Monday, March 09, 2009

Getting Schooled

"Cucurbits were bottle-necked a long time ago."*
- John Navazio, senior plant breeder, Organic Seed Alliance

There were moments during last week's Organicology conference, as when I heard the comment above, that I felt like I was seriously in over my head. And not just because there were seminars titled "Fertilizers and Amendments for Organic Farming: Making Sustainable Choices" and "Sustainable Business Performance Measurement Tools and Reporting."

Fortunately for me, there were other topics available, too, on organic seed production (with seed guy and rabble-rouser Frank Morton, left) and the farmer-chef connection (with the irrepressible A. Boutard).

But it was definitely targeted to those seriously committed to organic and sustainable practices, with the initial keynote from Claire Hope Cummings, author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds.

The second was from writer and journalist Paul Roberts (right), whose book The End of Food says that, because living systems can't be industrialized or commodified, our current food system is doomed to fail. And I loved it when he tweaked this very committed crowd when he stated that there has to be room to acknowledge those who may not be completely organic in their practices but are moving away from conventional methods, like the farmer who has reduced his use of pesticides and fertilizers by 70%. You could have heard a pin drop!

The final word was left to Vandana Shiva (top and left), a leader in the struggle for global justice and author of Earth Democracy: Justice, Sustainability, and Peace, as she laid out the case against the corporatization and privatization of our genetic heritage as it is expressed through seeds and culture. She believes that the ability of farmers to save their own seed is absolutely necessary for local, sustainable economies to be nurtured. And you should have seen some of the grown men crowding around after her talk and getting their "fan boy" pictures taken with her!

After three days, all I can say is that there are some truly exciting people on both sides of the plow, the pen and the plate, and I hope to be letting you know more about them in the near future. In the meantime, I'll pass on a few of my favorite bits from my notes:
  • At breakfast the first day, I knew it was a different sort of gathering when I saw hot maple amaranth and a tofu scramble on the steam table.
  • Spinach plants mature and can bolt quickly because of daylight, not heat (though heat can facilitate the process)
  • Flowering plants arrived much later than other types (like ferns) but evolved much more quickly because of their ability to produce seeds
  • The number of silks on an ear of corn is equal to the number of kernels on that ear, and the silk is the stamen of the plant, (i.e. a hollow tube that carries pollen)
  • Seed companies grow little or none of their own seed, though they may do trialing (or testing) of the seeds they sell
  • All canola labeled "non-GMO" is contaminated with genetically modified organisms
  • According to Ken Roseboro of the Non-GMO Project in Eugene, "92% of soybeans, 73% of corn and 87% of cotton is GMO"
  • The key to sustainability is developing relationships. With food, that means seed growers building connections with farmers, who connect with food producers and consumers who then connect to their larger communities and the world.
Too pie-in-the-sky? If you believe these folks, not if we take it one decision at a time, one day at a time.

* "
Cucurbitaceae is a plant family commonly known as melons, gourds or cucurbits and includes crops like cucumbers, squashes (including pumpkins), luffas, melons and watermelons. The family is predominantly distributed around the tropics, where those with edible fruits were amongst the earliest cultivated plants in both the Old and New Worlds." - Wikipedia

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