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Living genebanks to celebrate and protect crop diversity new and old

Native Americans, resettled refugees, and organic farmers require local, living genebanks to protect the cultural diversity of their crops.

Photo of Eric von Wettberg
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Written by

Lead Applicant Organization Name

University of Vermont

Lead Applicant Organization Type

  • Researcher Institution

If part of a multi-stakeholder entity (i.e. team), provide the names of other organizations and types of stakeholders collaborating with you.

Seeds of Renewal Project, Abenaki non-profit organization Association of Africans Living in Vermont Sterling College Upper Valley Seed Savers Moon and Stars Artisanal Arepas

Website of Legally Registered Entity

How long have you / your team been working on this Vision?

  • 1-3 years

Lead Applicant: In what city or town are you located?

Burlington, Vermont, USA

Lead Applicant: In what country are you located?

United States

Your Selected Place: what’s the name of the Place you’re developing a Vision for?

The US state of Vermont, with an area of 24923.46 km^2.

What country is your selected Place located in?

The United States of America

Describe your relationship to the place you’ve selected.

We have selected Vermont because it has a history and strong tradition of local food.  Partner Dr. Fred Wiseman and the Seeds of Renewal Project has built a unique collection of Abenaki heirloom crops and cultural traditions reflecting the long and partially lost cultural heritage. As refugee resettlement cities, Burlington and Winooski are now home to a diverse group of Sub-Saharan Africans and South Asians.  Many in this community, which is served by the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, have experience farming and gardening and have returned to these practices in Vermont to provide food and income. With a cool temperate climate, the needs of these communities are poorly met by commercial seed companies, with many culturally favored crops having never been previously grown here.  Vermont also has a higher percentage of organic farms than other states.  The needs of organic growers, particularly those who distribute primarily locally and on small scales, are poorly met by commercial seeds that are bred for adaptability to broader areas.  All of the partners are located in Vermont, and work with different aspects of seed preservation for local stakeholders.

Describe the People and Place: Provide information that would be helpful for an outsider who has never been there and may have no context about this Place to better understand the area.

Vermont is a small state in the New England region.  Its original inhabitants, the Abenaki, have farmed for over 1000 years.  Since the colonial era, Vermont has seen a number of agricultural changes, from land clearing for timber and merino wool, to widespread land abandonment due to Westward expansion, large dairy and maple sugar sectors, a hippie-era back to the land movement, and a vibrant organic and local food movement.  In the past two decades Burlington and Winooski, cities in the most urban area of Vermont, have been refugee resettlement destinations for new Americans with origins in tropical sub-Saharan Africa and South Asia. Vermont is particularly challenging for these communities, with limited availability of their culturally significant foods in mainstream markets and a north temperate climate that is challenging for their crops.  Many of our communities, from the Abenaki to resettled refugees to organic farmers, have crop genetic diverstiy that is culturally and climatically significant, and not well-served by national genebanks or large commercial seed companies.

What is the approximate size of your Place, in square kilometers? (New question, not required)


What is the estimated population (current 2020) in your Place?


Challenges: Describe the current (2020) and the future (2050) challenges that your food system faces.

Dairy production, the largest agricultural sector in Vermont, has been declining precipitously in Vermont due to national and global shifts causing low prices.  Furthermore, Vermont has a declining and aging population, particularly among those owning family farms.  To maintain an agricultural base, we need to recruit more farmers. Climate change is also increasingly disrupting agricultural practices, with more variable temperatures and rainfall.  By 2050, climate change will likely substantially disrupt production practices.  Although these challenges are complex, they also provide an opportunity to explore a more diverse, sustainable food system.  With an influx of new Vermonters, from inside and outside US, and a growing awareness of a broader range of foods and food traditions, the opportunity to recover crops that were previously grown in Vermont, such as Abenaki heritage varieties, and to explore new crops that may be familiar to resettled refugees but could appeal to a broader range of consumers. We aim to small scale growers and breeders to either create these new varieties or revitalize the old ones, when contemporary market-driven actors and forces have so far been unable to do so.

Meeting the challenges of shifting agricultural economies, preserving distinct cultural traditions, and climate change, requires access to a range of crops that may have been lost in Vermont's recent history, or that can be introduced from other regions.  For the past century, genebanks have served a vital role in preserving crop genetic diversity providing breeders access to seed with appropriate traits.  However, any effort to harness the genetic diversity held in genebanks is limited by a set of challenges faced by our national and international genebank system.  

Most national genebanks, such as the USDA National Plant Germplasm System, are widely underfunded, and face a staffing threat from a rapidly aging workforce.  In the US there is not a single graduate program aimed at training genebank managers. Most new curators are trained strictly in plant science, a background that leaves them unprepared to tackle the questions of cultural suitability. Furthermore, more genebanks, such as the USDA genebank or genebanks run by the UN FAO through the CGIAR, are mostly composed of collections of seeds made decades ago, when no records were made of the cultural or specific culinary uses of seeds.  Furthermore, the initial collections of many crops that are preserved in genebanks are highly biased. 

Address the Challenges: Describe how your Vision will address the challenges described in the previous question.

Our aim is to build an ecosystem of local small-scale participatory breeders and seed savers and living genebanks emphasizing in-situ conservation to address the needs of Vermont's diverse farming communities.  Through these genebanks, we will build a program to train future generations of genebank managers in a transdisciplinary approach so that they have the combined skills in plant science and food systems necessary to effectively tackle the challenge of providing climatically adapted _and_ culturally suitable seeds to breeders, farmers, and others.  For this transdisciplinary vision, our work is centered around UVM's Food Systems graduate program, which was founded with the aim of providing training at the important nexus of the social and natural sciences and using Vermont's uniquely diverse and local food system as a living laboratory.

A central part of our approach is to embed graduate students with our diverse community partners, from the Seeds of Renewal project in Vermont's Abenaki community to the Association of Africans Living in Vermont's New Farms for New Americans program for resettled refugees, to public libraries that maintain local collections of heirloom seeds.  This embedded approach immerses future genebank managers in a range of communities, which coupled with necessary coursework in areas from economic botany to database management, will allow them to lead a range of genebanks, from local seed exchanges to national and international genebanks. Ultimately, it will train the future generations that must adapt crop varieties and agricultural practices to the challenges of climate change and shifting cultural preferences and identities.

High Level Vision: With these challenges addressed, now provide a high level description of how the Place and the lives of its People will be different than they are now.

Preservation and utilization of crop genetic diversity is essential to meeting the challenges expected from climate change and the desire to provide culturally suitable choices to a range of communities. With access to diverse seeds of many crops, and fair means for sharing their benefits, we can envision a local food system that is diverse in its flavors, reflective of a range of sustainable growing practices, and preserves the long but partially lost cultural legacy of agriculture in Northeastern North America.

Full Vision: How do you describe your Vision for a regenerative and nourishing food future for your Place and People for 2050?

Genebanks, collections of diverse accessions of crop seeds and tubers, are essential to generating crop varieties that are resistant against pests, diseases and environmental challenges such as droughts.  These repositories are among our most important tools for ensuring the resilience of agricultural production to climate change.  In a few circumstances, such as the Russian National Genebank that survived the 900-day Siege of Lenningrad in the Second World War to the recent destruction of the International Centre for Agricultural Research in Dry Areas Genebank in Aleppo, Syria, genebank curators have made the ultimate sacrifice, of their own lives, to preserve the genetic diversity of their collections for future generations to thrive.

Despite the known importance of genebanks, they are threatened by many challenges.  These challenges include inadequate funding, a rapidly aging workforce, a lack of training programs for future curators, insufficient documentation of the cultural significance of the accessions being preserved and a consequent inability to meet the needs of many small communities of farmers and growers.  Many genebanks lack representation from indigenous farming practices. Even when collections hold varieties from indigenous communities, cultural relevance is almost always lost as part of the process of entering the accessions into the genebank.  The loss of cultural information, on how varieties are grown, prepared, or consumed, reduces their significance and value.

In Vermont the needs of many farmers for climatically adapted and culturally relevant seeds are not being met by national genebanks or commercial seed companies.  Due to changes in agricultural economics and consumer preferences, there is a widespread decline in Vermont’s dairy industry and a shift towards more small organic vegetable farmers.  Most commercial varieties and the genebank accessions from which they were derived have been bred for conventional production settings.  For a growing community of resettled refugees, seeds of culturally relevant crops, such as African Eggplants, Snake gourds, and Tukruke squashes, are simply not available commercially and are highly inaccessible to these communities from genebanks.  For some new farmers, such as producers of Columbian Arepas, corn (maize) varieties that are adapted to Vermont’s climate but that give a flour suitable for arepas are not available, either commercially or from genebanks.  Although national genebanks hold some accessions of likely indigenous, Abenaki ancestry, these collections have not been preserved in such a way that they retain their Abenaki cultural relevance. Knowledge of how Abenaki varieties were grown, consumed, and celebrated have only been preserved by efforts such as the Seeds of Renewal Project.

We propose to create a seed system in Vermont that is responsive to needs of our local communities, by working with grassroots efforts to preserve and harness seed diversity.  One partner is the Abenaki Seeds of Renewal project that has collected, catalogued, and preserved crop diversity from Abenaki farms in Vermont. Another partner is the New Farms for New Americans project led by the Association of Africans Living in Vermont, which aims to improve the food security and adjustment of resettled refugees to Vermont through vegetable production.  We will also partner with Moon and Stars Arepas, a social venture and farming enterprise that seeks to develop corn varieties that provide high-quality flour suitable for arepas and that can tolerate Vermont’s short summers.  Another partner is the Upper Valley Seed Savers group, a volunteer group led by gardeners and small farmers that is preserving heirloom vegetable diversity.  Other partners are 13 public libraries across Vermont that have built local seed exchanges, through which gardeners can preserve and exchange seed.

To train future genebank managers, we will work with these and other local partners to provide graduate students in the UVM transdisciplinary Food Systems program with the basic skills in plant science and crop breeding needed to manage a genebank as well as hands-on experience in local seed preservation efforts.  In this our aim will be to train the future curators needed to develop the local crops that will be both culturally appropriate and climatically adapted.  We can only train our students for the future, as the crop varieties we will need for a rapidly changing climate and for predicted human migrations resulting from climate change largely do not yet exist.

Although we start with students, ultimately market forces must be harnessed. Connecting seed and crop production to ethnically diverse populations through value added products constitutes a transformation with system-wide implications. Economically, farmers see a viable pathway forward that not only offers economic potential but also encourages the implementation of diverse cropping systems that have been consistently documented by scientific evidence as buffering against biotic and abiotic stresses. Simultaneously, downstream at the consumption end of the value chain, the notion of locally produced food takes on new meaning, incorporating dimensions of cultural acceptability. The hamburgers and salads that once dominated Farm to Table restaurants co-exist with tacos from locally adapted corn, Burundian peanut stew from locally adapted peanuts, and Bhutanese noodle dishes from locally adapted rice. Food trucks that once made grilled cheese or burritos now visit ethnic neighborhoods and farms where migrant laborers work to sell affordable arepas and empanadas produced from locally adapted maize. Ethnic grocery stores carry locally adapted beans and peas and produce such as African eggplant and snake gourd.

Connecting these two ends of the value chain must food businesses that process and sell these diverse, ethnically appropriate crops and foods. Food processors, food truck owners, and restauranteurs committed to a transformed food system that addresses both environmental and sociocultural challenges, must be enlisted to partner with local farmers to identify crop varieties ideal for their products and to seek out new market opportunities with ethnic minorities who are underserved. In doing so, great potential exists to reinvigorate the idea of food hubs, which generated a great deal of buzz several years ago but have struggled to identify successful financial plans. Expanding the market base for local agricultural production thus touches upon the major segments of the value chain, at once pursuing social, environmental, and economic sustainability.

A future food system that is oriented towards local production, and celebrates a diversity of tastes and cultural background, can arise from cohorts of broadly changed seed experts.

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Photo of Zsofia Pasztor

I love this. We currently are growing some older varieties of foods. Thank you for what you do!

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