Seeds are from Mars

You gotta be a modern day Pythagoras to parse out the moral geometry of our complex food system. Our hasty blog post on growing Dragon Carrots from Seeds of Change prompted a few comments and a phone call alerting us to ethical concerns about the seed company. Knowing the diversity of readers of this blog, we’re simply going to toss out the issues and let you all make up your own minds.

Seeds of Change began as a small New Mexico based company back in 1989, launched a series of organic convenience foods in Europe in 1996 and was purchased by Mars Incorporated, a family owned snack food company in 1997. Last year Mars partnered with Warren Buffet’s Berkshire Hathaway (check out that retro B-H website!) to buy Wrigley and create a ginormous financial candy bar. Mmmm, cashy nougats!

One of the founders of Seeds of Change, Howard-Yana Shapiro, now serves as director of plant science and external research for Mars Inc. and is vice president of agriculture at Seeds of Change. He’s the well respected author of Gardening for the Future of the Earth, and is currently at work overseeing the sequencing the Cocao genome in a joint project with the US Department of Agriculture, Mars. Inc. and IBM. As for the ultimate outcome of that project, according to the BBC, “Dr Shapiro would not be drawn on whether the research might lead to genetically modified chocolate. “

As for Seeds of Change’s parent company, an article in the Ecologist, criticizes Mars Inc for opposing EU health laws aimed at curing obesity and for failing to offer fair trade chocolate. Others say the company is a model of responsible business practices. Homegrown Evolution reader Jeremy claims that Seeds of Change, “tried to shut down the HDRA’s Heritage Seed Library,” and “registered an ancient Hopi “mandala” as their trade-mark.” I’ve been unable to dig up further information on the internets about either of these issues, so I’m asking Jeremy to leave some links in the comments.

Our friend, author and neighbor Ysanne Spevack has a positive article about her visit to Seeds of Change in New Mexico. The Mars Inc. corporate promotional video, which features Shapiro at the end, can be viewed here. We have to admit that the video gives us the heebie jeebies but, like most readers of this blog, we’re not exactly in the target audience for M&Ms with printed messages.

When a visionary like Shapiro gets involved with a large company you get a bottomless rabbit’s hole discussion about the morality of “change from within” and taking a good concepts, like organics and biodiversity, to the masses. You’re all welcome to debate these issues in the comments, but here at Homegrown Evolution we’re moving on to a soon to be defined new paradigm. All we know is that it will be more local, and the seeds we exchange will be our own.

Of course, if the Skittles folks offer to pay off Homegrown Evolution’s mortgage and dental bills . . .

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17 Comments

  1. Hahaha…I love the last line. It’s all well and good to be a “botanical puritan” who makes sacrifices, but in the end the mortgage must be paid. So true.

    Victoria

  2. I’m cancelling my lifetime subscription! Homegrown has sold out! The pop-up Mars bar add is too much for me! (jk)

    Actually… in my not-at-all-purist 21st century thinking, it’s not so bad to patronize the “good” things that a “bad” corporation does, in the hopes of some incremental shift toward the good. Yes – save seeds, trade them… but growing a few Seeds of Change carrots is a world healthier than, say, pulling some store-bought carrots out of your freezer…

  3. Such a fuss!

    These seeds are available other places, too. A quick google reveals that! If there are open-pollinated heirloom seeds, then you only have to buy once – and never again. Not so bad, really.

    If we don’t buy the “good” things that bad corporations do, then they’ll only do the bad things. Heck, McDonald’s owns Chipotle, which at least is fresh, buys Niman ranch and other more ethical foods, and is not nearly so bad as McFood. Yeah, McD’s makes money off it, but the more successful a Chipotle-like fast food chain is, then someone else will follow suit. Gradually, we will move to better realms of food offerings.

  4. My apologies, it is not a Hopi digging stick but a Nepalese digging stick that Seeds of Change trademarked. Download the catalogue and you will find this:

    Our mandala was inspired
    by a rubbing from the planting
    stick of a Nepalese farmer.
    The Seed of Life is an ancient
    global symbol of fertility and life.

    And this:

    This catalog is © 2009 Seeds of Change,
    Inc. All rights reserved.“Seeds of Change,”
    the logo symbol, the mandala design,
    and “Goodness From The Ground Up”
    are each trade and servicemarks of Seeds
    of Change, Inc.

    As for the HDRA business, it was almost pre-internet, and I was the Head of the Heritage Seed Library at the time. I didn’t keep a copy of the correspondence, bbut you could ask Bob Sherman at HDRA, now known as Garden Organic. We got a very nasty lawyers’ letter and didn’t have the funds to fight Seeds of Change’s bullying tactics over the use of a very common phrase on a seed packet.

    On the “good things from bad companies” argument, I find it preferable to support good things from good companies. You may choose differently.

  5. There are plenty of independent owner-run companies seed comapnies, but my favorite and the one I recommend most often in my writing is http://www.jlhudsonseeds.net/

    It’s based in La Honda, California, home of Ken Kesey’s bus, and has been run for the past 25 years or so by two good friends, David and Sheri. They are a radical progressive seed company who are all about open-pollinated heirloom seeds and discussions such as this one.

    I recommend you shop from them. But mainstream America is fortunate to have Seeds of Change to produce and distribute high quality organic heirloom seeds on a large scale. They rock.

    As for the conspiracy theory about their trademark, if you’re a company, you always trademark your logo. They won’t come and get you unless you’re another big-ish US company trying to pass off as them.

    It’s not a spooky attempt to outlaw a Nepalese farmer using this symbol. Actually, the Seeds of Life symbol is something promoted and used by Drunvalo Melchezidek, a mystic popular with hippies and the burning man community who proposes the spiritual exploration via something called a merkaba. Basically, don’t worry, they’re not going to get legal on you unless you’re using it and you’re Nestle. Hundreds of Burners are already proving that by using it freely in the US.

    And Howard Yana-Shapiro is a bastion of anti-genetic modification. He has built his life around promoting organic agriculture and protecting biodiveristy. He left home to assist Dr Martin Luther King when it was a radical step for a young white boy to do that, and has continued throughout his private and working life to support the cause of right and good.

    Howard’s a good guy, and he’s super smart and really is focused on changing how the world works from the inside. A true organic food hero.

  6. Thanks Ysanne for the clarifications. In a strange bit of coincidence I was looking at the J. L. Hudson website when your comment was posted! A bit of a tangent here, but J. L. Hudson is the pseudonym for David Theodoropoulos who wrote a very provocative and controversial book called, Invasion Biology: Critique of a Pseudoscience. Here’s a brief description from Hudson’s website:

    “We have all heard the breathless tales of the dangers of “invasive alien species,” but what does science say about them? Did you know that studies show that purple loosestrife does not affect species richness of native plants? Or that it supports higher bird densities than native vegetation? That saltcedar supports native birds and insects in high numbers and at high levels of diversity, including endangered species? That the “invasive alien” hydrilla supports the highest bird species diversity in Florida, and it supports higher fish species density and many times the fish biomass than natives? That the zebra mussel increased the catch of yellow perch five-fold, and that it improves water quality? That the so-called “killer algae” reduces pollution and helps native species? That in all cases, including even oceanic islands, introduced species have increased biodiversity?”

  7. Ysanne

    I am not suggesting for one moment that the SoC trademark is “a spooky attempt to outlaw a Nepalese farmer using this symbol”. I’m pointing out the disjoint between a company that says it values the free exchange of ideas when those ideas are embodied in a crop variety, but seeks to protecct those ideas when they are the traditional practices and beliefs of a group of people.

    Like I said, you’re free to buy from them if you choose to. And you’re free to put people on a pedestal if you want to. Me, I judge companies and people by their actions. And I’m still trying to avoid buying from Exxon.

  8. David Theodoropoulos’s book is a wonderfully controversial tome, and he is a eloquent lecturer on the same theme. He views the movement of plant species from one country to another as essential for biodiversity. As with the migration of people from A to B, David champions the inter-mingling of plant species gene pools, and has done so very vocally for at least a couple of decades.

    Hmmm… maybe we should organise an event for him to lecture at here in LA….

  9. I know this thread is old now…

    As a lifetime organic gardener and medicine man, and advocate of ethical practices, I would like to express a few short points here:

    1: Seeds of Change, a proprietary corporation with high prices, and ties to evil, and even though it seems to be ethical while contributing to important funds, need not be patronized when we have these small, family owned, ethical suppliers. I hold with high esteem and love in my heart:

    Horizon Herbs (www.horizonherbs.com)
    Seed Savers Exchange (www.seedsavers.org) non-profit
    J. L. Hudson Seedsman (www.jlhudsonseeds.net)
    Sacred Succulents (www.sacredsucculents.com)
    Peaceful Valley (www.groworganic.com)
    Bountiful Gardens (www.bountifulgardens.org)
    Sand Hill Preservation Center (www.sandhillpreservation.com)
    Wood Prairie Farm (www.woodprairie.com

  10. 2.
    How dare SoC trademark a symbol that was already in public domain, something that belongs to humanity, not a corporation. Just my opinion.

    3.
    Eva Gale:
    May I kindly suggest you not cause yourself grief by spending money at rareseeds.com (aka Baker Creek).
    As a two-time customer, and heavily involved in garden forums and chat groups, I have come to realize that I know more people dis-satisfied with them (myself included), than are satisfied. I will not break out all the details right here.

    Ysanne:
    “…Seeds of Change to produce and distribute high quality organic heirloom seeds on a large scale.”

    Key word here is: Large Scale. We don’t need Large Scale in our gardens. Mass production is our antithesis.

    We need to trade seeds on a small scale, in our own communities. I have and continue to establish small seed exchanges to this point. I also lavish my neighbors with my bounties of produce and seed.

    3.
    Jeremy:
    Right on!

    Peace!

    .

  11. Greetings, I would indeed be interested in adding a new dimension to this subject. Any one who gardens and saves seeds and gives them to friends is doing what man has done for thousands of years in agronomic regions.
    To continue sharing seeds and promoting a lifestyle that brings man to realize his connection to earth eventually will rule over even the most powerful corporation. Let us do and not fret. Share and share alike, it is the way of being a earth denizen with Magnus animus!
    I always love to hear from any seed searcher and I have a lot of seeds to share over 14,000 accessions. Write me at [email protected]

    Best to all, Joseph Simcox food plant Ethnobotanist/Plant Explorer

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