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Earth Notes

Earth Notes - Traditional Crops

Hopi corn field

Flagstaff, AZ – Earth Notes: Traditional Crops

Some of the Colorado Plateau's longest-established farmers, members of the Hopi and Pueblo tribes, have been cultivating food here for millennia. But they're worrying for their crops, especially their corn, in the face of a very recent threat: genetically modified organisms.

Corn is always at risk of hybridizing, because its pollen is carried on the wind. Knowledgeable farmers use caution to keep their sweet corn sweet and their blue corn blue. They may plant different varieties at different times, or alternate rows of corn with tall, sticky plants like sunflowers or sorghum that trap airborne pollen grains. If a cross does occur, it may take a few generations to get rid of the introduced traits like pale kernels popping up on blue corn ears.

But today some commercial crop varieties have been genetically modified to harbor genes, from organisms unrelated to corn, that change attributes like growth patterns and disease resistance. So Native farmers worry for the integrity of their traditional crops. They fear not only the loss of history, but also future food security, because traditional seeds are well adapted to the local climate.

Clayton Brascoupe (Brah-coop-AY), with the New Mexico-based Traditional Native American Farmers Association, has been leading workshops to encourage neighbors to exchange traditional seeds and save them in seed libraries, or seed banks, in case field crops become contaminated.

Both libraries and banks are lending institutions, but he thinks libraries are a better analogy because they contain both wealth and knowledge.

-Anne Minard