For a Sustainable Food System, Look to Seeds

Lambert here: I hope your catalogs have come! (Some may bristle at the indigenous focus, but I think it’s undeniable that non-industrial food tastes better, and good-tasting food encourages conviviality, which I think is an important social value.)

By Breanna Draxler, the climate editor at YES!. Republished from >Alternet.

“Our seeds are more than just food for us. Yes, they are nutrition. But they’re also… spirituality,” says Electa Hare-RedCorn, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and a Yankton descendant. “Each seed has a story and each seed has a prayer.”

With a background in social work, Hare-RedCorn was brought on to the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project in 2012 as a seed-keeper, to carry the conversation forward with youth and families. The project, she says, has since become a movement.

“Being tied to the seed work has helped me see that traditional ecological knowledge—the understanding of our connection to the soil, seeds, and our culture—it’s all intrinsically tied together,” Hare-RedCorn says. “Even if policy has definitely tried to strip that away, we still have a unique relationship with the seeds and what they mean to us.”

Hare-RedCorn fondly recalled when one particular intern joined the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project in 2016. Hare-RedCorn explained to her that everybody is a part of agriculture and the food system in some way—we consume food; we grow food; we wear clothing from fibers; we prepare food for others. And then she asked the incoming intern: “How, at this moment, are you part of this?” to which the intern replied, “Well, I eat.”

Hare-RedCorn says this young woman has since found her passion in seed preservation and is continuing the work of bringing back Pawnee varieties of corn that have been lost over time. When Hare-RedCorn began working with Pawnee corn, only three varieties were known. But through the work of the preservation project, Hare-RedCorn says, that number has grown to 11 varieties—each with its own role in the community and its cultural traditions.

And this former intern—whose initial connection to agriculture was summed up by consumption—now has a full scholarship to study soil science at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. Upon graduation, Hare-RedCorn says, the former intern will be the first Pawnee agronomist.

“Part of what I’m trying to do with my role is just to help my Pawnee people recognize that the corn means so much to us,” Hare-RedCorn says. “The corn is intrinsically tied to the soil, and the soil is tied to land, and all of these things that will help us.” The corn will help to restore a culture of health, she says, through which members can be nourished and sustained. And, she says, the corn will help reinstate spiritual practices including songs and prayers that were lost when the people were forced off their land.

“It’s all about respect for the land we’re taking care of and that takes care of us,” Hare-RedCorn says.

The traditional homeland of the Pawnee people is in Nebraska, but they were forcibly removed by the U.S. government in 1874 and pushed to Oklahoma, where the present population resides. The relentless pursuit of the West by settlers stripped the Pawnee people of their land, the lives of countless people, and many of their traditional ways of life, including the cultivation of corn.

Just a decade earlier, President Abraham Lincoln had established a U.S. Department of Agriculture with a focus on food, agriculture, economic development, science, and natural resource conservation. Hare-RedCorn says that agronomists of the time studied the seeds and techniques used by the Pawnee people and other tribes as they worked to increase agriculture productivity for White settlers. The resulting corn was bigger than Indigenous corns, but also more homogenous.

“I really see a sense of superiority in those varieties,” Hare-RedCorn says. “But [the USDA at the time] just didn’t know how good the biodiversity is for the soil, our stomachs, and our nutrition.”

That emphasis on biodiversity is the driving force behind Native Seeds/Southwestern Endangered Aridland Resource Clearing House, a seed conservation nonprofit that operates in the Southwestern U.S. and Mexico. The organization is working to revitalize the farming traditions of Native communities and promote sustainable agricultural practices in this arid region.

“Biodiversity in concept is beautiful, and biodiversity in practice is difficult,” says Joy Hought, the organization’s executive director.

“These seeds and this biodiversity—in order for it to live outside the seed bank—it has to be grown, and it has to be eaten, and it has to be used in ceremony. Its context in real life has to be rebuilt,” Hought says. “That’s why we call it ‘farm to table.’ You can’t just have farm. You have to have the table.”

Hought illustrates this with the example of a species of particularly soft, white wheat that was historically grown by Indigenous cultures in the Sonoran region of Mexico and up the West Coast of the U.S. As industrial wheat production expanded, harder red wheats that could withstand mechanized harvest took its place in the market and then the fields. But the seeds of that soft, white wheat were still stored in the seed banks of the USDA and Native Seeds. So in 2010, Native Seeds got a grant from the USDA to do some exploratory research on sustainable farming. That research brought together farmers, bakers, and millers. Agronomists were learning to make pizza dough, and chefs were talking to wheat farmers. Together, they reintroduced the grain to the region. Hought says she’s now seeing this soft, white wheat all over California again, and Arizona has a couple thousand acres of it. “It hasn’t taken over the world; every loaf of bread isn’t made of it, but it’s accessible again,” Hought says. “That’s the price and the work that goes into biodiversity.”

The work of building biodiversity into our food systems has two distinct challenges. One is preserving the genetic material contained in the seeds and the centuries of agricultural knowledge that have developed alongside them. And two is nurturing a relationship with the seeds as living beings. This is especially difficult on industrial farm operations, but Hought says our food system has room for different types of farms. To this end, Native Seeds works to reestablish small, local operations. Hought believes this is what will open up the space for more biodiversity.

Increasing biodiversity often means scaling down production, Hought says, and it also means changing policies to make it economical to grow crops on, say, fewer than 1,000 acres. Today, that is not the case. Most federal subsidies go to large-scale producers of major feed grains, such as corn. Farmers growing niche crops, Hought says, don’t always qualify for assistance.

That said, the modern USDA has come to embrace the value of biodiversity in its approach—both in its grant-making and its seed-banking. Yes, researchers are still working to improve efficiencies and productivity, but they are also experimenting with alternative approaches that encourage conservation.

That’s what brings me to the USDA’s National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation in Fort Collins, Colorado, in October 2019. As I enter the frigid, vaultlike room where most of the seeds are stored, I am struck by the expanse of this collection. The lab claims to have nearly 12,000 plant species represented by some 500,000 individual samples. As plant geneticist Christopher Richardson later puts it: “You’re standing in the most biodiverse half-hectare on the planet.” He says that this is a collection of diversity that doesn’t exist in the wild anymore, and most importantly, it’s all living.

The stacks are floor to ceiling, and each shelf is filled with small, indistinguishable packets of seeds. I don’t linger long in the -18-degree Celsius (0-degree Fahrenheit) chamber, though the seeds will. They are expected to survive 100 years in these cold, low-moisture conditions. For crops such as apples, which are grown via grafting budwood, rather than seeds, their genetic samples are stored in tanks with liquid nitrogen vapor, at around -156 degrees C (-249 degrees F). The predicted lifespan of such samples is 1,000 years.

The lab is a part of the USDA’s research arm, established to maintain a growing collection of the germplasm that makes up America’s food system. The collection began during the Lincoln administration, alongside Westward expansion, and Richardson says it was paramount for the success of the United States. But the brunt of the cost was carried by the cultures being actively mined for resources and knowledge and then stamped out in the process.

While seed banks are sometimes thought of as repositories to be drawn upon in apocalyptic doomsday scenarios, Richardson sees them more as living libraries. The seeds don’t just sit there; the lab partners with growers across the country to plant, observe, and harvest the crops so they will continue to adapt to changing environments.

“Any plant can’t adapt to new or changing environmental conditions in the wild without diversity,” Richardson says. “If you want durable resistance to the complex kinds of traits that are facing agriculture right now, diversity is fundamental.”

The National Laboratory for Genetic Resources Preservation is a government entity funded by tax dollars, and Richardson says the lab takes the position that it is a global public good to make these resources available to everyone. Richardson points to the original intent in founding the collections, which emphasized justice and openness. Food was considered to be a fundamental human right.

As such, the collection is open access; anyone can request seeds or samples at no cost. Most of the requests come from researchers or breeders. (That’s in contrast to Native Seeds, which mostly distributes seeds to farmers and gardeners, especially members of Native American tribes.) The lab ships out a quarter-million accessions every year. Richardson calls it “the public library of genetic resources used by the world.”

The collections that the lab has preserved and made available have been able to keep countless agricultural disasters at bay in the past century and a half—be it diseases, pests, or other crop failures—because of the variety they store. Richardson says that back in the 1970s, “the landscape of American agriculture was shockingly homogenous and vulnerable….I’m not sure we’ve come a long way, but we’re in a new era of breeding for diversity.”

As the cost of genetic sequencing continues to drop dramatically, it will democratize the use of these tools. When used in concert with traditional ecological knowledge, the resulting reintroduction of diversity offers hope for building resilience in our food system in the face of the climate crisis.

While collaboration with Native agronomists won’t erase the damage done by Manifest Destiny, Westward expansion, and the denigration of Indigenous ecological practices, Hare-RedCorn sees potential for progress and healing, when Western science is used along with traditional knowledge and value systems.

Hare-RedCorn is a proponent of collaboration, but emphasizes that the work needs to be relational. Some of the USDA conservation practices that receive the most support, Hare-RedCorn says, parallel practices that tribes have been using for ages. “There’s maybe a different titling of it or a way to phrase it or a way to get it subsidized, but… these are traditional agricultural practices that are good practices.”

Hare-RedCorn, who was named to the Native American 40 Under 40 list in 2018, also works with master gardeners in Nebraska who are growing Pawnee seeds and layering on the analysis of Western science. “Maybe in the way that Western science has been apprehensive about our way of knowing,” she says, “Maybe it’s that we’ve been apprehensive about learning the data science and the agronomy.”

In addition to her work as a Pawnee seed-keeper, Hare-RedCorn has a job is with the Intertribal Agriculture Council, which is under the umbrella of the U.S. Department of the Interior. She acknowledges that people have to feed their families, but she says that culture also matters. “We’re returning to what we once knew,” Hare-RedCorn says. Yes, the Pawnee Seed Preservation Project’s aim is to protect the corn and the seeds that have been lost to the tribe. “But,” she says, “we also feel like we have a lot to learn and teach together. So I feel like if the USDA and NRCS would be open… to shifting powers or shifting responsibilities, to work alongside tribes or with tribes, I think that would go a long way. It would enrich the work they’re doing in communities.”

Hought, of Native Seeds, agrees. Despite the many challenges in this work, she says the one thing she knows for sure is that any success in achieving biodiversity in the food system will be relationship-based. That applies to the relationship between the seeds and the growers as well as the relationship between the growers and the cultures, systems, and institutions of which they are a part.

“There’s a difference between nostalgia, and cultivating from the past tools that will help you adapt to the future,” Hought says.

Hare-RedCorn puts it plainly: “Things will get better once Indigenous or non-Western world views are embraced or encouraged,” she says. “I just think our world will get richer; our food will taste better.”

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. The Historian

    Thank you for a great article, Lambert! I was aware of the Svalbard Seed Bank but I didn’t know we had one here in the US also! And, how do we turn off the bold type?

    I am not a farmer or a gardener – I definitely have a black thumb – but having grown up around farmers and having gone to many of their meetings as a part of my 4H Club, I’ve heard a lot about hybrid seeds not being capable of growing a healthy seed crop for the next year’s plantings. In essence, that forces farmers to buy new seed every year instead of growing their own. I know that around here many of those Idaho potatoes have their birth in seed farms in North Dakota. To me this seems to be a serious problem that really isn’t being addressed. Given our system of monoculture, what happens if a blight hits the seed crops? Then what? Do we have enough viable seeds in storage for all the foods we need? Does anyone else see this as a problem?

  2. amfortas the hippie

    i love stuff like this
    i’ve been saving seeds for 25+ years, on top of the limited saving by grandparents
    i generally avoid hybrid, but when i do get them, i save those seeds, too…and love the concept of a Yarb Patch, where rotten stuff is tossed and allowed to sprout and grow wild( got that name from a book on english herb gardens)
    wife gets cross with my jar saving clutter and trays of drying veggie guts

    1. xkeyscored

      Engish allotment holders are keen savers and swappers of seeds.
      And I successfully cultivated delicious strawberries there for years, by the simple means of tossing the rotten ones around.

  3. Chas

    Forty-five years ago my wife and I met a man who was a direct descendant of a family that had been the first European settlers of Newbury, Vt. in the 1750s. The town had fertile fields along the oxbows of Connecticut river where the Abenaki native Americans had grown corn for a thousand years. Small ears about four inches long and very tasty sweet corn. The settlers obtained corn from the Abenakis and one family planted it every year for more than two hundred years, saving the seeds every year. We were given the seeds and planted them every year and saved the seeds for next year. Then we happened by chance to move to Newbury, Vt. where we continued to grow the seeds. Then by chance we met the chief of the local Abenaki tribe and told her about the corn. They had lost it long ago so we gave it back to them. They were very happy about that and held a big celebration. It’s really amazing to be eating the same corn the Abenakis ate a thousand years ago.

  4. thoughtfulperson

    Good stuff and agree seed diversity is critical.

    If your in the SE or midatlantic in N America, or living in a similar climate, here’s a cool organization:

    Southern exposure seed exchange is a “Seed-saving organization offers many varieties of heirloom and other open-pollinated vegetables that grow well in the southeastern U.S.”

    Southern Exposure Seed Exchange is a cooperatively-owned seed company and the principal livelihood of Acorn Community Farm, an intentional community in central Virginia.

  5. farmboy

    Patenting life forms was crossing the Rubicon or maybe the Styx, defeating use of the terminator gene was a victory. Using new varieties is crucial to maintain resistance to rust, blight, root disease among countless pests. Access is restricted by royalty and licensing agreements that outlaw seed saving so public varieties are essential but risky because they were released before royalty and licensing took over. Non-GMO plant breeding has now made the distinction of GMO nearly moot. Breeding programs of all sorts need the infusion of funds royalty and licensing agreements bring to address mutating and newly emerging threats, but create a dedicated input that disavows any landrace possibilty. Especially in specialty markets the crunch for best adapted strains is full on. Every plant breeder and breeding program has a ton of genetic material on hand.

  6. polecat

    While the gist of the article is of value, it should be reminded that many food & fiber stuffs can only be propagated via roots, modified as bulbs, corms, rhizomes and the like .. as well as cuttings/divisions/graftings .. it not just about seed-saving, when survival is at stake.

    Man does not live, so far … on Seed alone !

  7. xkeyscored

    The Pawnee aren’t the only native Americans to have diversity in their corn. I’ve posted this link before; it shows Andean corn varieties. There must be something in there that’ll survive whatever, and nutritionally, it beats our monocultured stuff hands down, except in pure calories, which many in the US could perhaps do without..

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Here, for a slightly different array of andean corn images, is “andean corn images” by All The Web-Yahoo.;_ylt=AwrJ6ykfTyVeK0AAHz1XNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTByMjB0aG5zBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNzYw–?p=andean+corn+varieties&fr=sfp

      Aside from giving some different andean corn images, this will also permit any interested viewers to compare the relative merits of ( subject area images) by Google as against ( subject area images) by All The Web-Yahoo.

      To me, the quality and usefulness difference seems to speak for itself. It speaks so loudly it screams. Others may feel differently.

  8. Henry

    Maybe we can set up a system were you check out your seeds from the library at the beginning of the season and return them in greater abundance, locally adapted at the end of the season?
    There is nothing that pays so well as growing your own food. (Read eight forms of capital if in doubt.)
    It is difficult by yourself, but it is easy with a community.

    If you’re in the area, come celebrate/participate in our new seed library at the Eugene Public Library:

  9. Arizona Slim

    Slim checking in from Tucson. Where Native Seeds is headquartered. I can personally attest to the quality of their seeds.

  10. drumlin woodchuckles

    I might get tired of these heavier black blocky letters but for the moment I am finding them a little easier to see and to read.

    I think in the widest scope that “seeds” may be expandedly understood to also include other plant parts or plant productions which can be used to plant new little plantlets with. Bulbs, corms, tubers, rhizomes, cuttings, ratoons, etc. The same principles hold.

    The NOFA-NY ( Northeast Organic Farming Association- New York) hosted winter conference just today ended here in Syracuse. For the past few years it had been held in Saratoga Springs, but this year NOFA-NY has decided they will switch off. Every other year in Syracuse to serve the center and west of New York State and Northern Tier Pennsylvania, and every other other year in Saratoga Springs still to serve the East and far SouthEast of New York State and also the small-to-tiny nearby New England States.

    The last 2 years the NOFA-NY conference co-ran with a co-conference of, by and for seed company people from the many little-to-tiny seed companies in Eastern New York State and New England. I went to parts of the Seed Conference at that time. A lot of what the Seed company presenters discussed was professional-level material to help eachother learn and co-advise eachother in detail, but admission-paying laypeople were permitted to attend the talks and workshops. Next year in Saratoga again, the Seed Conference will co-run in parallel with the NOFA-NY Conference.

    Since it costs money to go there, stay there and return; one wonders if our Mr. Strether would be interested in attending IF enough of the NaCap readers contributed eNOUGH money to pay Mr. Strether’s way all the way there, being there, and all the way back. He could perhaps be NaCap’s
    “intrepid journalist” at the NOFA conference AND the Seed Conference events in January 2021.

    Separately, if enough commenters leave enough seed-source-related information here, this thread could become a minor repository of seed-relevant information.

  11. drumlin woodchuckles

    There is a Mohawk Nation citizen named Rowen White who has a seed company called Sierra Seeds and is involved in Mohawk traditional seeds-and-crops revival activities and is also recently now the Director of Seed Savers Exchange.

    I will offer a link to a bunch of Rowen White and related images in case anyone wants to do some image wormhole URL searching for interesting material.;_ylt=AwrE19Lh4CheLCsAew1XNyoA;_ylu=X3oDMTByMjB0aG5zBGNvbG8DYmYxBHBvcwMxBHZ0aWQDBHNlYwNzYw–?p=rowen+white+mohawk+seed+saver&fr=sfp

  12. Karrinina

    Just ordered my 2020 catalog from Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co., hq right here in Missouri, now with projects in Petaluma CA and in CT as well. The catalog is so fascinating to read and I have difficulty making choices!

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