As I sat down to write this, I learned that the Farm Bill has been approved by the Senate Committee and will be brought to a vote in the Senate Floor. I have yet to see what was a part of the finalized bill, but I am hoping that the Gillibrand Amendment was a part of the bill. That amendment, proposed by Senator Kirsten Gillibrand of New York, would have required that five percent of annual funding for the AFRI program (Agriculture Food & Research Initiative) be used for making sure that farmers have access to locally adapted seeds and breeds, by focusing on public cultivar and bred development, and removing the hurdles that have hindered USDA's progress toward this goal.
This initiative was in the 2008 Farm Bill, but the United Sates Department of Agriculture (USDA) has succeeded in putting up roadblocks to avoid dealing with anything like open pollinated, farmer bred seeds, even though all of America's successful agriculture is based on just such seeds.
Remember that the seeds most gardeners cherish are not seeds bred by trained scientists and research facilities. Most of the seeds gardeners love and trust were bred by folks without degrees and often times even without education. They grew food in their own gardens for their families and prided their crops on much the same criteria we still do today: does it taste good? Is it suited to my climate? Does it succumb to disease or insects? And does it produce under adverse conditions?
Sadly, our modern seed production has little effort put to taste and nothing about adverse conditions. Food is bred to be shipped, ripen on the way to the market, last until the grocer has sold all of it and ease of picking for a picking machine. Not exactly qualities we admire in our gardens. But that's what we got when we began to allow professionals to do the breeding. Thank God we stepped out of our slumber in time, while there are still lots of varieties still left (although if you've seen the National Geographic July 2011 chart on our lost diversity, you have been staggered by what has been lost).
All was not lost. After all, Native Seed/SEARCH in Tucson, AZ has been saving the genetic diversity of the Southwestern Native tribes for a number of years and Bill McDorman and his wife, Belle Starr, have been offering classes in seed stewardship (and seed library stewardship); Seed Savers Exchange is probably the largest and most vibrant of our American seed saving organizations and now seed libraries are suddenly the rage across an awakening nation. And the work of the Organic Seed Alliance helps position our current culture to seed a more local and diverse agriculture. More people are aware of the value and importance of seeds – especially seeds that are not controlled and cannot be controlled by corporations.
It would be fitting for the Farm Bill to leave committee today with Gillibrand Amendment in place because, today, I learned, is International Seed Day. April 26th was chosen as the day because it was April 26th, 2004 that Paul Bremer, the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in IRAQ, issued and signed Order 81, which prohibits Iraqi farmers from reusing seeds harvested from new varieties registered under the law. Thank the powers that be, Order 81 could not be successfully implemented due to the instability inside IRAQ. It may go down in history as one of the quirks of fate that denied Monsanto and other industrial ag firms their biggest victory of the new century.
Next year, I would love to see International Seed Day take on a lot more meaning and become a holiday that is recognized by gardeners and farmers everywhere. Time to celebrate the Percy Schmeiser's, the pioneer seed savers and people like Bill and Belle. Time to chose to eat a meal and consciously chew each bite thinking about the history of the seeds that nourish us still to this day – the same way our ancestors before us survived without the plenty we have today and it was those seeds that persisted through the drought or the flood or the war or the dust. They were sustained by these seeds; gifts from a grandmother to a son, from an old hand to a young one – over centuries, each generation in turn perfecting them a little more, whether consciously or not. WE were given this largess. WE must pass it on no matter what our government or society says.
In a large sense, we are like prophets of old that know where the richness of society really lies and know what must be done to save it – to pass it on to our children. So today, April 26, chew each bite one extra time with memory of the history you eat and resolve that we will not be the generation that fails our children.