Gary Nabhan and the importance of seed diversity
With views of the Rocky Mountains in the background, I listened to Gary Nabhan speak common sense about agriculture last Sunday afternoon in an informal outdoor setting at one of my favorite local organic farms here in Boulder County, Abbondanza Organic Seeds and Produce.
World-renowned conservation scientist Gary Nabhan is an author and farmer at Patagonia, Arizona along the Mexican border, raising sheep, heritage grains, and orchard fruits. (Patagonia and Boulder share desert growing conditions, with a potential rainfall of 18-19 inches per year.)
Nabhan, a food visionary and prolific author, has been referred to as the "father of the local food movement." He was also one of the first to call people's attention to the subject of pollinator decline. His most recent book, authored with Kurt Friese and Kraig Kraft, deals with climate change, "Chasing Chiles: Hot Spots Along the Pepper Trail."
After beginning his talk with some impressive upbeat eat-local trend statistics, Nabhan pointed out to us that we are getting a greater variety of food by eating local than by eating globally. He said that the best thing that we can do for our health is to eat a variety of foods from local sources using the example that different tomato varieties contain different nutrients.
As for his view on climate change, he prefers to call it "global weirding" instead of "global warming." He compared the phrases "love in the time of cholera" to "food in the time of uncertainty." As an example, he used this year's weird winter weather in the U.S.'s southern vegetable growing areas to demonstrate what is happening. Due to 48 hours of extremely bad weather, severe damage to vegetable crops led to greatly reduced supply and largely increased prices.
He is concerned about tropical storms advancing new diseases, pests and weeds from one area to another. His book studies eight chile growing regions where they saw six new viruses appear and weeds moved 150 miles from south to north due to one tropical storm.
Our hope in food growing which can combat climate change is that we need to plant a great variety of heritage food seeds to see what does well in each particular region. He then used the example of Hopi corn, which is capable of coming up through 12-14 inches of sand, while other corn varieties cannot.
Reinforcing what I've been hearing from other agricultural voices of late about the benefits of agroforestry, Nabhan said that wild chiles grown in partial shade produce higher yields and a more robust flavor with fewer virus problems. Then, he quoted Fred Kirschenmann, with another suggestion for combatting climate change, "larger amounts of organic matter in the soil retain more water, which is our best defense against climate change." He said that we all need to see ourselves as co-designers of future food systems to confront climate change.
Listening to Nabhan's talk followed by his answers to audience questions left me in awe of his humble wisdom combined with a rare common sense on the subject of food growing. He cited Thich Nhat Hanh's book, "Savor: Mindful Eating, Mindful Life," and "Ancient Agriculture: Roots and Application of Sustainable Farming" by Herrera. When an audience member asked a corporate blame-game question, he answered, "Taking on (___) is not going to get us to where we need to be." Instead, he said we need to ask ourselves, "Why are we so vulnerable to (___'s) advertising?" He said that we need to "Vote with forks and bellies and the ballot box," and "Communities need to lay out what they want."
When asked his definition of sustainable, he said, "What's just? What's right? What's healing? Leave the land in better shape than we got it." When asked about bees, he said that we need to plant nectar shrubs and have pollen restoration areas. He has a pollinator garden as big as an orchard.
Nabhan and Abbondanza share a vision, that of seeds being a key to solving problems faced in future food growing (not the standard F1 promoted seeds). People need to work together to test and grow a variety of heritage seeds to discover what best adapts to individual regions. Genetic diversity is a weapon against climate change.
Nabhan co-founded Native Seeds/SEARCH, a nonprofit conservation organization that works to preserve indigenous southwestern agricultural plants as well as knowledge of their uses. Rich Pecoraro at Abbondanza (in photo at left) is a visionary in urging every community to test and grow large varieties of seeds each year and is working towards that goal for Boulder County. Pecoraro urges everyone, everywhere, to start a residential seed movement establishing local seed banks.
Oh. One more thing. The afternoon began with a meal, Abbondanza's version of Pozole on their own blue corn tortillas, followed by an incredible dessert pot-luck to help bring community together, another important key for future resilience in food growing.
(Note that photos were taken by myself.)
Addendum: To give you some idea of what goes on at Abbondanza you might watch this crazy video.