Dr. Alan Kapuler, founder of the Corvallis organic seed company Peace Seeds, believes that biodiversity must be cherished and protected if we are to survive as a species. His love of plants has been lifelong, since his childhood studying orchids (he still has an entire greenhouse dedicated to them), and he has devoted his life to the protection of plant biodiversity. Upon meeting him, his genius is obvious—he’s one of those rare individuals who knows so much about so very much, and he’s passionate about all of it.
When I met Dr. Kapuler at Brown’s Garden, a local three-acre research farm where he and his family organically breed and study a vast array of—sometimes unusual—edible and ornamental plants, he asked,
“How old are you?”
“I’m 28,” I replied.
“No,” said Dr. Kapuler, “you’re billions of years old.”
He went on to explain that our genetic code is derived in part from simple, single-celled organisms that lived billions of years ago. And energy and mass are conserved in the Universe—every atom of every person, insect, and plant has been in existence for billions of years. In other words, all life on Earth is interconnected.
The biodiversity of an ecosystem is a measure of its health—the number of different species of plants, animals, fungi, protists, and prokaryotes present in a puddle of water, a vast prairieland, an entire continent, or the whole of Earth can give you an idea of its state of wellness. Given that the current rate of species extinction is greater now than ever before in human history, human beings appear to be entering a new era of self-induced homogeneity. The foods we eat in the U.S. are more often than not shipped from China or South America, or at least from distant parts of the nation. It’s all the same—bananas, milk, oranges, rice, burgers, macaroni and cheese—and most of it is processed or treated with chemical pesticides, preservatives, and flavorings. In regions formerly rich with a huge diversity of life, there is now only rice, bananas, wheat, or cows.
For many of us, tragically, it’s always been this way, and it feels normal. But while some are content to face the threat of uniformity by buying local, organic foods and perhaps planting an edible garden, both thoughtful and sustainable practices, for Dr. Kapuler that’s not nearly enough.
Dr. Kapuler’s early achievements are both exceptional and prolific—at age 15 he won the Westinghouse National Science Talent Search for his experiments developing mutations in orchids. A Yale undergraduate, he entered college at age 16. He graduated first in his class, and his honors thesis earned him the highest grade ever granted by the university. He earned his doctorate in molecular biology at the prestigious Rockefeller University, and went on to study with the top researchers in his field, including future Nobel Prize-winner Dr. Howard Temin.
But Dr. Kapuler grew increasingly troubled by trends in mainstream science.
“The problem is in the way the funding, the grants, the science is used for private gain and for control,” he said.
Among other fundamental issues, he believes that while genetically modified organisms (GMOs) could provide tremendous benefit to humanity—envision growing avocado-like fruits on trees adapted to colder temperate zones—we’re going about it all wrong.
“If we wanted to grow avocados here, that would take some doing but it would really be something. That’s a different approach—why don’t we do something that would actually support the food system by moving into marginal conditions where we don’t grow any food right now.”
With exceptions, current plant GMO work focuses mainly on increased yield of a small number of over-produced species (such as corn, soybeans, and canola), as well as pest- and herbicide-resistance in these crops—but we have no idea what ingestion of GMO plants producing chemical pesticides means for the human body. And consider the case of Percy Schmeiser, a Canadian canola farmer, whom Monsanto sued for patent infringement when trucks bearing their Roundup Ready canola seeds contaminated Schmeiser’s crop—corporate greed at its finest.
In a 2008 interview with Scott Vlaun of Seeds of Change, Kapuler noted, “If science helped increase the yields of the crops and developed chemical fertilizers and pesticides, then we have a problem because all that is doing is poisoning the water and destroying the soil and poisoning people. That’s not science per se. I do like to believe that science is there to serve humanity, not to exploit it, and that’s possible.”
Armed with a vast quantity of scientific knowledge and a desire for a healthier, more fulfilling life, Kapuler left his position at the University of Connecticut, packed his belongings, and headed west to Oregon. Here he met his wife, Linda, and together they now have three daughters, Kusra, Eliyrea, and Dylana. The idea for Peace Seeds was born when Dr. Kapuler and his wife began saving seeds from their diverse garden. They realized they could re-plant each year without having to purchase new seeds from large companies (as many of us do each year).
“We started saving heirlooms,” explained Dr. Kapuler, “we started to grow as much as we could, and then to learn about biological diversity by taking a seed, growing a plant, getting it to mature, harvesting the seeds, and completing the cycle—we’re always working to complete cycles.”
Peace Seeds, and now Peace Seedlings, a next-generation company fittingly started by Dr. Kapuler’s daughter Dylana and her partner Mario DiBenedetto, have gained international acclaim for their environmentally responsible and organic practices, and their dedication to preserving and improving the biodiversity of local ecosystems. Peace Seeds and Peace Seedlings breed and provide a vast array of public domain organic seeds grown using “ecoadaptive” methods. Such methods are beneficial for the health and biodiversity of the local environment, and include crop rotations, diverse inter-planting, organic soil nutrient replenishment using compost, and complete avoidance of synthetics and chemicals.
The Kapulers’ hugely diverse seed collection contains somewhere between 10,000 and 15,000 types of seeds, all of which were either produced in the family’s research gardens or collected from various ecosystems throughout the world. And, unlike commercially available seeds, seeds provided by the Kapulers are not patented—anyone can continue breeding and expanding the lines.
“We’re putting together an assembly of what will develop to be a sustainable organic food system right here—that’s what our work has been 40 years in doing,” asserted Dr. Kapuler.
Through Peace Seeds and Peace Seedlings, the Kapulers promote the concepts of public domain plant breeding, wildcrafting (collection of seeds from the local ecosystem), and preservation of heirloom varieties while at the same time growing diversity. Open pollination, an important aspect of public domain plant breeding, increases biodiversity by allowing random pollination of crops through wind, insects, birds, and other pollinators. This produces new plants with greater genetic variability than plants bred using more limiting closed pollination practices, which result in future generations that have the same genetic traits. Some plants self-pollinate, so that even in open pollination conditions the future generations maintain the same genetic traits. However, in plants that can be open pollinated, natural genetic diversity can lead to improved adaptation to the local ecosystem, and natural resistance to disease.
Through public domain plant breeding, Dr. Kapuler has produced beautiful and highly productive variants of many common (and not-so-common) crops. Wide crosses using, for example, a bushy plant producing large deep purple tomatoes and a vining plant producing small orange tomatoes, lead to grexes (all children of two given parents) with huge variability. This is followed by stringent selection of particular offspring that exhibit interesting or adaptive traits. Dr. Kapuler’s sweet corn kernels are multi-colored—and contain high levels of anthocyanins—rather than entirely white or yellow, and he’s produced sunflower varieties, the results of various crosses, that “flower for several weeks to months longer in our cool wet fall weather.” He’s also discovered a hyper-productive cherry tomato that produces massive numbers of blooms and fruits each season. And when he discovered that no good organic snap vine pea seeds were available, he and his daughter Kusra bred Peace Seeds’ public domain Sugaree Snap Pea, which was the first of many peas to come. These peas and many others are available through Peace Seeds’ catalog, and include such eye-catching varieties as the Sugar Magnolia purple snap vine pea, and the Green Beauty snow vine pea. Like every seed carried by Peace Seeds and Peace Seedlings, they are organically grown and available to all.
“Monsanto and DuPont and other companies always do conformist breeding, their stuff isn’t interesting” says Dr. Kapuler. “We have half a dozen fabulous marigolds, and the same with sunflowers—original stuff that I have actively chosen not to patent or own in any way because otherwise you steal what’s everybody’s.”
While the Kapulers breed plants for interesting or beneficial traits, they also attempt to preserve heirlooms, which are plant varieties that were grown prolifically by our ancestors but are no longer common in modern agriculture. Heirloom varieties benefit from open rather than controlled pollination, and heirloom preservation increases biodiversity—loss of these historical varieties to the current monoculture trends would be devastating. And if you’ve ever savored a deliciously flavorful heirloom tomato from your garden or local farm stand then you understand another value of maintaining such lineages. Commercial tomatoes are now bred for uniformity of shape and color, and resistance to damage over long-distance shipping. As a result, they’ve surrendered much of the vibrant, tangy tomato flavor that is still going strong in heirlooms.
Dr. Kapuler’s research in Oregon has also focused on the nutritional content of various edible plants. Eating at the primary end of the food chain—plants—would provide the most calories for humans. A single beef cow consumes 10 to 20 times the calories in plant matter that we acquire from the cow by eating meat. Cattle are often fed grains grown in fields that could instead produce vegetables for human consumption. And each pound of meat takes an estimated 2,500 gallons of fresh water to produce, 400 to 600 gallons of which is consumed by the cow itself.
“If we did not eat so many animals,” said Dr. Kapuler, “we’d have plenty of food.”
The amino acid content of edible plants is of special interest to Dr. Kapuler, who believes that increased knowledge of nutrition would entirely change—for the better—the way humans think about, value, and cultivate food. Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins; humans use 20 unique amino acids to build all the proteins in our bodies. Some of these amino acids our bodies can make, and some we must consume in our food to remain healthy. If we all knew we could use plants as complete protein sources, would we eat so much meat? After all, free amino acids are free amino acids, and we can use those derived from plants to make our bodies’ proteins just as easily.
“The diversity of agricultural crop cultivars, from lettuce to carrots to peaches, is a living resource in which to investigate the natural presence of free amino acids. By establishing a database for free amino acids in the cultivars of our common fruits and vegetable plants, we establish a direction for selection of new kinds,” wrote Dr. Kapuler in a 2004 publication on the free amino acids in commonly grown organic produce.
So which type of tomato, for example, has the most complete amino acid profile, and would provide the best nutrition for humans? As Dr. Kapuler found in studies with Dr. Sarangamat Gurusiddiah, then head of Washington State University’s Bioanalytical Laboratory, “the tomatoes were loaded with free amino acids and there were characteristic differences between the different cultivars.”
Dr. Kapuler noted further that, “Cultivars of tomatoes augmented in vitamins A and C already exist. We can extend these developments to free amino acids and broaden their scope by putting health and nutrition back in the garden and front-line in agriculture by developing a whole new spectrum of cultivars enhanced in various amino acids.”
As our population steadily rises and our planet plunges toward homogeneity, it becomes increasingly obvious that we need to reconsider our currently unsustainable approaches to modern agriculture. In this day of high fructose corn syrup, Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations, and pink slime, it’s urgent that we take responsibility for our own health and that of the ecosystems on which we depend so heavily for our survival. Support organic, support local, and absolutely support biodiversity.
By Genevieve Weber