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The Future of Food: Seeds of Resilience

Commentaries

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Commentary:Restoring and Recovering Indigenous Seeds in North America

Winona LaDuke is the Executive Director of Honor the Earth, an indigenous environmental advocacy organization, and a founder of both the White Earth Land Recovery Project and Native Harvest. LaDuke is a member of the Mississippi Band Anishinaabeg and lives on the White Earth Indigenous Reservation in Minnesota, United States. She is a graduate of Harvard University and Antioch University, is the recipient of multiple awards for her human rights work, and has authored six books on indigenous issues and the environment.

Indigenous people work with 7,000 crops and one million varieties, while the majority of industrial agriculture has whittled this down to 135 major crops and 103,000 varieties.
—Pat Mooney, ETC Group

My generation is the first generation in the world that has lost more knowledge than it has gained.
—Toby Hodges, FAO

Background

Indigenous Peoples are landed, yet are marginalized. As such there are estimated to be around 40,000 Indigenous farmers in the United States, and fewer in Canada. However, many Indigenous communities retain some access to broad biodiversity and retain access to land. Many of the seed varieties came from our communities, and need to be restored there. There has been significant work and support for the restoration of seeds in the American southwest. Native Seed Search is the most well known, but tribal communities, particularly groups such as Tohono O’odham Community Action (TOCA), Traditional Native American Farmers Association, Tesuque Pueblo, and the Hopi Permaculture Project, to name a few, have major traction and leadership in seed and farming restoration. Some of their work now is to defray the introduction of more GMO seeds into the Navajo Nation, as those would have a detrimental impact on indigenous seed stock and diversity.

Another stronghold of indigenous farming is the Six Nations area, where a multitude of bean, corn, squash and tobacco varieties are intact. There is a growing movement of seed and farming restoration in the southeastern United States, particularly with groups such as the Muskoke Food Sovereignty Initiative.

In the Great Lakes region there are three major sources of seed diversity and a strong growing movement for indigenous seeds and farming. One of the leading organizations and tribal entities in the region includes Dream of Wild Health, a Minneapolis based organization that inherited a collection containing hundreds of varieties from Cora Baker, a renowned Indigenous gardener. At its small farm in Hugo, Minnesota, Dream of Wild Health staff work on keeping those seeds viable and promoting community based gardening in the Minneapolis area. In northern Minnesota, at the White Earth reservation, the White Earth Land Recovery Project has a long history of restoration of seeds. The Oneida Nation in southwestern Ontario has farming projects that include both traditional and non-traditional production (cattle), but also has a stronghold on the white corn varieties in the Great Lakes region. As well, just northwest of the Great Lakes region, the Métis Horticultural Society in Winnipeg is a stronghold of the restoration of indigenous seeds.

Finally, international/cross-border work is important, as the Anishinaabeg are the most northern corn growers in the world, having pushed corn 160 kilometres north of Winnipeg by seed adaptation. The varieties are many, largely from the Ojibwe communities.

What we are looking at in the Great Lakes region

“In Canada, three-quarters of all the crop varieties that existed before the 20th century are extinct. Of the remaining quarter, only 10 per cent are available commercially from Canadian seed companies (the remainder is held by gardeners and families).”

In the 1800s, 120 distinct Anishinaabe agricultural varieties grew in our territory. Many of these varieties have disappeared, and many are difficult to find. Some are located in the Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN)-USDA seed bank, and some with individual Native people, organizations and families. In Canada, three-quarters of all the crop varieties that existed before the 20th century are extinct. Of the remaining quarter, only 10 per cent are available commercially from Canadian seed companies (the remainder is held by gardeners and families). As well, the Anishinaabeg and other Indigenous Peoples in the north have utilized over 660 different harvested plants for food sources. This includes over 50 varieties of nuts, 20 varieties of fungi, 145 varieties of berries, drupes, pomes, 60 teas, and 125 roots or bulbs. While not all of them are a part of the traditional landscape of northern Minnesota, or Anishinaabe Akiing, many are. Our agrobiodiversity and harvested biodiversity mirrors international statistics: Indigenous Peoples have traditional agriculture and harvesting knowledge that was the foundation for excellent nutrition and health.

Those varieties have continually formed the basis for not only our own foods, but also a premium market to non-Native people. As Mary Wingerd wrote in her book, North Country, “Dakota and Ojibwe women were deep into commercial enterprise….They…peddled sugar, wild rice, pumpkins, corn, squash and other agricultural products to the traders and the military. With virtually no food produced for the market by whites in Minnesota country in the 1840s, and fresh produce in high demand, Native women entrepreneurs could set premium price on their small surplus harvests.”

Decline of Anishinaabe food wealth

Like many Indigenous Peoples, our wealth was the source of our poverty; our lands stolen through the allotment era; the prairies, cut and plowed into farm land. There are many traditional foods that are no longer available.

Factors which have contributed to the decline of our food wealth, whether agrobiodiversity or ecological diversity, include: (l) loss of Native farmers due to appropriation of lands; (2) lack of access to USDA loans and programs, as documented in the Keepseagle V. Vilsack case, and American Indian Farmers against the USDA; and (3) systemic loss of agrobiodiversity, with the concentration of seed ownership.

Recommendations

“There is a need for more hands-on support for our work in the tribal communities. People have become fearful of farming and concerned that they are unable to grow. We need to address that with more technical support for community based agriculture and farming.”

  1. Funding for tribal, community based seed and food restoration programs in our communities.
  2. Support for access to collaborative partnerships with organic farming, transitional farming and farm coaching work for our tribal communities. There is a need for more hands-on support for our work in the tribal communities. People have become fearful of farming and concerned that they are unable to grow. We need to address that with more technical support for community based agriculture and farming. There are a number of sustainable farming associations in each region, but those are usually non-Native. We would like to see stronger relationships and also control our seeds.
  3. Support for regional/tribal agricultural research stations. Presently, county extension agents and the USDA support a model of agriculture and have access and knowledge about varieties and techniques that are not indigenous. We are interested in starting indigenous agricultural research stations. We have one idea for the Minnesota territory but similarly, there should be agricultural research stations in the northern plains region as well, to talk about adaptation of varieties, restoration of seed stock and training of tribal leadership for food systems.
  4. Support of tribal agricultural infrastructure. The Red Lake Nation has more than 400,000 pounds of fish by-catch annually available. They are interested, and we’re working with them (with Will Allen from Growing Power) to develop a fish hydrolysate fertilizer project. Other examples are easily found in Will Allen’s Growing Power strategy, which has caught the eye of many tribes in our region.

Case study: Anishinaabe agricultural research station (currently in development)

The Anishinaabe Agricultural Research Station (AARS) would be created to make it possible to develop and restore food production by tribal people. This would take place through a series of goals and actions. The initial phase would see the organization of historical information on traditional Ojibwe agricultural practices and give tribal people with access to these practices, as well as access to the use of newer practices, such as fish based fertilizer, managed burns and in some cases, closely mirrored herd practices. The intention of this research is to both document and adapt the practices of our ancestors, and restore the topsoil and ecosystems of the tribal community.

The second phase would be a collaboration with the Fond du Lac Tribal and Community College, the Mille Lacs band of Ojibwe, individual farmers, and Honor the Earth, to implement beginner agriculture classes through the college; to conduct test plots of traditional foods (berries and hazelnut bushes or traditional intercropping); provide a seed bank or library of seeds, tubers and plant starts (particularly berries and trees); and support tribal people interested in developing these practices.

“Kuehnein found that levels of malnutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, dietary inadequacies, and hypertension were much lower where people cultivated their indigenous foods.”

Harriet Kuehnein of McGill University conducted studies of Indigenous food systems in India. She found that where there are significant reserves of agricultural biodiversity, there are lower levels of anemia. Similarly, Kuehnein found that levels of malnutrition, micronutrient deficiencies, dietary inadequacies, and hypertension were much lower where people cultivated their indigenous foods. In one area of northeast India, she found that tribal people used more than 327 foods, of which 138 were cultivated and 185 were wild, including 83 types of vegetables and fruits, and 24 types of mushrooms. It seems that recuperating our culture may be a better alternative for our personal and planetary health than industrial foods and vitamin drinks.