Farmers Given Food for Thought

A small organization in the southwestern United States is not only trying to preserve traditional farming methods, but hopes to preserve a culture in the process.

A small organization in the southwestern United States is not only trying to preserve traditional farming methods, but hopes to preserve a culture in the process.

Native Seed Search of Tucson, Arizona wants to conserve and disseminate crops used by the indigenous people of the Southwest, mainly American Indians. They fear that genetically modified crops could threaten their efforts.

“The more prevalent genetically modified crops are, the more interesting they will become to farmers,” said Suzanne Nelson, director of conservation at Native Seed Search. “If their neighbor gets three times the yield, farmers will be very interested in improvement to what they could produce.”

So why would such a bountiful yield be bad? Native Seed Search members worry that the yield would be composed of a homogenous crop, leaving the multifarious plants of the American Indian culture to fade into obscurity.

Crops have a cultural component, Nelson said. The crops of any region evolve because of the people living there. And for certain cultures, including those of American Indians, the world is built around the cultivation of crops.

“There are ceremonial aspects to different crops,” Nelson said. “Hopis use lima bean sprouts in religious ceremonies. What if they didn’t have it anymore?”

The disappearance of crop species could have a trickledown effect as well, Nelson said. If the crops disappear, the words for them will disappear as well.

“Language is central to culture,” she said. “If words are no longer used, you’ve lost a piece of your history.”

But Monsanto, which makes genetically modified crops, says that contrary to popular belief, genetically modified does not automatically mean less diversity.

“There are 1,000 varieties of soybeans that contain our roundup ready gene, for example,” said Monsanto spokesman Gary Barton. “Critics would want you to think they’re all the same. But the farmer has more choice than he knows what to do with.”

Still, that doesn’t address more obscure strains of squash, lima beans, corn, and the like that Native Seed Search wants to conserve. Monsanto mostly sells its technology to seed companies catering to large farms, not smaller subsistence farmers.

Barton says he agrees that diversity is important.

“We’re all for genetic diversity — that’s what biotech’s based on,” Barton said. “We support maintaining as much genetic diversity as possible, because from that library of genes (we) find important traits (to engineer improved crops). That’s why it’s important to save the rain forest.”

Other researchers believe that traditional agricultural practices should be maintained because genetically modified foods haven’t been around long enough to prove that they’ll continue to be safe and effective.

Ryan Isakson, a doctoral student in economy at the University of Massachusetts studying Mayan maize agriculture in Guatemala and southern Mexico, said one worry is that we could become overly dependent on science and disregard traditional agriculture because genetic traits could be accessed randomly.

“It’s not necessarily a bad thing,” Isakson said. “But my gut feeling is that I don’t really trust it. I think the uncertainty of GM foods means we do need traditional crops out there because without them we’re screwed.”

Barton countered that Monsanto itself has been around for many years, genetically modified foods have existed for 25 years, and all products must undergo thorough regulatory review both in the United States and abroad.

He also pointed out that organic farmers often cross two different breeds, combining half of all the genes of each plant into a single, unregulated plant. Monsanto’s technology takes only one part of a genetic DNA sequence and inserts it into a plant. And unlike the case of full hybrids, Monsanto researchers know exactly what DNA they’re putting into the plant and what it does.

Nelson of Native Seed Search said it’s unproductive to take a hard line on either side of the GM foods debate. Still, she worries that small harvesters could be squeezed out.

“Seeds are information. The information is coded in the DNA and information is power and power usually leads to money,” she said. “Some are trying their hardest to get their control of it and the world lives on food, so control is a pretty big deal.”

Author: Kristen Philipkoski

News Service: Wired News


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