Conserving Native Seeds and Culture

Grassroots Seed Conservation Emerges

Many if not most genetic conservation programs are similar in that they assume genetic resources can't be saved in their own habitats, are managed "top-down," and favor only breeding stock that is presently economic to conserve. Community-based genetic conservation programs disagree with those assumptions. A recent study conducted by Native Seeds/SEARCH, based in Arizona, illustrates how government, academic, agribusiness, and other interests in genetic resource conservation can appreciate issues dear to the community-based genetic conservation movement in North America.

The survey of groups and individuals involved in grassroots genetic resource conservation efforts revealed equal concern for wild plant species as for cultivated crops. Grassroots efforts favor stewardship of plant genetic resources which can be grown and conserved in the climatic conditions where the plants are found. The grassroots conservationists give attention to plants which may be economically useful at a later date but are neglected for the moment. To these conservationists, genetic utility implies more than raw materials for crop improvement.

The study showed that most grassroots efforts to manage germplasm focus on relatively few plant families (5 to 25) and plant species (25 to 100). Yet the survey suggests that the same groups are concerned with many kinds of plant materials not found in the U.S. National Plant Germplasm System (NPGS). The choice of plant genetic material to conserve is based on ecological values which hold that plants that have evolved in a particular locale may require fewer nutritive and energy resources to grow compared with newly bred high-yielding varieties. Many such plant ecotypes are best adapted to polycultural production systems.

The U.S. community-based seed genetic conservation movement includes about 6,500 active growers of plant genetic resources. The movement generally suffers from inadequate funds for personnel and operations. In addition, the movement requires more access to land and processing facilities, and more outreach programs to educate farmers about germplasm for local applications, among other needs.

People of the Blue Corn Mourn

As many as 20 botanical species of crops were cultivated in prehistoric North America, including sunflower, panicgrass, wild rice, amaranth, cranberries, tepary beans, several squashes, tobacco, chiles, and artichokes. Today the loss of crop genetic diversity is startling. An example of this loss is the native American farming village in Topawa, Arizona, where only eight of 29 historic fields are still being planted to native crops.

The Hopi people of the southwest United States, the original caretakers of blue corn genetic stock, are particularly threatened by crop genetic diversity loss. Though evidence suggests that some traditional Hopi crops are grown by a larger percentage of Hopi farmers today versus 50 years ago, the total number of Hopi farmers has decreased, and so has cultivated acreages. Loss of crop genetic diversity among the Hopi is also due to replacement of traditional species by exotic hybrids, decreased use of traditional seed saving skills among the Hopi, and changes in crops' vulnerabilities to weeds, pests, and contamination. This modern dirge about traditional Hopi agriculture is being repeated in rural societies all over the world. Moreover, it is not only the native crop gene pools that are threatened, but ways of life and traditional farming wisdom.

Reaping the Benefits of Seed and Cultural Diversity

There are a number of strategies to ensure that the benefits of using native crop genetic resources continue to accrue to traditional farmers around the world. These strategies include organization of farmer-to-seed curator networks; legal protection of seed stock; better presentation of infor-mation about genetic diversity on seed packets; development of heirloom seeds, demonstration fields and gardens; and provision of tax incentives to companies working in community-based genetic conservation.

If traditional farmers discontinue the propagation of native plants, the consequences could be ecologically and culturally degrading. Ecologically degrading in terms of: the loss of symbiosis that exists with certain polycrops; the relationship of leguminous plants with indigenous strains of nitrogen-fixing bacteria; gene exchange and co-adaptation by cross-compatible varieties in the same fields; and coevolution between crops and their associated weeds and insects. Cultural degradation would occur because native farmers think about farming in their own languages' concepts for crop and weed compatibility, for planting and harvest periods, and for soil and crop management. Indeed, it is reasonable to believe that the cultural and genetic heritage of Native American agriculture will persist and evolve only if the languages of its remaining farmers survive. The same could be true for farmers in many developing countries.

K. Dahl and G. P. Nabhan. 1992. From the Grassroots Up: The Conservation of Plant Genetic Resources by Grassroots Organizations - "latter-day noahs" of North America. Diversity. Vol. 8, No. 2.

G. P. Nabhan. 1985. Native American Crop Diversity, Genetic Resource Conservation and the Policy of Neglect. Agriculture and Human Values, Summer.


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