“We’ve lost respect for our seed. We take it for granted, we take our food for granted. And even farmers and gardeners have lost that connection with the seed.” – Nancy Redfeather
Nancy Redfeather is the Program Director at the Hawai’i Public Seed Initiative/Hawai’i School Garden Network at The Kohala Center. What follows is an excerpt from an excellent interview conducted at her farm on the Big Island of Hawaii. Since my visit, there have been some major changes. Recently, Maui County won a lawsuit against the biotech industry which will prevent them from growing new GMO test crops. Monsanto immediately sued the State of Hawaii and the presiding judge indicated that the GMO ban would not be able to be upheld until he reviewed the case. There is a lot at stake. Below Nancy gives some background as to Hawaii ended up as one of the major GMO testing grounds as well as covering other important seed related topics.
NANCY REDFEATHER: My name is Nancy Redfeather, and I live in Kona, Hawaii. I came to Hawaii in 1976 and bought some land. I was living in Los Angeles at the time. And I’ve been here now for 35, over 35 years. We started building this farm about 1998. And it’s a very small farm but it has an immense amount of food that’s produced on it.
NANCY REDFEATHER: So our goal was really to become both self-sufficient, as self-sufficient as possible, and also do lots of experimentation with different crops, variety trials, seed trials, saving seeds and replanting them. And trying to do it really sustainably so that our inputs weren’t from anywhere off this island. It’s been very successful.
SEED DOCUMENTARY: The amount of food that gets imported from outside of Hawaii seems to be an important issue. Can you tell me why?
NANCY REDFEATHER: I’ve always had the feeling that something will happen in the future that’s will make it very necessary for us to be more sustainable. I’ve always been a teacher, and I think really if you want to change the future, you need to start at home. So if we can encourage educational systems for our children and our youth that promote the type of sustainability for food, water, energy, and waste that we’re looking for in the future, we’re much more likely to enter a future that has the dynamics that will be sustainable for all people.
SEED DOCUMENTARY: Where do seeds fall in hierarchy of our food chain?
NANCY REDFEATHER: The seed is the foundation of all life. It’s the foundation of all food systems. So in that way, it’s the fundamental kernel that keeps civilization moving forward. But we’ve lost respect for our seed. We take it for granted, we take our food for granted. And even farmers and gardeners have lost that connection with the seed. That last step of saving and improving the quality of your seed. But it’s something that we can relearn again. This is knowledge that has been on the planet for ten thousand years, and we can relearn it again.
SEED DOCUMENTARY: Why have we lost that link?
NANCY REDFEATHER: I think it was so much easier, you know, isn’t modern life all about things being easier? I think it was so much easier just to go to the store and buy a package of seed than it was to read a book, take a class, learn how to select and save, harvest, store correctly. It’s so much easier just to buy fresh seed every year, especially from a company that you have trust in, and you’ve been buying from, you know the seed has good germination rates, and has good quality seed. I mean, I understand. I did it myself for, for many years. Not really paying very much attention to what the name of the company was, or anything. It wasn’t until 1994, actually, when I heard John Navazio speaking here in Hawaii, and he said that he had just read a new report that was predicting that by 2005, 97% of all seed varieties that were grown in the year 1900 would be extinct in the United States. And I about fell off my chair. And I realized that these varieties were the varieties that kept all our ancestors alive. And our ancestors had been carefully developing these varieties and saving them and passing them along, and all of a sudden the chain had been broken. So I needed to get busy.
SEED DOCUMENTARY: How did you feel when you heard that statistic?
NANCY REDFEATHER: I was very concerned. I was very concerned, and I immediately took up the work. Because it was, it was something I had missed. And I think that that is a really important fact that we are driving home to all the people that are part of the Hawaii Public Seed Initiative, is that they’re really clear on the history of seed. Especially the history of seed in America, and all the different stages that we’ve gone through to get to where we are, and why we are where we are today.
SEED DOCUMENTARY: What’s at stake for the seed supply?
NANCY REDFEATHER: Well, there are just a few major biotech corporations that used to be chemical companies but now they have cornered the market on seed. Just three of them are controlling about 40% of the world’s seed, and then if you add the other ones, you know, I’m sure you’re well above 50% of the world’s seed. So this is something that the public doesn’t really realize yet, but we don’t want that to be happening. Because those companies controlling that amount of seed, it’s going to lessen the amount of diversity that’s in agriculture, the amount of diversity of possible food crops that we can be growing and eating in any particular place.
And it doesn’t leave very much room for all of the potential climate change disasters that are definitely coming. They’re, they’re not coming, they’re actually already here. We’ve seen it here on our farm with severe flooding and drought. So we’re going to need all the biodiversity that we can, we’re, we’re going to need as many possible seed varieties as we can, so that we can continue to grow food for our families. And for our communities. And that is not the agenda of the biotech industry. That is not their agenda. Their agenda is to control first the grains, pretty much, because I mean, that, that’s what most people need for their main food supply, is grain. And so it was actually quite an astute move on their part to try to control the grains first.
But now that Monsanto has bought Seminis, the largest vegetable seed company in the world, now they have all of the genetic material from that too. And everything that’s in the Svalbard Seed Bank probably. I don’t know that for a fact, of course, but they have a tremendous amount of genetic material to work with now. And here in Hawaii, we, at the University of Hawaii, we used to be a center, a facility for seed and plant breeding in not only the tropical and subtropical world, but actually in the area of corn. And our last seed breeder is now at the University of Hawaii after almost a hundred and ten years of seed breeding, we’re on our last breeder, Dr. James Brewbaker. He’s in his 80’s now. And there’s no one else. There are no positions left in plant and seed breeding at the University.
SEED DOCUMENTARY: What is Hawaii’s place in the seed industry?
NANCY REDFEATHER: Well Hawaii is the nursery of the biotech industry. It is here that they do their experimental field trials, and they keep their parent lines, and they develop varieties that then they send off to other parts of the world to be replicated. Hawaii has been playing that role really since the late 1990’s, well mid-1990’s. And really the biotech companies were courted to come here by our governors one after the other, after the plantation systems had started to fail. And I think, I think at the government level they were really looking for the high technology to be the savior of the economy of Hawaii so that we wouldn’t be just reliant on tourism, that we would also be reliant on, on high technology. And so at the same time, the biotech industry was just starting to realize that they needed to do a lot of research and development, and where would they do it? They might as well do it in a small island nation that is separated from the whole rest of the world, you know, in case anything happened, at least it could be contained here. And then you had, on top of that you had the corn seed, the small corn seed family businesses that had come here in the 1940’s and 50’s, had purchased land, had been doing their hybrid corn seed trials and parent lines here. And so in that great seed buyout of the 1980’s, Monsanto and DuPont and Syngenta came here to Hawaii and they started buying up the small corn seed companies. And just moving into the same facilities. I mean, on Moloka’i it was at least ten years after Monsanto had moved into Hawaii, Hawaiian research, that the people on Moloka’i knew that Monsanto had come.
SEED DOCUMENTARY: What do you mean by seed buyout?
NANCY REDFEATHER: Well, so, after the Chakrabarty versus Diamond decision at the Supreme Court in 1980 that allowed the ownership of life, if a single gene was changed, then it was time to own the genetics of food. Because if you owned the genetics then you could have patented products that you could have for twenty years and be assured that wherever those genes moved in the environment, they belong to you.
SEED DOCUMENTARY: What does it mean for Hawaii to be the nursery of the biotech industry?
NANCY REDFEATHER: Well I think the consequences of having the companies doing their research here, has been that there are many communities in Hawaii that are suffering from contamination. Insecticides, pesticides, and dust. In waterways, there are whole communities here that are starting to sue the biotech companies for twenty years of dust blowing through their communities with chemicals. So they’re starting to take a look at the level of illness in that community, and there’s lawsuits in court right now, especially on Kauai, on the west side of Kauai, to, to bring some kind of compensation and, and stop that from happening.
SEED DOCUMENTARY: What affect does seed health have on our physical health?
NANCY REDFEATHER: Well we, we can take a look at the changes in um, the health of Americans and American children over the last twenty years, since the biotech industry has been putting foods into the system. And we can see there has been a huge decline in health. And so I’m not saying it’s all, all due to high fructose corn syrup and genetically engineered soy and corn in 75% or more of the products on the market, but it definitely has had something to do with the decline of health in the United States.
SEED DOCUMENTARY: Why aren’t more people aware of what’s happening with seeds?
NANCY REDFEATHER: I think one of the really big problems today is that we’ve just pretty much in general become disconnected with nature. And especially folks that live in the cities, which is now well over 50%, it’s hard to be really connected with nature when you live in a city, I know, I lived in Los Angeles for many, many years. And I think it’s also this disconnection that we have with the whole web of life. We have become disconnected with every phase of it. So we’re disconnected between the seed and the food. We don’t really think about our food as having come from a seed. It just appears, it appears on the shelves, in the frozen food cases of Costco, and it’s already prepared. And it’s anything we want, and then we just microwave it. So I think we’ve just come very very far away from the concept of a seed growing a plant, and we eat that plant.
SEED DOCUMENTARY: What can general public do to help?
NANCY REDFEATHER: Well, I think, you know, here in Hawaii we’ve started the Hawaii Public Seed Initiative, and we have um, gone back to the University of Hawaii, we have found partners there to work with. We have our seed team. We’re going out across the Hawaiian Islands and doing seed basics workshops for farmers and gardeners on all islands, that’s what we did last year. And then this year, we’ll be doing a second year where we’re going to create a train the trainers class, and, and we’re going identify those really key people on every island that can really drive their, drive education on their islands and form seed networks, and start doing some variety trials and seed saving for unique and different areas. Because we have eleven of the thirteen world climates in Hawaii, and so it’s extremely diverse between leeward and windward sides.
We have areas up to 400 inches of rain a year, we have areas of seven inches or less rain a year, with extremely diverse soil types, and so each one of those really unique areas deserves to have their own seed for their own climates. And so as we started to work with, now we’re working with these two hundred farmers and gardeners, um, right now, that is just going to continue multiplying. And I think it’s really important for the people who are growing food for their families to just participate in this whole seed to seed ritual. I think the more that they do it, the more respect even they will have for the knowledge that goes into seed growing. Because there’s a lot of knowledge that has been lost and needs to be regained. You, you can grow seed, but to grow really good seed and to grow seed that is going to last for generations and generations, you, there, there is a lot to know about it
SEED DOCUMENTARY: What is the Hawaii Public Seed Initiative?
NANCY REDFEATHER: So the Hawaii Public Seed Initiative was formed in 2010 to address the fact that there’s only one company in Hawaii that’s growing seed for Hawaiian farmers and gardeners. And that’s the University of Hawaii at Manoa, they have a seed bank there and they sell home packets of seed to Hawaii’s farmers and gardeners, but it is dwindling every year. Every year there’s less and less varieties being offered, and I don’t think there’s been a new variety offered on that list for twenty or thirty years. So this has been a long, slow decline. This is nothing that’s just happened. This has happened over a really long period of time, and sometimes I think when things happen slowly like that, you just don’t even realize they’re happening until all of a sudden you turn around one day and you say, “Oh my gosh, we don’t have any more seed. What are we gonna do? We’re gonna have to, we’re gonna have to go to Johnny’s.”
So really what we want to do here is after, after these people, after all of these farmers and gardeners start growing seed and doing variety trials and really starting to become good observers of the environment, at, then, then, hopefully we can start creating some seed cooperatives here in Hawaii. And we can start pulling together the best of our seed that we have from all these different environments that we have, and then offering them to other farmers and gardeners across the state, as a little kind of niche crop that um, that can bring some funding back to the people who have spent so much time trying to perfect those varieties.