Who Owns Seeds?

seeds on the horizon

Photo illustration by Mark Riechers

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Original Air Date: 
September 14, 2019

It's easy to take seeds for granted, to assume that there will always be more corn or wheat or rice to plant. But as monocropping and agribusiness continue to dominate modern farming, are we losing genetic diversity, cultural history, and the nutritional value of our food? We speak to farmers, botanists and indigenous people about how they are reclaiming our seeds.


Kamut is arguably the oldest grain in the world. Bob Quinn, who runs the multi-million dollar nonprofit Kamut International, argues that it's an example of what can be right in a very wrong American agricultural world.

Flint corn

Botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer says there is a reason so many around the world consider corn to be sacred. We give it life, and in return, it gives us life. She says the industrial-scale farming of America has lost control of that balance.

Aerial roots.

There is an unusual, giant corn in southern Mexico that gets its own nitrogen from the air — no manufacturing required.

Svalbard Global Seed Vault

If a disaster wiped out our ability to grow crops, how would the survivors rebuild civilization? Back in the 1990’s Cary Fowler wondered the same thing. So he created the Svalbard Global Seed Vault – otherwise known as the Doomsday vault.

Clockwise: Wheat in a field, flint corn, kamut grains, and the Svalbard Global Seed Vault.

Most of us get our food from the grocery store, not the fields where it grows. But if you really want to understand where our food comes from — and the potential threats to the food supply — you have to think about seeds.


Show Details 📻
September 14, 2019
May 30, 2020
March 27, 2021
November 13, 2021
July 02, 2022
May 20, 2023
Full Transcript 📄

Anne Strainchamps (00:00):

It's To The Best Of Our Knowledge, I'm Anne Strainchamps.

Bob Quinn comes from three generations of Montana wheat farmers. So he always assumed he'd be growing wheat too someday. But when he was 16, a chance encounter with a stranger at a county fair set him on a different path.

Bob Quinn (00:26):

Well I was at the county fair in Fort Bend, which is our county seat, just 30-40 miles from our ranch, idly walking around and munching on peanuts, I suppose. This old fellow motioned me over and he said "Hey sonny," he said, "Would you like some of King Tut's Wheat?" I said, "Well, sure." And so he poured this giant grain right in my hand.

Bob Quinn (01:07):

I didn't think really much about it until I was in college at UC Davis about 14 years later, finishing a graduate program. And I was eating a package of Corn Nuts one day and it said it was made from a giant corn. And I thought, "Wow, I wonder if Corn Nuts would be interested in giant wheat?" When I called them up in nearby Berkeley at that time, and they said, " Oh, well, yes, we'd be very interested in that." So I called my dad and I said "Dad, see if you can find some of that old King Tut's wheat."

Bob Quinn (01:45):

He found about a pint jar half full and sent me a couple of tablespoons. I sent it to them and they did a little trial and they said, "This makes a fantastic snack," they said, "We'll take 10,000 pounds." At a food show in Nuremberg in Germany, I met a fellow from Egypt. He was very interested in this grain, of course, and invited me to Egypt and I was anxious to go anyway. So we went to the museum in Cairo and looked in the museum where they had the grain out of the tombs and lo and behold: it wasn't my grain at all.

Bob Quinn (02:33):

So I was a little deflated by that. Then I went to Turkey a few years later and in Turkey, they said to me, "Oh yeah, we know this grain. We call it Camel's Tooth or we call it the Prophet's Wheat." And I said, "Oh, I see why you might call it Camel's Tooth, it's kind of shaped like a tooth but why do you call it the Prophet's Wheat? Does it have something to do with Mohammed?" And they said, "Oh no, no, not that prophet," they said, "You know, the one with the boat."

Bob Quinn (03:02):

"You mean Noah?"

[reading from story of Noah's Ark] (03:03):

Begin the in-gathering of all the wild creatures.

Bob Quinn (03:06):

"Oh yes," they said, "this is the grain Noah brought with him on the ark."

[reading from story of Noah's Ark] (03:09):

One young male and female of each.

Bob Quinn (03:11):

And I said, "Wow, that's a lot better story than my old tomb story." So that's the story we tell now.

Anne Strainchamps (03:24):

Right, the story he tells now. Well today, Bob Quinn grows that ancient grain, unmodified and organic, under the brand name Kamut, the ancient Egyptian word for wheat. And in the process, he has transformed more than that family farm. In his book Grain by Grain, he argues that ancient grain farming can create rural jobs, curb the obesity epidemic, help slow down climate change -- and don't even get him started on gluten intolerance.

Bob Quinn (03:58):

Come on, wheat is referred to as the stuff of life, biblically. It was the grain that built the great Western civilizations of Rome, of the Ephesians, the Babylonians and the Egyptians and now all of a sudden in the last 50 years, 20% of the people can't eat it? I dare say that a thousand years ago, or a couple thousand years ago, at the height of some of these great civilizations, that that problem existed. And I think it's mostly due to how we changed the grain, how we raise it, how we process it, and how we bred it.

Steve Paulson (04:30):

So what has changed in the last 50 years or so?

Bob Quinn (04:34):

Well, the focus on high yields. And so the plant has been made shorter, made resistant to plant disease, has maybe more importantly been made so that it can respond to high doses of a soluble nitrogen for chemical fertilizers to produce big yields. That's on the farm's side. On the bakery side, we've increased loaf volumes by changing the gluten so it can hold more air. So you can make the famous American wonder, white bread, and that bread is lighter and has more air in it. So bakers are able to sell air for the price of bread, essentially. And they love it. They can make more bread with less wheat.

Bob Quinn (05:16):

And it [gluten intolerance] was a complete surprise I think. No one intended this, that it couldn't be eaten by so many people. It was an unintended consequence that now is starting to be understood little by little, but more and more.

Steve Paulson (05:31):

Yeah. You talked about the loss of nutritional value in a lot of these modern varietals. And you tell this great story in your book about when you were a PhD student in California, I think, and you went to a peach orchard and discovered what kind of peaches they were growing there. What did you find out?

Bob Quinn (05:51):

Well, that was actually the very first time that I really questioned the industrial, chemical, agriculture system that I had been taught was just the way it was and the future, and the way to feed the world. I don't believe any of that anymore. But what set off my mind in a different way of thinking was this visit to a peach orchard where the peaches were being picked, and they looked absolutely deliciously ripe, with the wonderful blush of a ripe-looking peach. But they were as green as grass. They were hard as a rock. They were more for baseballs than they were for eating. And they didn't taste good. But they had been sprayed with a petrochemical that caused the peach to turn color and look like a ripe peach, even though it was still green. And, therefore, they'd be able to be picked and shipped in bulk clear across the country, without fear of bruising them or handling them one by one, the way you'd have to do with a nearly-ripe peach.

Bob Quinn (06:50):

This was looked upon as a great advancement in agricultural production. And to me it was akin to fraud, actually, because you're pretending to sell something that looks really good that wasn't good at all. And that was the first time I really started questioning what we were doing, even though it was not a crop I was familiar with. We didn't grow peaches in Montana. But within 10 years I started questioning all of the modern, industrial, ag -chemical system.

Steve Paulson (07:22):

So this story that you're telling involves so many major institutions, even ways of thinking. We're talking about, I assume, the US Department of Agriculture, huge corporations like Monsanto, capitalism, the whole capitalist system, the American desire for cheap food. It does raise the question: Who is to blame here?

Bob Quinn (07:45):

Well, that's a good question. It's hard to point blame when people are so easily buying into the idea of cheap food, where they can save money and use it in other ways. I don't know if you can say that anybody is to blame for where we got to, but now it's time to start understanding that, to start looking at change. And if we don't face up to change, then there's a lot of people to blame then. The ones that are making the most money are the ones most reluctant to want to change anything, because they like it exactly the way it is.

Steve Paulson (08:25):

Well it sounds like you're saying we need a new story here.

Bob Quinn (08:29):

We need education. We need education. Real education.

Steve Paulson (08:33):

You told a great story about your discovery of King Tut's wheat, and how you ended up growing Kamut. And so I guess I'm wondering, what is the story about food? Maybe you would phrase it as education, but what's that story that we need to be telling now, the new story that we need to tell?

Bob Quinn (08:51):

Well, I think that the biggest way to make change with our food system is to reconnect the idea of health and food, or food and health. Hippocrates taught this 2300 years ago, that food should be our medicine and medicine should be our food. And if we were to reconnect the idea that food is somehow related to health, which is absolutely true, it has everything to do with health, and start thinking in that way, then it would be easier to make some of the other changes that we've talked about and that you've mentioned. Because, then you're talking about a real reason to change, it's just not a feel-good thing, or the right way to address pollution issues or economic issues or whatnot. But it's something as basic as the health of the people of the country, I think that that would be a driver that could make significant changes, that would overcome the resistance to change by these giant corporations.

Steve Paulson (09:50):

Well, I am so glad that you are out there, and not just a voice of despair but of real hope and possibility.

Bob Quinn (09:58):

I'm hopeful. We're going in the right direction. It's still small but it's a growing movement and that's where we're headed. I think, it's more important to see where we're headed than it is to see where we are. Because you can get discouraged a lot of times about where we are, but where are we headed? That's what gives me hope and courage.

Anne Strainchamps (10:27):

Bob Quinn is the author of Grain by Grain. Steve Paulson caught up with him.

Anne Strainchamps (10:36):

I'm standing with Robin Wall Kimmerer in front of her vegetable garden. We're in upstate New York where she lives in an old white farmhouse. You can see her neighbor's big red barn and corn fields across the road. Robin is a botanist and plant ecologist. She lives and works at the intersection of two very different traditions, scientific knowledge and indigenous wisdom. Robin is an enrolled member of Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She can't look at a corn field or a bean plant without thinking about the history of colonization and genocide, about the deliberate erasure of plant biodiversity. For example, take corn. Robin works with tribal leaders to preserve native varieties of heirloom corn -- along with an entire worldview.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (11:34):

Oh my goodness, the corn world. I have been so privileged to see some of the corn archives, if you will. Jar after jar after jar. Hundreds and hundreds of kinds of corn, from little, tiny, red strawberry pop corns to great big purple and white flour corns. The dent corns and the flint corns. Every color and pattern. It's extraordinary.

Anne Strainchamps (12:03):

What's the difference between GMO corn and the kind of heirloom corn that you're planting?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (12:11):

Sovereignty. The heirloom corn of the seeds that were gifted to me by indigenous farmers, that's free corn. And by free I mean sovereign, independent corn. It's not colonized corn. It carries all of its own genes, first and foremost. It is itself. It is an untrammeled person. In terms of the physiology of the plant itself, it's much more nutritious, has much higher protein, much higher vitamin content than contemporary GMO corn. Tastes better too.

Anne Strainchamps (12:48):

Yeah. It seems like we might have corn because of indigenous scientists, really, who co-evolved it.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (12:58):

Yeah, that's absolutely true. It's a wonderful example of reciprocity between plants and people. Corn made people and people made corn. They are one of our deepest, oldest relatives. When we analyzed the bodies, particularly of Americans, looking at our tissues, they call us walking Fritos because corn fixes carbon in a particular way that leaves a signature in our own bodies. If we ate only wheat we would be differently composed. We are people made out of corn and it shows in the chemistry of our bodies.

Anne Strainchamps (13:39):

I'm really fascinated by the kind of underlying feminine archetypes that are associated with corn. You referred to corn goddesses that are part of creation stories. And the current indigenous movement to preserve heirloom seeds is referred to as re-matriation. How come?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (14:00):

Well, for one, wheat corn is understood as the corn mother. In almost every culture of corn-growing, people refer to her as the corn mother. There's so many reasons for that, but primarily because she takes such good care of us. And when you look at an ear of corn, what makes the corn different from the grasses from which it was domesticated is that every one of those seeds is a baby. Every kernel is an offspring. It's a baby, and they're all wrapped under those blankets. The corn mother cares for her own seeds like a mother. That's why corn is so sacred, that she gives us her children in return for us protecting and caring for those children, and planting them again. Because part of the magic of corn is that with all those babies, with all those seeds held in that husk, there is no way that corn can re-seed itself. There's no such thing as volunteer corn in your garden, it has to be planted and we're the ones who do that. And that's that closeness. Corn would not exist without us, and in traditional society, we would not exist without corn.

Anne Strainchamps (15:18):

When you talk about traditional methods of harvesting, there's a phrase, "Save the best and eat the rest," which means that if you're saving the best kernels, the best seeds to plant, the corn that results is going to carry those long lineages as opposed to a plant that has been genetically engineered and manufactured in a laboratory. Which is like ... in-vitro fertilization?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (15:46):

It is. In fact some of the language by which those foreign genes are put into corn, some of that is the forcible injection of foreign genetic material. That's rape. That's rape.

Anne Strainchamps (16:04):

When you look at a field of your neighbor's GMO modified corn, do you think of that? Do you see rape?

Robin Wall Kimmerer (16:12):

I do. If you just look across the valley, when you see all of those corn plants, absolutely uniform, standing in straight lines, shoulder to shoulder on soil that has been poisoned to kill any other relatives who might be there, that's a really painful thing. Corn, who was always understood by our people as family, as kin. You could only speak of her with animate grammar. She was known as our mother, a sacred being -- now simply understood as an industrial commodity. That is the colonial worldview. That change from seeing the land as full of life, seeing personhood, intelligence, generosity in the land, to seeing only productive capacity. That is the travesty of the Western worldview manifest in agricultural crops.

Anne Strainchamps (17:13):

It also makes me think it's the same habit of mind that produced slavery.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (17:20):

Yes, in that context, you're exactly right. Which is not to draw false parallels between the tragedies of human enslavement and the treatment of our plants. But it is exactly the same mindset. You're right. And again, it's tied up with the notion of who gets to be a person. Corn does not get to be a person in the Western worldview, just as African slaves did not get to be persons under colonial and slavery regimes.

Anne Strainchamps (17:54):

What is the mental or emotional work you do to be able to walk through the world, look at fields like that, and see a long history of both real and psychological violence? You see it more acutely than probably any of your neighbors.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (18:17):

Yes, that is the reality. And your questioning and your openness and awareness to that is really important because the notion of historic trauma, it is ongoing trauma. It is ongoing violence against a way of knowing, and the plants and the other beings, yes. But you know at the same time, that means that the privilege of doing this work is all the more beautiful because it matters so much.

Anne Strainchamps (18:56):

There's such a hunger in the world right now because we've been so depleted of exactly what you're talking about, of a world that's filled with meaning, surrounded by our sacred kin. We are so spiritually undernourished, today. So, in that sense, you're healing.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (19:15):

Some of the very oldest teachings of Anishinaabe peoples, and many peoples around the world, are to say that despite land dispossession, despite attempted genocide, despite the boarding schools, despite removal, termination, relocation, despite every single policy in this country, which are being replicated around the world to make Native peoples disappear, we are still here. And that is a miracle. That is a miracle. And our elders told us that there would come a time when the whole rest of the would need the teachings that we held onto. And that time is now.

Robin Wall Kimmerer (20:03):

It's time to look at a world that is much older, much more morally satisfying, spiritually satisfying, nourishing to the body -- and to help people understand that it's already here. You tried to make this disappear but it's still here. It's the seed. The seeds are still here, our people have been faithful to the seeds of culture, of language, of spirituality. And if you just get out of the way and let them grow, it would be enough to feed all of us.

Anne Strainchamps (20:47):

That's botanist Robin Wall Kimmerer. We talked while sitting under a 200 year-old tree next to her vegetable garden. She lives on a property with butternut trees, a pond, little green herons and a whole lot of bullfrogs. You can see pictures of us along with my dog and her neighbor's cat at ttbook.org. Robin is an enrolled member of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation. She directs the Center for Native Peoples and the Environment at SUNY, Syracuse and she is the author of Braiding Sweetgrass.

Anne Strainchamps (21:21):

I'm Anne Strainchamps. It's To the Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (21:36):

File this under strange but true fact: The average American consumes about four pounds of corn every day. I know you are thinking, "I don't eat four pounds of anything a day." But do you eat meat? Most of it was raised on corn. Do you eat anything that comes in box, a can or a bottle? Check the label for high-fructose corn syrup. There is corn in toothpaste, soap, diapers, drywall, cardboard, ethanol. Americans are pretty much made of corn and that's a big problem for the planet because the corn grown in the US requires nitrogen-based fertilizer. A whole lot of it. And that fertilizer is doing serious damage to the environment. But in southern Mexico, indigenous farmers just might have a solution. Reporter Seth Jovaag investigates.

Seth Jovaag (22:28):

About a year ago, a new story caught my ear. Something about a new kind of miracle corn.

[News anchor voice #1] (22:34):

New at 6:00, groundbreaking research could revolutionize the future of Wisconsin's farming industry.

{News anchor voice #2] (22:39):

Katie Crowther spoke with scientists studying corn that can actually create its own fertilizer, naturally.

[Reporter voice] (22:46):

What's being done by researchers and students right here in the labs of-

Seth Jovaag (22:50):

So here's the deal with this miracle corn. First of all, it's not new, at least not to the people of the Sierra Mixe region of Oaxaca. Indigenous people have been growing it in the mountains there for maybe thousands of years. Second, this is some weird looking corn. It can grow over 16' tall. Up and down its stalk, it sprouts roots. They look a little like necklaces of pinkish, red fingers. These fingers exude goop. It looks like clear mucus. I like to call it corn snot. This may sound gross but that mucus is what lets the corn pull nitrogen from the air. And that is amazing.

Jean-Michel Ané (23:38):

Initially I was, to be honest, very skeptical. Excited, but mostly skeptical.

Seth Jovaag (23:45):

That's Jean-Michel Ané, a Wisconsin agronomist who's been running tests on this corn for a decade now. He was first approached by researchers from the University of California-Davis, and by Mars, Inc -- the people who brought you Snickers and Twix. Scientists and farmers had long speculated that this corn was up to something special. But they needed Jean-Michel's expertise to prove exactly what.

Jean-Michel Ané (24:06):

Before that project, our long term target we hoped to be able to get about 10% of nitrogen from the air into corn. And so that was for us our dream so...

Seth Jovaag (24:22):

You hear that? His dream corn would get 10% of its nitrogen from the air. So he had a student run some tests and he was like, "Whoa!"

Jean-Michel Ané (24:34):

It was so high that I actually asked the student to do it many, many times -- the same fairly simple experiment --because I was thinking maybe he just swapped a legume sample with a corn sample. It's so high. I was not expecting that at all.

Seth Jovaag (24:56):

All right. So, how high? This corn gets an average of half of its nitrogen from the air, sometimes as much as 80%. Not zero, like American corn. Not 10 like they hoped. 80.

[documentary narrator] (25:16):

Toxic algae blooms- Contaminated drinking water-

[documentary narrator] (25:19):

Dead pelicans-

Seth Jovaag (25:20):

If there was an FBI most wanted list for major causes of pollution, synthetic nitrogen fertilizer would be on it.

[documentary narrator] (25:26):

9,000 square miles-

Seth Jovaag (25:28):

Dead zones in the gulf.

[documentary narrator] (25:29):

... the same area as the state of New Jersey-

Seth Jovaag (25:31):

Nitrates in well water.

[documentary narrator] (25:32):

An alarming number of contaminated wells-

Seth Jovaag (25:33):

Greenhouse gases.

[documentary narrator] (25:35):

Fertilizer is contaminating-

Seth Jovaag (25:36):

It contributes to all that.

[documentary narrator] (25:37):

40% of pollution-

Seth Jovaag (25:38):

So imagine if we could cut the need for fertilizer by 50% or more. That would be a huge deal. Scientists have tried for decades to figure this out. Some call it the holy grail of agriculture. Well, after their research was published last year, I asked Jean-Michel, "Is this as special as it sounds?"

Jean-Michel Ané (26:01):

It's funny that you're asking that question because that's probably one of the projects, if not THE project, that I'm really passionate about. I was thinking recently, “Okay, I probably have 20 years of work in science left. If I want to achieve one thing, it would be really to put that trait into the hands of growers.”

Seth Jovaag (26:19):

And honestly, he thinks that's doable. In 10 years, maybe 15, maybe 20, this could happen. Okay, at this point I'm pretty excited about this corn. And then I thought, "Hey, my old high school buddy lives in Oaxaca, not far from where this corn grows. You know what, I should go. I could reconnect with my friend, talk to a bunch of farmers, see this freaking crazy giant corn and make a delightful little story for a public radio program about ancient grains. Let's do this!" If only it was that simple.

Alejandro de Avila (27:09):

Well, it's a very comfortable thought. Oh yeah, the people in Oaxaca, those Indians down there, they can take care of the biodiversity that brought us this commodity.

Seth Jovaag (27:19):

This is Alejandro de Avila, founding director of the Oaxaca Ethnobotanical Garden. We met in an open-aired office, you can hear the birds. Alejandro cleared off a table piled with posters touting local textiles, and promoting bio-diversity. He spoke intensely, both hands gently chopping home his points. Although he was patient with me, I got the sense his patience in general was running thin.

Alejandro de Avila (27:44):

I feel irony and sadness that people in the States should think with comfort, "Oh yeah, the people in Oaxaca will take care of conserving the genes that we rely on." Yeah. The people of Oaxaca are poor, they are dirt poor, and they are being taken advantage of.

Seth Jovaag (28:04):

So much for my delightful little story.

Alejandro de Avila (28:08):

How nearsighted can you be? How utterly senseless to the human drama that takes place outside of the border at this particular time in history?

Seth Jovaag (28:28):

Okay. I was starting to get his point. Why on earth would anyone expect the indigenous people of the Sierra Mixe to welcome U.S. researchers and a multinational corporation with open arms and zero reservations? "Here. Have our magic corn, we're happy to help and have no concerns whatsoever that you might someday put a patent on it and sell it back to us in a slightly altered version that we won't be able to afford. We are proud that you can use our corn to solve environmental problems we didn't create in the first place. Buen provecho."

Alejandro de Avila (29:03):

The way this is described by the scientists in Wisconsin is "Oh, this is a breed of maize that happens to have that peculiarity." Peculiarity? Bulllshit. These are people growing their maize in these kinds of soil, in this kind of climate. It is to them that we owe this. It is not something that happened by chance. This is something that is part of our way of life. It is the way of life of the people of (name withheld). They have produced this. This is their gift. This is the result of generations of people working, knowing the plants, knowing their local environment. Nowhere is that story given credit.

Seth Jovaag (29:52):

In other words, this story about corn? It's not just about corn.

[ambience, Mexican village] (29:59):

[foreign language 00:29:59]

Seth Jovaag (30:03):

Case in point: you noticed two bleeps in what Alejandro said. The first -- well, that was a swear word. The second is the name of the indigenous Mixe village where the American scientists focused their research. Now, I know the name of the village. In fact, I went there. But the people who live there want the village to be anonymous. To help explain why, I turned to Aldo Gonzalez Rojas, a Zapotec farmer and activist.

Aldo Gonzalez Rojas (30:36):

Our corn is shared between the communities. Corn is not sold here.

Seth Jovaag (30:41):

One of Aldo's primary goals is defending the autonomy of indigenous people in this region. And in these parts, autonomy goes hand in hand with farming, with growing your own food.

Aldo Gonzalez Rojas (30:57):

When someone needs corn here, he goes to one of his countrymen or to the community. In some cases, someone will lend it to him and when he has his harvest he returns it. The concern we have is that when universities or companies start doing this type of research, it is not to produce a benefit to humanity but to have great profits, and to be able to do a business. In order to have great profits, they make it so this corn cannot be used by anyone other than them.

Seth Jovaag (31:27):

All right, keep Aldo's ideals in your head: sharing seeds, autonomy, community. Within this context, our bleeped -out village in the region signed an agreement with a subsidiary of Mars, Inc. The agreement apparently lays out how the village will benefit if their native corn strikes it big someday on the market. It gets the stamp of approval from the Mexican government and an international protocol. But it's also confidential. Now, let me be clear, Aldo doesn't blame the village of (bleep) for this. His worries are bigger, deeper. There's a long history of indigenous people being dispossessed of land and their way of life and he is afraid the whole situation surrounding this particular corn will just set a dangerous precedent for years to come. This is his co-worker, Gabriela Linares Sosa.

Gabriela Linares Sosa (32:28):

The issue is the looting of corn by academic institutions or governmental bodies. I mean, maize has always been attacked in Oaxaca including through the permissiveness of government agencies in Mexico that were supposed to be protecting it. The corn is one case, but there are other cases with other types of native crops that are also in the same situation, and that are of equal importance for Mexico because they are native.

Seth Jovaag (33:12):

Okay, deep breath. I went from hope in Wisconsin that this new science could do good in the world, to people in Oaxaca who see this in the context of much older problems that have put indigenous people on the defense for centuries. As if to hammer the point home, Aldo sets an envelope in front of me. It's from the United States.

Seth Jovaag (33:35):

So what am I looking at here?

Aldo Gonzalez Rojas and anonymous farmer (33:39):

Esta es el maiz Mixe. ... compramos in Estados Unidos

Seth Jovaag (33:44):

What? How did you get this?

Aldo Gonzalez Rojas (33:49):

They bought this one, this is supposedly the maize that comes from (beep).

Seth Jovaag (33:53):

Who is this?

Aldo Gonzalez Rojas (33:58):

?Quiene son esos?

Anonymous farmer (33:58):

Esta on eBay. (laughter)

Seth Jovaag (34:02):

Okay. I guess. How do they feel about that?

Aldo Gonzalez Rojas (34:27):


Seth Jovaag (34:27):

Encabronado, pissed off. That's how Aldo felt when he learnt that seeds from his neighbors were already for sale at a dollar apiece on eBay. All right, let's get back on track. I still want to see this darn corn. Given the politics involved, I didn't think it would be right to go combing through random farmers' fields. So a friend of a friend talked to some people and eventually, I was summoned to a Sunday night meeting of the agrarian authorities of (bleep). After a long, windy drive through mist-covered mountains, I was in a room with four officials. There is nothing else on the agenda, just me. They wanted to know how I had heard of them and I told them. Then I explained what I was working on and said I was really hoping to meet some farmers and see some corn. The meeting was short.

Seth Jovaag (35:26):

"With all due respect," they said, "No." They asked to make a photocopy of my driver's license for safe keeping and maybe incentive to stay out of local fields. We thanked each other for our time and in 10 minutes, it was done. This was a bummer. I'd come all this way to see corn snot and nothing? But then, just walking down the street on an overcast day in a totally different town, my friend's like, "Hey, is that it?"

Seth Jovaag (36:13):

It's day 10 or so in Oaxaca and I am seeing for the first time maize with gel coming out of its aerial roots. I'm standing next to a plot where someone's planted 30 plants or so of corn. It's kind of crammed in between a garage and a construction supply store.So I got to see one, finally.

Seth Jovaag (36:45):

Man, I went home with my head spinning. I wish I could tell you, here is the bad guy, here is the good guy but I can't. Yes, one expert told me this was a case of biopiracy. But UC-Davis professor Alan Bennett, who led this study from the beginning, insists their work with the Mixe village was well-intentioned and something to be proud of. In Wisconsin, Jean-Michel Ané feels Mars should be applauded for funding a risky project that may lead to a major scientific discovery. Mars is no longer funding the research, by the way. And so far, no one's claiming ownership of the corn snot trait. The research is in the public domain.

Seth Jovaag (37:40):

Matter of fact, I just saw a bunch of it a few days ago at a research plot at the University of Wisconsin. And I hope that's a good thing. I hope this isn't just another silver bullet for the environment that goes astray, another case study in capitalism wreaking havoc on indigenous people. I suppose the test will come in 10 or 15 years if and when corn snot goes commercial. But meanwhile, we might be missing a bigger point. In the birthplace of corn, farmers are struggling. And as Aldo and pretty much everybody else I talked to said, that could be bad news for all of us.

Aldo Gonzalez Rojas (38:31):

If we see statistics globally, more than 50 percent of food production is still produced on a small scale. It does not depend on transnational companies to survive. That means there are thousands, millions of farmers in the world who continue to do their job to survive. This is very important because finally those farmers are the ones ensuring that future generations can count on the seeds that they are planting in this moment. The companies are not going to guarantee this. For example, the seed vault of the end of the world in Norway isn't. It's there to take care of the seeds that may be used by companies in the future. But peasant seeds are produced year after year and they adapt to the new climate conditions. So these are really the seeds of the future.

Anne Strainchamps (39:31):

That story about corn snot was reported by Seth Jovaag from the Sierra Mixe region of Oaxaca and from the University of Wisconsin.

Seth Jovaag (39:59):

I do have one delightful little story. My trip to Oaxaca included five days in the mountains.

Seth Jovaag (40:09):

The Mixe family I stayed with dried corn cobs on their roof and saved seeds in sacks or two liter soda bottles. I went out one morning with an old woman named Nadia who's planting beans, corn and squash, the traditional vegetables of the Milpa on a hillside plot.

Nadia (40:24):

... regularmente, si sembra la.. las papas...

Seth Jovaag (40:30):

Naria would dig a little hole, grab some seeds from a pouch on her waist drop them in and cover them up. What she grew on three plots like this was enough, in a good year, to feed her family for up to six months. Other than manure and compost, no fertilizer required. Later, my friend and I hauled buckets of corn to her house to run through a small electric mill. The resultant masa was cooked on a comal, a big clay griddle heated by a wood fire. The tortillas were, and this is going to shock you, way better than what you get at most stores. Chewy, textured, rich, delicious. Seeing that process, start to finish, it felt like an honor. Let's hope it continues for generations to come.

Anne Strainchamps (41:32):

And you want to see what it looked like, don't you? To look at some of Seth's photos from his trip and to read more about the science, just go to ttbook.org. I'm Anne Strainchamps, it's To The Best Of Our Knowledge from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX.

Anne Strainchamps (41:56):

Climate change, a virus, nuclear war, maybe an asteroid -- however the apocalypse arrives, I have a question. For those of us left, what the heck are we going to eat once we've finished all the canned goods? Okay, I'm joking, but seriously, if everything green and growing is at some point decimated by some kind of apocalypse, how are we going to replant anything? I mean, there's a lot of stuff we can live without: apples, oranges. But corn, wheat, rice -- they are pretty much essential. Well, lucky for us, somebody else had that thought too, back in the 1990s. His name is Cary Fowler. He is an agriculturalist and the founder of the Svalbard Global Seed Bank -- otherwise known as the Doomsday Vault -- which can be found 400 feet deep in rock on a desolate island in Norway above the Arctic Circle. That's where they're storing the world's seeds. Charles Monroe-Kane sat down with Cary Fowler and was like, "This is crazy."

Cary Fowler (43:00):

It was a pretty crazy idea.

Charles Monroe-Kane (43:02):

I'm just visualizing your... either the conversation with your partner or the conversation at the first meeting at the UN or with The Bill Gates Foundation and you're like, "Hey, this is what I want to do." Did you think, maybe for a moment, it was too crazy?

Cary Fowler (43:16):

To be honest in the beginning I didn't think the right people or enough people would take it very seriously. But I tried to make a pretty strong rational, logical argument for it and somewhat to my surprise, people seemed to pay attention and they seemed to go with it.

Charles Monroe-Kane (43:32):

Well, clearly you did. I mean, you have seeds from North Korea. You've gotten seeds from every country in the world?

Cary Fowler (43:39):

Just about. I think the number is up to 234 now in terms of numbers of countries.

Charles Monroe-Kane (43:44):

Wow, that's fantastic.

Cary Fowler (43:46):

That includes some countries that no longer exist, by the way, so-

Charles Monroe-Kane (43:49):

Wow, I'm guessing you can just keep the seeds, I guess.

Cary Fowler (43:51):

Yeah. Yeah.

Charles Monroe-Kane (43:52):

I want a little journey with you for a second. You get off the snowmobile in front of the seed vault. What do you see? Do you walk downstairs, is there an elevator? What does it physically look like, the building and the entrance to the tunnel? Can you take us there?

Cary Fowler (44:08):

Sure. Well, it's like a concrete wedge that's sticking out the side of the mountain. There's a simple metal door there. The Norwegians paid for the facility, paid the cost for it entirely and under Norwegian law, you have to have some artwork associated with anything that costs that much. It's a beautiful artistic lighting feature at the top of the wedge.

Charles Monroe-Kane (44:34):

It's like a dark blue. It's like a shiny dark blue, right?

Cary Fowler (44:36):

Yeah, the artist was fantastic. She said that in the summer time when you have daylight all 24 hours, you should see your reflection in it and it should reflect your responsibility.

Charles Monroe-Kane (44:48):

Oh my God, that's fantastic. Everything about the seed vault makes me happy.

Cary Fowler (44:53):

Yeah, it reflects your responsibility to preserve this natural resource and in the winter time, it glows, and as she put it, it's a beacon to mankind.

Charles Monroe-Kane (45:02):

There is very little sticking out of the ground. It's pretty small -- and then it goes into this huge tunnel. When I first saw it, it really reminded me of the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. Immediately, that's what it reminded me of and I was like, "Okay, that's iconic." Then I thought, it's kind of scary or at least surreal. Is it any of those things, iconic, scary or surreal?

Cary Fowler (45:26):

It's a couple of them. I don't think it's scary. It's interesting because it's on a Norwegian postage stamp now and everybody in Norway would recognize the structure even though there are very few people, Norwegians or otherwise, who have ever seen it. And the Norwegian government tells me that it's the second most-recognized structure in Norway.

Charles Monroe-Kane (45:44):

Wow. Even though most people haven't seen it, right?

Cary Fowler (45:46):

Yeah. Once you get down there and you enter a room, you know I have taken a few people into the room with the seeds and they've never failed to exit that room with anything other than, I think, an overwhelming amount of emotion. Because, when you're in the room with seeds, and we have samples of nearly one million different crop varieties, you're in a room with the biggest collection of living biodiversity in the world. So all of these varieties that we have in the seed vault, they are the representation of a 12 -13,000 year history of agriculture on this planet and all of our ancestors. When you think about it, that's a humbling and emotional experience.

Charles Monroe-Kane (46:36):

I think it's also emotional because one of the reasons you're preserving it is that we may have problems ahead.

Cary Fowler (46:43):

Well, exactly. This is a living library of agriculture and I like to think of it as kind of like an artist's palette. Let's say in the seed vault we have 150-something thousand different varieties of wheat and about the same number of rice. And this represents, sort of, all the colors of the rainbow. So like an artist's palette, it represents what farmers and plant breeders will be able to have in the future for rice and wheat and all the other crops. And if you begin to lose that diversity, if one of those varieties becomes extinct, for example, and you lose those traits that it contains, then you've sort of taken a color off of the artist's palette.

Charles Monroe-Kane (47:27):

Gosh, this is biblical. I'm picturing Noah with some grains on the boat. I've never heard anything like this before. Does anything else like this even exist, on the level of what you're doing?

Cary Fowler (47:40):

Not that I know of. I guess there are a lot of different conservation initiatives to conserve a lot of different things but we designed that facility to last probably longer than any structure that's been built on earth during my lifetime. And it required the co-operation of a lot of different countries so it's something that's more or less permanent. At least, it's long term and it's for the future and it's positive. But at the same time, it's a pretty simple idea. This is not really big high technology or even very costly, frankly. It's a pretty cheap place to run. It's an insurance policy for agriculture and food security but that insurance policy probably costs less than the insurance that a major art museum would pay for every year.

Charles Monroe-Kane (48:30):

And I read you don't even have an employee in there, right? There's not like a watchman or something, right? It's empty, nobody works there.

Cary Fowler (48:38):

That's right. Well, it would be kind of an unfortunate job to have.

Charles Monroe-Kane (48:42):

Sounds like a terrible job.

Cary Fowler (48:44):

It would be interesting on the first day but after that it would get cold and old.

Charles Monroe-Kane (48:48):

I have a final question for you and I don't mean it to be cynical, I'm asking you sincerely: Why should we care?

Cary Fowler (48:55):

This diversity is the biological foundation for agriculture and my definition of extinction is not that a species is extinct when the last individual dies -- my definition is that a species is extinct when it no longer has the ability to evolve. Because then we're just waiting for the last one to die. And that definition applies not just to the California condor, it applies to wheat and rice. Wheat and rice need to be able to adapt, they need to be able to evolve. Nothing is standing still in the world, and they can't either if they're going to survive. So this is the raw material for that evolution. Without this diversity, there is no evolution and there is no wheat and rice and there is no food security for human beings. So, that's why it's important.

Anne Strainchamps (49:54):

Cary Fowler is the creator of the Svalbard Global Seed Bank. Charles Monroe-Kane was talking with him. These days Cary is retired to the Hudson Valley of New York where he tends an orchard of more than 100 apple varieties. He also keeps a small herd of rare Poll Cattle and an even rarer flock of Buckeye chickens.

Anne Strainchamps (50:17):

To The Best Of Our Knowledge comes to you from Wisconsin Public Radio and PRX. Charles Monroe-Kane produced this hour with help from Angelo Bautista, Shannon Henry Kleiber and Mark Riechers. Thanks to Janna Ross Schleis and Keegan Kyle for Spanish translation this week. Joe Hardtke is our sound designer and technical director. Steve Paulson is our executive producer and I'm Anne Strainchamps. Thanks for listening.

Speaker 25 (50:43):


Last modified: 
May 19, 2023