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New Clear Vision


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Saving Seeds

October 18, 2013 By: NCVeditor Category: Devon G. Pena, Ecology, Politics

Free-Market Fundamentalism versus Food Democracy

by Devon G. Peña

People frequently ask me why I save seeds. I reply, “Because I want my corn to dance.”

When I am not teaching at the University of Washington, I work on a 200-acre flood-irrigated farm that also serves as the home for my family’s foundation, The Acequia Institute. We run the farm as an almunyah, which is essentially a private, non-profit “agricultural experiment station”. We serve acequia farmers who are among the oldest family farms in the United States, dating back to well before the arrival of the Spaniards in 1598.

As an experiment station we take our business of preserving and protecting plant genetic resources very seriously. Without the diversity of seeds developed by native farmers, the traditions of sustainable agriculture as we know it today would not exist.

Located in San Acacio, Colorado, our farm is nestled between volcanic mesas in a high altitude alpine valley with an average elevation of 8,000 feet above sea level. The Southern Rocky Mountain biome defines what and how we farm: Our valley is surrounded by a solid circle of mountains with peaks as high as 14,000 feet. The presence of these high peaks largely defines our ecology giving us diurnal temperature extremes, constant exposure to fierce battering winds and cold sun, a very short growing season (under 90 days), and an average of only about 7 inches of rain during the two-month summer monsoon.

Over many generations, local acequia farmers have adapted their crops to these conditions and to the ancient methods of flood irrigation using icy cold, mineral laden snowpack waters that we divert to our fields through our famous earthen-work community ditches or acequias. Our acequia irrigation season in Colorado’s San Luis Valley starts around mid-May and lasts a bit past the last of our harvest work during mid- to late September. Of course, all this all depends on the depth of winter’s snowpack and the timing and intensity of the summer rains.

Crops in this arid and cold environment must be hardy. Each leaf blade on the stalks of our heirloom white flint corn actually moves with the day’s passage. Responding to the constant realignment of the direction of prime solar exposure, the leaf blades subtly dance in the wind, twisting into lovely emerald spirals as the sun’s trajectory shifts. In the opinion of local farmers and scholars of plant morphology this is apparently part of a successful behavioral adaptation by the corn plants to minimize overexposure to damaging sun-rays at high altitude. Our heirloom corn dances.

As a result of the work of multiple generations of plant breeding and seed saving, the crops of the Culebra acequia farmers are adapted to a high altitude short growing season. For example, our maíz de concho (white flint) is a 60-70 day variety. Acequia farmers of the Rio Arriba bioregion cultivate this locally adapted heirloom, which is used to produce adobe oven-roasted chicos. Chicos are the famed winter store dry stewing corn invented by Anasazi pueblo farmers thousands of years ago and is listed on the Slow Food USA Ark of Taste, a list of endangered crop varieties and disappearing artisan craft production methods.

As an acequia farmer, I inherited the duty of being a servant and keeper of seed. In acequia culture, seeds are the most important of all heirloom gifts, sort of like the crystal, china, and silverware that are handed down across the generations. Except seeds are a family heirloom tradition that keeps on giving and are considered the heart of a rich collective agricultural heritage. Heirloom seeds do not to end up for sale on eBay.

Most indigenous cultures, which are after all the original developers and keepers of the world’s agricultural crop diversity, consider it unethical to patent or to own and then sell seeds as some form of private property.  Seeds are considered a common heritage of humanity and seed saving and plant breeding are valued as significant aspects of the maintenance of this biocultural heritage. Like our forbearers, today’s farmers are obligated to perform the duties of saving seed and breeding the different lines of locally adapted crop varieties. This type of genetic modification through cultural practice dates back to the earliest days some 7 to 10 thousand years ago when our forbearers first domesticated the wild relatives of food crops in the so-called Vavilov Centers, zones for the original domestication of wild relatives of food crops.

Over countless generations, farmers’ practices produced the vast genetic library comprising the world’s diverse cornucopia of native agricultural crops. Many scientists agree that the deep history of indigenous communities reveals an intertwining of place-based cultures with the attainment of ecological resilience and social justice. Seed saving and plant breeding are thus seen as necessary qualities for establishing cultural and ecological resilience. Seed saving provides communities with the means to survive disturbance and trauma.

At Almunyah de las Dos Acequias, as our farm is named, we sustain a “Three Sisters” heirloom Living Seed Library. The name Three Sisters is an ancient reference to the trinity of crops – corn, bean, and squash – long cultivated together by Native Americans. Our collection of corn, bean, and squash varieties dates back more than thirty years and includes several ‘books’ of locally adapted corn, bean, and squash varieties. I want my corn to keep on dancing. To do so, my seeds must remain free of the trangenes used in GMO crops.

Seed saving and the case for GMO labeling

The campaign over I-522 – the Washington state citizen’s initiative for a GMO-labeling law – is now heating up. Over the next month, I am presenting a series of analytical position papers to help clarify the issues facing voters as they head to the polls to decide the fate of GMO labeling on November 5, 2013.

On the surface, the initiative for GMO labeling is about the consumers’ right to know and I certainly support this principle as a basic premise of any nation that aspires to be an open society with a true citizen-as-participant democracy. Moreover, as a farmer, seed saver, and plant breeder, I understand I-522 in the broader context of a mass-based social movement that seeks to create a food democracy by restoring the ecological, social, economic, and civic integrity of food systems.

I-522 is but one dimension of the burgeoning food democracy movement that is quickly becoming the civil rights struggle of our time because it brings demands for equality to the production, distribution, and consumption of food through the participatory control of local communities. We are resisting the hidden abode of unaccountable government bureaucrats and their corporate collaborators, the technicians in lab white and investors in sharkskin suits who hide behind the wooden-head of the commodity form. The food democracy mass movement is being organized around the common nexus of shared values of environmental protection, public health, and social justice for all, including consumers, family farmers, farm workers, and all other food chain workers.

The ability to protect my dancing corn depends on the existence of a society that is willing to work with farmers to create and sustain a biophysical environment, the natural conditions of production, free of GMOs.  This simply places a greater value on the protection of the genomic integrity of the thousands of native heirloom lines that sustain genetic diversity in the first place. It rejects the truly radical demands of private property rights extremists.

There is no longer any controversy about the genetic threats posed by the introgression of transgenes from GMO maize into the genomes of native land race varieties, but this is not the only reason that seed savers and plant breeders have widely adopted a non-GMO seed stance:  The emphasis on biotechnology implies that society tolerates a lack of support for investments in agroecology. This erases a large body of scientific work and ignores a basic implication of the science underlying alternatives to GMO technologies:  Anything presumably accomplished by transgenic crops – say drought or weed resistance in corn – can actually be more safely and equitably accomplished already by using the natural and cultural methods of agroecology and traditional practices of indigenous permaculture.

The professional discourses of the social and natural science studies of agroecology have long valued the ecological practices and ethnobiological wisdom of local cultures. In 1955 with publication of Harold Conklin’s dissertation, scientists started to reveal lessons from the complex agro-forestry practices of the Hanunó’o people of Mindoro. The decolonial subject became the source of knowledge to deconstruct the Western racist fantasy of native farming as mindless slash and burn deforestation. Conklin was among the first of us to document how indigenous knowledge provides the basis for sustainable, resilient, and equitable agrifood systems. The monoculture and industrial systems of the succession of invading empires are the forces that led to the destruction of the rain forests of the Philippines and myriad other colonies. In  the USA, the Midwestern GE crowd appears to belief it has the only authentic position acceptable to and representative of modern scientific farmers. This misconstrues technical sophistry for technological advances, a point that Phil Bereano often makes.

A fact of singular relevance. The public and private sector spending on biotechnology outstrips the amount expended to support agroecology and indigenous/traditional farmers by a factor of more than a 1000:1. This means the nation, indeed the world, is already being denied equity because we have a decision-making regime that allows the biotechnology school [sic] to monopolize and police the boundaries of  science, as if the only thing that qualifies as science is the reductionist study and re-assembly of organisms at the molecular level and as if the complex ecology of life has mysteriously disappeared.

This, of course, is a ridiculous presumption as illustrated by the rise of pigweed resistance to glyphosate, etc. Sadly, we currently live in a time when the interlocking interests of government-academia-business sectors are built-in around the promotion of capitalist models of biotechnology, all of which results in the systematic marginalization of the knowledge and experimental practices of agroecologists and their partners in the global community of indigenous/traditional farmers, seed savers, and plant breeders. An equitable, more participatory, inclusive, and diverse, approach will reflect the actual diversity of scientific paradigms that are available for rigorous research and development of alternative agricultural technologies.

I-522 signals the need for a new social ecological covenant, one that can replace the unsustainable neoliberal ideology of unregulated capital markets. Society can insist on a more equitable distribution of investments by the public sector and by communities empowered to promote agroecology and permaculture solutions to hunger, malnutrition, and decline of local food self sufficiency, a.k.a. autosuficiencia alimentaria. Our food democracy is instead currently threatened by the narrow, market-steered character of forces that direct R&D investments for food and agriculture sciences to the biotechnology side of this equation.  I-522 is an antidote to the suppression of the myriad agroecological scientific alternatives to this narrow fetish for only funding biotechnology. Labeling sends the message that consumers support a more diverse investment ethics that includes support for programs involving expenditures in agroecology R&D.

Labeling results in a system that empowers consumers to participate in how the civil society defines the nature of the market by choosing whether or not to purchase nonGMO products (both organic and conventional). In this manner, members of the civil society help to define the market pathway. Surveys show that U.S. consumers want labeling by 20-30 percent majorities; and: given the right to know, more than half of these consumers will not purchase GMO crops or processed foods with GMO ingredients.

This could be enough to redefine the biological parameters of our agrifood system away from  transgenic and toward agroecology solutions. It could redirect attention to the public in social sector spending as a conscious response to the ravages and precarity of three decades of neoliberal privatization with austerity. We need to reward a diverse strategy that privileges  relocalizing food systems as much as possible through the use of  ethnoscientific agroecology with its rich cultural ecological traditions of permaculture practices with their steady sustainable yields in the face of disturbance and uncertainty.

The opponents of I-522 argue that they would like a policy in which the “market” decides the fate of genetically-engineered food. Well, I have news for them: Labeling is a technical requirement if the consumer market is to make that decision; that is the nature of a democracy. I-522 is exactly the type of condition required by civil society to let “the market decide” based on scientific and ethical principles rather than a fundamentalist relapse into the emotional bottom line of purely economic rationalities with their appeals to incessant growth and maldevelopment.

This series is also based on the idea that voters should decide on the basis of a science-driven and ethics-informed response to the arguments made by the corporate-funded opponents of labeling. My use of the phrase science-driven is meant to convey the idea that I understand how it is past time for regions and large cities like Seattle to abide by the Precautionary Principle and insist that the stakeholders in the agrifood system play it safe on the side of caution until sufficient independent third-party and community-based researchers address the lack of a predictive ecology, immaturity of the risk science, and obvious need for more long-term environmental and public health studies of transgenic technologies.

The opposition to I-522 appears to be using five major arguments against labeling:

1) Labeling will burden farmers, food producers and grocers with more red tape and higher production costs, which will be passed on to consumers in higher food prices; 2) Even organic farmers are opposed to labeling; 3) The law will lead to shakedown lawsuits by creating a new right for anyone to sue a farmer; 4) The law will limit future opportunities for Washington farmers and food producers to take advantage of future technologies and scientific advances; 5) The best and most pro-American approach to food safety and food quality is to adopt a market-driven model in which consumers ultimately vote with their purchasing power.

Each of these arguments is without merit. In the coming three weeks I will explore these arguments in great detail and offer a science-based critique based on my decades of knowledge and experience as an agroecologist, farmer, seed saver, and plant breeder. I will state, at this point, that any farmer that opposes I-522 is probably not a farmer but rather a bioserf, a grower who is a slave to precision farming contracts and must follow corporate orders from the comfort of an air-conditioned combine driven by a satellite-guided computer. That is not farming; it is blind servitude and a loss of the amazing set of skills it takes to be a successful, sustainable, and equitable farmer.

As a farmer, seed-saver, and plant breeder, I endorse I-522 and in this series will be outlining the reasons why consumers should join traditional and indigenous farmers – the makers and keepers of the seed – and support passage of I-522.

The survival of the evolving genetic diversity of locally adapted heirloom crops is at stake. We feel that GMOs threaten the genomic integrity of native crops. We also feel that labeling will reduce the demand for GMO crops. This will have the indirect effect of helping farmers and plant breeders protect and conserve the diversity and genomic integrity of our native heirloom varieties.

The environmental, social, and economic costs of genetic “contamination” are serious and invite discussion of the evidence as well as some of the scientific literature on public health concerns posed by the entire transgenic-processed-fast food complex. As a farmer and seed saver, my main reasons for supporting I-522 are related to my belief that endorsement will help us work toward a more democratic and participatory process for sharing knowledge of what we eat and how it is produced, and this should include the implications posed by GMOs for the preservation of the world’s diversity of plant genetic resources and especially the native heirloom varieties which are keys to the continued adaptation of food crops in an environmentally changing world.

Traditional and indigenous farmers stand behind an essentially scientific argument: Anything you can wish to accomplish with biotechnology one can do through agroecology, without all the costs associated with deployment of GE crops including hidden subsidies, large ecological footprints, and the unwise and unfair discounting of massive social and ecological damages from the so-called ‘negative externalities’ of capitalist agro-biotech values.

In subsequent posts, we will discuss the growing bodies of scientific evidence on the effects of transgene introgression and horizontal gene transfers. The negative effects on weed agroecology and soil ecology are quite serious and transgenes are affecting the genomic integrity of native land race crops.

Finally, it will also be important to understand the scientific and ethical arguments posed by seed savers and plant breeders. In a democracy, it is vital for the public to decide who is making the emotional and who is making a passionate scientific case. This, however, is a wrong-headed way of thinking about the issue. My being a farmer and thinking like a scientist while working to understand transgenics in a holistic and more accurate manner does not diminish simply because I have the deepest and most profound love (call it spiritual affinity) for the biodiversity of the planet. A love of life and a commitment to scientific understanding are not mutually exclusive; indeed they have a positive feedback relationship.

In contrast, the opponents of I-522 want us to rely on the views of those who ultimately base their reductionist claims not so much on science as the raw naked will-to-power that comes with the ability to act with arrogant presumption of the legitimacy of a system that erroneously privileges property rights, even if that means inflicting the harms suffered by others.

There is nothing Constitutionally inevitable about the superior standing of this emotional-ideological stance of free market fundamentalism. It can be challenged and overcome. The damages to the general welfare and environment due to the satisfaction of individual economic (selfish individual) interests must be recognized in deep contrast to our social ecological commons.

The anti-labeling view requires us to accept the ideology of disconnection: It wants to disconnect our health outcomes from our food and water; it wishes to disconnect information from the right to know; it wants to disconnect consideration of the way our system produces food might result in the degradation of the world we aspire to inhabit. It disconnects environmental damages from corporate sources by allowing companies to discount these as so-called negative externalities.

All of this has real world consequences and a purely visceral commitment to an emotional state, that has very little to do with science, other than the fact that the hired help or engineers can manipulate the rearrangement of matter to pretend they have invented life, constitutes a violation of the public trust. If corporations are people, then the community has a right to sanction them for acting like sociopaths and thus revoke their corporate charters. If the Koch Brothers can subsidize the attack on voting rights, then we can certainly counter by stripping corporations of their charters.

Unlike those who lose sleep over corporate stock prices and sweat bullets over company balance sheets, our interests as seed savers and plant breeders is the singular and unselfish task of protecting the planet’s seed diversity. This is a matter of compassionate service to protecting an inimitable cultural ecological part of the heritage of humanity as a whole. Our values do not make property the highest of all passions, or ownership the most important virtue. We insist on a new social ecological covenant that places our common wealth in seed and other forms of biodiversity above the emotional bottom-line. That would not just be the science-based approach, it is also the ethical approach that values and nurtures democracy.

We need to end this reign of food fascism. Corporations like Monsanto and Bayer CropScience are concerned with sustaining their profits, regardless of the threats posed to biodiversity and traditional ways of farming. They want to impose their will on the rest of us. Supporting I-522 will let the market and consumers decide. Nothing less than the future of our food systems and democracy is at stake. Vote yes on I-522.

Devon G. Peña, Ph.D., is a lifelong activist in the environmental justice and resilient agriculture movements, and is Professor of American Ethnic Studies, Anthropology, and Environmental Studies at the University of Washington in Seattle. His books include Mexican Americans and the Environment: Tierra y Vida (2005) and the edited volume Chicano Culture, Ecology, Politics: Subversive Kin (1998). Dr. Peña is the founding editor of the Environmental & Food Justice blog, and is a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

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