Heritage seeds as a sustainable solution to water scarcity, food scarcity & global warming

TanzaniaAs a sustainability response to climate change and increased desertification, one strategy that you don’t hear about a lot is farming using heritage seeds. Heritage food plants are plants native to an area that propagate naturally (as apposed to sterile hybrids or patented genetically modified seeds). Heritage seeds are culturally and biologically native to many arid and drought-afflicted regions such as the American Southwest, northern India and East Africa. As such, they are more likely to be adopted (or re-adopted) and grown successfully by these rural communities as a food source. And, as a native food they can be considered a validation of a local native cultural heritage and identity as well as a practical and drought-resistant agricultural product. The photo above is of Angela Kirwin, KIRF Co-Founder, at a soil remediation project in Arusha, Tanzania. Local farmers are trying to re-claim farm land ruined by soil erosion by planting indigenous trees and food plant varieties.

The effects of global warming have caused widespread droughts, malnutrition and starvation. An estimated 25,000 people (adults and children) die every day from hunger and related causes according to the United Nations Food Programme (2009).

As radio journalist Sam Eaton reported in his segment titled “Sowing seeds that will take the heat” from the “Sustainability Desk” for Marketplace on National Public Radio, “…as a warming climate threatens mainstream agriculture, these unique genes in these little known seeds could turn out to be crucial for feeding the planet. (Eaton 2009).”

Unfortunately, heritage or non-hybrid seeds are becoming rare: in 1981 there were anestimated 5,000 non-hybrid or heritage seed varieties, by 1998 the number has gone down to about 600 according to environmental activist Barbara Kingsolver, co-author of the book Animal, Vegetable, Miracle (Kingsolver 2007:52).This is compared to an estimated 80,000 plant species that have been eaten in human history according to Indian crop ecologist and heritage food conservationist Vandana Shiva (Kingsolver 2007:49).

Today, due to industrial monoculture farming, three-quarters of all human food comes from just eight species. And, of those eight species, most come from only three plants: “genetically modified corn, soy, and canola” according to Kingsolver (Kingsolver 2007:49). Furthermore, 98 percent of seed sales worldwide are handled by only six very huge and very politically influential companies: Monsanto, Syngenta, Mitsubishi and Dow (Kingsolver 2007:50).These food plants are produced for traits more suitable for large scale agricultural production and distribution: increased yield, longer shelf life, and uniformity of size. Unfortunately many are not produced with survival traits that can adapt to climate change such as drought resistance. What is even more troubling is that many of these hybrid plants are sterile so (1) they can’t adapt to changes in climate and evolve more successful strains and (2) these plants increase the costs of farming for economically disadvantaged communities who depend on these seeds for food and income.

Ethnobiologist Gary Paul Nabhan is one of many scientists, botanists, and backyard gardeners who are committed to saving indigenous plant food varieties by collecting and sharing their heritage seeds. They do this for many reasons: in response to global climate change, to preserve native traditions and foods, for more nutritious plant food varieties, and for potential pharmaceutical discoveries. From a business point of view, heritage seeds seem to answer the market’s current demand for organic, flavorful and exotic and heritage (also known as “heirloom”) varieties of plant foods. And, consumers are increasingly willing to pay more for them, too.

Gary Nabhan has been writing about the correlation between chronic diseases such as heart disease, obesity, and diabetes and the consumption of non-traditional processed and fast foods by Native Americans in the Southwest for over thirty years (Nahban 2004: backcover). He published some of his findings about the correlations between health, adaptation and diet in the book Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity. As Nabhan explains, “…each ethnic cuisine reflects the evolutionary history of a particular human population as it responded to the availability of edible plants and animals through local foraging and through trade, and to the prevailing frequencies of diseases, droughts, and plagues within each population’s homeland (Nabhan 2004:1)”

Nabhan is the co-founder of the Renewing American’s Food Traditions (RAFT) Alliance, a program of Slow Food USA, and is the Director of Center of Sustainable Environment at the Southwest Center of the University of Arizona (SlowFoodUSA). He is working with other scientists such as the Suzanne Nelson for Native Seeds/SEARCH to distribute seeds of native Southwest crops such as maize and beans to local Native American farmers in the hot Southwest deserts (Eaton 2009).

Another scientist who studies the correlation between diet and indigenous diets is medical doctor Daphne Miller. She writes extensively about the Tarahuma Native Americans (“Running Indians”) who live in the Copper Canyon network of Northern Mexico’s Sierra Madre mountains in her book The Jungle Effect: The Healthiest Diets from Around the World…. They subsist on native foods they have cultivated for centuries. Among the Tarahuma communities who abide by their traditional culture, subsistence and eat their traditional foods, there are virtually no instances of obesity, heart disease and diabetes. These same chronic diseases plague neighboring Native American communities in northern Mexico, Arizona, and New Mexico who have adopted a Western diet of processed and fast food. For the details, recipes and sources of heritage foods check out Miller’s book.

So as long as the costs and yields of heritage seeds are similar as those of hybrid and GMO seeds, they seem like a good option for local small farmers and for increasing our food supply’s resilience to the changing climate.  According to journalist Sam Eaton, these heritage seeds are thriving in the desert heat while the conventional hybrid varieties are not. Sometimes progress is looking backward and re-claiming traditional ways in order to adapt and survive change. Native seeds are once again producing good food in their native land.


Easton, Sam
2009“Sowing seeds that will take the heat”, Marketplace
, National Public Radio. http://marketplace.publicradio.org/display/web/2009/08/25/pm-seed-savers/, accessed August 27, 2009.

Kingsolver, Barbara with Steven L. Hopp and Camille Kingsolver
2007 Animal, Vegetable, Miracle: A Year of Food Life,
New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, pp. 370.

Miller, Daphne
2008 The Jungle Effect: the healthiest diets from around the world–why they work and how to make them work for you,
New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, pp. 370.

Nabhan, Gary Paul
2004 Some Like It Hot: Food, Genes, and Cultural Diversity,
Washington, DC: Island Press, pp. 232.

Native Seeds/SEARCH
Southwestern Endangered Aridland Resource Clearing House. http://www.nativeseeds.org/ accessed September 2, 2009.

Seed Savers Exchange
2009 A
non-profit organization of gardeners dedicated to saving and sharing heirloom seeds. http://www.seedsavers.org/ accessed September 2, 2009.

Slow Food USA
Renewing America’s Food Traditions (RAFT) Alliance. http://www.slowfoodusa.org/index.php/programs/details/raft/ accessed August 27, 2009.

United Nations World Food Programme
2009Hunger Stats. http://www.wfp.org/hunger/stats accessed September 1, 2009.