Seeds of the Future 

Bioneers' work brings together environmental innovators to restore the Earth

We have lived by the assumption that what was good for us would be good for the world. We have been wrong. We must change our lives, so that it will be possible to live by the contrary assumption that what is good for the world will be good for us. And that requires that we make the effort to know the world and to learn what is good for it.
-- Wendell Berry,
Recollected Essays

When Kenny Ausubel, founder of the Santa Fe-based Bioneers, talks about the future, he's optimistic in spite of all he knows about the environmental degradation of the Earth.

"Being immersed as I am in this world of solutions," said Ausubel in a recent interview, "it's not hard to be an optimist."

An author, filmmaker and social entrepreneur specializing in health and the environment, Ausubel traveled to San Juan Pueblo in New Mexico in 1984, ostensibly to make a film. But when he arrived, as he peered through the camera, he was struck by a handful of bright red corn in the hands of a Native American farmer.

The seeds, remembered by a few elders of the pueblo as sacred red corn, had been kept in a clay pot in the wall of the man's adobe home and had not been grown in 40 years.

"In these seeds," said Ausubel, in an article published in the September 1998 Yoga Journal, "lived not only the genetic legacy of countless generations of Pueblo farmers, but also the imprint of their hands. I thought I was at San Juan Pueblo to make a film, but it turned out I was there to start a seed company. I went on to found Seeds of Change, a company devoted to working with backyard gardeners to market -- and so conserve -- the world's ark of ancient seeds."

With his business partner, organic gardener Gabriel Howarth, Ausubel started Seeds of Change in 1989 and a year later, with his wife Nina Simons, started the Bioneers conference, a forum for like-minded biological pioneers to exchange ideas and to network. (Ausubel broke away from Seeds of Change in 1994, citing a "difference of vision" just before the company was acquired by M&M Mars.)

That first year, some 200 people attended the conference in a hotel ballroom in Santa Fe. In October of 2000, in Marin County, Calif., the conference was attended by 2,700 teachers, scientists, entrepreneurs, activists, farmers, business owners, journalists and interested observers.

To hear Ausubel tell it, the evolution of the Bioneers has been a natural outgrowth of the constant spawning and exchange of innovative ideas and environmental vision. And as the Bioneers conference has grown, so has the organization's range of interest expanded. Themes addressed by the Bioneers, in addition to organic food, farming and seeds, now run the gamut from green entrepreneurship to natural design to alternative medicine to environmental education -- all related parts of a holistic approach to restoring the Earth.

"After starting the Bioneers conference in 1990," said Ausubel, "I had begun to meet all these people, one by one, who seemed to have real practical solutions to the kinds of problems I was concerned with.

"The purpose of the organization and the conference then became to bring together these innovators and to focus on environmental solutions."

The food we eat

Joel Salatin, a presenter at this year's conference, is a Virginia farmer who has developed a rotational grazing system that produces healthy herds of organic beef while building as much as an inch of topsoil a year. Ausubel sees Salatin's work and the work of other visionary agriculturalists as just one sign of progress -- pointing to the inevitability of change in farming techniques and, ultimately, in improving the food supply of the planet.

"Joel has a six-month waiting list for his organic beef," said Ausubel. "A couple months ago he was named Hero of the Week on an ABC News broadcast. He's one of the innovators who has shown that organic farming is not only ecologically sound but, at the same time, economically robust. Some people drive as far as 200 miles to get the food he produces."

A healthy food supply has become one of Ausubel's central focuses in recent years as he has researched the link between the environment, the food we eat and threats to public health. Much of his personal attention has been focused on the proliferation of cancer, especially in the industrialized world.

"Cancer is now epidemic in this country," he said. "And research shows that 70 to 90 percent of all cancers are directly environmentally related."

Ausubel believes that a growing focus on public health and environmental issues will ultimately determine the shape of the future -- economically, ecologically, spiritually, publicly and personally.

"Our whole food system is coming into focus," he said. "I think in the next 10 years the world is going to become almost unrecognizable and that change will be driven by public health issues. We can no longer ignore that the environment and our bodies are inseparable; we're one and the same thing."

Change is incremental and, naturally, will be slow coming. But far more is happening, says Ausubel, than we may be aware of if we pay attention only to the news presented by the mainstream media where there is a "cognitive dissonance" between what's really happening in public health and agriculture, and the general perception.

"There's lots more grass roots work going on than we tend to get told," he said. The innovators, he insists, are making significant progress. "Organic foods are growing by 20 percent a year," he said, "while other food industries are working hard to grow 1 percent a year. The question becomes how do we promote organic farming and food production to meet the increasing demand for healthy food?"

The Bioneers take on the evils of globalization

One of the most rousing sessions of the 2000 Bioneers conference was a panel of speakers addressing "Globalization, Corporations and the Environment." In a packed auditorium, the focus came down to the essential element of the world's food supply -- the seed -- illuminating perfectly the Bioneers multifaceted, networking appoach and demonstrating their commitment to complex social and environmental issues.

Co-sponsored by the International Forum on Globalization, the session was hosted by Jerry Mander, IGF president and author of The Case Against the Global Economy and In the Absence of the Sacred. Mander and his co-panelists, including Body Shop CEO Anita Roddick, forged head-on into a heated critique of the new corporate world order and its "antidemocratic institutions, the World Bank, the World Trade Organization and the International Monetary Fund," decrying the transnationals' attempts to control local and regional food production in the Third World.

But the discussion was most poignantly driven home by Food First's Anuradha Mittal, a tireless activist currently organizing People's Caravan: Citizens on the Move for Land and Food without Poisons, a series of food festivals and organizing meetings across Bangladesh, India and the Philippines.

A native of India, Mittal condemned mainstream media coverage of "free trade as panacea," passionately explaining how, though it was reported that the United States had recently sent $4.15 million for food aid to Orissa in East India, in fact U.S. corporations had dumped tons of genetically engineered seeds on India during this initiative, threatening to wipe out a thousands-of-years-old culture of biological diversity and sound agricultural practices.

"The food security of the Third World is being stolen by the IMF and the World Bank," said Mittal. "They are stealing people's ability to feed themselves."

Much was said about the efforts of multinational corporations to dominate the world's seed market, profiting exhorbitantly, while falsely advertising their intent to feed the poor.

Natural capitalism and the future of the earth

Ausubel sees these issues and many diverse others -- creating living systems modeled on nature to turn septic waste into food for fish and plants; building factories that produce their own power by recycling waste -- all as part of a collective consciousness which will inevitably change how we live and how we do business in the post-industrial world.

He is a strong proponent of the recent collaborative work of businessman Paul Hawken and Rocky Mountain Institute researchers Amory and Hunter Lovins, embracing the notion of "natural capitalism."

Their book, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, is being heralded as the first substantial exploration of opportunities for businesses to profit and prosper in an era of known environmental limits. The authors posit a new industrial revolution in which "business and environmental interests increasingly overlap" and in which "businesses can better satisfy their customers' needs, increase profits, and help solve environmental problems all at the same time."

Ausubel points out that 75 percent of the American people now indicate that they are "very committed to the environment and to restoration" and that most are willing to put their money where their concerns are.

"There has clearly been a system set up a certain way that we now know is highly toxic, is unsustainable, and there is also a resistance to alternative approaches," he said. "But in my view there are many things changing right now. There is a growing view that both here and abroad, the environment is going to dominate our attention in the future.

"The work that Hawken and Hunter and Amory Lovins are doing is working with corporations, showing them that they can profit from picking up environmentally sound, restorative technologies. I'm convinced we'll see more and more of large corporations changing their practices not just because it's ecologically correct, but because it's economically smart as well."

Preserving the family farm

As conference attendees hustled back and forth from seminars on "Re-Wilding North America" to "Antibiotic Herbs," a buzz developed over the three days about the Bioneers' recent agricultural project supporting efforts of black farmers in the Southeastern United States through the Federation of Southern Cooperatives.

Finally, on Sunday, the main auditorium was treated to a rousing accounting by Selma, Ala., attorney J.L. Chestnut of his successful litigation against the U.S. Department of Agriculture on behalf of black farmers who had systematically lost their lands and their livelihood over most of the last century.

That afternoon, in a quiet corner of the conference center, a group of 20 or so attendees listened as Mississippi farmers Ben Burkett and Virgil Smith talked about the challenges of sustaining their family farms, and their hopes for developing "value-added" agricultural practices with the assistance of the Bioneers economic development arm, the Restorative Development Institute.

Burkett, director of the Misissippi Association of Cooperatives and manager of the Indian Springs Farming Coop, shook his head and laughed at the idea of being at a conference on farming in California when California mega-farms, shipping their vegetables to Kroger's in Nashville, are a constant threat to his livelihood.

Burkett characterized himself as a typical black Mississippi farmer, routinely denied loans and emergency assistance from the state throughout the tenure of three Mississippi governors. Making a living off the land, he pointed out, continued to be a struggle in spite of progress made by Chestnut and others.

But he echoed the Bioneers' approach to agriculture, honoring the abundance of the earth and the importance of a healthy, diverse food supply. "If you take care of a piece of land, it'll take care of you," he said. "You might not get rich, have the biggest house, but you'll always have something good to eat."

Ausubel sees the Bioneers' work in Mississippi and across the rural South as a way to link family farmers to more profitable markets and to agricultural practices that will ultimately prove to be sustainable.

"It's a situation," he said, "of how do farmers stay on the land and make a living? It's a real issue." A few years back, the Bioneers launched an initiative to reintroduce the traditional white corn of Iroquois farmers in upstate New York, enlisting chefs across the country to incorporate recipes for Iroquois white corn into their menus and to create an ongoing demand for the product.

Working with family farmers in the rural South, the Bioneers hope to stop the dramatic decline in the black farming population. In the 1920s there were about a million black farmers across the Southern states, most of whom had kept their land since the end of the Civil War. Now there are barely 18,000 black family farmers in the region, and, as Ausubel points out, fewer than 175 of them are under the age of 60.

"This rich cultural commitment to the land will be extinct in a generation if something doesn't change," he said.

"We've helped to initiate a linkage with a national medicinal herb company -- the Eclectic Institute out of Oregon. Ed Alstat, the CEO there, has made a long-term commitment to this project. The herb company went down there and told the farmers what kind of herbs they need, and now [those who participate] will learn organic growing practices that meet [the company's] standards.

"Anita Roddick of The Body Shop is going down there in January to see if her company can use their products."

The point, says Ausubel, is not to go down South and tell these farmers how to farm, but to introduce them to new markets, to offer information and support and, hopefully, to get the youth interested in staying on the farm.

"Without them, there's no future," he said. "We want to help create a positive role model of economic viability. Kids have to know they can make a living -- a good living -- in order to stay."

At the conference, Smith echoed Ausubel's concern. "Most young black Americans don't want to be farmers," he said. "They are scared to fail. There is a legacy of shame, poverty and failure to overcome."

The next generation

Teaching kids the value of growing their own food, and educating them about what they can do to directly affect the restoration of the environment is an important, ongoing part of the Bioneers' work. In Berkeley, the Center for Ecoliteracy has developed an environmental curriculum to be used in California public schools. And a popular experimental program called The Edible Schoolyard partners famed Berkeley chef Alice Waters with school teachers and children, developing gardens on school grounds which produce healthy, organically grown vegetables that, in turn, are served in the school lunch program.

"They have found," said Ausubel, that once children are exposed to nature, particularly with the growth of food, their behavior changes dramatically."

Giving hope to kids about what they can do to contribute to the healthy future of the Earth, and to adults who have become fatalistic over what they see as looming environmental disaster is essential to the Bioneers' mission, said Ausubel.

He points to the public radio series produced last year by Michael and Justine Toms of New Dimensions Radio, The Bioneers: Revolution from the Heart of Nature, as an example of the organization's focus on getting the word out about their work.

"Part of the solution is telling these stories," he said, "giving them more exposure.

"We get hundreds of calls every time one of these radio shows airs, from people who say they have been hiding out, living in fear and despair over what they see and hear every day about the environment. They are thrilled to know that this work is going on and they want to get involved."

It's a large gap to bridge -- between fatalism and hope, between the ongoing devastation of the planet under the current industrial model and innovative technologies and ecologically sound agricultural and business practices which could determine the shape of the future.

Does there have to be a cataclysmic disaster before we all wake up to what's happening and change our lives accordingly?

"That's a perception issue," said Ausubel. "If you know enough, things are already disastrous. But that's a kind of numbing scenario. What are you going to do with that?

"This is not New Age nonsense we're talking about but real solutions to real problems." p

Resources/ what you can do

To learn more about the Bioneers and their many activities, visit: www.bioneers.org; or write them c/o The Collective Heritage Institute, 901 W. San Mateo Road, Suite L, Santa Fe, NM 87505.

To learn more about natural capitalism and to read excerpts from the book, Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution, visit: www.naturalcapitalism.org.

For a catalogue and instruction on saving seeds and supporting plant diversity, contact Seed Savers Exchange, 3076 North Winn Rd., Decorah, IA 52101; 319/382-5990.

For more information on the activities of Food First, contact: Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, 398 60th Street, Oakland, CA 94618; by phone, 510/654-4400; by fax, 510/654-4551; or visit: www.foodfirst.org

To learn more about education initiatives for school age children, contact The Center for Ecoliteracy, 2522 San Pablo Ave., Berkeley, CA 94702; e-mail them at: info@ecoliteracy.org; or visit them at www.ecoliteracy.org


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