Organic Seed Conference 2012

The WGS crew has recently returned from a weekend retreat with our organic seed comrades. The Organic Seed Alliance hosted their 6th organic seed conference in Port Townsend, Washington. It was three days of tall talk and three nights of smoky scotch whiskey. Here’s what I learned:

  1. Prime your peas!
    A study comparing the effects of several different seed treatments for damping off in peas showed that simply soaking the peas in good ol’ water overnight, with occasional agitation, followed by a quick dry before seeding was more effective at reducing damping off than a host of branded commercial seed treatments. The presenter, Lindsey du Toit of Washington State University, went on to note that the USDA has standards of review for the acute toxicity and environmental impact of new chemicals, but has no standards for whether or not they actually work. We don’t need any of these bogus products for our seeds. This spring, soak your peas like your grandmother did. Get real, get a bowl of water.
  2. Get off your corn cob!
    Bill Tracy of the University of Wisconsin told us a surprising story about corn genetics and the “green” revolution. When scientists finally had the right genetic analysis tools, they compared corn from before and after the green revolution to see what caused the dramatic increase in yield that conventional agriculture is always crowing about. They were expecting to find more chloroplasts or some kind of enhanced protein synthesis. To their surprise, they found a slight difference in leaf angle, and a shorter tassle length. That’s it. Mainly there were just more plants per acre, and corn plants with more upright leaves could be crammed closer together. Now we have the same corn that is slightly adapted to living in a corn city, and we grind it up to feed to cows living in cow cities, and we grind them up to feed people living in people cities. We don’t need all that unhealthy processing in our food system. Chew for yourself. Get real. Get fresh sweet corn on the cob.
  3. Get Radical!
    It’s not enough to be right, said Eric Holt-Gimenez from the Food First Institute. We can lobby Congress all day long to throw us a bone from the Farm Bill, but it won’t do any good if we don’t have the political power, the will of the people behind us. Don’t waste time persuading politicians, convince the audience: the people. Dr. Holt-Gimenez told the story of his work in the early days of la Via Campesina. Together the farmers of Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua did a massive study comparing two thousand organic and conventional farms spread across the three countries hit hard by hurricane Mitch in 1998. Their meticulously collected data showed that peasant farms practicing organic methods were more resistant and resilient than their conventional neighbors. They were right, but the World Bank had the power. Instead of supporting the burgeoning organic peasant farming movement, the World Bank decided to build a network of roads and sweatshops that ultimately crushed the movement and moved thousands off the land. No change can come from a movement without power. Get real. Transform what power is.
  4. Stand together, brand together!
    Adam Butler, cofounder of Butler Bros, a values led advertising company, showed us some numbers about industry spending on advertising. The orange juice industry spends millions of dollars annually to convince people to drink more OJ. Monsanto spends hundreds of millions of dollars annually telling us all how wonderful biotechnology is for feeding a growing planet. The organic industry spends zero dollars on any advertising. Mr. Butler’s point was not that we rush out and buy up some TV ads, but that we as a movement and a profession could us a little public relations help. He proposed combining a brand logo with a values statement that would unify our movement and help to explain what we stand for. The organic seed industry has the Safe Seed Pledge; perhaps the organic food industry needs a Safe Veg Pledge. What we can’t do is continue to allow Monsanto and its minions to dominate the global food conversation. The power is in the people, and we need to take our side of the conversation directly to them. Get real. Talk organic.

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