Seed Diversity

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In light of Earth Day, one issue of note among environmentalist is the narrowing of seed diversity. That issue was the focus of a recent edition of Independent Lens titled: “Seed: the Untold Story.” Among those featured in the documentary was Arizona’s Bill McDorman of the Seed School in Cornville, who talks about his effort to help promote seed diversification.

TED SIMONS: COMING UP NEXT ON "ARIZONA HORIZON," AN EARTH DAY DISCUSSION ON THE LOSS OF DIVERSITY IN SEED STOCK AND HEAR ABOUT A HEAVY METAL VIOLIN PERFORMED BY THE ARIZONA SYMPHONY. THOSE STORIES NEXT ON "ARIZONA HORIZON." "ARIZONA HORIZON" IS MADE POSSIBLE BY CONTRIBUTIONS FROM MEMBERS OF ARIZONA PBS. THANK YOU.

TED SIMONS: GOOD EVENING AND WELCOME TO ARIZONA HORIZON. I AM TED SIMONS. THIS SATURDAY IS EARTH DAY AND ONE ISSUE TO NOTE AMONG ENVIRONMENTALISTS IS THE NARROWING OF DIVERSITY OF SEED STOCK. THAT ISSUE WAS THE FOCUS OF A RECENT EDITION OF INDEPENDENT LENS TITLED "SEED: THE UNTOLD STORY." AMONG THOSE FEATURED IN THE DOCUMENTARY WAS ARIZONA'S BILL MCDORMAN OF THE SEED SCHOOL IN CORNVILL. WE RECENTLY SPOKE TO MCDORMAN ABOUT HIS EFFORTS TO HELP PROMOTE SEED DIVERSIFICATION. THANK YOU SO MUCH FOR JOINING US ON ARIZONA HORIZON.

BILL MCDORMAN: IT IS AN HONOR, TED.

TED SIMONS: THE UNTOLD STORY OF SEED. WHAT IS THE UNTOLD STORY OF THE SEED?

BILL MCDORMAN: I THINK IN THIS CASE THE UNTOLD STORY FOR US MODERN CREATURES IS BECAUSE WE HAVE ADOPTED A FULLY MODERN AGRICULTURAL SYSTEM THERE WAS A SIDE EFFECT THAT WE DIDN'T THINK ABOUT AND THAT IS WE WOULD LOSE A LOT OF DIVERSITY AND IN SOME CASES WE ESTIMATE 90% OF THE VARIETIES OF VEGETABLES AND GRAINS AND THINGS THAT WE HAD MAYBE 40-60 YEARS AGO ARE NO LONGER HERE OR THEY ARE NO LONGER AROUND.

TED SIMONS: SO, THE FOCUS OF THE DOCUMENTARY AND AT ONE POINT IT SAID SEEDS ARE IN GRAVE DANGER. IS THAT TRUE?

BILL MCDORMAN: WELL, YOU KNOW, GRAVE DANGER. IF YOU LOOK AT THE BURGEONING POPULATION AND VECTOR CLIMATE CHANGE AND THE NEED FOR CROPS TO BE ADOPTED TO NEW CLIMATES EVEN IN THEIR OWN AREAS AND INCREASE DISEASE PRESSURES AND INSECTS THAT COME WITH THAT GRAVE MAYBE COULD BE A WORD YOU COULD APPLY. I DON'T USUALLY DO THAT BECAUSE I SEE THE RESPONSE TO IT GLOBALLY. I SEE PEOPLE ARE STARTING TO SHORTEN THEIR SUPPLY LINES AGAIN FOR THEIR AGRICULTURAL NEEDS AND THEY ARE STARTING TO GROW AND SAVE THEIR OWN SEEDS AGAIN. THE SYSTEM THAT GAVE US ALL OF THIS DIVERSITY IN THE FIRST PLACE.

TED SIMONS: AGAIN, BECAUSE OF CONSOLIDATIONS OF AGRICULTURE AND AGRIBUSINESSES THERE ARE FEWER TYPES OF APPLE TREES AND FEWER TYPES OF ORANGE TREES? ISN'T AN ORANGE TREE AN ORANGE TREE AN ORANGE TREE?

BILL MCDORMAN: WELL, ACTUALLY, THE ENTIRE CITRUS INDUSTRY MAY BE THREATENED WITH A DISEASE AND ALMOST OF THE CITRUS FRUIT IN MY UNDERSTANDING, ESPECIALLY ORANGES, ARE SO CLOSE GENETICALLY THAT THE DISEASE COULD WIPE OUT OUR ENTIRE CITRUS INDUSTRY. I READ THAT IN THE NEW YORK TIMES. SO IT PERTAINS TO CITRUS. MOST OF MY EXPERTISE IS IN THE GRAINS AND IN VEGETABLE CROPS AND THERE CERTAINLY HAS BEEN AN INCREDIBLE DECREASE. YOU KNOW, IT IS NOT A SURPRISE AND NO CRIMES HAVE BEEN COMMITTED. BUSINESS DOES WHAT IT DOES BEST. IT'S BEEN MERGING AND GETTING BETTER AND BIGGER IT GETS MORE PROFITABLE, BUT ONE OF THE WAYS IT DOES THAT IS TO FOCUS ON THE PRODUCTS THAT MAKE THE MOST MONEY FOR IT. WHEN THEY DO THAT, THEY DON'T SELL ALL THE DIFFERENT KINDS OF THINGS THAT MIGHT WORK IN ALL DIFFERENT PARTS OF THE COUNTRY. THEY JUST SELL ONE VARIETY OF CORN FOR THE WHOLE COUNTRY.SO, THROUGH THIS PROCESS OF CONSOLIDATION AND THE CORPORATIZATION OF AGRICULTURE WE JUST FORGOT IN THE LAST 40 YEARS ABOUT 90% OF THE DIVERSITY WE USED TO HAVE.

TED SIMONS: HAVEN'T THAT BEEN THE CASE FOR AWHILE WITH APPLES? I HAVE READ IT IS VERY DIFFICULT TO GET AN APPLE TREE TO PRODUCE FRUIT THAT HUMAN BEINGS LIKE. THERE ARE ONLY A LIMITED RANGE OF THOSE THINGS AND OVER THE CENTURIES WE HAVE FIGURED THAT OUT AND WIDOWED THAT DOWN. THE JOHNNY APPLESEED WAS A LONG TIME AGO.

BILL MCDORMAN: YOU KNOW, THEY SAY THERE WERE 20,000 VARIETIES OF APPLES BEING GROWN IN THE UNITED STATES WHEN WE SIGNED THE DECLARATION OF INDEPENDENCE. APPLES ARE PART AND PARCEL OF THE FOUNDING OF THIS COUNTRY AND PEOPLE LIKE JOHNNY APPLESEED TOOK ADVANTAGE OF THAT. THE TRUTH IS THERE ARE TENS OF THOUSANDS PROBABLY OF APPLE TREES AND VARIETIES THAT ARE GOOD FOR ONE THING OR ANOTHER. ONE PARTICULAR CULTURAL NICHE OR FLAVOR PROFILE OR WHATEVER AND SO WE HAVE TAKEN FIVE OF THEM NOW AND PROVIDE 98% OF ALL THE APPLES WE EAT IN THIS COUNTRY. SO IF A DISEASE HITS ONE OF THOSE VARIETIES WE LOSE 20%. TAKE THAT INTO OUR WEED AND MOST OF OUR VEGETABLES AND TOMATOES AND EVERYTHING AND IF WE HAVE NARROWED THE GENETICS WE HAVE IN ALL OF THESE CROPS SO THAT AS WE FACE NEW DISEASE PRESSURES, ESPECIALLY WITH CLIMATE CHANGE, I WOULD SAY, YOU CAN GET A PICTURE OF WHY SOME PEOPLE MAY CALL THIS GRAVE.

TED SIMONS: THEY ALSO CALL IT A DAVID VERSUS GOLIATH BECAUSE YOU HAVE THREE COMPANIES OWNING 70 SOME ODD PERCENT OF THE WORLD SEED SUPPLY?

BILL MCDORMAN: IT IS NOT QUITE THAT YET BUT WE ARE UNDERGOING TWO MERGERS THAT WOULD RESULT IN THAT AND THEY HAVE BEEN GREEN LIGHTED IN THE NEW ADMINISTRATION. THERE IS HARDLY ANY SAVE FOR THAT. WHEN SYNGENTA SELLS TO CHEM CHINA, THE LARGEST CHEMICAL COMPANY IN CHINA, AND BEAR AND MONSANTO MERGE, WHICH IS A BELGIUM COMPANY, WE WILL HAVE THREE COMPANIES WITH MORE THAN 70%.

TED SIMONS: SO WHAT DO WE DO? I'VE GOT ORANGE TREES. I'VE GOT CUTIES IN MY YARD. I'VE GOT ALL SORTS OF THINGS IN MY YARD. DO I SAVE THE SEEDS OR ARE THOSE ALREADY PRETTY MUCH CLONES OF EVERYTHING ELSE?

BILL MCDORMAN: I AM AFRAID A LOT OF THE CITRUS YOU HAVE ARE. WHERE MY STORY AND "SEED: THE UNTOLD STORY" HAS MORE RELEVANCE IF YOU ARE THINKING ABOUT YOUR VEGETABLES OR ESPECIALLY THE GRAINS YOU EAT. THERE IS ANOTHER WAY OF PUTTING THE URGENCY THAT COMES OUT OF THE FILM AND WE HAVE SEEN THIS GREAT EXPLOSION IN THE LOCAL FOOD MOVEMENT. IT IS THE DOWNTOWN RESTAURANT SCENES AND TUCSON IS THE FIRST GASTRONOMY DESIGNATED BY UNESCO. HURRAY FOR US WE ARE COMING HOME TO EAT AGAIN AND CREATING OUR OWN FOODS. YET, NONE OF THE SEEDS FOR THOSE LOCAL FOODS, A RELATIVELY SMALL AMOUNT, ARE LOCAL. THEY ARE COMING FROM THE SAME THREE BIG COMPANIES.

TED SIMONS: HOW DO WE KNOW WHICH SEEDS TO SAVE? HOW DO YOU KNOW A SEED ISN'T PART OF THE BAD CROP OR AT LEAST THE CLONED CROP? A SEED LOOKS LIKE A SEED TO ME.

BILL MCDORMAN: GOOD POINT. SEEDS ARE PROBABLY THE LEAST VALUABLE THING YOU COULD HOLD IF YOU DON'T HAVE A STORY WRAPPED AROUND IT TO TELL YOU WHERE IT CAME FROM WHAT IT IS ADAPTED TO AND WHAT IT IS GOOD FOR. WHAT WE ARE SEEING AND THIS IS ONE OF THE MOST EXCITING PARTS IN THE WORK I DO AT THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN SEED ALLIANCE AND I THINK IT COMES OUT IN THE STORIES OF THE FILMS ESPECIALLY FROM THE NATIVE AMERICANS THAT IN THE FILM IS THAT WE ARE LEARNING HOW TO TAKE CARE OF THESE THINGS TOGETHER AS A COMMUNITY. IT'S BRINGING COMMUNITY A SENSE OF PLACE BACK INTO THE OUR MODERN LIVES. SO, BIG PROBLEM CAUSED BY INDUSTRIALIZED AGRICULTURAL. TWO GENERATIONS LATER WE LOSE 90% OF ALL GENETIC DIVERSITY IN OUT AGRICULTURE. NOT A GOOD IDEA AND WE ARE WAKING AGAIN AND THAT AWAKENING IS HELPING US FORM COMMUNITIES AGAIN. SO, IF YOU WANT TO LEARN WHAT SEEDS WOULD WORK IN YOUR BACKYARD AND GROW THINGS THERE ARE NEW ORGANIZATIONS LIKE THE ROCKY MOUNTAIN SEED ALLIANCE WHICH IS BASICALLY HERE TO INSPIRE PEOPLE TO SAVE SEEDS AGAIN, TO EDUCATE THEM. WE DO A LOT OF SEED SCHOOLS AND WE HAVE A SEED SCHOOL ONLINE NOW, AND THEN ALSO TO NETWORK THEM. THERE MAY BE SOMEBODY JUST DOWN THE STREET FROM YOU THAT WANTS TO DO THE SAME THING THAT YOU DO AND YOU GUYS COULD SHARE SEEDS. THAT IS WHAT THIS IS BRINGING BACK. THAT MIGHT BE THE MOST EXCITING PART OF THIS.

TED SIMONS: ALL RIGHT. WELL, IT SOUNDS INTERESTING AND IT SOUNDS LIKE SOMETHING PEOPLE DON'T THINK TOO MUCH ABOUT. I KNOW I DIDN'T. BUT WORRY ABOUT IT IS LITTLE AND ALSO JUST TO BE AWARE OF. CONGRATULATIONS ON YOUR GOOD WORK.

BILL MCDORMAN: THANK YOU, TED.

Bill McDorman: The Seed School

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