Background image of A woman at the farmers' market picks up a copy of the latest issue of Edible Portland magazine


At the Portland Farmers Market: Seed Freedom Summit

Seed Freedom Summit at the Portland Farmers Market

On November 6, Californians will vote on whether to require foods containing Genetically Modified Organisms (GMOs) to be labeled. People around the country are paying close attention to the measure; many believe it will result in GMO labeling across the country. (Historically, when California has enacted product label requirements, companies have changed their labels tout de suite.)

Whether or not genetically engineered seeds should be sold to farmers is not a question posed by Proposition 37; nor is whether foods grown from those seeds—most often as ingredients in processed foods—should be sold to eaters. Rather, Prop. 37 addresses whether citizens should have the right to make individual choices about the contents of what they buy and eat. Whatever the final outcome, Prop. 37 is raising awareness about very complicated issues in the business of food, including all of the inputs that farmers purchase to grow our food supply.

Photo by Carole Topalian
Photo by Carole Topalian

Tomorrow, October 20, the Northwest Food Sovereignty Coalition is hosting a day of celebration called the Seed Freedom Summit, at the Portland Farmers Market.  Although nothing akin to Prop. 37 is currently on Oregon ballots, the Northwest Food Sovereignty Coalition has begun working at the grassroots level in Portland to address issues around who owns seeds; how seeds are propagated, distributed, and saved; and the significance of genetic diversity within our food supply—all issues tightly nested in the national and international conversations around GMOs.

The Summit will begin with music and poetry, followed by a seed saving workshop, then a panel discussion with activists working on the local and global stages, and finally a potluck and seed exchange. All events are free, and everyone is welcome to join in at any point.

One of the coalition’s leaders is Karen Swift. Raised on a farm in California where her family grew subtropical fruits, including passion fruit, feijoa, horned melon, and diverse vegetables, Swift became active in California as a founder of the Biosafety Alliance, a coalition working to bring many people to the table to talk about GMOs. The Alliance’s work dovetailed into the campaign launched by Pamm Larry, a grandmother from Chico, that eventually fed into Prop. 37.

Swift has since moved to Portland to study law at Lewis & Clark, and has taken her passion for food activism with her. In the spring, Swift and the Biosafety Alliance hosted Indian seed freedom advocate Dr. Vandana Shiva in a conversation at Ecotrust.

On International Food Day, October 16, Edible Portland sat down with Swift to learn more about the seed freedom movement and her vision for a new economy.

Q.When you began the Biosafety Alliance in California, your focus was not on legislation, but on coalition building and grassroots activism. You’re taking that same approach here. Why not focus on legislation?

A.We support Prop. 37; we simultaneously need to find other means to grow movements addressing GMOs. I think we really need to focus on localization, supporting local seed growers, bringing back cultural traditions around food, bringing back diversity and alternative varieties.

We’re going to have a seed saving workshop on Saturday. A lot of that knowledge [around how to save seed] has been eroded globally. In the U.S., the erosion of [seed-saving] knowledge has also brought about the erosion of varieties. We need a network of seed savers and more reclamation of varieties.

I also see a need for more lawyers to work around transactional legal matters – financing farmer cooperatives and entities that support the local economy. It’s very difficult for small farmers to access capital.

Q.How would Prop. 37 passing change the conversation around GMOs?

A.I think it will be interesting to see if there is a big consumer push back. Biotech industry leaders have said labeling GMOs is akin to stopping GMOs because they know people don’t want to buy it. So maybe there will be.

I think patents on seeds are a huge issue. The idea that you can patent seeds is strange. I think debunking the underlying justifications is really important. Until 1924 the USDA was handing out seeds you could plant. And then in 1924 the privatization of the seed supply began as another way to make money… The Plant Variety Protection Act was passed in 1970 specifically not to allow for patents on seeds. They were going to allow for a protection on seeds – you have 20 years to market your specifically bred variety and get some kind of market favoritism. In 1985, the Patent and Trademark Office suddenly decided that seeds were patentable. Then in 2002, the Supreme Court legitimized that decision. There is a lot to be challenged. We haven’t legitimized this system that promotes monoculture rather than diversification, but we will every time we remain silent.

Q.The seed freedom movement is global in scale, inspired by people like Dr. Vandana Shiva. How do you see local efforts impacting what’s happening around the world?

A.It’s a challenging question: How do we really stand in solidarity with people internationally? I think awareness-raising and getting people to learn about what’s going on globally [is significant]. At the local level, we can create new economic models that don’t depend on the corporate system, which needs people to sustain it. We can support an alternative that actually helps make obsolete the system that we have exported.

When I first moved [to Portland], my frustration was that a lot of people are living an alternative lifestyle, but they seem very apolitical. They are stepping outside, growing their own food – and that is a political act. But they are not getting involved in the political processes. I think people need to stand in both worlds. There’s amazing potential for change in small pockets – that’s where change comes from.