March 2000 by CR Lawn
Thank you. It is a pleasure to be back in Ohio. When I was an undergraduate at Oberlin from 1965-68 we raised a lot of hell over the Vietnam War, but we didn’t raise any corn. In fact, we considered farming a joke. There was a kazoo band called the Department of Agriculture and we thought that was pretty funny. Now the co-op dining halls purchase significant amounts of produce from nearby organic farmers, there are two organic farmers markets in town, one run by students growing and selling organic produce on college-owned land, and another by the Oberlin Sustainable Ag Program. A formerly unused farm owned by the college is being prepared for planting this spring and students can take hands-on courses on growing ecologically and organically. We’ve come a long way, not just at Oberlin, and I will get back to that theme, because today I want to talk about social security. And I’d like to start by telling a little story.
I’m sort of an off-the-grid kind of guy. I don’t have a car or even a driver’s license, and I spend half the year at my trials farm on a secluded discontinued town road in backwoods Canaan, Maine, where I have no electricity, plumbing or running water. I’ve tried throughout adulthood to avoid lines and bureaucracies, not to mention cell phones, beepers and all those troubling impertinences which I’m told are unavoidable features of modern life.
So it was with some trepidation that I accepted opportunities to speak at the recent PASA conference and here at OEFFA, realizing that these gigs were too far away to do the usual pull together a caravan of Mainiacs, rent a van and go en masse. I would have to face the inevitable and get on a plane for the first time in 17 years. When my friends informed me that I would not be able to fly without a photo ID I was amazed and not a little indignant. I didn’t have a photo ID. I didn’t really want one. Getting an occasional sixpack, bottle of Benedictine or Jack Daniels has not been a problem for many years. But when I thought about the length of a bus trip from Central Maine to Penn State, or even more to Columbus, I reluctantly gave in and set about procuring the magic card that would somehow prove that I am who I am!
So I dug out my birth certificate, photostats of a tax return and land deed to verify my signature and set off to the mobile unit which visits Waterville from the capital in Augusta three times a month to do photographs for driver’s licenses and official Maine ID cards. Several people were on their third try in front of their funky camera trying to get a suitable photograph when the bureaucrats finally rejected me. I didn’t have a driver’s license, and though I had a verifiable social security number, had long since lost my social security card, had destroyed my draft card protesting the War in Vietnam, was lucky enough not to have been drafted, divorced, or needing to change my name and don’t believe in life insurance so couldn’t produce a policy. The photostats of my signature on the tax return and notarized land deed just didn’t cut it, even though the state would have willingly accepted a social security card signed by me in the presence of no one, with no verification. So they sent me over to the social security office to get a new social security card, my first contact with the social security system since my Dad died in 1981.
Inside was one harassed clerk and two or three employees in the back including one big guy who just stood there, stared and did nothing. After another long wait, I got another runaround. They didn’t want to issue me a new card because they wanted the same documents that the state ID people required. So I can’t get a state ID card because I don’t have a social security card and I can’t get a social security card because I don’t have suitable ID. I pointed out to them that this was a bureaucratic Catch 22 and that we weren’t getting anywhere. Finally, I got exasperated, and blurted out that “you folks have been taking money out of my paychecks for years, yet now when I ask for a simple verification that I have a number in your system, you won’t produce.” At last the clerk bent a little and expressed surprise that I was employed. In the end we compromised. If I would go back to Fedco Seeds and get a signed affidavit from the person in charge of payroll that I was an employee and if she would verify my signature and social security number they’d send for a new card. Even then I would have to wait, because in this day of faxes, E-mails, and instantaneous communication they still send your paper application to Washington, from where you get the card 10 days later. When I returned in the afternoon with the affidavit, the big staring guy doing nothing was still there, and it dawned on me that he was being paid all day to be a security guard for this small office in Waterville, Maine, the state with the lowest or second lowest crime rate in the country, in a city where I’ve kept my house unlocked for the last 20 years even though I’m gone most of the time and have suffered exactly one break in, by kids who helped themselves to a little champagne left over from my 50th birthday celebration! And this is the federal government to whom we’re about to entrust our organic standards. So here [holds it out] is my new social security card and here [holds it out] is my Maine state ID. But while this card might be enough to get me on a plane, it isn’t going to give any of us real social security. Even if the politicians keep their hands off the program (and that’s no certainty) the benefits we receive will be way too small to meet our needs in old age and we would have been far better off investing what they took out and receiving interest and compounding that interest, not to mention investing it in our farms and soils and in our communities.
We, who are growers of crops, or tenders of animals who eat crops, know that true social security comes from good soil and good seed. We’ve been working really hard to take care of the soil, at least on our own farms, but what about the seed? What is the state of the seed today? Not so good. In fact, our seed is far more in jeopardy than our federal social security system, and the loss of control of our seed threatens far more significant consequences than the loss of the federal social security system ever could.
In recent years the seed industry has been consolidating at a breathtaking pace. Over the last 20 years, at the same time that the budget for the Antitrust Division has decreased, the rate of agricultural mergers has increased by 550%!
The biotechnology revolution, with its enormous research costs, is the primary motivating force behind the spate of mergers and consolidation. The spread of acreage in genetically engineered crops has until just recently been extraordinarily rapid: a fourteenfold increase from 5 million acres in 1996 to nearly 70 million in 1998. 99% of the cropland is in only three countries––the United States, Canada and Argentina, with more than 75% in the US. Three corporations control almost all the plantings, with Monsanto at 88% way in the lead, and only two traits, herbicide tolerance representing 77%, and insect resistance 22% account for 99% of the acreage
Why should we be concerned about the spread of genetically engineered crops? After all, its creators insist that the foods are safe. They’ve convinced our government watchdog agencies that these foods are substantially equivalent to unaltered foods, and therefore require no labeling nor significant restrictions to market access. But now science is sounding warnings: From the famous Cornell University study showing Monarch butterflies possibly at risk, to the British study showing that rats who ate bt potatoes suffered damage to internal organs and to their immune systems to tests now showing that bt from altered crops can persist in the soil for as long as eight months with unforeseeable effects on soil microorganisms.
I am old enough to remember DDT. My parents were political progressives who decided to raise me and my brother in a rural environment. So they bought a 25-acre farm in rural Vermont just before World War II in 1940, saved up rationing coupons to make occasional trips there during the war, and moved in 1946 when I was just two months old. I still remember listening to the farm programs on the radio in the late forties. DDT was to be the saviour. Just spray and all insect damage will disappear from crops forever and ever amen. Theirs was a more naive age which still believed in progress without a price and used DDT without a qualm. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring was still far in the future. No one knew DDT could cause harm. It was too late when they found out.
Today we have a cancer epidemic. Prior to my last speaking engagement I stopped at a cafe in Ellsworth, Maine. After a while a slightly older man pulled up a stool next to me. He was lonely. It turned out his wife had died of cancer within the last year. All 3 members of my nuclear family died from different forms of cancer, leaving me the sole survivor at the ripe age of 35. Now I am not saying that DDT caused the cancers (though it might have) and I am not saying that genetic engineering will cause cancer but I am not saying it won’t. We don’t know what causes cancer. The apologists for genetic engineering say that it has not been proven to ever cause harm. While the most recent scientific evidence should make such claimers pause, my real point is that the bioengineers are asking the wrong question. The question is not whether genetically engineered foods have been shown to cause harm. The question is whether they have been proven to be safe. We should not be asked to eat them until they have been proven safe. And they have not. Because the technology has been rushed to market without adequate testing. Tell the giant corporations that we are not willing to risk that genetically engineered products could be the next DDT. Tell them that any harm from the products may not be discernible for two or three generations. And by then it will be too late. Just as it was too late with DDT.
Now the giant corporations will tell you that we can’t afford to wait because we need the new technology to feed the hungry. But there is already enough food production in the world to feed the hungry. The problem is not lack of production, it is unfair distribution. Too much food is getting to too few people and not enough to the people who really need it because of maldistribution of income. Today in the United States, 1% of the people own 90% of the wealth. Extend that to the rest of the world and the maldistribution is too obscene even to express. The genetically engineered varieties won’t feed the hungry because the hungry won’t be able to afford the seed. Instead, they will be driven off their land as production for export replaces small-scale localized production. The rich will get richer and the poor will be worse off than before. We have the precedent in the Green Revolution.
Even more alarming than the potential scientific problems loom the undeniable social costs of genetically engineered food. 1) Biotechnology has accelerated the alarming concentration of the seed industry into fewer and fewer hands. Dupont acquired the remaining 80% share in Pioneer Hy-Bred International for $7.7 billion. Monsanto’s four-year buying spree of seed and biotech companies exceeded $6 billion, despite its failed takeover of Delta & Pineland, the world’s largest cotton seed company. Now Novartis and AstraZeneca propose to spin off their agricultural divisions to form a monster with the neo-Orwellian name of Syngenta in a $15 billion plus deal. If this deal goes through, the five largest corporations will control 20% of the worldwide seed trade and 68% of the agrichemical market. Already the five largest vegetable seed companies control 75% of global vegetable seed market while Dupont, Novartis, Monsanto and Dow control 69% of the North American seed corn market.
This study by William Heffernan of the Department of Rural Sociology at the University of Missouri [hold it up] which appeared in the April/May 1999 issue of Small Farm Today documents that the consolidation of the seed trade is parallelled by a consolidation of the entire food industry. The top four beef packers control 79% of the market, the four leading flour millers have a 62% share, the four leading soybean milling processors 80% and on and on. And the same names show up across the board: Conagra, Cargill, Archer Daniels Midland, Novartis. Today only 30 wholesalers account for 55% of all food sales, only 20 retailers account for half, and the real stunner, 5% of farmers net 75% of the sales! Meanwhile, the share of the food dollar going to the farmer shrinks and shrinks and shrinks. Dr. Ray A. Goldberg, Moffett professor of agriculture and business emeritus at the Harvard Business School, estimates that the farmer’s share of the added value to agricultural products will have fallen from 32% in 1950 to 10% by 2028 if present trends continue. Meanwhile, food processors’ and distributors’ share will have increased from 50% to over 80%. The December 1999 issue of the Organic Harvester, a publication of the West Virginia Organic Growers and Buyers Association informs us that Tiger Woods gets 10 cents for every $2.69 box of Wheaties sold with his picture on it, while the wheat farmer gets a nickel! Maybe we have to figure out how to transform farming into a sport??!
But that’s just one of the social costs of biotechnology. 2) It has increasingly privatized the research, hastening the decline of classical plant breeding programs at our land grant institutions. It has created a world of trade secrets, complex licensing agreements and litigiousness in sharp contrast to the once-collegial spirit of shared information which was common among our plant breeders. The public sector has largely been frozen out. 3) It risks a further shrinking of our imperiled genetic base as farmers are pressured to abandon traditional varieties and land races in favor of genetically altered strains. 4) It promotes sterile fields and monocultures. 5) It has created a growing trade antagonism between the United States and Europe, jeopardizing relationships with our allies that have been friendly and stable for more than 50 years. Japan may be next. 6) It jeopardizes farmers’ rights to save their own seed crops, further reducing their independence and bringing them ever closer to serfs in thrall to the behemoth corporations who will control the food chain from seed to table. Monsanto required purchasers of Roundup Ready Soybeans to sign agreements abrogating their right to save seed from the crop, allowing Monsanto representatives access to the land at all times, then hired Pinkertons to spy on farmers alleged to be violating the contracts and hauled hundreds of farmers to court.
Perhaps more than anything else, the Terminator technology has awakened us to the peril of what happens when we lose control of the seed. Terminator crops, if ever commercialized, would be genetically programmed to produce sterile seed. That means the farmer would have to go back to the seed company every year for new seed because if he/she saved seed it wouldn’t come up or the growth would be stunted so it would be useless. Our own US Department of Agriculture, the very same department which a century ago distributed free open-pollinated seed to farmers to stimulate production of the best varieties, that same department to whom we are about to entrust the administration of our own organic standards, is a co-patent-holder of the Terminator. Unlike Monsanto which agreed not to commercialize Terminator, our USDA has made no such disclaimer. Instead, it defends the technology: “Technology Protection System (alias Terminator) would protect investments made in breeding or genetically engineering these crops…by reducing potential sales losses from unauthorized reproduction and sale of seed.” In other words, the seed company would no longer have to resort to agreements and Pinkertons…the built-in biological terminator would take care of any farmers audacious enough to save seed. In one century, the USDA has evolved from being friend of the farmer to being friend of the multinational corporation at the expense of the farmer. And so we have the ultimate irony, the seed that kills itself. Remember, “We had to destroy the village in order to save it?” Well, the USDA brings you “we had to kill the seed to protect investments.”
Now you may have heard of Monsanto’s highly publicized letter to Rockefeller Foundation President Gordon Conway in which they made a public commitment not to commercialize Terminator seeds and you may believe that was the death knell of the Terminator. But it was no such thing. In December, 1999, Monsanto withdrew its $1.8 billion takeover bid of Delta and Pine Land, leaving the world’s largest cotton seed company and the USDA as joint patent-holders of Terminator. Neither has ever disavowed Terminator. In fact D&PL vice-president of technology transfer Harry Collins was recently quoted: “We’ve continued right on with work on the Technology Protection System (Terminator). We never really slowed down. We’re on target, moving ahead to commercialize it.” And Terminator is only one of many patents held by the gene giants relating to seed sterility or genetic trait control which uses external chemicals to switch on or off a plant’s genetic traits. Zeneca received approval from the UK government in 1999 to conduct a field release of genetic trait control in tobacco and potato plants. Although AstraZeneca has publicly agreed not to commercialize genetic seed sterilization, they are now joining forces with Novartis, a company which holds at least nine patents related to Terminator and genetic trait control and one which has not publicly disavowed Terminator.
Now you are probably aware that the march of increase of transgenic acreage has slowed or maybe even temporarily halted, largely because Europe is resisting. And you may feel that the tide has turned and the battle has been won. But if you believe that, guess again. The gene giants have invested billions and they are not going to give up so easily. Listen to these predictions by seed executives in the November, 1999, issue of the American Vegetable Grower. Kelly Keithly, president of Keithly-Williams: “In ten years there will be fewer but larger vegetable seed breeder producers and the same will be true of vegetable seed dealers. The expense of research and development will continue to drive the prices for seed higher.” Franco Campana, director of North American Sales for Petoseed, a division of Seminis, one of the giants: “The vegetable industry will continue to consolidate and there will be further mergers in the next 10 years…During the coming ten years the life cycles of varieties will be drastically reduced.” John Sorenson, president of vegetables and flowers for Novartis: “Seed industry consolidation will continue.” Philip Ashcraft, president of Harris-Moran: “Seed will be the delivery vehicle for much of the emerging technologies.”
The New York Times on November 12 announced that the gene giants are launching a major public relations campaign to educate consumers about the benefits of biotechnology. Monsanto retained Burson-Marsteller, a global public relations firm, at an annual cost of millions of dollars. The chief executive of Novartis acknowledges that “We’re holding in-depth sessions with members of Congress, with universities and trade associations, grocery manufacturers and food associations…You may even see TV and radio ads, even scientific conferences. We want a consistent message out there.” The gene giants are developing programs to get into the schools and indoctrinate young students with their pro-biotechnology propaganda.
In addition to the public relations blitz, you will hear the siren songs of a whole new generation of transgenic products that may seem a lot more appealing than the present limited offerings. Let’s look at what Seminis has in store for us. Seminis, a subsidiary of the Savia Corporation, part of the Pulsar group headed by Mexican billionaire Alfonso Romo Garza controls three large seed brands, Asgrow, Petoseed and Royal Sluis, as well as nine smaller ones capturing 19% of the worldwide vegetable and fruit seed trade and 40% of the North American market. Currently, it supplies Fedco with more than 40 varieties, including Sunsugar, Big Beef and Celebrity tomatoes, Pulsar muskmelon, Red Sails, Esmeralda and Green Ice lettuces, Seneca and Seneca Butterblossom zucchinis, and even Perpetual Spinach. A collaborative agreement with Monsanto in 1997 will enable it to produce Roundup Ready Lettuce, which may be commercialized as early as 2003, and Roundup Ready tomatoes. Plans are in the works for genetically altered lettuces with fungus resistance, melons with virus resistance and longer shelf life, peas with a higher sugar content, and tomatoes with increased levels of beta-carotene and lycopene.
How shall we resist this influx of money and propaganda, these siren songs? We must prepare ourselves for a battle for hearts and minds, for the issue of genetic engineering will divide our society like none has since the Vietnam War. And unlike the Vietnam War, which it was possible to ignore or not take active sides, there will be no escape from these issues. For they are about our food supply and every time we put food in our mouths we will be taking sides. So let us gird ourselves spiritually, for when we go to battle this is where we always must begin: with moral and spiritual preparation. Let us heed these words from Oren Lyons, Faithkeeper of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosanunee, with thanks to the Abundant Life Seed Foundation of Port Townsend Washington, for reprinting them in their catalog:
“We were told that the seed is the Law. Indeed, it is the Law of Life. It is the Law of Regeneration. Within the seed is the mysterious and spiritual force of life and creation. Our mothers nurture and guard that seed, and we respect and love them for that, just as we love Mother Earth for the same spiritual work and mystery.”
And let us contrast their intent with that of our own Department of Agriculture and its corporate allies who would unleash sterile suicide seeds upon the world.
Thirty years ago, the Jefferson Airplane put out an album called “Volunteers of America,” proclaiming that we “Got a revolution, got to revolution.” And so now, I call upon all of you to become Volunteers of America, in the name of the seed, in the name of the Law. Like the Jefferson Airplane, thirty years ago, I say that we “got a revolution, got to revolution.” But this revolution is not about drugs, or rock and roll, and ironically it is a conservative revolution, conservative in the best sense of the word. For we must take back that word conservative, take it back from those who long ago hijacked it, and restore it to its true place. To understand what conservative is, we must first understand what it is not. It is not about the unfettered opportunity for the few to amass wealth at the expense of the many, it is not about the unchecked exploitation of natural resources for the benefit of the few at the expense of future generations, and it is not about preaching “family values” while pursuing policies which tear families all over the world asunder. It is not about conducting unprecedented biological experiments with our own citizens as the primary guinea pigs, it is not about private ownership and patenting of genes that rightfully belong to the commons of all living beings, and it is not about good food for those few who can afford it and junk food for all the rest. It is about the conservation of precious resources, the respect of cherished values, and the preservation of our genetic inheritance. What could be more conservative than the organic farmer who faithfully builds his/her soil, patiently learns and practices his/her craft and carefully intertwines matter and spirit into a whole enterprise with integrity? Who is more conservative than the savers and preservers of the best open-pollinated seed varieties, strains which are the products of ten thousand years of observation and crop improvement? We must take back our heritage while we still have time. And it all begins with the seed.
About a month ago, I heard an extraordinary individual give the keynote address before the NOFA-NY Conference—Will Bonsall. Some years ago Will started the Scatterseed Project in Maine and he has gradually built up a collection of more than 2,000 varieties, concentrating on so-called minor crops such as jerusalem artichokes, parsnips, turnips as well as serving as a curator for peas and potatoes in the Seed Savers Exchange—the kinds of difficult crops few others are maintaining. At New York Will said something very profound. He said that there are some things that you just don’t get any kicks from having somebody else do for you. And as an example, he mentioned sex. Now seeds are all about sex, the sexual reproduction of plants. Seriously, I’ve thought a lot about what Will said and I believe he is right. When I came to Maine I couldn’t hammer in an eightpenny nail straight and yet I built my own 22x20 hippie cabin. It was one of the harder things I’ve done in my life because I’m not very patient with things like carpentry which require extreme precision and I would never consider hiring myself out to build other’s houses. Yet, I would not trade the experience of building my own house for anything. Certain basic necessities like sex, food and shelter are so fundamental that we cannot be satisfied in leaving them to others. We all need to eat, and good food is vital for maintaining our health. I believe the huge revival in interest in medicinal herbs has come from a desire to regain some control over maintaining our own health, instead of leaving it all in the hands of doctors and professionals. But there is an even more compelling reason why we must regain control of the food we eat. Stated simply, if we allow giant corporations to control our food supply we cannot be a free people. The farmers who ran afoul of Monsanto already know this in a gut way. Let us not find out the hard way as they have.
Today we stand in relation to the seed about where the pioneering organic farmers of forty years ago stood in relation to the land. Only a relative few are engaged in the painstaking work of preserving our genetic heritage. And yet, it takes only a few to make a beginning. Consider the pioneering work done by just one couple: Kent and Diane Whealy started with three varieties handed down from his grandfather and in only 25 years have built an organization with almost 1,000 active seed savers maintaining more than 11,000 heritage varieties. And they changed the whole trend of gardening away from hybrids and back towards venerable old varieties and now they are really beginning to get those varieties into circulation, not just among seed savers but out to all of us. Because seeds are like money. They are energy. When they accumulate and concentrate in a few hands it is a sign of social disease. When they circulate freely and are regrown widely it is a sign of social health…of social security.
And we have an enormous advantage over the pioneers of forty years ago because we have already experienced the collective success of building upon what they began. Together we have already created a powerful movement in the last two generations. Today when I watch seed orders come in I am awed by the extent of the progressive agricultural experiments taking place—scores and scores of organic farms, biodynamic farms, CSA’s, community organizations, farms inspired by Bromfield, by Acres USA, by Steiner, by Matsinobo Fukuoka. What happened at Oberlin has happened in communities across the country. At Oberlin a few environmental studies students got excited about the benefits of buying locally. Under the slogan “Gastrointestinal liberation for all!” they started having mileage-count meals where they estimated the miles that the ingredients in their meals had collectively travelled from their farms to Oberlin, and compared the number of calories expended in producing and transporting the food with the number of calories obtained by eating it. In one such meal, the ingredients traveled 30,000 miles and cost 6,000 calories of work energy to provide just 600 of food energy. With such statistics, it didn’t take a lot of convincing to change the community’s buying habits. Such creativity provides the motive force for erecting the infrastructure needed to build a real alternative food system. Bit by bit we’ve been piecing it together. Today we have books to inspire and instruct us, appropriate tools to make our work easier, new direct markets like farmers markets and CSA’s. We still have a long way to go, but look how far we’ve come. And yet, there is a vital piece missing—the piece that stands at the beginning of it all—control of the seed.
Consider what you can do. First, learn who controls the seed, how and why. Then begin to withhold support from those who are not worthy of it—the behemoth corporations and the genetic engineers. Do this by voting with your dollars. Support those small seed companies who are working to preserve the best open-pollinated varieties. Avoid buying from the big conglomerates. Will Bonsall suggests that we stop buying hybrids. Now that is easier said than done. Little or no work has been done on creating, improving or maintaining open-pollinated varieties over the last 60 years. It is therefore not suprising that many hybrids today appear to be superior to open-pollinated varieties in earliness, disease resistance and appearance. The superiority of hybrids became the self-fulfilling prophecy of the seed wholesalers and several hundred of the hybrid varieties are now classics of the vegetable trade. Those of us who make our living selling vegetables commercially are not going to be able to go cold turkey from Copra onions, Sunburst patty pan squash, Snow Crown cauliflower, Silver Queen sweet corn, Celebrity tomato, all unfortunately controlled by the same behemoths who are bringing us transgenic crops. However, ours is the slow and patient path and we can begin. We can begin by setting aside some plots to experiment with open-pollinated varieties which might conceivably replace these hybrids. We can go further by beginning to educate our customers to appreciate diversity—that not all tomatoes have to be red, that not all peppers need be shaped like a bell, that some tomatoes, though blemished on the surface, taste better than some of those flawless-looking pretty faces. Why open-pollinated seeds instead of hybrids? Because hybrid seeds don’t reproduce true to type and therefore cannot be saved and replanted if you want to get the same variety. Therefore, when you use hybrids, you have to go back to the seed company for new seed every year. Think of hybrids as incomplete varieties which have never been stabilized. The big seed wholesalers have an economic disincentive to complete them, because they want you to be dependent on them. Most of our great open-pollinated varieties started as genetic sports in the field or the products of deliberate farmer breeding. They were then completed by farmers, stabilized so that their seed would reproduce true to type year after year. Using open-pollinated seeds gives you the potential to save your own seed, even if you choose not to in any given year.
There are glaring gaps in our lineup of good open-pollinated varieties. Where are the good early-season open-pollinated muskmelons? How about an op brussels sprout that produces decent-sized sprouts? Cauliflower that will make tight white curds and won’t get ricey even in heat ? We at Fedco and at scores of other small alternative seed companies and the people in the Seed Savers Exchange will be striving over the next years to find the best old varieties from all over the world to fill these gaps. Please support us in our painstaking work of reclaiming our heritage and replacing those hybrid interlopers from the corporate behemoths. Do you have seed or know of seed for an old variety that has been handed down? Get it into seed savers and send us a sample for our trials. Do you know of good old varieties we’ve been missing that we should be offering? Let us or your favorite small seed supplier know about them.
This here is the Long Pie Pumpkin. [hold it up] It was once the only pie pumpkin considered worth growing in Androscoggin County, Maine. It has been preserved largely because of two people. LeRoy Souther, an aging Mainer from Livermore Falls had been saving seed for it for many years. He brought it to MOFGA’s Common Ground Fair sometime in the 1980s where an avid squash enthusiast named John Navazio had a booth displaying the diversity of winter squash. Souther gave some seed to Navazio who grew it out and loved it. It makes the creamiest most delicious pumpkin pies. Navazio took it with him when he went to the University of Wisconsin to learn to be a plant breeder. Later when he went to work for Garden City Seeds in Montana he multiplied it out and got it into their seed catalog. After that it came to my attention in Fedco’s variety trials. Soon it will be widely available because Fedco found a grower in Maine who’s produced more than 50 pounds of seed for it in the last two years. It has been saved from extinction.
Consider saving your own seed. If you want to know how get a copy of Suzanne Ashworth’s classic Seed to Seed. Seed Savers has it, Fedco has it, lots of people have it, it could be the best twenty bucks you ever invested. Start with something easy on a small scale like beans or tomatoes. If you are successful, maybe you’d like to join the Seed Savers Exchange and adopt a few favorite varieties to maintain and preserve.
J. J. Haapala has started a project out in Oregon in which he is enlisting growers to help the national plant Germplasm System, our national repository of seeds. Because it has been chronically underfunded, it has hundreds of varieties that have been sitting for years with just an accession number, ungrown and never described. Participants in JJ’s Farmer Cooperative Genome Project will adopt a variety, grow it out and describe it and return fresh seed. If you are interested I have brochures at the Fedco table. Undoubtedly, this project will unearth some real treasures, terrific varieties which will eventually find their way into the Seed Savers Exchange and into our seed catalogs.
If you really develop an interest and want to move beyond tiny quantities of a few varieties, there will be increasing opportunities in the years ahead to grow seed crops commercially for small companies like Fedco. We have a long waiting list of old varieties we’ve found to be superior in our trials. Great varieties like Candy Roaster Squash, Verona and Orangelo watermelons and Mayfair peas are all waiting for a grower like you to come along and plant a successful crop to find their way into our catalog where they can be enjoyed by hundreds of farmers and gardeners.
The open-pollinated varieties we still have are among the best ever developed. They are the products of many generations of improvement and breeding by farmers all over the world. Once you’ve mastered the art of seed saving and honed your observation skills, you may want to reconnect with our heritage of ten thousand years and engage in your own breeding. It is not difficult especially now that Chelsea Green has decided to reprint Carol Deppe’s groundbreaking work Breed your own Vegetable Varieties. We didn’t sell too many copies when we had it the first time when it was maybe a little too far out on the cutting edge, but I predict this time it’s going to be a smash hit. It’ll be out this fall. It’s a brilliant book because it makes genetics understandable to a layperson, even someone like me for whom science was my worst subject! Get it. Plant breeding is too important to be left to the professionals, especially when the Monsantos of the world have most of the pros in their hip pockets!
Let me introduce a few of the pioneers in the movement to bring plant breeding back to the farm. They, and not the genetic engineers, are creating the vegetable lineup for the Fedco catalogs of the future. Glenn Drowns bred a wonderful open-pollinated keeper watermelon called Blacktail Mountain when he was still a teenager and is still hard at work preserving rare breeds of poultry and endangered heirloom seed varieties at Sand Hill Preservation Center in Iowa. Tim Peters is breeding worthy open-pollinated broccolis and storage tomatoes and more. Frank Morton in Oregon works with lettuces, mustards and other brassicas, wildlings and flowers to create new varieties out of old standbys. He’s responsible for a wonderful red-green celery cross in our catalog, for whole lines of oakleaf type lettuces of varied hues and textures, for some of the reddest leaf lettuces I’ve ever enjoyed, for an enchanting ornamental edible cross between flowering kale and a heading broccoli and much, more more. Fedco has entered into a consortium of small seed companies, none of whom could afford to hire a plant breeder on their own, who are cooperating by each helping underwrite Morton’s breeding work. I expect to see more collaboration among alternative seed companies in the near future. Fedco and Pinetree in Maine already buy some items jointly. Perhaps we small companies will be able to share seed growers and crops to help create better economies of scale in the years ahead. And while I’m talking about collaboration among seed companies I should again mention Tom Stearns who, along with the Council for Responsible Genetics, is the primary architect of the Safe Seed Pledge, signed by more than 50 seed companies and organizations who’ve agreed not to knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seeds or plants. Tom contacted a core group of eight or ten companies and together we hashed out mutually acceptable wording for the pledge in a series of conversations.
These are some of the ways we develop an alternative seed production that will be the foundation of our alternative food production. And this slow, patient work is profoundly political, for it will be those of you who engage in this work who will allow the Fedcos of the world to turn our backs on Novartis and Seminis and to offer seeds we really believe in in quantities you need at prices we can all afford. We will replace the planned obsolescence designed by the seed wholesalers (the 17-year cycle of sweet corn varieties has doomed such superior cultivars as Platinum Lady) with reverence to old varieties which have stood the test of time for generations and will still be found in Fedco’s 50th catalog and in our 100th catalog! This is the fun part of the work, a sort of adult treasure hunt, following up clues, finding seed, trialing, seeking out growers, finding ways to collaborate and cooperate.
But that is only half our work, because we must buy ourselves enough time to lay the foundations for our alternative, to mature our new systems and to solidify our new structures. The harder half of the work is equally important, the not-so-slow, not-so-patient overt political work we must do to create a new climate where the commercialization of suicidal Terminator seed is unthinkable, where genetically engineered crops are extensively tested and heavily regulated before they are allowed to be marketed, where transgenic foods are labelled so we will all know what we are buying, and where organic farmers are protected from genetic drift by placing the financial onus on the purveyors and growers of genetically altered crops, where it belongs.
That work begins by knowing what we put in our mouths. It is not easy, when labels are non-existent and information scarce for busy people like us to think about the routine act of eating. But we must. Buy organic whenever you can. It is the only secure way right now to be GE-free. Ask your natural food store not to stock genetically engineered products and to become proactive in asking suppliers to guarantee that their products have not been genetically altered. Call the suppliers yourself to find out their policies and let them know you won’t eat transgenic foods. Tell your supermarket you want BST-free milk. Tell your legislators and your representatives and your senators that you support mandatory labeling of genetically engineered foods and an outright ban on the sale of Terminator seeds. Tell them that you support more money for our underfunded National Plant Germplasm System and funding to restore classical plant breeding programs to our land grant universities. Write, phone or fax Secretary of Agriculture Dan Glickman. Tell him that the use of public research dollars to develop Terminator technologies and genetic seed sterilization is an abomination and a gross misuse of public funds for private benefit at public expense. Ask him to stop using scarce public research dollars to pursue dangerous anti-farmer technologies that threaten biodiversity. His address is USDA, 200-A Whitten Bldg, 1400 Independence Ave SW, Washington, DC 20250. His phone is 202-720-3631. His fax is 202-720-2166. Send a copy of your communication to your legislators and congressmembers.
We must be smart, we must be determined, we must be persistent, we must be strong. But we can regain control of our means of production of that most basic of human needs—our food supply. We can have food that is healthy, whole, raised from good seed, grown sustainably, nourishing and safe to eat.
We are privileged to live in interesting times. To have the opportunity to continue the work we have already begun to turn around our entire food system. The issues we must face cut right to the heart of our relationships with all living beings. They are spiritual to the very core. And they present us with unparalleled social and political opportunities to find again a spiritual commonality between people who have not shared a real dialogue in more than a generation. So let us go forth to continue the good work we have begun.