How Seed Saving Can Save the Environment
Kristina Buckingham, Major: International Studies and Spanish, Hometown: Salt Lake City, UT
I love food. I love everything about food. I love the way it looks, I love the way it smells, I love cooking it, I love eating it, and I love learning about it. Growing up in the middle of a city, though, I never really knew where my food came from (with the exception of the delicious tomatoes and herbs from my mother’s garden) until I started investigating it myself. That’s when I entered the shocking world of today’s industrial agriculture system. It’s hard to look at a meal, or even just a cup of coffee, the same way once you know more about the conditions it was grown under. What I’ve learned about agriculture, its history and present state, in the past few years has seriously changed my outlook on food. I’ve realized that as a (very) avid consumer of food, I have a responsibility to my own health, to farmers around the world, and to the environment to put my knowledge into practice in my own life, starting with my food choices.
Last week, Summer posted about how “Saving Seeds Can Save Us All. ” From her article, we know that on top of being seriously hazardous to our health (see Nicole’s article), GM foods and the industry giants like Monsanto that control them are ruining the livelihoods, and lives, of farmers across the world. The monopolization of seeds is resulting in a suicidal economy for the farmers who are losing their livelihood, for the people who are losing their food source, and for the human species, as we destroy the natural resources that we depend upon for our survival: our clean water, our fertile soil, our biodiversity, our atmosphere, and our seeds. Saving Seeds can Save the Environment
OK, so that’s a pretty bold statement. Let’s start a little bit closer to home. Do You Remember…
That first kindergarten or elementary school project where your teacher brought in seeds from an apple or a pumpkin and each student got to plant their own seed in a Dixie cup with a little bit of soil and a sprinkle of water? Do you remember the excitement of the day when you finally saw a tiny curl of green stem pushing its way through what was just plain brown dirt the day before? For most of us who grew up in cities, that might have been our first exposure to the magic of the infinite life cycle of plants. I remember running home from that day in class and planting every seed I could get my hands on from the refrigerator. I grew sprouts from peppers, avocados, tomatoes, and cucumbers in the next few months, just by taking the seeds out of each fruit, sticking them in the dirt, and giving them a little bit of TLC. How about a quick biology lesson?
Saving seeds from harvests to use again from year to year is the traditional way that farms and gardens were maintained for centuries. The process of open-pollination and replanting seeds from crops is the most natural thing in the world. As a farmer, it’s a no-brainer; one of your biggest business inputs—seeds—is already in your hands
when you harvest your crop. In addition to that, though, the process of saving seeds from the best performing crops to plant again the next season is a form of reproduction through natural means that allows the plants to adapt to their local conditions over time. In other words, farmers would save natural heirloom seeds (as opposed to GM seeds) from the most suitable (i. e. biggest, healthiest, sweetest) plants and plant them again the next year. The saved seeds would gradually evolve
over several growing seasons to cope with local conditions like the soil, moisture levels, and temperatures. The evolution of these seeds helped them perform better and more reliably in the conditions to which they had adapted (Wikipedia). Most of us know something about Darwin’s theory of evolution…well, there you go. Seed saving is a form of natural selection. Key word: natural.
Our modern agriculture system, on the other hand, is anything BUT natural. The seeds sold today by Monsanto and other industry giants are seeds that have been hybridized and cloned in science labs, artificially cross-pollinated to have specific characteristics, like higher yield or uniform color (Wikipedia). Monsanto’s infamous “Roundup Ready” crops exist because the company found a way to alter the DNA of the seeds to allow them to withstand certain chemical herbicides (SourceWatch). Does that sound natural to you?
The built-in sterility of GM seeds prohibits seed saving practices, instead forcing farmers to buy new seeds each year from Monsanto. This effectively negates the evolutionary process of crops adapting to local conditions. The constant use of crops that haven’t been allowed to adapt to local conditions has caused a huge number of problems. We’ve already talked about the health consequences of our diets of these unnatural, genetically modified foods. We’ve also discussed how the increased yields advertised by Monsanto don’t meet their promises (in large part because the seeds are not adapted to local conditions
), and the effect that has had on farmers in the U. S. and across the world. But what effect does the conventional food and seed system have on the environment? Biodiversity Loss
We learned last week about the legal problems farmers were experiencing because of cross-pollination in their crops from genetically modified seeds. The damage from cross-contamination of GM seeds doesn’t end with the farmers, unfortunately. Cross-pollination of plants in neighboring fields is natural and inevitable, as seeds are carried by the wind or by birds and other animals from one place to another. In the past, this hasn’t been as much of a problem, since most farmers were growing similar crops in natural ways. In contrast, the contamination today of natural and organic plants by GMOs causes irreversible damage to the organic crop.
GMOs aggressively cross-contaminate neighboring organic plants, causing incalculable damage. An unapproved GM rice grown only for one year in field trials was found to have caused extensive contamination of the US rice supply. A Spanish study found
that GM maize “has caused a drastic reduction in organic cultivations of this grain and is making their coexistence practically impossible”. (Rain, 2011)
In most cases, cross-pollination by genetically modified plants results in the contamination and loss of the organic variety. The world used to have a vast gene pool of crops, with thousands of different varieties of each plant, as a result of seed saving over generations and the evolution and adaptation of crops to unique locations. The take-over of GM crops across the world since the Green Revolution
has eroded this gene pool by contaminating and eliminating the varieties, resulting in a loss of the adaptive and hardy traits of local varieties of crops.
The erosion of the gene pool is referred to as “biodiversity loss” and has far-reaching implications for the environment and the human species, including, as we’ve seen, impacting our ability to feed ourselves and future generations. Soil
Those of us inexperienced with farming may picture the Dixie cup experiment from elementary school, thinking that you can just throw a seed in some soil and sprinkle water on top of it, and out pops an ear of corn. We know that the water and the seed quality are important but the dirt is just what it grows out of. Dirt is dirt, right? WRONG.
Soil is an ecosystem on its own, providing plants with the nutrients that they need to grow. The natural relationship between soil and plants is a mutually beneficial one, where they exchange nutrients to keep one another healthy. Since different crops have different nutrient needs, traditional planting systems used ideas of permaculture
and crop rotation
, which diversified the nutrients being given to the soil and taken from it. These practices ensured that the soil was never leached of its nutrients completely.
Somehow, the science behind those practices seems to have been conveniently forgotten by today’s conventional agriculture industry. Instead of rotating crops each season or planting partner crops together, our agriculture industry sows giant fields with a single variety of a GM crop season after season, for maximum profitability.
By practicing mono-cropping year after year, farmers are seriously depleting the nutrients in their soil, and therefore eliminating the ability of their soil to act as a healthy ecosystem for crops. In addition to problems like erosion and drying out of land, declining soil quality and health forces farmers to increase use of chemical fertilizers, since the soil can no longer provide the plants with the nutrients they need. Chemical Fertilizers, Pesticides, and Herbicides
This category may be the biggest complaint against GM crops from health, human, and environmental standpoints, and it is certainly one of the greatest threats posed by Monsanto and other agricultural giants. As discussed above, mono-cropping practices (as well as unnatural crops) deplete soil health, forcing farmers to use chemical fertilizers for their crops to yield. Even more problematic, though, are the GM crops, like Roundup Ready crops, specifically designed to be resistant to chemical pesticides and herbicides. This incites farmers to use more and more chemical pesticides and herbicides on their crops (surprise: these products are also created and sold by Monsanto
The overuse of these chemicals has led to the growth of “superweeds” that are resistant to the herbicides used against them. Monsanto’s solution has been to develop new products with even more toxic chemicals (Occupy Monsanto, n.d.).
The hugely increased use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides since the adoption of GM crops doesn't just affect our personal health (although I’d say that’s a pretty good reason in itself to pay attention). The chemicals used in farming kill the soil, leak into water sources, poisoning our rivers and groundwater, and cause devastating health problems in animal and human populations. The development and creation of these chemical inputs is also one of the leading causes of global climate change (McDermott, 2008). Back to Nature
With all of that incredibly overwhelming and scary information in mind, it’s time to get back to where this all started. So, how CAN
saving seeds save the environment?
Saving seeds takes us back to the traditional methods of farming, allowing plants to adapt to local conditions over time and evolve to grow better in their unique locations. Maintaining heirloom varieties of crops through seed saving prevents additional biodiversity loss. Used with crop rotation or permaculture techniques, seed saving and the use of a range of crop varieties avoid the problems of mono-cropping and keep soil healthy and productive. Finally, naturally evolved seed varieties will grow more reliably and with higher yields in their adapted environments than would GM seeds, eliminating (or at least drastically reducing) the need for chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. (For healthy, natural, and organic alternatives to chemical pesticides/herbicides, check out this page
). This in itself could reduce agriculture’s role in global climate change. Saving seeds may seem like a small way to address a HUGE problem, but as you can see, the effects of just that one small action could, really, save our environment. So, what can we do?
I realize that the issues presented above can be hugely overwhelming. It’s easy to feel powerless in the face of such widespread problems. As always, though, we want to give you a few ideas of what you can do, on a global/national level, on a community level, and on an individual level to start to address these issues. Global & National Level:
- Globally: Reward a shift back to organic farming techniques
- In the United States: Require Monsanto to accept responsibility for their environmental impact
- Start or get involved with community seed saving and seed swapping organizations
- (Repeated from last week) Pass bills requiring GM foods to be labeled. Don’t you want to know what you’re eating? Putting labels on GM foods will decrease the power that these seed monopolies have over our food and our consumers!
- If you’re a gardener or farmer, buy your seeds from a natural, seed saving seller like one of thes
- If you’re not a gardener or farmer, try the Dixie cup project again. You may be amazed at how fulfilling it still is to witness that miracle of growth.
- Vote with your wallet. Be conscious of what you are consuming, and, whenever possible, support organic and natural food. It’s better for your health, too!
Coming up next week, you’ll get to meet Brad with the last post of this series: How Saving Seeds Can Save America! Works Cited
"Biohazards. " Occupy Monsanto
. N. p. , n. d. Web. 13 Nov. 2012.
McDermott, Mat. "More Than Pretty Heirloom Tomatoes: Saving Seeds Critical to Combatting Climate Change
. " TreeHugger
. N. p. , 23 Sept. 2008. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.
Pearce, Fred. "Saving the Seeds of the Next Green Revolution
. " Environment 360
. Yale University, 22 Sept. 2008. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.
Rain, Lois. "5 Reasons NOT To Eat GM Foods
. " Health Freedom Alliance
. N. p. , 27 June 2011. Web. 10 Nov. 2012.
Shiva, Vandana. "The Seed Emergency: The Threat to Food and Democracy - Opinion - Al Jazeera English
. " The Seed Emergency: The Threat to Food and Democracy
. Aljazeera, 06 Feb. 2012. Web. 2 Nov. 2012.
SourceWatch Contributors. "Roundup Ready Crops
. " SourceWatch
. N. p. , 20 Sept. 2012. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.
Wikipedia contributors. "Seed saving. " Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia
. Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, 6 Aug. 2012. Web. 14 Nov. 2012.
How Seed Saving Can Save Us All
Summer Kalei Borowski, Major: Marketing, Hometown: Kailua-Kona, HI
I come from a farm in Hawaii. A cucumber farm. Where I’ve spent many long hours and days picking, tending, washing, weighing, and packaging in our hot greenhouses. Seeded by my hands in the dirt and the sun on my back two things resulted from this upbringing. 1) I can hold a cucumber in my hand and tell you to the tenth of a pound how much it weighs. 2) I grew an affinity towards farmers, food, and agricultural justice.
In reading Nicole’s article last week about how “Saving Seeds Can Save Your Life,” we explored evidence of the adverse effects GM foods on our health. We also discovered the wild world of agribusiness corruption and monopoly that link directly from these GM businesses. So next, we naturally raise the questions: Why do farmers farm these crops? If they don’t want to be caught up in the corporate seed system by Monsanto or other industry giants, forced to repurchase infertile seeds and pesticides each harvest and sell their yields at bottom of the barrel prices, why don’t they just buy seeds elsewhere? Unfortunately, it’s not quite that simple.Why Do Farmers Farm Monsanto?
First, a little history on a big company: Monsanto is the largest seed company in the world. It controls 95 percent of the market for insect and herbicide resistant cotton traits. In 2008, Monsanto had shares of up to 65 percent for GM corn and soybeans and about 45 percent for GM corn. During the late 1990s and through the 2000s, Monsanto acquired almost 40 companies “creating the horizontal and vertical integration that underlies the firm’s platforms in cotton, corn, and soybeans,” according to a whitepaper by American Antitrust Institute’s vice president and senior fellow, Diana Moss. Most of the acquisitions were seed companies.
American farmers’ hands are tied. Not so long ago, traditional methods of seed saving were the norm. At each harvest, a small portion of a farmer’s crop would be put aside for the seeds to be saved, cleaned, dried, and stored to plant for the next season. Seed, as a renewable resource, was simply farming’s and nature’s way of sustaining itself. However, today genetically modified crops are so widely grown that the farms that choose to maintain natural growing processes are in great danger of the GM crops of their neighbors cross-pollinating with their own. Once this happens, the farm is at risk of losing everything. This is not because their yield is now tainted, but because Monsanto could (and will) sue them for infringement on the company’s patents of bioengineered seed. Now contaminated, the farm is then left with no other option than to purchase Monsanto seed, in fear that the company will simply come back the following year and sue them again.
This is not the only scenario in which our farmers are stuck between a rock and a hard place. Monsanto is also pushing anti-democracy laws that strip communities of their power to stop GMO crops from being planted in their own counties. Without this control, one GM farm could disrupt the crops of many other farms in the area. Monsanto has also made it illegal to own seed cleaning (and therefore seed saving) equipment without having it registered, an endeavor that can cost from $1-1.5 million for each machine for each type of seed. These restrictions, threats, and unaffordable endeavors are forcing our nation’s farmers, against their will, to become a part of the very system that is devastating them.
But the scope broadens. The Monsanto monopoly not only plagues America; its reach extends far beyond our borders engulfing the entire globe in its enterprise. A Global Terror
In 1998, the corporate machine changed India’s farming industry overnight. With new structural policies put in place by the World Bank, the country was forced to open its seed sector to global industry giants such as Monsanto and switch from farm saved seeds to fertile corporate seeds. This transition required irrigation and fertilization of the seeds which also needed to be repurchased every year due to patents on their non-renewable traits. This transformation of seed from a renewable resource to a non-renewable input had far-reaching and tragically devastating implications for the nation.
As farmers were forced to re-buy their seeds each year, instead of saving their own for no cost, the indebtedness of peasant farmers rose quickly and dramatically. This changed the once positive economy to a negative, debt-ridden one. This change was due to two factors: the falling price of farm commodities and the rising price of production, both the product of corporate globalization and trade.
Pre-Monsanto, cotton seed cost Rs 7/kg. It was rain fed, could be inter-cropped with other produce, and was naturally pest resistant. GM Bt-cotton seed cost Rs 17,000/kg, could only be grown as a mono-culture required irrigation, and actually created new pests. Because of this, farmers were forced to purchase and use 13 times the pesticides they were previously using. The switch from biodiversity to mono-cropping also greatly increased the risk of crop failure, as bulk corporate seed is not adaptable to the diverse local environment. Monsanto sold their seeds under falsifications that they would produce yields of 1500/kg/year. In reality, farmers’ harvests were only 300 to 400/kg/year. Oftentimes even entire crops would fail, leaving peasant farmers in literally dire situations. This equation of high cost for farmers and unreliable production create an inescapable debt trap and a suicide economy.
Since 1997, over 200,000 Indian farmers have committed suicide. The region in India with the highest suicide rate experiences as many as 4,000 per year, that’s 10 suicides per day. Maybe not so coincidentally, this region also has the highest acreage of Monsanto (GM) Bt-cotton. In acts of protest and hopeless desperation, the main method of Indian farmers taking their own lives is to drink Monsanto pesticides – their only way to escape the incredible debt they have been left in by the company.
And, as the regime of Monsanto doesn't end with the USA so it doesn't end with India. In the US, a $4 billion subsidy is granted to their own GM cotton growers annually. This artificially drives down US cotton prices, creating a barrier unattainable for poor African countries to penetrate. Countries such as Burkina Faso, Benin, and Mali, who previously were competitive in this global market, are now losing $250 million every year, perpetuating the same type of suicide economy as India. In 2007, 1,593 farmers in these regions took their own lives- a number that before 2000 was reportedly zero.
But it’s not only the farmers being robbed. This economy is suicidal on three levels:
1) To the farmer
whose family is now left without a caretaker, whose land is infertile, and whose life is destroyed;
2) To the people
in their community who have lost, with the farmer, their food source and will fall even deeper into poverty and hunger; and
3) To the human species
as we devastate the natural worth of seed, biodiversity, soil and water upon which we depend on for our own biological survival.
The inability to fund commodity production year to year in addition to the unreliability of the mono-culture crops has created unbearable debt for already impoverished farmers. These debts, un-payable from farm revenues, have driven farmers to take the most extreme of measures. According to leading global seed rights advocate Vandana Shiva, the bottom line is simple. “Seed saving gives farmers life. Seed monopolies rob farmers of life.”Seeds of Change
Although suicide economies worldwide are drastic and horrific, they are not inevitability. Although the majority of US farmers have become cogs in the machine of a dictator, there are a few things that can begin to turn the wheels the opposite way. Seed saving can be the answer to so many interlinking global problems we are facing today. Here are some actions that can be taken.On a global level:
• A shift back to natural seed varieties that farmers can save and share [as opposed to non-renewable GMO seeds]
• A shift to organic farming [from chemical farming]
• A shift to fair trade and just-commodity prices worldwide [as opposed to unfair trade based on false prices from government subsidies. (Cotton farmers who have made these changes can earn up to 10 times the revenues of farmers still growing Monsanto cotton.)On a community level:
• Push for labeling of GMO products in your local legislature. Vote.
• Create community seed banks and promote saving and sharing seeds among farms and gardens.
• Support legal action to challenge seed patents and bio-piracy.On an individual level:
• Be conscious of the products you purchase. Support organic and fair trade produce.
• Save your own seeds! Grow what you can. Plant a garden with heirloom seeds and become self-sustaining in any ways you can.
• Support the Seed Freedom Movement and Farmers’ Rights by signing the Declaration on Seed Freedom
and learning more at: seedfreedom.in
Seed saving can be a very simple solution to an enormously complex problem. Plant native seeds in the ground, help them grow, and return to the natural cycle of the earth. But simple doesn't necessarily mean easy. Ahead the obstacles and doubt gravel a long, uphill road. However, if each of us is aware, hopeful, and prepared to take the first steps toward a sustainable future, we will undoubtedly effect global change. In fact, “A small group of thoughtful people can change the world. Indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.” (Margaret Mead)
Join us next week to meet Kristina and her take on “How Saving Seeds Can Save the Environment!”
Last month I had the opportunity to visit the University of Gastronomic Sciences to speak to Masters Students about career opportunities in the food and farming industries in the USA. Founded by the pioneer thinkers of Slow Food International and located in Pollenzo, Italy (I know, poor me…what I do for the Good Food Revolution!) this program draws a full picture of the place of food in the full economy and ecology of the human experience on this planet.
Gastronomically food cannot be separated into tidy compartments. Growing food cannot be separated from the land, people, and culture wherein it came forth. Eating food cannot be separated from the “hands that made the food” (as the Irish would say). Discussions about health – from nutrient deficiency to the obesity epidemic – cannot be separated from the industries that provide the connection between grower and eater. Food justice conversations – from food deserts to land grabbing and forced famine – cannot be separated from local and global political and financial decisions…as well as our own choices at the grocery store.
Many days I am frustrated at the slow, sometimes glacial, movement I experience working to cultivate the mission of Feed Denver. The question that began Feed Denver was: Can we grow the food we eat in and near the City of Denver? Immediately I realized there cannot be a negative answer to that question. Redirected as a statement this must be our quest: to grow the food we eat in and near the City of Denver.
Spending time in the Piedmont Region of Italy reminded me that food production can be small and independent. It can be personal and reflect the culture and community. It can be productive and profitable. I was able to attend a wine tasting of seven cru designated wines from the local Barolo region. We tasted how different one wine was compared to the wine from the next hill over. Same grapes, similar soil and landscape profiles, and very controlled processes but each wine was completely different though all from a very small area.
Vineyards dotted the hills but along the roads field after field alternated between hazelnut groves and polenta corn. Nearer peoples’ homes large gardens flourished. In Colorado small production is so rare I stop to stare when I come across it. Here in Peidmont it is the norm. Each town has small groceries and coops as well as weekly farmers markets. And at the same time I met farmers who were developing coop distribution organizations to provide fresh food to nearby Milan and Turin, with concern that fresh food is not very available in the big cities…just down the road.
My career day co-presenters were from large and small companies, farmers and food companies, and represented six countries and four continents. There were new farmers dedicated to good, clean, and fair production. There were global food corporations wanting to grow but still be at the sustainability table. There were market buyers needing farmers and their production in a world where small is no longer supported as an industry. There were organizations supporting the sustainable food conversation through communication, education, and support networks.
What I learned is Feed Denver stands side by side with these others from around the world. We are all dedicated and passionate. We want to support the “new” gastronomes being shaped by the programs at the University of Gastronomic Sciences. We are simultaneously discouraged by the state of the world yet encouraged by the state of our commonality and shared need for engagement in making that world tastier, cleaner, and more fair.
The students asked me, will there be jobs in the Good Food Movement when they finish their program. My response was, there must be but you might have to create them yourself. If you can’t find a job that supports good, clean, fair food you must make one. I challenged each one that I spoke with that even if they found a great job but it is removed from actual food production that they consider finding a way to engage with food production on the front line. For every person I meet interested in becoming a new farmer, I have already met fifty new food writers, local food website developers, food delivery companies, farmers’ market creators, and local food restaurateurs. More than anything, we need new farmers. And we all need to do what we can to encourage, support, and nurture them so that more new farmers will feel this is a good, clean, fair and profitable career.
It is my pleasure to write blog articles as a part of my Internship with Feed Denver. My name is Tiffany and I attend the University of Gastronomic Sciences in Pollenzo, Italy studying Food Culture and Communications. I came to Feed Denver to expand my knowledge and appreciation of agriculture and to learn about the emphasis that is being placed on local food supply; to understand the fundamentals of a non-profit organization and its essential role in providing stability and education to those in need. I believe that communication is essential to educating communities about the severity of food supply and learning as much as you can from others is the way to go.
To watch plants grow is a joy but to be a part of it is even better. It’s a continuous cycle in the growing of Feed Denver’s hoop house. Before spring began the raised beds were prepared the refugees and Ariel, the Director of Production sorted through the seeds and made the final spring selection. So, finally spring is here and planting has begun in the hoop house. Not being one who really knows how to farm it is inspiring to watch the woman of Feed Denver be motivated and work towards future goals of educating communities. There are a number of classes scheduled for this spring season and at the symposium on March 12th, 2011 was a great pre-view for what is being offered. If you missed it, there will be will future classes (please visit the classes and events page). There is so much to be learned and it gives one a chance to share and talk to others who may face the same challenges and give insight to growing techniques that are helpful.
As a student studying Food Culture, Denver offers its own unique agricultural playing field. On another note, although I have yet to explore other farms of Denver, it is great to be able to experience the locality of produce in a Restaurant. On a recent visit to Fuel, (a popular restaurant in the River North Downtown area is known as one of the best and offers seasonal menus) it was a nice change to have honey glazed turnips that were grown locally as a side dish instead of fries. The baby turnips were tender, sweet and the roasting complimented the earthy aroma. Fuel who is now looking to have their own small garden, is communicating with Feed Denver to develop this idea so patrons experience what it’s like to eat healthy fresh food that may inspire others to grow. It is a great start to the spring season and I look forward to what the gardens will offer to communities.