Tom Newmark is a man on an admirable mission. The executive chairman of New Chapter whole food supplements told me this morning that he won’t rest until he’s helped to establish 10,000 Sacred Seeds Sanctuaries--living gardens devoted to propagating and nurturing endangered plant species—in life zones around the world. He came one step closer to his goal this week with the establishment of a sanctuary in Hosagunda, a 600-acre sacred grove in southern India where hundreds of medicinal herbs used in Ayurvedic medicine will be reintroduced into their natural habitat. “This is a spectacular expansion of sacred seeds and sacred knowledge in a sacred forest,” he told me.
I had the opportunity to tour the charter Sacred Seeds Sanctuary in January when I visited Finca Luna Nueva, a sustainable eco-resort and organic biodynamic farm that New Chapter owns in San Ramon, Costa Rica. In 2004, Tom; his partner, Paul Schulik, and Finca Luna Nueva general manager Steven Farrell established the 2-acre garden, which is home to more than 300 species, as a dynamic laboratory and observatory where scientists can understand how plants are responding to climate change—and help nurture them through the worst. “Half of all plant species come from this narrow band around the center of the earth that we call the Tropics,” Tom said. “The Tropics never freeze, so what does it do to a seed when it’s frozen for 50 years? No one knows. It’s a tremendous risk.”
For Tom and his partners, access to the indigenous wisdom behind using plants for medicine, food and fiber is as important as access to the plants themselves. As one language goes extinct every two minutes, he pointed out, we’re racing against the clock to preserve this knowledge.
“We think it’s important to have a place where we can actually grow plants and engage with shamans, healers and grandmothers—where we can be constantly propagating plants and interacting with the custodians of the knowledge about them,” Tom explained to me yesterday. “We’ve pulled together all these plants that are so important to the Neotropics, and we’re seeing how they adapt to the changing climate. We’re allowing the power of evolution to guide gardens and plants as they are adapting to climate change.”
Sacred Seeds Sanctuaries are a living counterpart to seed banks, which store seeds in a frozen vault. “Seed banks are a very Western, one-size-fits-all, high-tech response to what is ultimately the most chaotic and dynamic thing we’ve ever experienced,” Tom said. “Ours is a living, breathing experiment in promoting life on the planet—a kind of Noah’s Ark for plants.”
Seed sanctuaries have now been established in Madagascar and Peru and in the United States at the Missouri Botanic Garden, Bastyr University in Washington, the Rodale Institute in Pennyslvania and the American Botanical Council in Texas. That’s encouraging, Tom said, but he can’t rest yet.
“Because of overharvesting, inappropriate wildcrafting and loss of habitat, the entire herbal pharmacopeia is threatened,” he said. “As many as 25 percent of medicinal herbs are under immediate threat of extinction. What would have happened if rosy periwinkle had disappeared before they discovered how to make leukemia drugs from it? So far we have studied an estimated 2 to 5 percent of the plants we know of for pharmacological and healing properties.” Half of all modern drugs were inspired by medicinal plants.
Listening to Tom, I understood the urgency behind his efforts. He said he would see 10,000 seed sanctuaries established in his lifetime—even if he had to live to be 200. “This is a very resilient ecosystem,” he said. “Planetary resources can recover if you engage in appropriate dialogue. If we listen to what the ecology and the fields are telling us, we can repair the planet.”
Datura is one of the 300 plant species in Finca Luna Nueva's Sacred Seeds Sanctuary. Photo by Barbara Bourne