Archive for the ‘Seed and Story’ Category

Joan Obra of the Fresno Bee called a few weeks ago to ask questions about the seed industry. We get quite a few calls from reporters, and most of the time it’s a somewhat frustrating experience – with the reporters wanting to reduce complex ideas to a sound bite and even when they get you to squeak one out they often get it wrong. Sorry journalists, but this is the experience of much of the citizenry.

Not Joan.

She was fantastic, asked great questions, made follow-up calls to other experts and then back to us, and her hard work and good journalism paid off with one of the better pieces I have read on the issue of farmers losing access to important open-pollinated commercial varieties.

I think talking to all the seed freaks may have infected her with the passion, as she told me that she got enough material for several articles and plans to write them. Fresno is lucky to have her on the food beat.

Her article:

Seeds of change; Farmers work to maintain beloved varieties that otherwise could be lost

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Today I attended an awards lunch for one of my true heroes – Nash Huber of Sequim, Washington. Nash won the American Farmland Trust’s Stewards of the Land award. It’s a major award, in terms of recognition and money, and it’s my understanding that this is the first time it went to an organic produce farmer. No announcement yet on the AFT site, but there is this news article and look for one in the Seattle PI tomorrow. As Nash said today, the award goes not just to him, but to his amazing crew. Check out the web site of Nash’s Organic Produce.

Organic Seed Alliance has been lucky to have Nash as a research partner for a number of years on several vegetable breeding projects. Both Nash and his farmer manager Scott Chichester have also served as educators at OSA events. People are always inspired by their integrated vision of food, farms, and the role of seed. I am.

Those of us who work in seed think about inheritance, and about the potential of better that which we pass on. Nash, coming from a farm family and having farmed for over thirty years, really gets that. You have to care for the farmland, the soil, the water, the seed, and the culture of farming – but in doing so you also have to have a vision of improving them. American Farmland Trust is a fantastic organization, and they selected the perfect farm, crew, and farm leader to reflect their values.

Congratulations to Nash, his crew, and AFT.

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Originally posted at OCM

Hugh Grant – Monsanto Chairman, CEO, and President – probably won’t notice the increased price of a loaf of bread. And if he does it will be with a smile. Grant is $13,000,000 and some change wealthier today than he was on Monday, as he choose to exercise stock options 116,000 shares worth – that netted him a profit of over $114 PER SHARE.

Like many of us, I wouldn’t mind paying the extra dollar per loaf of bread if I knew the majority of that dollar was going back into the hands of farmers. Instead, the higher prices at the checkout line are funneled to the agri-giants like Monsanto and Cargill, companies making record profits. Remind you of gas prices and oil companies? Reminds me that these agri-giants spent $100 million on getting their way in the Farm Bill, an investment with huge dividends – for Monsanto’s Hugh Grant anyway.

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“I don’t believe any company has the right to come into someone’s home and threaten their livelihood.” – so says Indiana Farmer David Runyan in response to Monsanto’s bully tactics to intimidate and coerce farmers. Finally getting national attention, both from Vanity Fair and CBS.

Link to the CBS story on the web site of the Organization for Competitive Markets

Also on OCM site, a link to the recent Market Place (American Public Radio) segment on how large agribusiness firms are profiteering, much like oil firms in recent years with their record breaking profits while the rest of us pay, pay and then pay some more.

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Well, the folks at ETC have another view on the Enola Been Patent appeal decision that I wrote about yesterday. Hope Shand’s comments give a bitter-sweet taste to what I saw as a happy ending of a tale that started out as a horror story. I have admired the work of Hope and Pat, RAFI and ETC, for many years. I agree with her on her points, but disagree with the PR approach on this one.

Specifically, I agree that the damage to farmer livelihoods should be addressed (and that is the bitterest piece of all), and recognize that, as in most court cases, Proctor’s lawyers delayed the process to suit their clients advantage, I am less inclined to see it as a “hollow” victory, which strongly implies that it is without meaning. It has meaning, it just doesn’t result in a full measure of justice. Unfortunately, justice will not be a meal served in a single course.

The patent system is a mess. Concentrated corporate interests influence the entire political process and as such PTO. A complete institutional overhaul is needed to address concentration in the agricultural sector, corporate influence on politics, dangerous technologies and practices, and our overall regulatory approach to plant genetic systems. But, I don’t think we can realistically expect change to come in any manner other than small victories that build cultural recognition of the issues and political reformation. I don’t see a revolution welling up outside the door to demand reform. I’d like to see Prius filled streets of Port Townsend – where everyone’s a “locavore” but government policy glazes peoples eyes – filled with pitchfork wielding populist radicals. In fact I offer tine sharpening services. But we also have to set realistic objectives, with accomplishments that we can attain, or it’s all doom and gloom.

I think that ETC, CGIAR, and others should pat themselves on the back for remaining vigilant, seeing this case to its current status, and continuing the fight. Don’t break any arms doing it, but we have to celebrate even small victories when the daily news on the agricultural front is constantly filled with such disastrous tides. Wow I sound like my mom, the preschool teacher, writing about giving gold stars – but I believe it is true. Don’t rest on laurels or imagine them more grand than they are, but an overly dark approach doesn’t do much to fuel those of us who continue to work for change. The Enola case helps builds a foundation. Bittersweet, but a victory nonetheless. I’m grateful for all the work that those on the case have put into it. And for the continued fight from folks like ETC.

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Best news I’ve seen in a long while. It starts out a once upon a time nightmare:

In 1999 a US citizen – Larry Proctor goes down to Mexico, buys some beans in a market, comes back to Colorado and plants it, saves seed for a few seasons, and applies for a patent based upon the beans distinctive yellow color.  Granted. When the US Patent and Trade Office (USPTO) granted this those of us in the seed world were shocked. It was the most egregious misapplication of the patent process imaginable.

Since that time farmers throughout Latin America have been threatened with lawsuits for planting the bean – the same bean they have been saving for generations – a Monsanto like mafia tactic. Luckily the International Center for Tropical Agriculture challenged the patent. The challenge has been a long path, with intermittent victories, including a final rejection of the patent in 2005. Proctor appealed that 2005 decision, and yesterday he lost that appeal – with the USPTO fully rejecting all his claims on the bean. His last leg would be to appeal to the Supreme Court. I think it’s unlikely that he would do so based on cost, but if he does (with the help of other big pocket biopirates) and loses, it would be a landmark case against biopiracy and the patenting of indigenous plant genetic materials.


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By now many of you have seen the NY Times article on Sticker Shock in the Organic Aisles, in addition to that I suggest that you read this piece on Organic in Trouble from the blog Mulch. The poor federal policy decisions to support biofuel production (which continues to be shown to be a false panacea for positive energy and environmental impact) is now having a very serious detrimental impact on one of the great success stories of modern agriculture, particularly in organic dairies. The abandoning of Conservation Reserve Program acreage in order to fill gas tanks instead of feed humans is inextricably linked to agrochemical conglomerate powers of companies like Monsanto, and the huge influence they wield on our political and public system. Monsanto’s profits continue to skyrocket as more land gets converted to bt corn and RR soy for ethanol and biodiesel. They win, the rest of agriculture and our food security loses. Farmers may see some short term profits, but watch for the blow back. An article in Delta Farm Press from March of 2007 (which was based on some naive projections about the price per barrel of oil remaining at around $60) predicted that farmers would be back to “break even” within 2 years – that’s by 2009. Farmers want to believe that the fuel driven big prices of today will be their longterm economic security, but the only folks who are going to make out in the long run are the CEOs and major investors of the ag-chemical-seed companies who are driving this boom. Boom, bust – the Hegelian dialect innit? – and you can be sure who WON’T be on the bust side and who will. Farmers never win in these situations.

Cautionary note on the long term economics

And another

And of course perpetual growth illusions rely on the allied illusion that yields in corn and soy will forever increase via genetic engineering, but that is also being shown to be false. As the researcher says, every organism has its physiological peak – it’s unlikely a human will ever be able to jump 20 feet into the air, or run a sub 3 minute mile.

We can’t solve the energy-climate-agricultural crises with quick fix technological solutions. Changes in food and fuel consumption, break-up of unhealthy concentration in agriculture and energy sectors, and an acceptance that perpetual economic growth is not possible (or desirable) are more realistic platforms to build a longterm, economically and environmentally sustainable fuel-food-farm culture.  Cultural, ethical, and institutional shifts can nurture greater societal health, wealth, and happiness.

Health, Wealth, and Happiness lead me to Ben Franklin, and to a particular quote of his that I used to have written above the office of one of antique stores: “I conceive that the great part of the miseries of mankind are brought upon them by false estimates they have made of the value of things.”

Pertinent thought not only for trading in antiques, but for the get rich quick rush towards biofuel crop production.

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There have been two recent public letters to Hillary Clinton from an old college alum that point to her historical ties with large scale corporate food – Tyson, Walmart, and Monsanto. They’re very informative. Here they are:

Letter One

Letter Two

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I haven’t had much time to write given my workload with the Organic Seed Growers Conference. I’ll give an update from the conference tomorrow, after I get some sleep.

Two things now:

1) Here’s the beet sugar industry response to the lawsuit. As a litigation liaison for one of the plaintiffs I’m going to avoid making any comments. But I welcome yours.

2) I saw this quote in today’s NY Times in regards to the beef recall, from (senator, democrat, Iowa) Tom Harkin, chairman of the Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, ”This begs the question: how much longer will we continue to test our luck with weak enforcement of federal food safety regulations?”

Thanks Tom.


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Frank Morton posted this comment on the SuperCarrot piece. His additions to the story need to be front and center:

Thanks for bringing this up to where the sun shines, Matthew.

I second everything that you are breathing fire about, but particularly to the uncritical praise from the hi-tech set. After actually reading the paper, as you must have done, several big issues jumped out at me that must have flown past a Wired reporter.

Starting at the top of the paper, “Nutritional impacts of elevated calcium transport in carrots,” we see that this is a paper about the impact of GM-tech on food and human health. We also see that it comes from the Vegetable and Fruit Improvement Center at Texas A&M. Riddle me this–Is this Center the result of Monsanto largess? Many new “crop improvement facilities” at our land grant universities come directly from the biotech industry (eg. a new biotech crop science building at WSU in Pullman, WA), and one can only assume that such investments expect affirmative results.

Directly under the the names of the researchers we find the names of the editors of the paper, who are associated with the Plant Science Center, St. Louis, MO. Is it just a coincidence that this the home address for the Monsanto corperation, Matthew?

The abstract begins with a discussion of calcium deficiencies “worldwide” that results from “Nutritional recommendations (that) emphesize ingestion of plant-based diets rather than…animal products. However, this plant based diet could limit the intake of essential nutrients such as calcium.” The abstract donates the first third of it’s space to justifying the use of novel technology for the prevention of osteoporosis caused by a lack of calcium in carrots…Never is it mentioned that carrots and other members of the Carrot Family of vegetables are not particularly good sources of this mineral. Nor that the Cabbage Family would be the appropriate source for getting ample calcium in the vegetable diet–which is what people commonly do in the real world. Kale, cabbage, broccoli, Chinese cabbage, turnips, radish, or leaves of any wild or domestic member of this crop family would easily supply more calcium AND more vitamin A and C, than any carrot–transgenic or natural. This seems easy to overlook amid all the science jabber.

In the body of the paper we learn that these crops are being grown in hydroponic solution, not in soil, which at first passes as a simply scientific means to control the availability of calcium isotopes in the test carrots. There is a passing reference in the Results section to the fact that the test carrots did not absorb extra heavy metals, but the significance of this observation cannot be found until we get to the very last paragraphs in the Discussion section. Here we learn that the genetic transformation that allows the absorption of extra calcium by the carrot (”overexpression” of sCAX1 transporter gene) ALSO ALLOWS THE ENHANCED ABSOPTION OF HEAVY METAL IONS, INCLUDING CADMIUM, COPPER, MANGANESE, IRON, AND ZINC…

The reason that the test carrots had a “2-fold increase in Ca++ and no increase in the content of other minerals” (cadmium, copper, iron, manganese, and zinc) as noted in the Results, is because these minerals were not included in the hydroponic solution! That is some result! The researchers note that the ionic radius of cadmiun is “almost identical” to that of calcium, “…so we used cadmium-free hydroponic solutions to avoid any adverse metal accumulation in the carrots.”

The concentrations of other metals in the solution is not mentioned, but we are left to assume that these were present at some level (because all except cadmium are essential trace nutrients), but likely were not available to the test crops in overabundance, as was the calcium. In other words, if these transgenic carrots were grown in real agricultural soils, we may find that they absorb toxic levels of whatever heavy metals or normal trace nutrients are available in those soils.

In the final paragraph of Discussion, we are informed that the real significance of this work is the finding that “overexpression of a gene found in all plants”–the CAX-transporter gene–could lead us into a new era of enhanced nutrition founded on plant-based diets.

Could be a hard sell to the vegetarians I know.

My Final Comment:
The cruciferous vegetables (which are related to Arabidopsis, the experimental source of the CAX1-gene used to transform the “super-carrot”), especially Brassica juncea, are well-known bioaccumulators of heavy metals. Brassica juncea is used in bioremediation as a lead absorber for heavily tainted soils. Using this genetic trait to create “overexpression” of large metal ion transport systems in a wide array of crops my have unintended consequences for agriculture and nutrition in the real world where soils vary widely in their native concentrations of potentially toxic metals. It just may be that ‘modulated expression’ of such transport systems in crops–as opposed to “overexpression” of these absorptive mechanisms–is nature’s way of keeping both plants and animals healthy in real life.

We are evolved to eat many things to be healthy…not just “super-carrots” and “golden rice.”

–Frank Morton
Wild Garden Seed

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