May 2016

Preserving Indigenous Seeds and Food Crops


Emigdio Ballón

As an indigenous Boliviano of Quechua descent, I grew up learning about my traditional seeds, foods and medicines, thanks to the knowledge of my mother and grandparents. At a very young age, I learned to appreciate the importance of our seeds, which have been planted, cultivated and saved for centuries. It was the indigenous tribes who, by the time of the Conquest, had brought these plants to their highest state of development and, in many cases, had spread them throughout other indigenous communities. 


The Quechua are descendants of the Incan people. They spent years developing ancient technology for irrigation and growing systems. Machu Picchu and Ollantaytambo are perfect examples of this. Using natural resources, the lay of the land, simple principles of physics and shear human strength, they built an intricate irrigation system that, to this day, still functions. On terraced gardens up to 14,000 feet in altitude, our ancestors experimented to determine which crops grow best at various altitudes, weather conditions and water availability. Thanks to the Incan people, we now have more than 12,000 genotypes of potatoes and several thousand genotypes of beans and corn. This history inspired me to pursue my degrees in plant genetics.


Indigenous heritage includes not only seeds and food crops but also traditional planting and storage techniques. For example, the Hopi Tribe in Arizona grows corn, beans and other crops on dry land, the same way that the Quechua in southern Bolivia grow quinoa on dry land.


There are thousands of indigenous communities throughout our Mother Earth fighting the good fight to protect their inherent rights to grow their traditional seeds and practice their traditions. The primary purpose of this article is to stress the importance of these overlooked crops so that the seeds and foods of these communities are not forgotten or destroyed by genetic engineering.


These crops are not truly lost; indeed, in many areas of the world, many are well known, especially among indigenous groups, and there is an international effort by agronomists and ethnobotanists to protect the indigenous crops that remain by making their names known and cataloging them. It is also essential to keep these seeds under the watchful eye of the people and to protect the biodiversity of each community’s ecosystem. The loss of agricultural biodiversity has drastically reduced the capability of present and future generations to face unpredictable environmental changes and accommodate human needs.


A handful of dedicated indigenous researchers have struggled for decades to promote the traditional food crops to people in countries of their origin in the face of deeply ingrained prejudices in favor of European foods. These efforts have sparked interest outside of those countries. Some of these seeds have shown promise in exploratory trials. For instance, cultivation of quinoa has been going on in the United States with some success. Amaranth, a grain of the Aztecs that was burned and its use forbidden by the Spanish conquistadors, is today considered a “superfood.”


Activism has also helped strengthen and protect community-based seed systems. Winona LaDuke, an Anishinaabe (Objibwe) who lives on the White Earth Reservation in Minnesota, struggled for years to protect her tribe’s sacred wild rice that “tastes like a lake.” Her group’s effort won the fight against GMOs (Genetically Modified Organisms). Hawaiians recently won their struggle to keep their traditional poy from being genetically engineered. We are also struggling in New Mexico to protect chile and blue corn against this threat. Organizations such as the Four Bridges Traveling Permaculture Institute ( have formed the Northern New Mexico Coalition Against GMOs to counter efforts to move seeds from indigenous communities to be genetically engineered and patented by corporations. I have witnessed this struggle in many communities such as the Quechua, Aymara, Aztec, Mayan, Hopi, the Pueblos and the Iroquois Confederation (Mohawk, Oneida, Onondaga, Cayuga, Seneca and Tuscarora nations).


To assist efforts such as these, community initiatives that need funding include projects to collect local seeds, the exchange of seeds among indigenous communities and the creation of local seed libraries. It is also essential to control the genetic erosion of indigenous seeds.


Emigdio Ballon is agricultural director of Tesuque Pueblo Farm in northern New Mexico.






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