Na­tive Seeds/SEARCH pre­serves in­dige­nous food strains


Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - For more in­for­ma­tion about Na­tive Seeds/SEARCH, visit na­

Na­tive Seeds/SEARCH (an acro­nym for South­west­ern En­dan­gered Arid­land Re­source Clear­ing House) was founded in 1983 in Tuc­son by Gary Paul Nab­han, Karen Re­ich­hardt, Bar­ney Burns, and Mahina Drees. The or­ga­ni­za­tion, which fo­cuses on bank­ing, shar­ing, and dis­tribut­ing heir­loom seeds for crops tra­di­tion­ally grown in the South­west, in­cludes an ac­tive ed­u­ca­tion pro­gram, a mail-or­der and re­tail store, a blog, and a news­let­ter. There are a num­ber of ways to ac­quire seeds from NS/S, in­clud­ing in-store and on­line pur­chas­ing for the gen­eral pub­lic, a free or low-cost pro­gram for Na­tive Amer­i­cans, and a free seed li­brary based in the Tuc­son re­tail store.

Pasatiempo re­cently ex­changed emails with Kevin Dahl, who held var­i­ous staff and board po­si­tions with NS/S (in­clud­ing ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor) be­tween 1985 and 2018, and talked on the phone with cur­rent ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor Joy Hought.

Pasatiempo: Why and how was NS/S founded in 1983? Kevin Dahl: As I un­der­stand it, Na­tive Seeds/SEARCH grew out of a project to en­cour­age food gar­dens, in­clud­ing on the To­hono O’odham Na­tion, where par­tic­i­pants would ask for seeds of tra­di­tional crops. A seed ex­change be­came part of the pro­gram. The need to make sure that these va­ri­eties were not lost, by col­lect­ing them and en­cour­ag­ing their use, be­came the core of NS/S’s mis­sion. Pasa: Why fo­cus only on plants of the arid South­west? Dahl: While the arid part of the U.S. South­west and north­west Mex­ico is very di­verse in both cul­tures and land­scape, it has a rather sim­i­lar agri­cul­tural tra­di­tion. The founders also re­al­ized that while sav­ing the seeds of crops and their wild rel­a­tives is im­por­tant world­wide, this re­gion would pro­vide enough chal­lenges and op­por­tu­ni­ties, and the scale was some­thing that they could tackle. Pasa: Has NS/S changed in any sig­nif­i­cant way over the past 35 years? Dahl: The core mis­sion of NS/S has stayed the same. Col­lect­ing seeds from farm­ers was ex­tremely im­por­tant in the early years, and I am so grate­ful that we were able to ob­tain what we were, as some would surely have been lost. Dif­fer­ent projects to pro­mote in situ con­ser­va­tion [con­tin­ued use of the crops in place] were im­ple­mented dur­ing our his­tory, and some

passed on. But NS/S con­tin­ues to keep these va­ri­eties ge­net­i­cally pure, safe­guarded in a state-of-the-art seed bank, dis­trib­uted for use by all. We work with tra­di­tional farm­ers to pro­mote their con­tin­ued use. Pasa: If es­tab­lish­ing the seed col­lec­tion was the most im­por­tant task in the early days of the or­ga­ni­za­tion, what do you see as its most im­por­tant mis­sion now? Joy Hought: I think for the folks who are here now, it’s re­ally about how we make sure that we don’t be­come a dead-end repos­i­tory for seeds that are in a mu­seum. And the way that we do that is to be in­creas­ingly more as­sertive about what else we need to know about these crops in or­der for farm­ers to use them suc­cess­fully.

As agri­cul­ture has changed and tech­nol­ogy has changed and eco­nom­ics have changed, these types of bio­di­verse heir­loom seeds are strug­gling to have a place in con­tem­po­rary farm­ing. You can’t just take one of these beau­ti­ful heir­loom seeds and give them to a con­tem­po­rary in­dus­trial farmer and have him have suc­cess with them, be­cause they are dif­fer­ent. They are adapted to a dif­fer­ent type of farm­ing sys­tem. So there is a chal­lenge with bio­di­ver­sity when it comes up against mod­ern farm­ing. I think our work to­day is to find that sweet spot where we can sup­port con­tem­po­rary farm­ers in utiliz­ing these va­ri­eties — and that means that we’ve got to part­ner with farm­ers, part­ner with peo­ple par­tic­i­pat­ing in food mar­kets to bet­ter un­der­stand the crops. I don’t think it’s rea­son­able to­day to ex­pect ev­ery house­hold to grow a por­tion of their own food. … But if we can in­cre­men­tally in­tro­duce more of these bio­di­verse foods into the food sys­tem, I think that’s a win. Con­ven­tional farm­ing isn’t go­ing any­where — so what we want to work to­ward is just a slightly big­ger piece of the agri­cul­tural pie. Pasa: Do heir­loom seeds have a role to play in food se­cu­rity? Hought: We think there is a role for heir­loom foods in food se­cu­rity that goes far be­yond just the ro­mance and beauty of bio­di­ver­sity, be­cause there are nu­tri­ents there that aren’t present in mod­ern foods. An in­di­vid­ual green pep­per, for ex­am­ple, is go­ing to be smaller, but it’s got more nutri­tion — specif­i­cally, more mi­cronu­tri­ents. They’ve been selec­tively bred out in the in­ter­ests of breed­ing for other val­ues. The in­dus­try is wak­ing up to what it’s done over time — it’s bred these very mono­chrome va­ri­eties that per­form well, yield well, but have lost their fla­vor com­po­nents, lost their mi­cronu­tri­ent pro­files — and now they’re look­ing back at some of these heir­loom foods and go­ing, “Oh, can I grab that gene that pro­duces that cool mi­cronu­tri­ent and add it back into my mod­ern crop and then I can sell it back to con­sumers as this su­per­plant?” … We think we’ve got the orig­i­nal su­per­foods, that you don’t have to rein­vent them, that they al­ready ex­ist. Pasa: Would heir­loom seeds do a bet­ter job of adapt­ing to cli­mate change than ge­net­i­cally mod­i­fied or hy­brid seeds? Hought: In terms of po­ten­tial adapt­abil­ity, what these heir­loom va­ri­eties have, if the heir­loom is what is called an OP, or open pol­li­nated va­ri­ety, what it has built into it is … if you have a hand­ful of seeds, all of those seeds are not ge­net­i­cally iden­ti­cal; there’s just enough ge­netic vari­a­tion that there is the po­ten­tial af­ter you plant it that some of them are go­ing to han­dle that en­vi­ron­ment bet­ter than oth­ers, and they are go­ing to sur­vive. So be­cause they are not all the same, there is some built-in flex­i­bil­ity that in the­ory should lend it­self to a bet­ter abil­ity to adapt … But I hon­estly don’t think there is a clear, demon­strated, eco­log­i­cal ad­van­tage to these crops in the face of cli­mate change. We just don’t know. Pasa: It sounds like in­ter­ac­tion with the com­mu­nity is an im­por­tant part of your work — that it’s not just about the seeds; it’s also about the peo­ple. Hought: Bio­di­ver­sity re­ally de­pends on many, many hands. We’ve only got 12 to 14 peo­ple work­ing here, but we have hun­dreds of vol­un­teers and thou­sands of mem­bers. It’s the na­ture of this type of bio­di­ver­sity that large in­sti­tu­tions aren’t go­ing to do that work for us. It’s de­pen­dent on the com­mu­nity to make that hap­pen, even if that means you’re sav­ing that one seed from green beans in your back­yard.

Peo­ple come to our seed classes and they get over­whelmed … like, “I don’t have space to grow 20 crops and save all these seeds …” and we say, “You don’t have to. You are still valu­able.” When you go to the farm­ers mar­ket, ask your farm­ers where they get their seed. That’s re­ally the next fron­tier of bio­di­ver­sity and con­ser­va­tion. There is a lot of fu­ture work to do to make more of these seeds ac­ces­si­ble to or­ganic, sus­tain­able farm­ers. I just want peo­ple read­ing this to know that if they don’t have a yard, or they are not a farmer, there are things they can do to sup­port farm­ers in their com­mu­nity who are grow­ing these foods. We can sup­port them by sup­port­ing their liveli­hoods and com­mu­ni­cat­ing to farm­ers how im­por­tant that is. Pasa: What’s the most im­por­tant thing peo­ple need to know about sup­port­ing bio­di­ver­sity? Hought: Bio­di­ver­sity work doesn’t have to be stress­ful or based on fear. We want peo­ple to en­gage and be mo­ti­vated by the joy and the de­light of bio­di­ver­sity. All of the beau­ti­ful foods that we have with us to­day in the heir­loom com­mu­nity are still here be­cause at least one per­son cared enough to save a seed. … It doesn’t have to be a huge sci­en­tific un­der­tak­ing … it comes out of be­ing de­lighted with in­ter­act­ing with the nat­u­ral world.

When peo­ple are afraid of GMOs and afraid of this and that, they put their en­ergy there. We have fi­nite time and en­ergy on earth. Are we go­ing to spend it be­ing afraid of the things we don’t like, or are we go­ing to lever­age that en­ergy to build a fu­ture that we do want?

Win­now­ing wheat at a Hopi Tut­skwa Per­ma­cul­ture seed sav­ing class; top, freshly har­vested sun­flow­ers (Con­ser­va­tion Farm Mix) from Na­tive Health

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