For a sustainable food system, look to seeds

For a sustainable food system, look to seeds
Image via Shutterstock.

"Our seeds are more than just food for us. Yes, they are nutrition. But they’re also… spirituality,” says Electa Hare-RedCorn, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and a Yankton descendant. “Each seed has a story and each seed has a prayer.”

With a background in social work, Hare-RedCorn was brought on to the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project in 2012 as a seed-keeper, to carry the conversation forward with youth and families. The project, she says, has since become a movement.

“Being tied to the seed work has helped me see that traditional ecological knowledge—the understanding of our connection to the soil, seeds, and our culture—it’s all intrinsically tied together,” Hare-RedCorn says. “Even if policy has definitely tried to strip that away, we still have a unique relationship with the seeds and what they mean to us.”

Hare-RedCorn fondly recalled when one particular intern joined the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project in 2016. Hare-RedCorn explained to her that everybody is a part of agriculture and the food system in some way—we consume food; we grow food; we wear clothing from fibers; we prepare food for others. And then she asked the incoming intern: “How, at this moment, are you part of this?” to which the intern replied, “Well, I eat.”

Hare-RedCorn says this young woman has since found her passion in seed preservation and is continuing the work of bringing back Pawnee varieties of corn that have been lost over time. When Hare-RedCorn began working with Pawnee corn, only three varieties were known. But through the work of the preservation project, Hare-RedCorn says, that number has grown to 11 varieties—each with its own role in the community and its cultural traditions.

And this former intern—whose initial connection to agriculture was summed up by consumption—now has a full scholarship to study soil science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Upon graduation, Hare-RedCorn says, the former intern will be the first Pawnee agronomist.

“Part of what I’m trying to do with my role is just to help my Pawnee people recognize that the corn means so much to us,” Hare-RedCorn says. “The corn is intrinsically tied to the soil, and the soil is tied to land, and all of these things that will help us.” The corn will help to restore a culture of health, she says, through which members can be nourished and sustained. And, she says, the corn will help reinstate spiritual practices including songs and prayers that were lost when the people were forced off their land.

“It’s all about respect for the land we’re taking care of and that takes care of us,” Hare-RedCorn says.

The traditional homeland of the Pawnee people is in Nebraska, but they were forcibly removed by the U.S. government in 1874 and pushed to Oklahoma, where the present population resides. The relentless pursuit of the West by settlers stripped the Pawnee people of their land, the lives of countless people, and many of their traditional ways of life, including the cultivation of corn.

Just a decade earlier, President Abraham Lincoln had established a U.S. Department of Agriculture with a focus on food, agriculture, economic development, science, and natural resource conservation. Hare-RedCorn says that agronomists of the time studied the seeds and techniques used by the Pawnee people and other tribes as they worked to increase agriculture productivity for White settlers. The resulting corn was bigger than Indigenous corns, but also more homogenous.

“I really see a sense of superiority in those varieties,” Hare-RedCorn says. “But [the USDA at the time] just didn’t know how good the biodiversity is for the soil, our stomachs, and our nutrition.”

That emphasis on biodiversity is the driving force behind Native Seeds/Southwestern Endangered Aridland Resource Clearing House, a seed conservation nonprofit that operates in the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico. The organization is working to revitalize the farming traditions of Native communities and promote sustainable agricultural practices in this arid region.

“Biodiversity in concept is beautiful, and biodiversity in practice is difficult,” says Joy Hought, the organization’s executive director.

“These seeds and this biodiversity—in order for it to live outside the seed bank—it has to be grown, and it has to be eaten, and it has to be used in ceremony. Its context in real life has to be rebuilt,” Hought says. “That’s why we call it ‘farm to table.’ You can’t just have farm. You have to have the table.”

Hought illustrates this with the example of a species of particularly soft, white wheat that was historically grown by Indigenous cultures in the Sonoran region of Mexico and up the West Coast of the U.S. As industrial wheat production expanded, harder red wheats that could withstand mechanized harvest took its place in the market and then the fields. But the seeds of that soft, white wheat were still stored in the seed banks of the USDA and Native Seeds. So in 2010, Native Seeds got a grant from the USDA to do some exploratory research on sustainable farming. That research brought together farmers, bakers, and millers. Agronomists were learning to make pizza dough, and chefs were talking to wheat farmers. Together, they reintroduced the grain to the region. Hought says she’s now seeing this soft, white wheat all over California again, and Arizona has a couple thousand acres of it. “It hasn’t taken over the world; every loaf of bread isn’t made of it, but it’s accessible again,” Hought says. “That’s the price and the work that goes into biodiversity.”

The work of building biodiversity into our food systems has two distinct challenges. One is preserving the genetic material contained in the seeds and the centuries of agricultural knowledge that have developed alongside them. And two is nurturing a relationship with the seeds as living beings. This is especially difficult on industrial farm operations, but Hought says our food system has room for different types of farms. To this end, Native Seeds works to reestablish small, local operations. Hought believes this is what will open up the space for more biodiversity.

Increasing biodiversity often means scaling down production, Hought says, and it also means changing policies to make it economical to grow crops on, say, fewer than 1,000 acres. Today, that is not the case. Most federal subsidies go to large-scale producers of major feed grains, such as corn. Farmers growing niche crops, Hought says, don’t always qualify for assistance.

That said, the modern USDA has come to embrace the value of biodiversity in its approach—both in its grant-making and its seed-banking. Yes, researchers are still working to improve efficiencies and productivity, but they are also experimenting with alternative approaches that encourage conservation.

That’s what brings me to the USDA’s National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, in October 2019. As I enter the frigid, vaultlike room where most of the seeds are stored, I am struck by the expanse of this collection. The lab claims to have nearly 12,000 plant species represented by some 500,000 individual samples. As plant geneticist Christopher Richardson later puts it: “You’re standing in the most biodiverse half-hectare on the planet.” He says that this is a collection of diversity that doesn’t exist in the wild anymore, and most importantly, it’s all living.

The stacks are floor to ceiling, and each shelf is filled with small, indistinguishable packets of seeds. I don’t linger long in the -18-degree Celsius (0-degree Fahrenheit) chamber, though the seeds will. They are expected to survive 100 years in these cold, low-moisture conditions. For crops such as apples, which are grown via grafting budwood, rather than seeds, their genetic samples are stored in tanks with liquid nitrogen vapor, at around -156 degrees C (-249 degrees F). The predicted lifespan of such samples is 1,000 years.

The lab is a part of the USDA’s research arm, established to maintain a growing collection of the germplasm that makes up America’s food system. The collection began during the Lincoln administration, alongside Westward expansion, and Richardson says it was paramount for the success of the United States. But the brunt of the cost was carried by the cultures being actively mined for resources and knowledge and then stamped out in the process.

While seed banks are sometimes thought of as repositories to be drawn upon in apocalyptic doomsday scenarios, Richardson sees them more as living libraries. The seeds don’t just sit there; the lab partners with growers across the country to plant, observe, and harvest the crops so they will continue to adapt to changing environments.

“Any plant can’t adapt to new or changing environmental conditions in the wild without diversity,” Richardson says. “If you want durable resistance to the complex kinds of traits that are facing agriculture right now, diversity is fundamental.”

The National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation is a government entity funded by tax dollars, and Richardson says the lab takes the position that it is a global public good to make these resources available to everyone. Richardson points to the original intent in founding the collections, which emphasized justice and openness. Food was considered to be a fundamental human right.

As such, the collection is open access; anyone can request seeds or samples at no cost. Most of the requests come from researchers or breeders. (That’s in contrast to Native Seeds, which mostly distributes seeds to farmers and gardeners, especially members of Native American tribes.) The lab ships out a quarter-million accessions every year. Richardson calls it “the public library of genetic resources used by the world.”

The collections that the lab has preserved and made available have been able to keep countless agricultural disasters at bay in the past century and a half—be it diseases, pests, or other crop failures—because of the variety they store. Richardson says that back in the 1970s, “the landscape of American agriculture was shockingly homogenous and vulnerable….I’m not sure we’ve come a long way, but we’re in a new era of breeding for diversity.”

As the cost of genetic sequencing continues to drop dramatically, it will democratize the use of these tools. When used in concert with traditional ecological knowledge, the resulting reintroduction of diversity offers hope for building resilience in our food system in the face of the climate crisis.

While collaboration with Native agronomists won’t erase the damage done by Manifest Destiny, Westward expansion, and the denigration of Indigenous ecological practices,  Hare-RedCorn sees potential for progress and healing, when Western science is used along with traditional knowledge and value systems.

Hare-RedCorn is a proponent of collaboration, but emphasizes that the work needs to be relational. Some of the USDA conservation practices that receive the most support, Hare-RedCorn says, parallel practices that tribes have been using for ages. “There’s maybe a different titling of it or a way to phrase it or a way to get it subsidized, but… these are traditional agricultural practices that are good practices.”

Hare-RedCorn, who was named to the Native American 40 Under 40 list in 2018, also works with master gardeners in Nebraska who are growing Pawnee seeds and layering on the analysis of Western science. “Maybe in the way that Western science has been apprehensive about our way of knowing,” she says, “Maybe it’s that we’ve been apprehensive about learning the data science and the agronomy.”

In addition to her work as a Pawnee seed-keeper, Hare-RedCorn has a job is with the Intertribal Agriculture Council, which is under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of the Interior. She acknowledges that people have to feed their families, but she says that culture also matters. “We’re returning to what we once knew,” Hare-RedCorn says. Yes, the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project’s aim is to protect the corn and the seeds that have been lost to the tribe. “But,” she says, “we also feel like we have a lot to learn and teach together. So I feel like if the USDA and NRCS would be open… to shifting powers or shifting responsibilities, to work alongside tribes or with tribes, I think that would go a long way. It would enrich the work they’re doing in communities.”

Hought, of Native Seeds, agrees. Despite the many challenges in this work, she says the one thing she knows for sure is that any success in achieving biodiversity in the food system will be relationship-based. That applies to the relationship between the seeds and the growers as well as the relationship between the growers and the cultures, systems, and institutions of which they are a part.

“There’s a difference between nostalgia, and cultivating from the past tools that will help you adapt to the future,” Hought says.

Hare-RedCorn puts it plainly: “Things will get better once Indigenous or non-Western world views are embraced or encouraged,” she says. “I just think our world will get richer; our food will taste better.”

Breanna Draxler is the climate editor at YES! She covers all things environmental.

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