Why Seed Matters: An Interview with Matt Dillon
Seed Matters is an initiative created by the Clif Bar Family Foundation to improve the viability and availability of organic seeds. Their goal is to ensure healthy, nutritious and productive crops by conserving the genetic diversity of food crops, promoting farmer participation in seed stewardship, and supporting public seed research and education. The initiative came about as a response to the lack of organically-bred seed appropriate for organic farmers. Seed Matters is working to put breeding back in the hands of farmers, gardeners, and public seed breeders, to conserve and grow the diversity of seeds developed over the past 12,000 years of human history.
Matt Dillon first got involved with organic seed issues after working on an organic farm in the 90s. He quickly found his passion for seed saving and breeding, and wound up volunteering at the Abundant Life Seed Foundation in Port Townsend, Washington. He worked for Abundant Life until a catastrophic fire in 2003 destroyed its entire collection of over 3,000 varieties. Like a phoenix, Matt rose from its ashes and co-founded a new organization, the Organic Seed Alliance. He was its Founding Director from 2003-2010, helped launch the Organic Seed Growers Conference, and started numerous other seed programs including the first participatory organic breeding project in the U.S. Matt has been working to expand these programs ever since, and now plays a key role in their development as the Director of Seed Matters.
HMOS: What is Seed Matters working on right now in terms of projects, and what impact do you hope to have?
MD: Seed Matters supports the improvement of organic seed through an array of programs designed to create positive seed solutions for gardeners, farmers, and eaters.
We continue to provide Community Seed Resources for gardeners and organizers that want to create local seed swaps, libraries and seed conservation gardens – and also launched a new partnership with the Sustainable Economies Law Center (SELC) to provide these community projects with legal guidance in the wake of several states shutting down seed libraries. A petition to educate and encourage state regulators to work with seed savers to find solutions is hosted on our web site.
In February we brought in our 14th Seed Matters graduate fellow, Shannon Carmody, our first fellowship recipient not studying plant breeding. Shannon is working with Dr. Lindsey DuToit at Washington State University in the field of organic seed pathology, an important area of research for organic seed companies and farmers.
In February 2016 we will also see the release of the second State of Organic Seed report, authored by our partners at Organic Seed Alliance. Clif Bar Family Foundation helped fund the first report, and believe this second iteration will give seed companies, policy makers, and the organic industry a better picture of where we all need to invest in organic seed solutions.
Finally, this year we are launching a SeedFarmTable public outreach campaign. We believe this a first of its kind attempt to educate the public on why organic seed improvement is essential in improving the sustainability of our farms and the quality of food on our tables. We are working with organic food retailers, Seed Matters brand partners, and nationally renowned chefs to raise awareness that seed is a solution.
We want people to get beyond the idea of “Heirlooms are good and GMO seed is bad” and instead be inspired by the potential we have in organic plant breeding to improve the nutritional quality, season availability, and flavor in our food as well as increase yields and decrease the ecological footprint of farming. People can check out our website and enter the sweepstakes to win an organic gardening kit, sign Save Seed Sharing petitions, fund one of our new regional seed projects, attend one of our SeedFarmTable dinners or sow their own organic seed and host their own dinner.
HMOS: Why did you decide to invest in Fellowships? Why was this so important?
MD: Historically our public agricultural schools served the needs of regional farming and food systems. Public plant breeders developed crops for local markets and climates, and helped train the next generation of agricultural educators, researchers and entrepreneurs. Unfortunately in the last 30-40 years we’ve seen a drastic decrease in public plant breeders as well as a reduction in their areas of research focus, primarily serving larger industrial cropping systems that can provide the universities with royalty returns on their research efforts. A handful of schools have shown a commitment to organic research, but again, they remain seriously underfunded.
Clif Bar Family Foundation decided that if we really want to transform seed systems to serve the needs of regional and organic food systems we had to bring change to these public agricultural schools. The Seed Matters Fellowships give graduate students stable funding for organic seed research. These student researchers are not only improving crop genetics for organic farmers, they are also drawing attention to their administrations that organic is not a fad or a niche, and that organic farmers and consumers want science-based innovation to make organic even more competitive with conventional-chemical agriculture. We know we can increase organic yields without losing our quality or sustainability, but we have to invest in research, and our public institutions are key partners in innovation with the private sector.
HMOS: What is your relationship to High Mowing? How do you see us in the context of organic seed breeding?
MD: The private seed sector has become increasingly consolidated, with a primary focus on breeding and producing seed for high-input conventional agriculture. We need more companies like High Mowing that are committed to improving the quality of organic seed and serving the needs of a more diversified farming system. High Mowing was one of Seed Matters' early funding partners, and recently hired Adrienne Shelton, one of our post-doc Fellows and one of the breeders of Who Gets Kissed? sweet corn. It’s been great to watch High Mowing grow from a small regional seed company to a national leader in the organic seed movement. High Mowing understands the value of public-private partnership in plant breeding. We need more companies willing to invest and commit resources to improving the quality of organic seed.
HMOS: What’s on the horizon for Seed Matters? What do you hope to do next?
MD: 2015 is a big year. We are funding our first private plant breeder, Frank Morton of Wild Garden Seed – a man who has helped define the ethos of the organic seed movement by releasing his new varieties in the public domain without restriction. We also have new partnerships with Cornell and a group of farmer-breeders in the Dakotas working on improving ancient grains. And we will have a big announcement in the summer of 2015, what we think is a game-changer in the future of organic seed research. I hate to end with a cliff hanger, but come back to us in a few months for some really good news.