THERE'S A NON-PROFIT organization here in Tucson that may soon find itself up against The Terminator.
Not Arnold Schwarzenegger's villainous robot, but a new Terminator, and not at all fictional: a tiny package of genes that can be inserted into seeds in order to program plants to kill their own offspring. The point of this: to ensure that farmers who grow crops from the genetically altered product won't be able to collect viable seed at the end of the season. They'll have to buy new seed each year, ensuring higher profits for the seed company.
The mission of the local organization, Native Seeds/SEARCH, could be described as just the opposite: to keep seeds alive, to "grow them out" so they produce a new generation of fresh seed before they die. Profit isn't an issue; if you're a Native American, they'll even give 'em to you for free.
There won't be a loud, dramatic battle between this organization's conservation-minded approach to farming and the genetically manipulated, uniform, corporate-controlled kind of agriculture that's taking on the world. They may stand as quietly as two different stalks of corn growing side by side, but the issues involved here will affect everyone who eats.
BEFORE BIODIVERSITY BECAME a buzzword -- before it appeared on bumper stickers telling us to celebrate it -- Mahina Drees and Gary Nabhan ran into a problem that brought them face to face with biodiversity's importance.
In 1983, as part of their work at Meals for Millions (a development organization with a small office on the UA campus), Drees and Nabhan were researching appropriate technology for growing crops locally. The project regularly took them to the Tohono O'odham reservation, where they would often hear the same remark: we like the broccoli and spinach, people said, but we would also like to grow the crops of our grandparents.
Drees and Nabhan asked around. The seeds weren't easy to find. There were some, but not many, who still farmed in the traditional way. Eventually they managed to locate about 40 heirloom crop varieties. These included the "three sisters" -- corn, beans and squash -- as well as sunflowers, panicgrass and amaranth. They also collected wild relatives like the super-hot chiltepin, the "mother of all chiles." Meals for Millions made space in their refrigerator for the assortment of seed-filled paper cups, and a seed bank was born.
The collection grew in size and usefulness until it became clear that it deserved a home of its own and a status separate from its parent organization. With few financial resources other than some lifetime memberships they'd convinced their friends to buy, Drees and Nabhan, along with their spouses Barney Burns and Karen Reichhardt, established Native Seeds/SEARCH (Southwestern Endangered Arid-Lands Resource Clearing House) as a non-profit organization devoted to the conservation of desert food resources.
Today Native Seeds/SEARCH is a major regional seed bank, holding the genetic diversity of 1,900 collections, many of them rare or endangered. The organization has nearly 4,600 members as well as a catalog mailing list of more than 20,000 families. It serves as a resource for home gardeners and indigenous farmers in the U.S. and around the world.
Ironically, it also sometimes serves as a resource for modern agriculture, which is largely responsible for the loss of the diversity that Native Seeds/SEARCH is working to protect.
A few years ago, for example, Southwestern sunflower growers found their broad fields of genetically identical plants succumbing to blight. The USDA might have spent millions of dollars developing a resistant strain of the crop. Instead, Native Seeds/SEARCH dipped into its seed bank and came up with a seed having the blight-resistant trait, which was then bred into commercial crops, giving them resistance to the blight and saving the sunflower industry millions more.
The resistant sunflower had come from the seed heritage of the Havasupai, a Grand Canyon tribe which no longer farms in the old way. At some point in the past, they had shared it with other native groups that continued to grow it; had they not, it would probably have been lost along with the last traditional Havasupai farmer.
In fact, crop diversity is closely linked to the diversity of the farming traditions themselves. The Hopis, for example, grow a variety of corn that looks "short" but in reality is simply planted deeper, giving the seed a moisture advantage. The Tarahumara grow a type of corn that endures drought, looking half-dead and scraggly, until the monsoons come to revive it. Tohono O'odham crops have adapted to life in the floodplain, since the strategy of that group has been to situate fields where they can catch runoff from streams and washes. Over time, people selected plants that worked best for them, and influenced the genetic makeup of the seeds they passed on to their children.
The diversity of these ancient crops is also closely linked to local environments.
"Traditional agriculture often takes place in marginal areas, where it's hot or high or salty," explains Suzanne Nelson, NS/S director of conservation and seed bank curator. The different crop varieties "have evolved in these environments over time. They've adapted to specific environmental conditions, and they may be resistant to a certain disease or pest."
Modern agriculture is different, she says. "There's a leveling off of environmental differences by irrigation and other methods." Throughout much of the world today, agriculture has embraced monoculture -- the practice of cultivating large fields of the same crop, year after year.
It has also embraced biotechnology and a very different process of influencing the seed inheritance of future generations.
TERMINATOR TECHNOLOGY HASN'T come about by accident. It's a logical step in the evolution of monoculture, genetic engineering and agribusiness.
Monoculture can mean a huge market for a single seed, a perfected seed, suited to our broadly used methods and equipment. Monoculture makes it profitable for agribusiness giants such as Monsanto to spend millions on genetic research in order to offer irresistible improvements on nature. Some of these products may seem at first to be just that. Their beetle-resistant potato, for example, doesn't need the usual drenchings with insecticide. (In actuality, the advantage won't work for long; bugs have a way of developing a resistance to any weapon that's widely used, sometimes in just a few years.) Other products are more obvious attempts to capture the market, like the canola plant that's conveniently resistant to Monsanto's own herbicide, Roundup.
In any case, it's not hard to see why, when a corporation spends so much money "designing" a plant, it would rather not have the thing reproducing itself for free.
Monsanto now has exclusive licensing rights to the Terminator technology. It holds the patent jointly, however, with the U.S. Department of Agriculture, which was a partner in its development. Crop and seed development has always been a function of the USDA, but legislation passed in the 1980s allows agencies of the federal government to work more closely with the private sector. So taxpayers, including the farmers themselves, are actually funding the research that generates corporate profits. At present, Monsanto and the USDA are in negotiations to decide how the technique might be marketed and licensed to other companies.
The commercial release of Terminator seeds is a year or two away. But seed companies are already protecting their expensive genetic products by asking farmers to sign licensing agreements promising they will refrain from saving or selling any second-generation seed. While such agreements are becoming increasingly common, Monsanto has been especially aggressive in enforcing them. The company has hired private investigators to catch farmers in the act of growing unauthorized plants. It has encouraged farmers to "rat" on each other by setting up a toll-free tip line, and has even bought radio advertising to announce the names of transgressors. In Europe, Burns says, aggressive enforcement is more common than it is in the U.S.
Never mind that seed saving is a tradition as old as farming itself. Monsanto can prosecute farmers -- and has been, winning hundreds of thousands of dollars -- under the 1970 Plant Variety Protection Act and a 1980 legislative decision to allow the patenting of microorganisms.
Nature, of course, isn't as easily contained. Bees will happily carry pollen from a Monsanto field over to the neighbor's. Wind will blow seed off a truck into someone's garden. But farmers caught with unlicensed genes in their plants, no matter how they got there, can still be prosecuted, even as their own fields are affected by a laboratory process that is not yet completely understood, or by a type of pollution that has not yet become regulated.
Monoculture has allowed the modern farmer to produce unprecedented amounts of food, to efficiently "feed the world." But now, somehow, it seems to be turning against him.
For one, the practice is not sustainable. Myriad rows of identical plants are going to be identically vulnerable to an insect or a disease or a choking weed. As long as evolution continues to work as it always has, pesticides, herbicides and genetic modifications will offer only temporary relief for such a system. In the end nature will prevail.
AS A NON-PROFIT organization, Native Seeds/SEARCH is not worried about competing with the commercial sales of Terminator seeds or any other biotechnology product. And while Terminator genes will be able, at least theoretically, to render sterile some of the plants in a garden plot or small field planted with NS/S seeds, that possibility is not a direct threat to its seed bank at the moment. It's really the system behind Terminator technology -- i.e., the agribusiness-controlled system of monoculture -- that the organization is up against. That system threatens not only the ways and seeds of the traditional farmer, but ultimately the world's food plant diversity. The many programs and activities of Native Seeds/SEARCH's mission have been organized to respond to that threat.
The NS/S collection area extends "from Las Vegas to Las Vegas and from Durango to Durango." (That's Nevada/California and Texas/Mexico, Burns explains.) The rapid disappearance of the ancient farming traditions within the region is alarming.
"People are moving to the cities, getting wage work," and participating in cash economies, says Burns. "Traditional agriculture is hanging by a thread."
As recently as 1925, the Tohono O'odham people cultivated 10,000 acres using their traditional floodwater methods. Most of that activity ended when the Army Corps of Engineers built diversion dams and destroyed the sheet flooding of the area. Burns says "only a handful" of O'odham farm this way today. Most other native groups have seen a similar decline in their farming traditions.
While Native Seeds/SEARCH does collect wild plant species, it's not primarily concerned, like most other conservation groups, with preserving the wild. It seeks to save domesticated crops, or plants that don't exist outside of the gardens and fields of human cultivators.
Sometimes that comes down to a single family.
Burns tells a story about the collection of a white bean from the Mexican town of Cerocahui. It was called "Gringo bean," not, he was told, because it was white, but because it wrinkled when it dried. It wasn't grown anymore except by the Salmeron family, he was told. When the head of that family became caught up in the area's drug wars, he had to leave his land. Had Native Seeds/SEARCH not collected the bean, it would most likely have been lost.
Where monoculture seems to favor the impersonal and the corporate, the preservation of crop diversity is inherently linked to people and culture.
"Seeds have stories and songs connected to them," says NS/S Executive Director Angelo Joaquin. "As seeds die off, cultural knowledge dies off." Recognizing this, NS/S established their Cultural Memory Bank, collecting historical and cultural information for each of the plant varieties in the seed bank.
The seed catalog is sprinkled with this kind of detail as well. It notes that the Zuni Shalako, or Jacob's Cattle Bean, was "given to Zuni farmers by the giant Shalako kachina." The Yoemi "Alvaaka" Basil was "collected from a woman at New Pascua who uses the foliage to make a tea which is "good for the stomach.' " From the Wild Cocolmeca bean plant, "the Tarahumara make a glue...to mend gourd containers."
"It's important to tie foods to culture," says Joaquin. NS/S noticed that diabetes rates rose among many desert people -- the aborigines of Australia, the Tarahumara, and the Pima as well as the Tohono O'odham -- when they adopted the "Western" diet.
"Traditional foods of the desert are all high in fiber and low in fat," Joaquin says. "They're high in mucilage and pectin. These slow the digestive system down." As a result, sugar enters the bloodstream more slowly and evenly, and less insulin is required. Native Seeds/SEARCH's Desert Foods for Diabetes program helps get the word out on this discovery, and promotes the use of traditional foods such as tepary beans, mesquite pods, and prickly pear pads to help regulate blood sugar.
To someone with a mixed or unknown ethnic background, tying food to culture may seem less relevant, at least physiologically. But any loss of food plant diversity makes the world nutritionally poorer. With modern medicine only beginning to explore the relationship of health to nutrition, it's important to preserve the diversity.
Beyond this, there is the issue of safety. Monoculture requires chemicals, some highly toxic. And biotechnology raises new safety questions. Biotechnology makes it possible to create an insect-resistant plant, but it does this by incorporating the "insecticide" into the plant's genetics. Monsanto has used genes from an organic insecticide called Bt, a substance produced by a soil bacterium (Bacillus thuringiensis). It's an insecticide commonly used in small amounts by organic farmers. Bottles of Bt carry a warning label ("Avoid contact with eyes or open wounds. Avoid inhaling spray mist") and are regulated by the EPA. But biotech foods require no label; without any way of knowing it, you may end up with Bt corn and Bt potatoes on your dinner plate.
IF THE TRENDS in modern agriculture are disturbing, the value of a seed bank as a Noah's ark of crop diversity is clear.
NS/S is, in truth, more like an ark than a bank: its seeds are mortal and need to reproduce before they die. Every five to 10 years, depending on the plant, seeds must be taken out of frozen storage, planted, and tended until a new generation of seed can be collected from them.
The process requires suitable land, skilled workers and other resources. Since its beginning, NS/S has been without land for substantial grow- outs, and has had to depend on a number of different arrangements for regeneration. As a result, more than a third of its sleeping seeds have come dangerously close to losing viability.
But they will be rescued. Six months ago, NS/S was able to purchase 60 acres of rich floodplain near Sonoita, Arizona, where two creeks meet. Already, quite a few imperiled crop varieties have been successfully grown out on the land.
"The timing of the purchase was miraculous," says Nelson, who oversees grow-outs at the farm along with Matt Suhr, the resident farm manager.
Actually, "it's not farming," says Nelson, her point being that planting a crop for its seed is quite different from planting a crop for eating. The goal is to produce seed that's genetically like its parents, she explains. So steps must be taken to prevent cross-pollination. Chiles need to be caged to keep free-roaming insects out. Corn and amaranth need to have their tassels bagged. Many crops need to be hand-pollinated. Beans are primarily "selfers," she says -- pollen isn't usually exchanged between different plants; even so, Nelson and Suhr like to plant different varieties at least 12 feet apart with other crops in between, just to be safe.
With this kind of intensive work required, and with a third of the seed bank -- over 600 accessions -- in desperate need of being grown out, the farm team has its work cut out for it.
But NS/S has a dream for the farm that goes beyond regeneration of the seed bank. They envision an education center offering workshops, conference facilities, exhibits and demonstrations of traditional farming and cooking. And they'll need to grow all the catalog favorites: the Mayo Blusher squash, the Hopi black-dye sunflowers, the Tohono O'odham 60-day corn, the Pima orange lima beans and many others.
Education and catalog sales are crucial. It's going to take more than the efforts of one organization to succeed at preserving the rich diversity of this region's ancient food resources. The seed bank, Nelson says, is really just a way of buying time -- the time it takes to get those seeds into the hands of gardeners and farmers and traditional food enthusiasts who will grow them.
If you're up against something as ominous-looking as the Terminator, you don't want to be alone.
The Native Seeds/SEARCH retail store, 526 N. Fourth Ave., sells seeds, snacks, books and related items. Their catalog is available at the store, or by calling 622-5561. More information is available online: http://www.azstarnet.co/~nss/.