Seed debaters plow common ground
By STEVE BROWN
OLYMPIA -- Two farmers who want to help feed the world. Two different ideas about seeds. What could have been a heated debate instead became a discovery of common ground.
The Thurston County, Wash., League of Women Voters invited the pair to educate them on the differences between biotech seeds and natural seeds. The event, titled "Seeds of Change," was supported in part by Washington Friends of Farms and Forests, an advocacy group that educates the public and decision-makers about agriculture-related issues.
Douglas Jones is executive director of Growers for Biotechnology. He told the 30 or so attendees that he has farmed with his father and brothers in Southern Idaho for 35 years, also doing custom harvesting and tillage for farmers in Idaho, Nevada and Utah. He served 20 years in the Idaho House of Representatives, 10 of them as chairman of the Agricultural Affairs Committee.
David Mitman was raised on a farm in Pennsylvania and has been a lifelong gardener. He is a beekeeper, a Washington State University master gardener and a farmer in Eatonville. In 1994 he co-founded South Sound Seed Stewards, a nonprofit corporation dedicated to preserving natural seeds.
Mitman said a question he often hears from other growers is "How can I produce seed?" It's a natural issue, he said, one that has become clouded by biotech patents and ownership of technology.
"Seeds are not only alive, they are life," he said. "Whoever controls seeds -- and water supply -- controls life as we know it."
In nature, Mitman said, life can only cross-pollinate or cross-breed with similar species. "Nature respects boundaries. ... Nature said, 'Work within my laws. No one owns my seed.'"
Amid climate changes and diseases, he said, it's the variety of seeds with their variety of traits that protects humankind from famine.
"It's a worldwide concern. We (seed stewards) teach the art and science of seed saving," he said. "We exchange seeds. We don't sell them."
Jones said he agrees on the value of "old-line" seeds. "They do have traits that are valuable. We can pull them out and insert them into new varieties."
Modern agriculture, he said, has an immense challenge -- to feed a world growing ever more hungry. He quoted Norman Borlaug, father of the Green Revolution, as saying "Production ag needs to produce in the next 50 years more than we've produced in the last 10,000 years."
The only way that can happen, Jones said, is through biotech seeds, developed by bringing forward or repressing traits in order to increase yields and nutritional value, to tolerate drought and disease, to use less fertilizer and less pesticide.
"Why do some farmers use biotech seed?" he asked. "They're not forced to, but they buy expensive seed because they're business people."
But, he said, there's more to the story. "We're environmental stewards ourselves. I want to keep living on my land, using less chemicals and causing less erosion."
Jones listed several big names that support biotech seed: the Vatican (especially concerning Africa), USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack and Microsoft chairman Bill Gates, whose foundation is funding "a continuous science-based search, especially on small farms in developing countries."
Forty countries use biotech, Jones said, led by the U.S., China, India, Brazil, Argentina and Canada.
"In North America, 85 to 90 percent of corn, cotton and soybeans is biotech."
During a question-and-answer session, one audience member asked -- given the increasing population demands -- if biotech can rise to the occasion.
Jones replied, "We think it can. Most food issues are political."
Mitman agreed: "Food shortages in large part are due to lack of distribution, lack of money and corporate and national policies."
Then he added: "We're not against technology. Like fire, it's convenient, but it must be controlled. It must be thoroughly researched. We can have the best of both worlds."
Mitman said some types of high-tech plant breeding are a version of what he does through seed saving.
"We need to bury the hatchet with our political differences," he said. "Without compromise, we're all in big trouble."
South Sound Seed Stewards: firstname.lastname@example.org
Growers for Biotechnology: email@example.com