf Coast of Alabama, where she learned the finer points of storytelling and food in a land rich with rituals, myths and well-marbled alligators. She now lives in West Marin and can be reached at email@example.com.
Lettuce gone to seed.
Photo: Claire Cummings