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This Former Electronics Smuggler Is Now a Seed-Saver

Chemical pesticides devastated Matthew Dillon's Nebraska farming family: his father died of a disease Dillon believes was a result of toxic exposure, and Dillon himself never grew again after an endocrine disorder he developed at the age of 12. Today...

by Lauren Rothman
Jan 29 2015, 10:30pm

Matthew Dillon, at left, with a Seed Matters fellow. Photo courtesy of the Clif Bar Family Foundation

Farming pretty much devastated Matthew Dillon and his family: growing up on his father's conventional alfalfa, corn, and soy operation in Nebraska in the early 1970s, Dillon was exposed to a lot of chemicals. His family both sold and used pesticides and fertilizers, and Dillon believes those substances are responsible for the non-Hodgkin's lymphoma that killed his father, and for the serious endocrine disruption that affected Dillon at the age of 12: after falling ill, he never grew again.

So his entry into agriculture was a surprising choice. Dillon went on to become an organic farmer and an advocate for organic plant breeding, and is current head of Seed Matters, a seed preservation and development initiative.

Before setting on that career path, Dillon avoided agriculture for a long time, working a variety of jobs including a brief stint smuggling American electronics into post-Soviet Russia in 1991. Eventually, he was drawn back to what he grew up with. But he wanted to farm differently than his family had, and went organic. The trouble was, Dillon found, that in the 90s it was all but impossible to purchase organic seeds. So even though his practices were organic, the very base of Dillon's work and the genesis of his crops was not. He started to wonder why there weren't any organic seed companies around. His research led him to head up a nonprofit seed-saving operation in Washington State, and later to direct the Organic Seed Alliance, which also seeks to protect heirloom seed as well as develop new varieties for farmers.

The mission of Seed Matters, which is funded by every outdoorsy type's favorite energy bar, Clif, is much the same. There, Dillon works on a variety of projects, all aimed at advancing understanding of the capabilities of organic crops as well as enhancing those capabilities through breeding partnerships with farmers around the country. We spoke with Dillon about the bee die-offs, GMO-rejecting corn, and more.

MUNCHIES: What was your motivation, back when you were farming for a living, to switch over to a focus on seed conservation and development? Matthew Dillon: The first axiom of plant breeding is to breed in the environment of intended use, and organic environments are very different than conventional environments. That's what fascinated me. Given the difference that I know exists between a conventional farm ecology and an organic farm ecology, what's the seed we need for organic? And if no one's doing it, how are we going to get it done? That motivated the heck out of me, because I knew as a farmer that seed is your first line of defense in fighting off pests and diseases, as well as dealing with climatic extremes, with fertility issues, with all that stuff. Plant genetic information is the blueprint for the success of your crops.

The Seed Matters website says that "over the past 50 years, farmer engagement with seed has been significantly reduced." What happened? Historically, farmers were the major seed innovators; farmers were our plant breeders. The seed diversity, the regional adaptability of crops, the flavor, the nutrition that we have today? The majority of that comes from 10,000 years of farmer engagement with plants in the field. Farmers selecting the plants that worked best for them, and doing some very basic plant breeding and crop improvement over the years.

That has changed dramatically over the past 50 years. In the 1960s, the majority of US soybean farmers still saved their own seed—63 percent of them, down to 10 percent today—and even did crop improvements by making selections on those seeds. The same with canola farming in Canada, for example. But patents, and other forms of intellectual property restrictions, have restricted farmers' ability to save seed. More importantly, they've restricted their ability to keep improving seed. That's the why, is that intellectual property laws have changed. They've allowed for a handful of agrochemical and pharmaceutical companies to severely restrict farmers', as well as public researchers', ability to save and improve seed.

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Dillon in a pretty dress, with tractor. (Editor's note: We do not know the context of this photo.) Photo by James Curtis

How much of your work is based on farmer input? At Seed Matters, we want plant breeding to be a participatory process, where the farmers aren't just seen as the end users, but they're actively involved in setting goals of what they want from these crops, and involved even in the process of breeding.

One of the best examples of that is our funding of the sweet corn breeding work of Dr. Bill Tracy at University of Wisconsin. Bill met some organic farmers in Minnesota who were saying that they had a tough time with organic seed because it's not treated with the fungicides and neonicotinoids that conventional farmers coat their seed with. Those allow the seed to fight off a lot of fungal diseases that are common in the early stages of a cool, wet spring. Organic farmers aren't allowed to use that and don't want to use it, because "neonics" are associated with bee die-off. So the farmers said, "We really need a sweet corn that's early-emerging," that grows very fast in the spring, and can 1) outcompete weeds, and 2) isn't so susceptible to diseases in that infant stage of its life.

So that's what Bill did. He worked with the farmer, actually breeding on-farm, and the farmer was involved in selection, in tasting the sweet corn, because he knew what he wanted his corn to taste like—to have a balance of sweetness along with that actual corn-y flavor. It's called "Who Gets Kissed?" sweet corn. And it's out on the marketplace: Certified organic, organically bred, farmer-participation sweet corn.

Very cool. And speaking of these farmer-participation initiatives, can you tell me a little bit more about the corn that's being developed to be able to reject GMO pollen? We have funded two different plant breeders who work on organic corn varieties that would reject pollen from GMO crops, keeping the organic corn pure of genetically engineered traits. The goal there is that the organic marketplace wants organic to stay free of contamination. Consumers want it, companies want it, farmers want it. And it's really hard to do, because corn is an open-pollinated crop, and is more at risk of contamination than crops like soy that are self-pollinated. You can have isolations of great distances, to try to keep you corn pure, but that's pretty tough to do in most areas of America, where there's field following field following field, with very little break in between.

This is a naturally occurring trait that comes from corn's wild ancestor, teosinte. And this trait only allows pollen of its same type to fertilize its flowers. It has this mechanism for chemically determining the pollen that lands on the female flower—is it the same type as me, or not? If it's not, I'm not gonna allow the pollen to fertilize the embryo. This isn't yet a commercial release, but the breeders who are working on it are having a lot of success with it so far.

Why is it important that we save traditional seed varieties? And why is it important that we develop new ones? I'm an adviser to Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack on the National Genetic Resources Advisory Council, which helps set the policies that ensure that our nation's seed banks are viable and healthy, providing farmers of all stripes with the seed that's optimal for them. And working on that council, I just can't underline enough that conserving all this old relatives, and wild species—that's where plant breeders go to get resistance genes for disease, for insects and other pests, and for traits like the ability to resist foreign pollen that we just discussed. So we have to do two things to maintain a healthy seed system: We have to keep innovating and breeding, but we also have to do conservation.

You have a sizable list of corporate partners, including Whole Foods and Organic Valley. Why are these big producers interested in getting involved with what you do? For a long time there have been some mythologies about the organic movement, and they haven't always been healthy or productive myths. One of the myths is that organic farming is farming like Grandpa used to. The other myth is that the thing that defines organic the most is that it's not GMO. And those myths haven't served organic all that well, in my opinion.

Organic is very scientifically based and innovative, and it needs to be even more scientifically based and innovative so we can spread the benefit of organic out to more farmers and more communities. Plant breeding is one of those ways that we're just beginning to innovate in organic, and it holds a lot of potential for improving yields. We've seen yield increases in organic wheat breeding by as much as 31 percent. All these companies like that—improved yields. We know it can improve the nutrition of these crops, it can improve flavor; things that we know consumers care about. More importantly, it's also a way to define ourselves, you know? Organic isn't just "not GMO;" organic seed in particular is about the positive qualities that we can bring to farming and to food. And I think that's really the main driver that gets a lot of companies excited to invest in Seed Matters. It's emblematic for the potential of the organic movement, and it also has real-life benefits both in the field and on the table.

Is there anything about your work that you think is hard for the public to grasp? I think there's a tendency for people to wonder, why are food companies doing this, can't the seed industry do this by itself? Why should we fund it, as individuals or as companies? And I guess I would say that plant breeding is one of the main ways that we invest in the future of our food.

Right now, our investment portfolio is really imbalanced. We're like people who are lucky enough to be able to invest in the stock market, but we're only choosing one or two stocks to put all of our money in, as opposed to creating a diversified portfolio. Organic plant breeding versus biotech plant breeding, in our public sector, is severely underfunded. In a three-year period, biotech research from our public tax dollars was funded at a ratio of 70 to one over organic plant breeding. That's $54.3 million for biotech versus $775,000 for organic. So diversifying our agricultural research portfolio, and getting organic research dollars so that we can show that organic can do everything that biotech wants to do, but actually do it better and without as many chemicals, is really important. It's a solution that we haven't fully explored, but that has incredible potential.

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