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Borrowed from nature: Modern foods, ancient roots



Friday, March 14, 2014
Another Thanksgiving is behind us. Many of us were fortunate enough to celebrate with family and friends while feasting on the descendants of Native American foods. To name just a few, turkey, squash, succotash, cranberries, wild rice and potatoes all originated in the Americas. Brought from the wild into human food culture many millennia ago, much of our food comes from plants domesticated by the passage of seed, tuber and rhizome from hand to hand, season after season. We are literally at the receiving end of a long line of gardeners and farmers who sowed, cared for and harvested crops thousands of times — for themselves, of course, but also for us. Ancient farmers reached into the natural world to “borrow” food plants, and their choices and actions shaped our food destiny.

Domestication of food crops happened many times, in many places. Here in New England, we are separated from our food origins both in time and space. Maize, peppers, avocados and amaranth were cultivated in Mexico from about 4,000 to 7,000 years ago. Genetic evidence indicates that edible potatoes came about in what is now southern Peru and northwestern Bolivia; they did not reach us in the northern Americas until European settlement, crossing the Atlantic at least twice! Tomatoes first showed up in South Carolina in 1710, perhaps having been brought from the Caribbean. So not only do we need to thank those farmers who continuously cultivated and saved seeds and tubers, but we must also give a nod to those who traveled on foot and in ships throughout the Americas, exchanging food and goods, making the relay race that brought crops to our region after the last glaciation.

Of course, there is not a direct line from the food on our Thanksgiving table back to first domestication. Like many human activities, seed production has evolved from a local, cottage industry into a huge enterprise run mainly by multinational corporations, as greater demand led to opportunities for greater scale and efficiency. Choices about seed quality, crop growth and maturation, and food quality have become, for want of a better term, market-driven, so that most of us celebrated last month with genetically quite similar bowls of butternut squash and mashed potatoes. Hybrid crop technology has been a central piece of the revolution in commercial food production that has led to enormous economic growth in the world food industry for some, while unfortunately also decreasing food security for others. The number of food crops we eat and the genetic diversity of those crops have certainly decreased. The impact of reduced diversity is still a matter of some debate, but there is general agreement that we will need all of the resources we can find to meet future challenges to our food security. It just makes sense to preserve as much diversity as possible, since favorable combinations of genes are improbable, and, once found, such plant varieties need to be saved lest they disappear forever.

Back in the 1960s Gary Nabhan and Mahina Drees, two scientists who were also writers and food activists, set out to help the Tohono O’Odham Nation in southern Arizona rebuild their food system. They quickly discovered that tribal elders were looking for seeds of the crops grown by their ancestors—and that they could not find them. In 1983, Nabhan and Drees cofounded Native Seeds/SEARCH (for Southwestern Endangered Aridland Resource Clearing House), or NS/S. Its mission is to collect and preserve seeds from the rich agro-ecological diversity of the Southwest, along with the farming practices and traditions that created and preserved those seed lines. Now NS/S has more than 2,000 varieties of seeds in its climate-controlled storehouse, and does grow-outs at their farm in Patagonia, Ariz. Each year they supply hundreds of pounds of maize and tepary bean (native to the Southwest and Mexico) seeds to tribal farms, and sell thousands of packets of seeds to residents of arid lands.

Realizing that people all over the United States could participate in saving and growing out heirloom crops, NS/S recently developed a Seed School, a one-week program that teaches the basics and the tricks of effective seed saving. This coming January 12-17, people in the Pioneer Valley will have the opportunity to join a Seed School at Hampshire College. Biologists at both Hampshire College and NS/S recognize the need for a regional approach, so that seeds are preserved and remain adapted to local environments and specific farming systems. We hope someday to see a nationwide network of organizations dedicated to supporting local food production through preservation of diverse crop varieties.

So, as we reflect on our recent Thanksgiving feast and others to come, we can give thanks for blessings to family, friends and community, and also to the farmers that passed the seeds from hand to hand down to us. As we become ever more concerned about local food production, and the balance between food growing and the natural world around us, consider too the critical role of locally saved and adapted crops — perhaps one day we will name a popcorn variety after you!

Lawrence J. Winship, a former member of the Hitchcock Center board, is a professor of botany in the School of Natural Science and director of the Southwest Studies Program at Hampshire College. For more information about the January 12-17 Seed School, visit www.nativeseeds.org/events/seed-school/228-seed-school-hampshire.



Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information go to www.hitchcockcenter.org, call 256-6006 or write to column@hitchcockcenter.org.