Since its founding in 1983, Native Seeds/SEARCH has pursued its mission to conserve, distribute and document the adapted and diverse varieties of agricultural seeds and their wild relatives, and tell the stories behind these seeds in the cultures of the American Southwest and northwest Mexico. This treasured Tucson nonprofit organization promotes the use of these ancient crops and their wild relatives by gathering, safeguarding, and distributing their seeds to farming and gardening communities.For our first Community Spotlight series, Edible Baja Arizona is highlighting different aspects of the work of Native Seeds/SEARCH with weekly posts by regular contributor Debbie Weingarten. Please become a member, make a donation, and be sure to stop by their retail store or online shop for one-of-kind gifts this holiday season. This is the second post in our series.
Just off of River Road in Tucson, the Native Seeds/SEARCH Conservation Center is a compound of stuccoed buildings surrounding an attractive courtyard. On one side of the building, young pomegranate trees bear blush-colored fruit, and a grouping of chiltipin plants in one-gallon nursery pots have been set aside for overwintering.
Inside, Dr. Matthew Kost sits at his desk sipping coffee from a mug. Next to his feet lean several enormous Ha:l squash. Kost, who recently became the Native Seeds/SEARCH Conservation Program Manager, is tasked with orienting me on my first visit to the Conservation Center. The Center, which serves as the NS/S headquarters, also houses the organization’s Seed Bank—one of the core components of its conservation strategy.
Native Seeds/SEARCH employs two conservation approaches, both of which are essential for preserving the biodiversity of traditional crops:
Ex situ conservation involves the frozen storage of seeds in the Seed Bank in order to preserve viability, as well as regular germination testing. When viability begins to decrease, seeds are regenerated at the NS/S Conservation Farm and a new sample replaces the old.
In situ conservation focuses on the relationships between plants and the people who grow them. When crops are grown on farms, plants continue to evolve with the conditions of the landscape through natural and human selection.
Today, plant biodiversity is declining at unprecedented rates. Thus, the practice of seed banking—or the cataloguing and preservation of seeds in frozen temperatures—has become vitally important for future food security. The philosophy behind seed banking is to maintain a diverse stockpile of viable seeds in case certain plants are made extinct by disease, climate change, or man-made disasters.
The Native Seeds/SEARCH Seed Bank is part of an international effort to preserve genetic biodiversity in plants. Beginning in the 1980s, when the NS/S co-founders began collecting seeds from the Southwest U.S. and Northwestern Mexico, the Seed Bank now contains over 16,000 distinct samples representing 1800 unique accessions (or strains) of traditional crops. Nearly half of the collection represents corn, beans, and squash varieties—the “three sisters”, named for the unique way these plants benefit one another when grown together. But the entire collection contains over one hundred types of plants, ranging from peppers, lentils, chickpeas, cilantro, and more.
From the outside, the Seed Bank—housed in a 120 square foot industrial freezer and a 600 square foot refrigerator—resembles a spaceship, complete with lights, dials, and temperature indicators. But inside it looks like an apothecary. Against the metallic walls are shelves of labeled seeds—hundreds of containers of corn and beans in a myriad of colors and sizes. Except for the humming of the compressor, it’s quiet. The Seed Bank is, quite literally, a place where time has stopped, and I have the sensation of being surrounded by unrealized food, fibers, and dyes in the form of thousands of sleeping embryos.
As we chat about seed viability, Kost tells me about the path that led him to Native Seeds. His career began as a research assistant at the University of Kansas, where he was trained in utilizing genetic engineering techniques that changed the physical shapes of plants. One night, he read a paper authored by scientist Ignacio Chapela, on the effects of genetically engineered crops on traditional maize diversity in Southern Mexico.
“Reading that paper was a game changer,” Kost tells me. “It changed my life.”
Recognizing the impact of monoculture agriculture on native plant biodiversity, he quickly changed his career path. Since then, Kost has worked extensively in the US, Mexico, and South America, conducting studies to promote the conservation of native sunflower, maize, amaranth, and quinoa populations. This past summer, he and his family moved from Bolivia to Tucson to join NS/S.
A careful exploration of the Seed Bank is like scouting for treasure. Kost shows me bags of devil’s claw, an industrial tote of White Sonoran Wheat, odd-shaped gourds, crates of I’itoi onions, ripe Rio Mayo Sakobari watermelon waiting to be de-seeded. Kost then opens the freezer, which contains the original seeds collected by the founders in the 1980s. He holds the freezer door ajar so I can snap some pictures of the non-descript plastic bins packed with seeds. It’s as though history is seeping out along with the cold.
The seeds so intentionally preserved here in the Seed Bank sit squarely between the past and the future. They offer the potential for rich biodiversity within our region’s farmscapes and the opportunity for communities to sustain themselves with culturally relevant foods. They offer a spectrum of colors, flowers, flavors, shapes, and resiliencies—many of which are slowly becoming lost. Above all, these seeds are tiny manifestations of hope for a changing landscape.
More posts in this Community Spotlight series:
Native Seeds/SEARCH Retail Store provides an entry point for community members to become involved with the seed conservation organization.
A Native Seeds/SEARCH Community Seed Grant is helping City High School’s SLUG project take root.
The volunteers at Native Seeds/SEARCH are key to the organization’s success.