Each spring, as we plant our gardens, we are participating in a dynamic living system as stewards. Matthew Dillon of Seed Matters takes a moment to reinforce our role as seed stewards and to remind us that agriculture is “inherently a biological practice, secondarily a cultural practice and lastly technological.”
Douglas Gayeton: What is genetically engineered material and what does genetical engineering in food have to do with seeds?
Matthew Dillon: Genetic engineering is a relatively new technology that uses molecular biology to transfer the DNA across species lines in ways that could never occur amongst plants in nature. One of the famous examples of it, of course, is the Flavr Savr tomato, where fish gene – code gene – was transferred into a tomato. Obviously something that couldn’t occur in nature. It was done in order to get traits that the tomato industry felt the tomato lacked, such as the ability to store for a long period of time on store shelves. In general, genetic engineering differs from classical plant breeding because it could never occur in the field. It could never occur in any type of evolutionary setting. There’s no evolutionary setting imaginable in which a brassica gene has resistance to an herbicide like Roundup – this is evolutionarily impossible.
Douglas Gayeton: It seems to me that if genetic engineering can potentially increase harvests or increase the nutritional benefits of a food, that that would be a good thing.
Matthew Dillon: We have to ask ourselves, are we crossing ethical lines in terms of intrinsic nature of plant species? Are we developing an evolutionary approach to crop development that potentially puts our food systems, our natural ecosystems and other systems at risk? In the case of breeding resistance to herbicides into our crop species, we have to ask what if that gene and that trait gets into wild species, how will that impact invasive movement of species across our food landscape and our natural ecosystems? There’s a whole series of questions. Genetic engineering is a concept in and of itself. I think it’s neither good nor bad – it’s a concept that’s technology should be explored. Its application and release to society needs to be taken with a precautionary principle to make sure that any release is in fact going to bring about benefit and not bring about harm.
Douglas Gayeton: We’ve seen in the last generation for the first time, the actual patenting of plants. What is your stance at Seed Matters on that?
Matthew Dillon: Putting the good or bad of genetic engineering aside, the purpose of patents is to provide innovators or authors of new technologies and new approaches with intellectual property protection for a limited period of time in order to increase innovation. In order to get that patent, you need to have come up with the process or an item that is novel and never done before. Genetically engineering probably passes those things – they’re actually creating something that never existed before. The real concern we have at Seed Matters and, I think, in much of the agricultural movement is around patents that are being given for natural characteristics and natural traits. This slows down innovation, slows down competition amongst seed companies and doesn’t allow for the improvement of public good
Douglas Gayeton: On a local level, how can people strengthen their food security by collecting and distributing seeds?
Matthew Dillon: The work of stewarding the natural resource of seeds is not only the responsibility of private seed companies or of a public land-grant university, plant breeders, geneticists – it’s also a responsibility that we can share as backyard gardeners. There’s an incredible renaissance right now in seed saving that’s taking place and it differs from what seed saving looks like for the last 20 to 30 years in that groups of people are coming together to collaborate on community seed projects. To grow seeds together in dedicated seed gardens and share those seeds through a local seed swap, seed bank, seed library.
We all have an opportunity to add a story of agriculture by our participation in it. We want to get those cultural stories alive around these seed projects – that’s an important component of seed. Seed is life story, it’s this encapsulated information. You have what you can see in this ongoing history of plant-human interaction in an encapsulated form that either sits on a shelf in a back storage room for a generation or it can be revitalized season after season and value added to it. When you work with a generation after generation, you continue to improve it and add value and vitality to the seed.
Matthew Dillon is agricultural policy and programs manager at Clif Bar & Company. He also is director of Seed Matters, an initiative of the Clif Bar Family Foundation to improve organic seed systems.
In his role as agricultural policy and programs manager, Matthew serves as the company’s liaison with state and federal officials on organic policy issues. He also works with leaders in the organic industry, non-governmental organizations and academia. At Seed Matters, Matthew directs an effort to support projects that conserve crop diversity, protect farmers’ roles as seed innovators, and reinvigorate public seed research