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The Future of Food: Seeds of Resilience

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Commentary:Revitalizing Our Indigenous Heritage

Emigdio Ballon, a South American native, is a founder of the Four Bridges Traveling Permaculture Institute. He obtained his degree in Agricultural Engineering in his native country, Bolivia, and his Master’s degree in Colombia. After working as a high altitude crops director in Bolivia, he moved to the United States to pursue a PhD in plant genetics. Currently he works as the Director of the Agricultural Department at the Pueblo of Tesuque in New Mexico. He continues to incorporate traditional agriculture, and the teachings of his ancestors, into all of his work.

1. What are the best ways to protect and strengthen community based seed systems?

As an indigenous Bolivian of Quechua decent, I grew up learning about my traditional seeds, foods, and medicines thanks to the knowledge of my mother and my grandparents. At a very young age, I learned to appreciate the importance of our traditional seeds which have been planted, cultivated, and saved for centuries. The Quechua people are descendants of the Incan people. They spent years developing ancient technology in growing and irrigation systems. Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo in Peru are perfect examples of this technology. Using natural resources, the lay of the land, simple principals of physics, and sheer human strength, the Incans built an intricate irrigation system that, to this day still functions naturally, without need of a plumber. Our ancestors experimented to determine which crops grow best at various altitudes, weather conditions, and water availability, and created terrace gardens at altitudes of up to 4,200 metres. This history inspired me to pursue my degrees in plant genetics.

Thanks to the research and development of the Incan people, we now have more than 12,000 genotypes of potatoes, collected and stored in the International Potato Center, as well as several thousand genotypes of beans and corn collected and stored in their respective international centres. These crops are only a few examples of a society determined to hold on to traditions.

There are thousands of Indigenous communities throughout our Mother Earth fighting to protect their inherent rights to practice their traditions and grow their foods and seeds. They seek to draw attention to overlooked food crops in the world so that these communities, their foods and seeds are not forgotten or destroyed by genetic modification. The crops are not yet truly lost; indeed, most are well known in many areas of the world, especially among indigenous groups, but protecting these varieties is the main focus of international scientists and people trying to protect the food.

“Education is central to protecting and strengthening community based seed systems. To help protect traditional seeds in Indigenous communities, we need to make their names known, we need to catalogue them and keep them under the watchful eye of the people. People need to protect the biodiversity of each community’s ecosystem.”

Education is central to protecting and strengthening community based seed systems. To help protect traditional seeds in Indigenous communities, we need to make their names known, we need to catalogue them and keep them under the watchful eye of the people. People need to protect the biodiversity of each community’s ecosystem. Crops were developed by ancient Indigenous tribes. They established foods and seeds long before the invasion of their respective colonists. By the time of their conquest, the Indigenous tribes had brought these plants to their highest state of development and in many cases, such as maize, had spread them throughout other Indigenous communities.

“A handful of dedicated Indigenous researchers have studied intensively and struggled for decades to promote traditional indigenous seeds in the face of deeply ingrained prejudices in favour of European food.”

Research is another way to protect seeds. Agronomists and ethnobotanists, many working in Indigenous communities, have begun preserving what remains of traditional indigenous seeds. Indeed, a handful of dedicated Indigenous researchers have studied intensively and struggled for decades to promote them in the face of deeply ingrained prejudices in favour of European food. These efforts have sparked interest outside their regions. Some of these seeds are already showing promise in exploratory trials in other areas. For instance, the cultivation of quinoa has begun in the United States with some success. Other indigenous foods in other areas are also being tested.

Activism also helps to protect and strengthen community based seed systems. Winona LaDuke, an Anishinaabe activist, struggled for years to protect her community’s sacred wild rice that “tastes like a lake.” Her people won the fight against genetic modification. Hawaiians recently won their struggle to keep their traditional poy from being genetically modified. We are also struggling in New Mexico to protect chili and blue corn from genetic modification. Organizations such as the Four Bridges Traveling Permaculture Institute have helped to form the Northern New Mexico Coalition Against GMOs to protect the chili and blue corn.

This shows the importance of food crops and seeds that have been taken from Indigenous communities by corporations who seek to genetically modify and control them by patenting the resulting seed.

”Our indigenous heritage includes not only the food crops and seeds, but also the traditional planting and storing techniques.”

This indigenous heritage includes not only the food crops and seeds, but also the traditional planting and storing techniques. For example, the Hopi tribe is growing corn, beans and other crops in dry land, the same way that the Quechua people in the southern part of Bolivia grow quinoa in dry land.

2. Beyond lack of funding, what are the blockages/barriers that get in the way of success?

The major barrier to preserving indigenous foods and seeds is lack of funding, however, Indigenous people face many other barriers as well. I have witnessed the struggle in many Indigenous communities: the Quechuas, the Aymara, the Aztecs, the Mayans, the Hopi (descendants of the Anasazi), the Pueblo people of New Mexico, the people of the Iroquois Confederation (consisting of Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca, and Tuscarora nations), and many other Indigenous people.

Colonization has been a major factor in losing some of our cultural identity, which includes our traditional foods and seeds. Food is the basis for our existence, and without it, we cease to exist. This strategy of conquering Indigenous people by destroying their food supply is true for most Indigenous communities around the world.

As a military strategy, most so-called conquerors not only murdered the men, women, and children of a territory, but also laid siege to its food stores, which oftentimes held the seeds of the food supply for years to come. For the Iroquois people, it was the newly formed American government that was the colonizer. To the American people, George Washington is known as the “father of his country,” but to the Iroquois people he was known as “Ranataka’rias,” or “town destroyer.” In 1779, under the orders of Washington, John Sullivan’s troops torched 40 Iroquoian villages, including 160,000 bushels of traditional corn. For the Aztec people, it is said that with the arrival of Cortez and the Spanish Conquistadors, nearly all of the amaranth—a grain that today is considered a super food—was burned, and its use forbidden.

Colonization has now morphed into modern political policies developed without Indigenous communities in mind. In colonial times, Indigenous people were forced into activities that were not traditionally their own. Slavery, mining, and other forms of hard labour threatened the very essence of each Indigenous community for hundreds of years. Use of traditional crops were forbidden, and nearly brought to extinction. Today, the same thing is happening with corporations such Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta and others, who are poisoning our seeds with pesticides in the laboratory through genetic engineering and creating terminator seeds which cannot be saved and replanted. The poor farmer is dependent on purchasing seed each year from the rich corporations who attempt to own life, through patents.

“Modern politics is also a barrier to the success of protecting and preserving traditional seeds and foods. Lobbying and protesting in support of protecting native seeds and foods needs to be organized in various political arenas.”

Thus modern politics is also a barrier to the success of protecting and preserving traditional seeds and foods. Lobbying and protesting in support of protecting native seeds and foods needs to be organized in various political arenas. The fight against genetic modification and seed patenting must continue. Educating policy-makers on the importance of traditional seeds and the dangers of GMOs is essential. We must petition against governments in countries that work under the influence of corporations and with the World Trade Organization that supports genetic modification. We also need to fight against environmental contamination, caused by pesticides, fracking, and building pipelines, which threatens our foods and seeds.

“We must reverse patents on life and patents on seeds. Living organisms make themselves. Life forms, plants, and seeds are self-organized, sovereign beings with intrinsic worth, value and standing.”

We must reverse patents on life and patents on seeds. Living organisms make themselves. Life forms, plants, and seeds are self-organized, sovereign beings with intrinsic worth, value and standing. They are not invented by simply putting a gene into them. Adding a toxic gene should in fact be counted as pollution, not as a “creation,” and furthermore, genetically engineered seeds with toxic genes in them need to be regulated with bio-safety in mind. Uniformity is being pushed as a positive criteria in order to legitimize corporate control over seeds.

Industrial breeding has used different technological tools to consolidate control over seeds; from so-called high-yielding varieties to hybrids, genetically engineered seeds, terminator seeds and now synthetic biology. The tools change but the quest to control life and society does not. The corporate law of the seed is undermining the very fabric of life. This is the ethical dimension of the issue. We are all members of the Earth family, stewards in the web of life. Yet corporations are now claiming the role of creator. They have declared seeds to be their “invention”, hence their patented property. A patent is an exclusive right granted for an invention, which allows the patent holder to exclude everyone else from making, selling, distributing and using the patented product. With patents on seeds, this implies that the farmers’ right to save and share seed is now in effect defined as theft—an intellectual property crime.

Patents on seeds are legally wrong because seeds are not an invention. Patents on seeds are ethically wrong because seeds are life forms, our kin, members of our Earth family. “Owning life” by claiming it to be a corporate invention is both ethically and legally wrong.

3. Where can funders intervene for greatest impact in the area of seed systems?

Agricultural biological diversity, or more specifically, genetic resources for food and agriculture, provide humanity with food, clothes, and cultural identity and are essential to the development of sustainable agriculture and food security.

Evolution is the process by which nature practices its capacity of selection; for selection to exist, nature needs diversity. We need diversity to allow evolution, and thus capacity for adaptation. We need diversity in order to be able to select the best characteristics for crops. It is the basis for the farmer, the breeder, and the agricultural scientist in general. This diversity has been developed over thousands of generations and our duty is to safeguard it for future generations.

In spite of its vital importance for human survival, agricultural biodiversity is being lost at an alarming rate. It is estimated that in the past, some ten thousand species have been used for human food and agriculture. Currently, no more than 120 cultivated species provide 90 per cent of human food supplied by plants, and of those, only 12 plant species and five animal species alone provide more than 70 per cent of all human food. A mere four plant species (potatoes, rice, maize and wheat) and three animal species (cattle, swine and chickens) provide more than half of our food supply. Hundreds of thousands of farmers’ heterogeneous plant varieties and landscapes that existed for generations in farmers’ fields until the beginning of the twentieth century have been substituted by a small number of modern and highly uniform commercial varieties.

“The loss of agricultural biodiversity has drastically reduced the capability of present and future generations to face unpredictable environmental changes and human needs.”

The loss of agricultural biodiversity has drastically reduced the capability of present and future generations to face unpredictable environmental changes and human needs. Also, meta-analyses published since 2005 have shown that as a general rule, reductions in the number of the genes, species and functional groups of organisms reduce the efficiency by which whole communities capture biologically essential resources into biomass. Thus, biodiversity increases the stability of ecosystem functions through time.

On the basis of these facts, it is very important that foundations support retention and revitalization of traditional foods and seeds in Indigenous communities. I suggest the following plan of action in assisting these communities with their traditional foods, seeds, and agricultural practices.

  • Identify and support areas where the natural collection of local seed exists.
  • Create and support the exchange of seeds between Indigenous communities.
  • Control the genetic erosion in plant resources for food and agriculture.
  • Create and support local seed libraries.