13 Cobs and Conservation of Seed in New Mexico

Blue corn cobs and seeds
Blue corn cobs and seeds – Photo by Loretta Sandoval

By Loretta Sandoval

When I moved to New Mexico in 2005, I knew little about the history of my ancestors, who lived here for centuries, or the land that I was to farm. I had not planted yet or understood that the landrace corn and pepper seeds grown here were hundreds and even thousands of years old. I began selecting, sharing and collecting seed when I would go to farmers’ markets or from other regional farmers. The fields I cultivated had their own seed banks that belonged to these fields. I worked alongside traditional farmers to conserve historical crops.

The seed bank on our farm, housed in cool, dark, adobe backrooms, is modestly stored, documented and labeled in ball jars. A few years ago, one of my neighbors, a longtime traditional farmer, presented me with 13 blue corn cobs from the hundreds he had hung to dry high in his storage loft. He said the seed had come from Taos Pueblo decades ago, and he had grown in it his field for over 20 years in Dixon. I marveled at the size of the cobs, some well over 12–14 inches long and weighing over a pound each. I was taken aback by the depth of blue in the cobs. After he told me he would not be growing it anymore, a local farmer and I grew it in different plots. I watered the milpa twice in five months, and with a couple of good rains, it grew over 10 feet tall. We planted what seemed like a small amount and harvested hundreds of cobs, which we graded, ranked and stored.

In these last few years, as fewer farmers are growing landrace crops, I have thought about who really owns seed, who profits from it and controls it. Organic or conventional, these questions will increasingly matter as both the population and the climate continue to shift.

Organically raised seed and plant breeding in general incorporate a holistic approach. Seed grown chemical-free ensures that it does not contain GMO material and that the environment remains sustainable and regenerative. In the U.S. there is a seed boom occurring in many plant-breeding sectors. This includes breeding that uses advanced quantitative mapping to pinpoint superior trait-based qualities in seed, public plant breeding in universities and schools, commercial breeding that includes independent plant breeders within for-profit companies, non-profits that have educational programs and farmer participants, and whole-system community plant breeders like myself who work within a community and the acequia systems that hold, distribute and conserve regional seed banks.

The demand for organically grown seed in the U.S. and around the world is outpacing current production. This is partly a result of conventional farmers having discovered the reliability and premium quality of organic versus conventional seed. Where is all this seed going to come from?

I have given much consideration to how to protect rare landrace pepper seed banks from patents and from someone owning or restricting traits and the very genetics that define this seed. How all the different seed growing sectors function together is still a mystery to me. In the three years I attended conferences and presentations and read peer-reviewed articles, I couldn’t find a written code of ethics that is in place between these sectors to define and explain how seed is transferred or commercialized.

Seed and plant breeding often occurs in universities partially funded with public dollars. Varieties are developed for specific traits, sometime using advanced techniques including quantitative trait loci mapping (QTL), selecting for high nutrient density, organoleptic qualities such as taste, or other desirable qualities. If these varieties are considered “finished” they can be patented or have PVP licenses controlled by legal contracts and licenses that exclude them from public domain. What this means is even if seed is developed and funded in part by “public” plant breeding efforts, the universities do not necessarily share or release these seed products publicly. If a seed bank goes into this system without an agreement with the original community or plant breeder, after further development the university may restrict this seed to the university with utility patents. Some researchers in these settings in the northwest and northeast U.S. want to loosen restrictions to allow seed saving and on-farm use of these seed banks, possibly with a code of ethics in place. This would not include open-source seed.

Non-profit groups, funded by donations, national grants and private donors, are also involved in plant breeding and education for seed development and distribution. Some farmer networks that include schools have created an alliance with commercial seed companies that can market the plant breeding efforts to the general public and others. As a courtesy, associated seed companies cannot buy this seed and commercialize it for a period of years, in order to allow the original plant breeders an opportunity to recoup the cost of development. This depends on the integrity, relationship and ethical understanding of all parties since no code of ethics is in place. But what about seed that is sourced from other regions and then commercialized and marketed thousands of miles away?

One effort to keep seed patent-free is the Open Source Seed Initiative, formed in 2012, where plant breeders can pledge seed with the intent that the seed be used freely and that the traits remain patent-free. This does not restrict other development or use of the seed. If the pledged seed is good parent material, then the  person who has acquired an OSSI-pledged seed could create and select seed and also sell it to the public or to other plant breeders and seed companies. The original breeder may initially come to an agreement about royalties with the next person given the seed, which amounts to a small percentage and is at the two parties’ discretion. The next seed generation is free of any restrictions. Other seed companies can immediately sell the seed they grow from this source. This system has created an initial ethical model for open distribution that allows resaving seed without restrictions, which is vital for the future of seed saving and adaption.

One only has to see the long lines of farmers that wrap around roads for miles in India waiting to buy seed to understand we are in trouble. The other side of the coin is conventional plant breeding with patents or GMO-based seed that cannot be saved, shared, or grown another generation by farmers without stiff penalties.  With the recent Bayer–Monsanto merger, seed will have even tighter control. But what happens if you donate a rare or valuable seed to a system more advanced at commercialization that has no agreement in place about how the seed is used or who profits from the sale?

Publicly funded university plant-breeding efforts depend heavily on grants and outside funding. Some programs are struggling to continue and have begun to develop and market seed themselves to fund and continue research and development. Hence another platform for seed distribution where the public plant breeder that conducts research in a public university may also have its own companies where “designer seed” is commercialized with the seed-breeding efforts focused on creating varieties with superior nutrient content, color or uniformity. However, these seeds are not cheap. Some cost more than half a dollar per seed. Can the public afford to buy these? Are they easily adapted to other regions of the U.S?

There are efforts to conserve and distribute seed as well, including the Seed Ambassadors Project, which collects and exchanges seed from other countries and regions while retaining the seed’s name, recognition of its place of origin and the people who grew it. Somos Semilla, in México, is another community-based effort that distributes organic seed using a pop-up community library of locally adapted seed and educational programs. They lend seed to local farmers and seed guardians (now over 100 strong) to help protect México’s seed biodiversity and cultural heritage. The New Mexico Acequia Association and the Owingeh Tah Pueblos y Semillas host a seed exchange and gathering with the Pueblos to honor northern New Mexico traditions and strengthen the seed and communities that bind us here.

An effort by the Midwest Indigenous seedkeepers network is well organized, innovative and protective toward seed banks that have been held by their communities for hundreds of years. According to Carol Deppe, an eminent plant breeder in the northwest U.S., indigenous seed sources that are heterogeneous (many genes) and diverse seed banks cannot be easily patented or pledged to the open-source initiative, since landraces are not are considered finished homogeneous varieties (specific genes, not diverse) and also may be the work of many generations of breeders. This does not mean these seed banks cannot be used as a source of parent material for trait selection and breeding. To safeguard their traditional and heritage varieties, Rowen White and other indigenous seed keepers developed a “bag-tag” agreement on seed packets, so that as soon as you open the package, you have agreed to the terms to keep the seed free of patents or restrictions and respect that these seed banks are part of a collective inheritance.

Seed saving within a community and historical center or origin has the highest likelihood to be more resilient and reliable as a seed source, since these seed banks will be more regionally adapted, genetically diverse, and in our case, adapted to drought and passed on through a network of farmers and family generations. The conferences I attended in recent years had low attendance and involvement of minority groups as owners of seed companies or plant breeders. The majority of organic seed companies and plant-breeding hubs are concentrated in the northwest and northeast U.S., along with the universities working in collaboration with commercialized seed companies and independent plant breeders.

Cañoncito-Taos blue corn seed is a landrace accession that we distribute from our modest seed bank. It is being used as a model for resilience. From 13 cobs we grew close to 100 pounds of seed and are distributing it this year to beginning seed stewards and in some cases to families that have been in New Mexico for generations that have access to land and (hopefully) water. We give each participant a substantial amount of foundation seed along with agronomy instruction, and in return, at season’s end receive 10 selected cobs and seed to put in the seed bank, along with documentation for the next steward that may need seed. So far, this effort is working. It is not for profit or designer seed. It is to be grown as a food source and put into a system that has the potential to be sustained by more than one family generation in New Mexico and other areas. This year five stewards are planting the seed bank. They keep in touch with each other to discuss progress and any environmental challenges. If anyone has a crop failure, they will share seed with each other with no strings attached. This seed and other seed banks are distributed within the acequia systems and through the Pueblos.

Ethics is a word you either understand or you do not. It cannot be twisted to suit your needs; it does not depend on whom you are aligned with, what school you went to, how much money you have, or even the color of your skin. It is an internal moral principle of knowing right from wrong and an understanding that everyone has to eat.

All of us in this day and age should be making some effort to grow food locally in the changing climate without expecting that the weather will somehow stabilize and let us grow food; it may not. In some cases, regional seed banks are disappearing. This year, more traditional farmers are requesting seed from our seed bank than ever before. Seeds are a living and breathing history of our ancestors, and they took many generations of toil to bring them to this point in time. We all are responsible for caring for these seeds. And we all deserve access to seed that can sustain us for one generation and hopefully many more.

Loretta Sandoval is a scientist, organic plant breeder and farmer in Dixon, New Mexico. She maintains a regional seed bank to conserve landrace varieties and distributes locally-adapted seed for conservation.


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