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The seeds of food security.

Diners perusing the menu at the elegant Kai Restaurant encounter a perplexing item: "Pecan-crusted Lamb Rack with Native Seeds SEARCH Mole." But given the restaurant's setting in the Sheraton Wild Horse Pass Resort, on the Gila River Indian Reservation in southern Arizona, the description makes perfect sense.

Native Seeds/SEARCH (Southwest Endangered Arid Lands Resources Clearinghouse) is a nonprofit organization dedicated to saving the traditional crops grown in northwestern Mexico and the southwestern United States. Beyond its agricultural focus, Native Seeds nurtures the cultural bonds that connect people with their crops. "Think of the importance of cornmeal in the Hopi naming ceremony," says Julie Kornmeyer, manager of the retail store operated by Native Seeds. "As seeds are lost, there's a loss of culture."

Today, more that twenty years after its founding, Native Seeds maintains two thousand varieties of seeds that are adapted to growing in arid lands--about half from northern Mexico, half front Arizona and New Mexico. Some 350 varieties are offered to the public for a modest cost and distributed free to Native Americans. Most are indigenous crops that developed over centuries, like varieties of the "three sisters"--corn, beans, and squash traditionally grown by local tribes. But others, says director of conservation Suzanne Nelson, came later with Spanish explorers, missionaries, and Mormon settlers. "Most of them brought their favorite crops," she says, some of which were adopted by native groups.

At the Seed Bank itself, volunteers carefully sort and cleat seeds. "This is where all the seeds come in from the fields," says Nelson. "We process them here and assign an accession number. It's like a library card system," she explains, displaying sealed plastic bags filed by unique accession numbers. The seeds are stored in freezers-preferably for no longer than ten years. "Seeds are really dependent on some body growing them," says Nelson. Since 1997 Native Seeds has "grown out" the seeds on its own sixty-acre farm in Patagonia, Arizona.

Nor are these projects merely a nostalgic exercise. When a blight attacked commercial sunflowers in Australia, growers turned to a seed collected by Native Seeds/SEARCH from the Grand Canyon Havasupai--the only variety with a genetic resistance to the disease. Given the predominance of mono-cultures in modern agribusiness, it may be that global food security will depend on groups like Native Seeds maintaining genetic diversity.

Archaeologists trace the beginnings of agriculture in this region to about 300 B.C. Native farmers helped provision explorers, settlers, and hordes of forty-niners bound for the gold fields of California; their ancestors dug irrigation canals that are still visible in parts of the desert. But when new farmlands in eastern Arizona demanded irrigation, the Gila River began to dry up, with the final blow the damming of the river in 1928. A decades-long effort to reclaim native water rights has finally yielded a successful settlement.

But during that loin struggle, farming traditions were lost. Native Americans turned to a diet of processed foods that is now blamed for a high incidence of diabetes. Native Seeds meets these problems head-on, both by promoting traditional foods that help combat diabetes and by partnering with a school on the reservation to teach agricultural methods to schoolchildren.

The children deliver their produce to Chef Sandy Garcia at Restaurant Kai (which means "seed" in the local Pima language). Here's a personal recommendation from the tantalizing menu: "Lettuces Hand Picked by the Children of Gila Crossing School," followed by those savory lamb chops accompanied by the dark and delectable sauce, "Native Seeds SEARCH Mole."
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Title Annotation:Southwest Endangered Arid Lands Resources Clearinghouse
Author:Wyels, Joyce Gregory
Publication:Americas (English Edition)
Geographic Code:1MEX
Date:May 1, 2006
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