Calling all locavores: It’s celebration time! Gary Nabhan has come home.
This longtime mover and shaker on the American heritage foods scene — and author of “Coming Home to Eat” — recently left his post as director of the Center for Sustainable Environments in Flagstaff for a research social scientist position at University of Arizona’s Southwest Center.
High on the UA alumnus’ project list is Sabores Sin Fronteras, a new bi-national alliance to document, celebrate and conserve farming and food folk traditions along the U.S. and Mexico borderlands from California to Texas.
The name, in Spanish, translates as “flavors without borders.”
These days, Nabhan is also busy speaking about his new book, “Where Our Food Comes From,” which documents the travels of Nikolay Vavilov — a botanist who, in the early 1900s, covered five continents collecting thousands of seeds, driven by a desire to protect the world from widespread hunger.
Vavilov believed that the Southwest held the last vestiges of ancient agricultural traditions north of Mexico, and indeed, our region of the United States is the one where the greatest plant diversity has been documented.
Nabhan has devoted his career to protecting this plant diversity by founding organizations such as Native Seeds SEARCH and the national Renewing America’s Food Traditions collaborative, and by writing books on the topic that have been translated into five languages.
I was excited to speak with him at the Southwest Center recently about citizens’ roles in supporting local agriculture.
So somebody asked me the other day, “Where is all this food diversity in the Southwest? I don’t see it.”
OK, that’s a great point. Well, if you drive, say, between here and Monument Valley in the Four Corners region, you may not be aware that you’re in a food-producing landscape at all, because you see the pecan orchards along the highway, but we don’t see the place in Gila Bend where they’re growing shrimp. We don’t see the black sphinx dates in Phoenix, because they’re out by Camelback Mountain, hidden in a neighborhood. We don’t see the Navajo-churro sheep or the corriente cattle that have been in the Southwest for 300 years, although they’re out in that landscape. And of the dozens of kinds of corn that have been historically grown in the Southwest, people may only see blue corn in their grocery store. So we’re aware at some level that we have distinctive foods like prickly pear fruit that’s cultivated and blue corn that gets into our corn chips. But I don’t think people understand that dozens and dozens of other foods like that are hidden in the neighborhoods of Hispanic communities and on the reservations. If you go to the Baja Arizona Sustainable Agriculture Web site or down to the Native Seeds SEARCH store on Fourth Avenue, you can see this.
In your new book, you mentioned that the United Nations Food and Agricultural Organization estimates that the world has lost about three quarters of its biodiversity of crops over the past century. How did that happen?
Food diversity is something that is typically found on small farms. And as farming has gotten industrialized, we’ve seen the average size of farms in Arizona go from maybe 20 to 100 acres a century ago to well over a thousand acres. Modern plant breeders have selected crops to have the same ripening times so all the beans, for example, come out at the same time and there can be a single harvest. Also, they are selected to be foods that ship very well. So things like the black sphinx date in the middle of Phoenix or some of the olives within a few blocks from here that don’t meet those criteria are perfectly delicious, nutritious foods, but they fall out of fashion because processors and shippers don’t want them.
Should we be scared about all this loss?
I think we may be facing a food system collapse comparable in scale to the economic collapse we saw in the mortgage and investment industry. We now know that we will never pump as much fossil fuel and ground water out of the ground as we have in the last 80 years. We’ve fueled the growth of Arizona by pumping ground water to grow the crops here and shipping many crops in from 2,500 miles or more, and now we know that 46 percent of our entire ecological footprint for America is the cost of growing and transporting our food.
But I would say that looking back, we have to realize that food shortages are caused by political and economic triggers, more even than by drought, so if we go the right way politically and economically in investing in our food system, I think we’ll be OK. And what I’m proposing is that Pima County create an office for our foodshed just like we have an office of water planning. We all understand that we have to take care of our watersheds here. We need to do the same thing for our foodshed.
You have said food diversity is key in preventing large-scale food shortages. Why?
Well, it’s the basic idea of not putting all our eggs in one basket, which is a bad hedging strategy against unpredictable climates, unpredictable economic problems and other kinds of changes in our society. If we plant one kind of genetically engineered corn on 20 million acres of American soil, it’s likely that some pest will figure out a way to attack that target, because the target is so big. If we have 200 kinds of corn out there, it’s likely that some of those are going to have resistance to pests and diseases and droughts. One of my best friends has a poster that says food security is our homeland security. I would say food diversity is our food security.
What are we doing locally to protect our region’s food diversity?
At a local level, we have remarkable organizations like Native Seeds SEARCH and Desert Harvesters, which Brad Lancaster is part of. There’s Amy Schwemm’s Mano Y Metate, and we have the Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance, which is promoting place-based heritage foods between Marana and Nogales, including Tucson. And we have community food banks, farmers markets, and a gleaning project that is using some of the novel foods in our area. Also, there’s the San Xavier Co-op down at the San Xavier Reservation, and TOCA — Tohono O’odham Community Action — is also involved in diversifying diets and food security. So I would say that for the last 25 years, Tucson has been one of the national leaders in promoting seed diversity and food diversity. From the very start of Native Seeds SEARCH, when it was based in Tucson Botanical Gardens, we had one of the first conferences on this topic — Seed Banks Serving People — in about 1982.
How much of a treasure is our store of heirloom seeds?
Well, I was interested in this food geographer, Vavilov, in part because he came to Arizona in 1932 during the height of the Dust Bowl in the Great Depression, in times very similar, in ways, to what we’re facing today. And he saw that the Hopi and Navajo and O’odham peoples of the desert, even on low rainfall, were still almost food self-sufficient, despite the drought and economic downturn, because people still had the skills to grow foods in desert settings. They were less vulnerable than people in the Midwest. So the message is that there’s something very special about our heritage crops that are adaptable to the desert and can take us through hard times if we conserve and utilize them.
You use the term “food democracy” in your new book. Could you explain what it means to be a food democracy?
Well, I think we just had a beautiful example of democracy working in our country with the elections. Whether you were for Obama or for McCain, just the sheer number of people who came out to participate in our country’s destiny was really important. And I think McCain was as eloquent as Obama was about what a significant election this was because people fully participated. We have to participate in the destiny of our food system the same way. We’ve gone from 40 percent of people in America identifying themselves as farmers and ranchers to less than one and a half percent in the last century. And now farmers make about five cents on every dollar that consumers buy, rather than 60 cents per dollar that they made a century ago. This means they have less slack to take care of their farms in terms of being good environmental stewards. We need to get consumers, as well as farmers, involved again in making choices about a healthier food system in which all of us are participants.