Nature and Environment

Because at 160,000 years, the party is just getting started.

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Twin Vee

Whether you live or travel on the coast, next to a lake or along a river, we often find ourselves setting foot on a boat. For many fishing enthusiasts, a boat is as necessary as the bait and tackle. The same is true for aquatic adventure seekers, whether diving or snorkeling. For me, there’s nothing more enthralling than gliding over the waters in a sailboat, spinnaker raised.

On a recent trip into the Miami area when working on a three-part ecotourism blog, I had a chance to attend the Miami International Boat Show, to learn about some of the ways the boating industry is greening itself, from new all-electric touring boats to propane-powered engines. While numerous issues remain related to fuel use and construction materials for what most people view as luxury items, the fact remains that many of us do, in fact, like to get out on the water. And sometimes a kayak, canoe or surfboard won’t do the trick. According to the National Marine Manufacturers Association, 88 million Americans participated in boating in 2012, with 12.1 million boats registered in the US.

So, when self-propelled boats or boards are not an option, here are few of the boating choices and technologies along the continuum of sustainability.

Solar-Powered Touring Boat

There’s no noise and no pollution with the 22-foot Tamarack Lake Electric Boat Company’s Loon, a pontoon cruising boat that’s propelled by a 4 kW motor drawing juice from an on-board battery bank. Accommodating up to 10 passengers, the roof canopy sports a .7 kW PV array. As the world’s first solar assisted pontoon boat, it’s ideal for boaters who like to troll inland waterways, lakes and calmer waters. It’s for those who don’t want to have the equivalent of “two sticks of dynamite” on board, as Tamarack Lake President Monte Gisborne likes to say, referring to the engine and fuel on most boats.

Twin Vee Catamarans

If you have a need for speed and getting out on the open waters of an ocean, the Twin Vee twin engine catamarans are among the most fuel-efficient options. Because the boat hydrofoils, the Twin Vees use about half the fuel of any other boat in size and price range, says to Roger Dunshee during our test ride. The catamaran design reduces drag in the water, making it more efficient that other boats. This durable and highly stable boat is well suited to the open waters, whether to hook your fish dinner, dive to spearfish the exotic and problematic Lionfish that are decimating reef fish populations, or go on a snorkeling expedition.

Sail Away on Sailboats

How can you go wrong when the wind is doing all the work to propel your watercraft? While most sailboats come with a gas-powered engine to get you out of the harbor or around tricky situations (like windless days), a sail boat can be both a majestic and fossil-fuel-free way of getting around out at sea. If course, if you have the financial means, you can go all out in a 65-foot Beneteau sailboat, with optional PV or wind turbine systems to power all on-board appliances. However, there are plentiful options for sailboats that can satisfy nearly every budget, though some may take some major DIY work to get seaworthy.

Propane Outboard Motors

“It’s priced like gas and has zero evaporated emissions,” says Captain Bernardo Herzer, CEO and Founder of Lehr, a company that makes reliable and less ecologically-damaging 5 horsepower to 15 horsepower propane outdoor motors. Propane is an approved alternative fuel in both the Clean Air Act of 1990 and National Energy Policy Act of 1992. He’s quick to point out that unlike gasoline, propane never goes bad and the propane engines are up to fifty times cleaner than gas. The propane engines also sidestep one of the biggest problems with the boating industry: fuel issues related to the engine. A boon for wildlife, propane eliminates the possibility of the highly toxic gas being spilled in the water. The company expanded into the boating industry after their successful start in propane-powered lawn and garden products.

Want to check out your boating options first hand, the International Miami Boat Show is held every February.

Photo: Courtesy of Twin Vee

John D. Ivanko, with his wife Lisa Kivirist, have co-authored Rural Renaissance, Homemade for Sale, the award-winning ECOpreneuring and Farmstead Chef along with operating Inn Serendipity B&B and Farm, completely powered by the wind and sun. Both are regular speakers at the Mother Earth News Fairs. As a writer and photographer, Ivanko contributes to MOTHER EARTH NEWS, most recently, 9 Strategies for Self-Sufficient Living. They live on a farm in southwestern Wisconsin with their son Liam, millions of ladybugs and a 10 kW Bergey wind turbine.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


 mud ruts

There is nothing more magnificent than a walk through a forest untouched by chainsaws. Conversely, there is not much worse than trekking the fresh remains of a timber where loggers disrespected a property and left it in a torrent mess. However, depending on a landowner’s end-game, logging can be very beneficial if it’s done right.

Knowledgeable farmer-landowners consider timber a marketable crop no different than their grain fields; they benefit greatly from its cyclical income as well as the cover treetops provide for upland game. Unfortunately, many timber owners, especially those of absentee-owner status, become the prey of unscrupulous loggers.

Fly-by-night outfits routinely go door to door with offers sworn to be “top dollar.” Even many long-established buyer/loggers have been known to talk landowners into “high-grading.” This is the total harvest of all large, valuable trees with no regard for the future regeneration of the forest. The timbered landscapes of many clueless, trusting property owners have literally been raped and ruined by deceptive loggers.

Considering the continental distribution of this magazine, it would be impossible to address the diverse TSI possibilities which would benefit individual landowners and their efforts with quality woodland and wildlife management. Therefore, it is this blog’s goal to present some thought-provoking advice for helping landowners be more conscientious guardians of their forested lands. Whether you own 5 acres of timber or 5000, whether you own a white pine forest or low ground covered in softwoods, and regardless of where your property is within the MOTHER EARTH NEWS outreach, your pocketbook and wildlife can benefit greatly by the enhancements of a well-managed forest.


How to Develop a  Sustainable Forest Management Plan

Don’t rush into a timber plan. First, ask for the guidance of a regional wildlife biologist before contacting a forester. This is a free service provided by state and federal natural resources agencies and agricultural extension bureaus. These conservation advisers are in high demand, so do not expect an immediate on-the-scene response. Call and set up an appointment and patiently wait your turn.

List your top three property goals by priority and send them with an aerial photo of the timbered tract to the wildlife biologist before your first meeting. Example goals:

1. Create better deer bedding without affecting the property’s turkey and quail numbers.

2. Generate an ongoing income.

3. Enhance my family’s recreational value with trails. An experienced wildlife professional will thoroughly walk the property and make verbal suggestions followed up with a written blueprint.

Write down timber and wildlife management questions relevant to your property before the face-to-face meeting with the biologist. For instance:

1. What can I do to increase the number of deer on my property?

2. Would more nut-bearing trees be beneficial for future income?

3. What can be done to create a more diverse habitat for birds within my forested acres? The only dumb question is one that is not asked.

After you have gotten the advice of a wildlife biologist, it’s then time to enlist the advice of a forester. After picking the brains of the biologist, you will not be prone to ask the forester questions about wildlife. This would be similar to questioning a heart surgeon about dentistry. Avoid pitting one professional against the other with he-said, she-said second-guessing games. Rather, settle on your wildlife priorities first and then outline them to the forester.

Enlist the help of a professional forester. The best advice that can be given to any timber owner is to enlist a professional forester to assist with a long-term strategy for their property. Without the counsel of an experienced arborist, most landowners fail miserably at all aspects of log sales and timber stand improvement (TSI). Candidly, forest management is a craps-shoot without a specialist’s knowledge about regeneration, tree diseases, soil types, growth rates, log values, board-footage estimates, invasive plants, and understory potential. 

Some state and federal agencies offer the complimentary services of a forester. The extent of their assistance differs from state to state and even district to district within a state. The degree of forestry counsel by any state or federal agency usually depends on the manpower available during any given year. These agencies may offer free timber assessment and planning only, or provide the full-meal-deal of consulting, marking of trees, acquiring sealed bids, and overseeing the cutting.

The following true story will further emphasize the difference between trusting a buyer/logger and hiring a professional forester. In 1997, a retired engineer received an unsolicited offer of $70,000 from a local timber buyer for the harvest of logs from his 200-acre forest. Suspicious that the bid might be low, the engineer hired a timber management consulting firm to selectively mark his timber. 40 percent fewer trees were cut, which greatly preserved the land's aesthetic and regenerative value. The consultant requested competitive, sealed bids for a lump-sum offering of the timber. The engineer received a check for $249,000, or $179,000 more than originally offered by the shyster.

Even as I write, landowners are accepting rock-bottom offers from timber-exploiters rather than taking the time to approach timber management as a serious business, one that can put thousands of extra dollars in their pockets. The elderly, absentee landowners and new property owners are usually the ones targeted in log-buying scams. And all too often the buyer hires an independent cutter/hauler and offers the seller more money if they can wait until after the log sale. These scam-artists have been known to fall of the radar post-sale, leaving the seller with no payment and a devastated forest.

State and U.S. natural resources conservation services budgets and manpower have been lackluster over the last decade. Therefore, if you own 100 acres of timber or more, it is advisable to forego free assistance and hire a private forester. This often saves time and the frustration of dealing with an overburdened agency. Governmental programs sometimes have matching funds and grants available for landowners who hire private foresters, so be sure to check.

Private Forest Consultants

A list of your state’s private forest consultants can easily be obtained by Googling “(state) Foresters.” Consultants offer services that range from one-day timber assessment to writing and overseeing a full-blown TSI plans. One-day assessments are usually done on a per-hour or per-acre basis, and the charge for writing and overseeing a complete TSI plan depends on whether there is log sales involved.

Initially, a forestry consultant will establish the exact boundaries of the property and inspects it to determine the forest’s composition, present and future log value, and overall condition. After presenting a verbal assessment to the property owner, the consultant will assist the landowner with long-term TSI goals. The finalized, written plan may include any combination of the following: an immediate marking and sale of mature trees; the marking and systematic thinning of unwanted, diseased or crowded trees; a clear-cut of defined areas followed by replanting of more desirable trees; an understory burn-off; a spot-specific chemical kill-off of an undesirable understory or invasive species; and pruning of trees to increase their future value.

If the owner elects to sell mature timber, a consultant will request multiple bids from buyers. The consultant then matches the high bid against his estimated board-footage value of the selected trees. An owner may have considerably more value than suspected…or less. It will depend on tree grade (from pallet to veneer grade). Veneer logs are by far the most valuable. Single walnut trees of the right stature can fetch $5,000.

 measuring tree

A conscientious forestry consultant will oversee the cutting to ensure process integrity. Though most loggers are honest and hardworking, many have been known to cut unmarked trees, litter or steal onsite property. So when the cutting is complete, be sure that you do a once-over of the property.

As a rule, consultants charge a percentage of log sales for their services. This can run from 3 to 10 percent depending on the tract size and the number and quality of logs. This percentage is more negotiable when log value is high. If there are no log sales, consultant may charge by the hour or by the acre. Be sure to get an upfront estimate.

It is even more crucial to implement a TSI plan if a forest was logged before your ownership. Again, start the process with the advice of a wildlife biologist. Timber owners should consider that it’s their utmost responsibility to protect a wonderful, renewable resource that mankind cannot do without. Forests that are mismanaged may not recover in the owner’s lifetime.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


stay warm

Freezing cold nights are just around the corner again. Unfortunately, that means working your heating appliances double time at the expense of your household budget and the environment. Don't fret. It is possible to keep warm, cut down your electricity bills and reduce your carbon footprint all at the same time if you keep these tips in mind.

Invest in a Programmable Thermostat

Yes, programmable thermostats have gotten a lot of flak for being difficult to use. However, there are versions that don't deserve to be tainted with the same brush, such as the ones listed in this Mashable article. If you use and maintain these thermostats properly, they can save you hundreds of dollars worth of electricity bills in the future.   

Check Your Furnace

Has it been months since you last tuned up your furnace? You'd better do it again before winter comes. A defective furnace can drive up your bills and build up polluted air inside your home.

You have two options. You can either replace your furnace's filter, or follow this step-by-step guide on tuning up your furnace. If you're uncomfortable with home repair of any sort, it's better to seek the help of a professional rather than do it yourself and risk damaging your appliances further.

Seal Insulation Gaps

Even if your furnace is in good shape, you still have to check the house for places where the cold from the outside and the heat from the inside can seep through. Search the walls, windows and can lights for cracks. You can seal them with caulk, expanding foam or other suitable materials. For more information on sealing air leaks around the home, check out this Energy Star guide.

Keep Your Windows Covered

If you don't have the time or budget to buy new windows, cover up your existing windows with shades. You can also use curtains made of thick materials like velvet or flannel, though new curtains won't be enough if it gets too windy.

If you do have the time and the budget, it's best to invest in new windows. Choose the ones treated with low-E (low-emittance) coatings, which prevent heat from escaping your home.

Keep Unused Rooms Closed

The house's extra, unused rooms can sap the heat from the heavily used ones. To prevent this, check and seal the insulation gaps in the former, and keep them closed for the winter. Don't worry about those extra rooms getting chilly, they can always be reopened and reheated once the cold season ends.

Buy Area Rugs

When chilled, the floors can prickle your feet, especially if they're made of materials like wood and tile. Instead of cranking up your furnace even more, cover up your floors with area rugs like the ones from Home Depot. You can also buy some cute, furry slippers to keep your feet warm and feel more comfortable.

Get Up and Moving

What better way to heat up your body than through exercise? It doesn't have to be anything too strenuous, doing household chores should be enough. Also, cooking any meal can heat up your home and fill up your stomach at the same time.

Stock Up on Hot Water Bottles

While it's true that hot water bottles are "so yesterday", they're still one of the best ways to keep warm. Just lay one over your head, stomach or feet, and you'll feel nice and cozy in no time. Be sure to follow the necessary precautions for using hot water bottles, though!

Keeping warm doesn't have to break the budget or the environment. As long as you keep your home, and yourself, in good shape, you'll handle those freezing days and nights just fine.

Image by Up-Free

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


As with so much in life, a lack of familiarity with the natural world can breed fear and a sense of alienation. What we don't know makes us shudder.

In the case of insects, though, the rule might be, "The closer you get, the cooler they look," and biologist Sam Droege, head of the bee inventory and monitoring program at the U.S. Geological Survey (USGS), has prepared a number of them for their close-ups.

Droege and his colleagues at the USGS began to inventory all the North American bee species in 2001, in part because of the insects' importance to the U.S. agriculture industry. Their work got an important boost when they encountered the work of the U.S. Army's Public Health Command, where, in 2008, molecular biologist Tony Gutierrez devised a camera system that would enable soldiers throughout the world to take detailed photos of biting insects.  Disease is a major concern for the Army, and Gutierrez needed to create better identification methods to discover if the mosquito that bit a soldier in the field, for instance, was one of the handful out of 80,000 species in the world that could actually transmit disease.

Applying Gutierrez' complicated photographic techniques — which Droege says can expand the image of a tiny bee to "the size of a German shepherd" —  to his work in the field, Droege was able to create an astonishing series of images that give the viewer a whole new appreciation of the beauty of small creatures.

Though Droege cleaned up some of the images in Photoshop (the process of catching and preserving them can leave tiny insect bodies a little shopworn) and removed the pins that supported them, the biologist says he didn't manipulate the color in any way. The jewel tones and iridescence are just as nature made them — and nature made them snazzy. Some are even — dare we say it? — adorable, and others breathtaking, miniscule works of art. Textile artists and painters, take note: amazing textures and colors await you.

On one hand, they're just flies, just bees, just those little bugs we see hopping out when we disturb the grass or sand. But very close in? These images form an exuberant celebration of the other-worldly artistry of the itty bitty.

Droege's respect and appreciation for the insects and the worlds they inhabit are apparent both in the finely detailed images, rendered with delicacy and integrity, and in his captions that are anything but the dry language of a detached observer.

"These images call up something ancient," Droege writes, "something that brings home the fact that our evolutionary paths separated long ago. We each conquered the world in our own way, but these successful pathways seem so utterly and beautifully alien.

"There is no need to imagine or personify alternative life forms on other planets when the examples of such splendid architectures are right here."

All these images were produced with standard commercial camera equipment which rides on a movable sled called a "Stackshot," which can be programmed to move small distances, then fire the camera in a series of overlapping shots. That stack of shots is then sent to a type of software that processes it into a single, all-in-focus picture. And the results are just flippin' cool.

Apis mellifera
DRONE alert! Here is a handsome honeybee drone, a male Apis mellifera, washed, blown dry and buff for his closeup.

Apis mellifera
Augochlora pura
The lovely Augochlora pura is one of the most common bees of forests and forest edges, here with its tongue partially extended just to remind us how different bees are from mammals.

Augochlora pura
Anthidiellum notatum
These little bees often go unnoticed, both because they are very small and because they are very fast, zipping from flower to flower seemingly without resting. This boss specimen cam from Prince George's County, Md., and is often associated with dry, barren sites.

Anthidiellum notatum
Bombus griseocolis
This is one of the species that seems to be holding its own in terms of numbers. This worker has a corbicula (pollen sac) on its tibia full of a mix of pollen and nectar; it is lying on a piece of black felt. Note the beautiful contrast in textures.

Bombus griseocolis
Caenochrysis doriae
"Normally," Droege says, "it would be easy to Photoshop out the pin, but in this case it is so tiny a specimen that it has integrated in with the pin and glue. The metallic-ness of pin wasp are complementary and the layout graceful, which like any good photograph generates stories and questions that your mind answers in its search for meaning. Phew. Heady stuff. I have to cut out the late night chocolate."

Caenochrysis doriae
Calliphora vicina
Ah, the hidden beauty of flies. You have to download and print this out to really see the details on this bad  boy. It was found near the Mall in downtown Washington, D.C.

Calliphora vicina
Centris lanipes
This is a small Centris species from Puerto Rico.

Centris lanipes
Chrysidid Wasp
An unknown Chrysidid from Timpanogos Cave National Monument, Utah. "Unmatched by any automotive shop," Droege says, "the blues of Chrysidid wasps remind me of this fragment of an Emily Dickinson poem.
'Inebriate of air am I,
And debauchee of dew,
Reeling, through endless summer days,
From inns of molten blue.

Chrysidid wasp

To see even more of these awe-inspiring images, which you are free to download and use (your tax dollars at work!), see Droege's Flickr page.

Photos courtesy USGS Bee Inventory and Monitoring Program


The following are blog posts that I’ve written that provide information and links related to energy, power, fuel, and/or climate change—with a strong focus on solutions.

These posts are the most directly related to such topics:

And these posts are also related to energy and climate issues, in ways that might be less obvious but are equally important:

In the future, I will also be writing posts on fossil fuel divestment and renewable energy investment; local, distributed power (including zero-down solar loans, and local renewable electricity utilities); reforestation and carbon sequestration initiatives; and other important efforts to slow the progression (and mitigate the severity) of climate change.

Here are a few other online resources for information about climate change and climate solutions:

Photo from SolSolutions.

Miriam Landman is an accomplished writer, editor, and sustainability advisor with expertise in green living, green operations, and green building. For daily links to sustainable solutions and success stories, connect to her Facebook page for The Green Spotlight.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Whether you’re planning a last minute day trip or multi-week expedition, these five hiking tips are a must for seasoned hikers and newcomers alike.

1. Know your personal abilities.

Before any trip, whether it be big or small, it is important to assess and understand your abilities. How strong are you physically? What sort of distances have you covered on previous trips and how did your body respond? Does your body handle well in extreme temperatures, hot or cold? Do you have any existing medical conditions or allergies? How confident are you in first aid and emergency treatment? If you are planning to travel in a group it is important also to know and understand each members ability levels as well.

2. Know your gear.

Whether you chose to carry an ultra-light, minimalist, kit or an eighty pound, “everything plus the kitchen sink” pack, matters very little. What is important, is that you know how to use what’s in your pack effectively. If you do not understand the role that each piece of gear you carry serves, than you will not be able to rely on it when needed. Furthermore, if you do not know how to use the gear, and have not used it before (at least in some form of trial scenarios), you may find that in your moment of need you are unable to operate it effectively. For instance, a free-standing, fully enclosed tent, certainly provides more protection from the elements than a simple tarp, but both need to be pitched and pitched correctly. Practice operating stoves and pitching your shelter in the dark. Keep your gear organized and have a consistent system so that if and when you need something, you can locate it within your pack effectively under any and all conditions.

3. Plan ahead.

What is the weather forecast during your trip? How many miles do you plan to cover? How many miles per day? How many days of food will this require? Will you need to resupply at some point during your trip? How? Knowing your personal abilities and your gear will allow you to cover your bases and plan a successful trip, as well as to identify potential issues that may arise and prepare yourself with a few contingency plans. Any hiking or backpacking trip carries a certain level of risk with it. It is therefore important to know and understand not only what your “best case scenario” plan of action is, but also what you will do if things do not work in your favor. Identifying nearby access points along your intended route is relatively simple, but should a situation arise, you’ll thank yourself.

4. Know how to navigate appropriately.

Your navigational needs, and therefor abilities, will vary based on the type of trip you have planned. Most trips will not necessitate advanced orienteering knowledge, though certain trips certainly could. At a minimum all hikers should understand the basics. Simply internalizing that the sun rises in the East and sets in the West, as well as some basic astrological features will do you wonders. From there, make it second nature to constantly assess your direction of travel as well as where major and distinct terrain features lie in relation to your path. Knowing, for instance, that you are headed East, on relatively level terrain, and that you crossed a stream approximately a mile ago that was flowing north/south, will help pinpoint your location should the need arise.

5. Bring a sense of humor.

If you chose to spend time in the great outdoors it must be accepted that all conditions can and will change and accidents can certainly happen. Bad weather, difficult terrain, injury, and even simple fatigue or hunger are all part of the experience. Your laugh, even potentially at your own mistakes, will often be your strongest ally in overcoming difficult conditions. Stay positive, keep an open mind, and most importantly, have fun!

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Seeds Sprouting from Dirt 

Everything starts with seeds.  Whether you’re an organic farmer looking for seeds that will work with your specific organic growing practices or looking for wheat varieties adapted to your specific growing climate, seeds are the foundation of every piece of food we put on our plate and central to everything crop farmers do.

The continued growth of sustainable and organic agriculture and local, healthy food systems across the country – along with farmers’ ability to meet the challenges of climate change and food security – depends on this critical first building block.

That’s why NSAC is very excited about a much-anticipated analysis of the state of our country’s plant and animal breeding infrastructure and seed supply that was released today, marking the first such analysis in over ten years.  The proceedings from the Summit on Seeds and Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture were published today by the Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI), a farmer-based non-profit organization based in Pittsboro, NC and an NSAC member group.

In the proceedings, RAFI and other key stakeholders within the agricultural research community express their increased concerns about farmers’ limited access to seed, the narrowing of our country’s agricultural plant and animal genetic diversity, consolidation within the seed industry, the decline in public cultivar development (i.e. developing new crop varieties for the public good that can continue to be shared and improved by farmers and researchers), and how these trends are impacting farmers’ abilities to confront the unprecedented challenges of climate change and global food security.

There has been a steady decline in our nation’s public investment in public sector breeding programs housed primarily within our nation’s land grant university system and USDA research facilities.  Over the past 20 years alone, we have lost over a third of our country’s public plant breeding programs.  This slow atrophy of public funding to support improved plant varieties means that farmers have been left with fewer and fewer seed choices over the years and are ill-prepared to meet 21st century needs.

For example, farmers in many regions of the country currently rely on seeds that were bred for other regions of the country or that no longer meet changing climatic growing conditions and pest and disease pressures.  Without renewed funding for the development of publicly available plant varieties, our farmers will be at a competitive disadvantage and struggle to meet the future challenges related to climate change and food security, and less able to take advantage of economic opportunities within the value-added, artisanal, organic, and local and regional food markets.

Key Findings On Our Seed Supply

The report released today outlines seven major challenges that have contributed to the decline in the supply of publicly available and regionally adapted seed varieties and animal breeds.  Click here for a downloadable PDF of the key findings.  These key findings include:

Shrinking Public Funding For Developing Better Seeds – Federal funding has been the lifeblood of public breeding programs that develop new, improved seed varieties and animal breeds, but funding has declined steeply.  This has decimated breeding infrastructure and capacity at our academic research institutions, meaning we have fewer people actually doing the research to develop new publicly available varieties that farmers can use.

Fewer Seeds Means Less Biodiversity And Resiliency – As fewer crop varieties are developed and offered by commercial seed companies, farmers have been left with fewer seed choices.  Fewer seed varieties in the public marketplace translates into less biodiversity on our nation’s farms.  This makes our entire food production system more vulnerable to disease, pests and climate change – and means farmers struggle to access the best-adapted seeds for different regions.

Concentrated Seed Ownership Limits Farmer And Consumer Choice – A handful of giant chemical companies control more and more of our nation’s seed stocks (“germplasm collections”) and breeding infrastructure – and, in turn, controls our current and future seed supply.  They focus on seeds they can sell the most of, big acreage commodities such as soybeans, and neglect crops with a smaller market like small grains, fruits and vegetables, organic crops, cover crops, and regionally adapted grain and oilseed varieties of major commodities.  Three firms now control over more than half of the global seed market, up from 22 percent in 1996.

Restrictive Patents Prevent Seed Sharing And Strip Farmers Of Control – Big seed companies use restrictive patents and licensing agreements to restrict the use of the seeds they develop.  This means farmers often can’t save or share their own seeds with other farmers, and even other plant breeders have trouble improving seeds bred by others.  This means farmers and researchers have fewer choices for the seeds they can use, share, and improve.

Almost No Public Seed Developers Are Left – The number of professionals who develop seeds and breeds – public breeders – continues to decline, and universities and public institutions are losing ground on training future professionals who will be needed to address the needs of the next generation of American farmers and ranchers.  For example, there are only five public corn breeders left, down from a peak of 25 in the 1960s.

Few Regional Partnerships – There is a need for new and innovative partnerships to address more regionalized and farmer-driven approaches to developing new varieties that meet the needs of farmers in responding to growing markets and challenges.

Aging Seed Storage Systems Mean The Loss Of Public Seed ‘Brain Trust’ Forever – Our country’s public seed stocks are stored in “germplasm collections” that have been critically under-funded and under-staffed, forcing triage decision-making regarding which seeds will be kept up to date and viable for planting.  Every seed we fail to preserve represents a loss of that genetic diversity forever, and this diversity may hold the answer to future challenges the next generation of farmers will face.

Next Steps for Action

In response to these mounting challenges, the proceedings put forth the following key recommendations for action in order to revitalize public breeding programs and begin to make progress in getting new varieties out to farmers.  These recommendations are also available as a downloadable PDF.

National Plan to Restore Funding and Capacity – Develop a comprehensive national plan to restore funding and institutional capacity and support for public breeding programs at our nation’s land grant institutions.

Encourage Biodiversity for Resilience – Address the vulnerability of our agricultural systems by encouraging and rewarding agro-biodiversity on farms and in our commercial seed choices, in order to increase resilience against shifting and unpredictable climatic conditions and ensure farmers can choose well-adapted seeds.

Increase Seed Availability for Farmer Choice – Empower farmers to save and share their seeds, encourage the development of more independent regional seed companies who can help farmers respond to local and regional market demand and climate conditions, and address the negative impacts of consolidation and concentration in the ownership of seeds, including the enforcement of antitrust laws.

Reform Patent and Licensing Laws – Increase farmer and researcher access to and innovation in the development of improved varieties, and take steps to reverse the negative impacts of utility patents and restrictive licenses.

Expand the Number of Current and Future Breeders – Increase the number of public breeders in each U.S. climatic region with a focus on renewed institutional capacity to support the next generation of public plant breeders.

Create Innovative Partnerships to Spur Innovation – Develop new partnerships and models to address more regionalized and participatory approaches that more deeply involve farmers in the breeding process.

Democratize Access to Seeds for Public Benefit – Strengthen our country’s seed storage systems (public germplasm collection and storage) by revitalizing long-term funding to protect this critical ‘brain trust’ of seeds and increasing germplasm access and sharing at both the national and international level.

Increase Public Awareness of the Importance of Seeds – Develop a national campaign to educate the public and policymakers on the values and benefits of public plant breeding and linkages to climate change, dangers of genetic uniformity, role of public investments, demands for nutritious and local foods, and the need for regionally adapted seeds.

Seeds and Breeds 2014 Summit

Summit Background

The proceedings released today capture the discussion from a two-day summit held in Washington, DC in March 2014.  The summit brought together over 35 breeders, researchers, farmers, academics, and representatives of germplasm banks and non-profit organizations to discuss the state of our nation’s seed supply and develop recommendations for reinvigorating public breeding research and increasing seed availability in the country.

“The challenges we face in our U.S. and global food systems urgently require us to shift our focus toward building greater resilience into our agricultural systems,” says Michael Sligh, the Just Foods Program Director with the Rural Advancement Foundation International.  “Our current systems are too genetically uniform and have far too short cropping rotations – thus leaving our agricultural systems very vulnerable.”

The proceedings include eight scientific papers authored by well-known breeders and researchers in the field, including Bill Tracy, a sweet corn breeder with the University of Wisconsin; Major Goodman, a corn breeder with North Carolina State University; Michael Mazourek, a vegetable breeder with Cornell University; David Ellis, the head of the Genebank Unit at the International Potato Center in Peru; and Charles Brummer, the Senior Vice President Director of Forage Improvement at the Noble Foundation.

The former Deputy Secretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Kathleen Merrigan, also presented a paper discussing the unique opportunities for galvanizing public and political support for this issue.

NSAC and RAFI are both members of the Seeds and Breeds for 21st Century Agriculture Coalition, a collaborative that advocates for increased support for public sector plant and animal breeding research.

Both the full report and an executive summary are available for free download online. 

Photo by Fotolia/Vasily Merkushev

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