Sowing seeds that will take the heat

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    Native Seeds/SEARCH's 60-acre conservation farm in Patagonia, Ariz.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    Tepary beans, grown for centuries by Southwest Indians, are adapted to survive the droughts and heat waves of the desert climate.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    Native Seeds/SEARCH's conservation farm is used to produce rare seed varieties.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    Native Seeds distributes the seeds free of charge to tribal groups that want to grow their traditional crop varieties.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    Native Seeds maintains a "seed bank," freezing samples of each variety so that scientists can study its unique genetic traits.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    On the Gila River Indian Reservation, 75-year-old Janet Haskie grows traditional varieties of beans, maize and melons.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

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    By selecting her best seeds from each crop and replanting them, Haskie exposes each seed variety to the changing climate, allowing them to adapt over time.

    - Sam Eaton / Marketplace

Native Seeds/SEARCH's 60-acre conservation farm in Patagonia, Ariz.

On the Gila River Indian Reservation, 75-year-old Janet Haskie grows traditional varieties of beans, maize and melons.


TESS VIGELAND: Curators from international seed banks are meeting outside Washington today. These so-called banks store the seeds of thousands of crop varieties from around the world. Most of which will never see a supermarket shelf.

But as a warming climate threatens mainstream agriculture, these unique genes in these little known seeds could turn out to be crucial for feeding the planet. From the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, Sam Eaton reports.

SAM EATON: I'm in a tiny Southern Arizona town called Patagonia. And it's hot. About 107 degrees today. The hills around me are parched and brown. But the field I'm standing in pulses with life.

Suzanne Nelson is conservation director for Native Seeds/SEARCH. It's a nonprofit that saves and distributes seeds from ancient Southwest crops like maize, beans and sunflowers.

Many of the plants now thriving on this 60-acre seed farm are the same ones southwest Indians cultivated here long before Columbus.

SUZANNE NELSON: This is a brown Tepary bean. It's got a pretty large tap root. And the leaves will actually fold up on each other so they're shading each other and preventing water loss through the leaf surfaces.

Qualities that enabled these early crops to survive in the hot Southwest deserts. But today they may hold even more value.

Nelson says plant breeders are racing to craft new seeds that can withstand the heat waves and diseases of a warmer planet. And some of the genes in these ancient heirloom crops may hold the answer.

Peter Bretting is with the U.S. Department of Agriculture's plant gene bank program.

PETER BRETTING: We have found genes for resistance to diseases or insects in genetic materials where we would not have suspected it to be until we tested them.

Bretting says the world's enormous diversity of heirloom crops is like a vast library of unopened books.

Unfortunately, scientists like Bretting may never have a chance to study many of them. That's because farmers across the world are swapping out regional varieties for only a handful of high yielding crops sold by international seed companies.

Gary Nabhan is author of "Where Our Food Comes From."

GARY NABHAN: Globally, we are losing crop varieties as fast as we ever have.

Take apples. Back in the pioneer days the U.S. had more than 7,000 named varieties. Today that number has fallen to around 300.

The USDA's Peter Bretting says once those seeds are gone . . .

BRETTING: You lose another tool out of your toolbox. You lose another option.

Freezing seeds in special vaults is a way to ensure that doesn't happen. Even Native Seeds maintains one at its Tucson headquarters.

These so-called "seed banks" serve as an important source of genetic material for scientists, and even for international seed companies. But Gary Nabhan says Native Seeds' primary mission, saving seeds in fields rather than vaults, is the one that matters the most.

NABHAN: Plant breeders cannot breed new varieties adapted to hotter conditions rapidly enough to keep up with the pace of climate change. And so the more varieties we have adapted and being adapted in fields as opposed to being frozen in time in a seed bank, the better off we are.

On the Gila River Indian Reservation south of Phoenix, Native Seeds' vision is being realized.

JANET HASKIE: This is all beans. They're called buv. They're beans that you can see, they're flowered, and they're just about ready to put on their little pod.

Seventy-five-year-old Janet Haskie grows traditional Indian varieties of bean, melon and maize. Native Seeds supplies the seeds free of charge.

Haskie says there's a big difference between these seeds and the ones she's ordered from mainstream catalogues.

HASKIE: They survive!

She has childhood memories of her father growing these same crops. The seeds passed down and continually adapting from generation to generation -- until the convenience of modern lifestyles and eating habits intervened.

Now, many decades later, Haskie is resurrecting that age old tradition.

HASKIE: We need to start taking care of our seeds and really handling them like they're gold. They're precious.

In southern Arizona, I'm Sam Eaton for Marketplace.

About the author

Sam Eaton is an independent radio and television journalist. His reporting on complex environmental issues from climate change to population growth has taken him all over the United States and the world.

Native Seeds/SEARCH's 60-acre conservation farm in Patagonia, Ariz.

On the Gila River Indian Reservation, 75-year-old Janet Haskie grows traditional varieties of beans, maize and melons.

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Great topic, but I bristled at one particular sentence. "That's because farmers across the world are swapping out regional varieties for only a handful of high yielding crops sold by international seed companies." I had to wonder if Sam Eaton has watched "The Future of Food". Monsanto legally bludgeoned many farmers into switching to their seeds, intimidating the rest into submission. Big Ag wasted no time once we invaded Iraq. Order 81 of the Coalition Provisional Authority made it illegal for Iraqi farmer to save seeds. As much as I respect NPR reporting, there's no doubt that sensitivity to corporate underwriting had everything to do with the wording that implied farmers are to blame for the loss of genetic diversity.

Really, Terra, a corporate troll? If you read my comment more carefully, you'll note that I'm not endorsing any GMOs, and highlight the fact that hybrids (which also originate from smaller breeders or universities) often have the weaknesses related to growing conditions. But it's simply reality that many non-hybrids are less productive, and plants often have lower yields under stress. That doesn't make them useless as potential breeding stock to help address some of the problems expected from accelerated climate change. But when you're talking about feeding hundreds of millions of people, yield will be a consideration.

Interesting to note that the first comment on this story from "Ryan Trenton" is obviously a troll from Monsanto or a similar company -- companies that should be banned from existence. But Lane Trippe's comments are right on and are also chronicled in the excellent documentary "Food, Inc." If everyone saw Food, Inc. and understood the value of crop diversity, native plants, the necessity of organics and lack of pesticides/herbicides, and being able to keep your seeds, companies like Monsanto wouldn't survive. Ignorance about these issues allows big companies to leverage greed instead of wisdom.

It's good to see both the preservation and the breeding efforts. One thing to consider, though, is that these varieties tend to have lower yields than the more water-intensive hybrids. So while they will probably help humans adapt to some degree of climate change, they may not be a panacea, particularly under extended drought. Many of the world's nearly 7 billion people depend on agricultural yields enhanced by reliable precipitation or perennial water supplies.

Thank you so much for this story.

I was at the garden (http://www.osalt.org/ariadne_garden.html)
talking about the soil food web (.com>about us> our approach) with a woman who went home to hear Kellior read this:


by Ellie Schoenfeld

My country is this dirt
that gathers under my fingernails
when I am in the garden.
The quiet bacteria and fungi,
all the little insects and bugs
are my compatriots. They are
idealistic, always working together
for the common good.
I kneel on the earth
and pledge my allegiance
to all the dirt of the world,
to all of that soil which grows
flowers and food
for the just and unjust alike.
The soil does not care
what we think about or who we love.
It knows our true substance,
of what we are really made.
I stand my ground on this ground,
this ground which will
recruit us all
to its side.

"Patriotism" by Ellie Schoenfeld, from The Dark Honey. © Clover Valley Press, 2009. Published with permission.


After months of wincing at the horrifyingly egregious green washing Monsanto sponsor "ads" that NPR’s Marketplace has been running, it is awfully good to hear this piece about native seeds and Native Seed Search as well as conservation scientist and RAFT (Renewing Americas Food Traditions) founder, Gary Nabhan. After having toured the featured Patagonia farm with Dr. Suzanne Nelson myself, I can attest that these efforts to save but also unbank and actually grow regionally appropriate native seed crops which are not only part of our heritage but likely, our long term food source and perhaps our survival are important and impressive. Let Monsanto sponsor Marketplace to run important and informative stories such as these every day as far as I am concerned.

You neglected to mention the killer aspect of the corporate seed business, accounting for about 80% (conservative estimate) of seed sales. Companies, like Monsanto, have been using genetic engineering to develop a relatively few varieties with useful traits for agribusiness--e.g., mold-resistance, uniformity of fruit, slow-ripening for better transport/shelf-life, and/or varieties which tolerate herbicides (like their RoundUp product) for easier weed control. However, they protect their patented genes by also rendering the resulting plants sterile, so...more seeds have to be bought. The crops do not propegate, and adapt to a specific or changing environment. This is the important difference and the value of 'heritage' (naturally propegated, long-evolved) seed stocks. I learned this in Barbara Kingsolver's excellent book, "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle".

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