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Seeding the Future with Genetic Diversity

Posted by Sylvia Kantor | November 16, 2012

Over 200 people gathered in Port Townsend Nov. 9 to talk about seeds. The WSU symposium Seeding the Future: Ensuring Resiliency in Our Plant Genetic Resources kicked off the annual Tilth Producers organic farming conference. The audience, mostly farmers plus a significant contingent of young people, including more than 60 students from WSU and The Evergreen State College, was eager to participate in a dialogue about plant genetic resources that support a regional organic agriculture. Here are just a few highlights from the day.

The USDA ARS is sending seeds like these from almost 11,000 of its plant collections to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway as part of an international cooperative effort to preserve agricultural plants. Photo by Jack Dykinga, USDA ARS Image Gallery
The USDA ARS is sending seeds like these from almost 11,000 of its plant collections to the Svalbard Global Seed Vault in Norway as part of an international cooperative effort to preserve agricultural plants. Photo by Jack Dykinga, USDA ARS Image Gallery

Laura Lewis, an agricultural geographer by training and director of WSU Jefferson County Extension, pointed out that diversity is highest within the gene pool where a species originated. These centers of origin and the wild crop relatives of a species provide important information and plant genetic resources for plant breeders. Organic farmers are deeply concerned that plant genetic resources are shifting from a shared, public resource to a private one—all the way to the level of genes and genetic functions.

Working to re-open the “genetic commons,” Lewis is establishing a public gene bank at Twin Vista Ranch (farmland recently donated to WSU) on Marrowstone Island, along with educational support to help growers acquire, plant, select, and maintain germplasm adapted to their local, organic growing conditions. Lewis sees this as key to supporting a resilient agriculture now confronted with climate change, habitat destruction, loss of agricultural land, and control of intellectual property.

Rebecca McGee, formerly a principal scientist with General Mills and now a legume research geneticist with the USDA-Agricultural Research Service in Pullman, echoed the need for resiliency based in diversity, citing additional threats such as soil erosion, reliance on synthetic nitrogen fertilizer, and population growth. McGee views public germplasm repositories as insurance policies that catalog and preserve genetic diversity – a buffer against the vulnerability of a narrow genetic base that is one consequence of an agricultural system that relies on genetic uniformity. One such repository, the USDA Germplasm Resources Information Network or GRIN, offers a wealth of information and genetic material for plant breeding research and education.

It might seem surprising to have Michael Neff, WSU associate professor of crop biotechnology, present to this audience of organic farmers—his research is based in genetically modified organisms (GMOs). Neff enjoys teaching and facilitating open dialogue on the topic and he is passionate about educating people so they can develop informed opinions. Neff explained some of the basic science of GMO technology and presented case studies both pro (papaya in Hawaii) and con (creeping bentgrass) to show that decisions about GMO technology must be made on a case-by-case basis.

Ultimately, Neff thinks GMOs can be safe and effective, if used appropriately. He argues that much of the current anti-GMO sentiment is due to the fact that many people don’t like the control of plant genetic resources enjoyed by companies like Monsanto. In his view, regulations and requiring GMO labeling don’t limit large corporations, but rather prevent smaller companies from competing and diversifying the market and prevent universities from developing products that help society or compete with the Monsantos of the world.

Current organic standards do not allow GMOs but Neff suggests it is worthwhile to explore such provocative questions as: Can GMO approaches help organic farmers? Is there a role for GM technology in sustainable agriculture and living? Can GMO technology help reduce dependence on fossil fuels? Can we create an open source approach to use with GMOs?

Brian Campbell of Uprising Seeds and Nash Huber of Nash’s Organic Produce contributed farmer perspectives to the discussion. Campbell is taking a proactive approach to the threat of the proprietary trend in the seed industry by growing and selecting seed for the small-scale grower. He envisions regionally adapted, open-pollinated seed resources that contribute to a legacy of publicly owned varieties that can compete with hybrids in the market. Huber, a veteran farmer with over 400 acres in organic production, underscored the need for putting farmers back on the land in order to respond to changing conditions (like climate change). In his view, a strong, local agriculture is better served by farmers being proactive (e.g., Uprising Seeds) rather than reactive (fighting trends like GMO technology).

The partnership between WSU and Tilth Producers sponsored this symposium and fostered a lively, open dialogue about plant genetic resources and food system sustainability.

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