Feeding the Future | How the Indigenous mindset can be applied to agriculture

Corn growing at the Bayer Marana Product Development Center.
Corn growing at the Bayer Marana Product Development Center.

Elena Mantilla

Related Topics:
Agriculture, Sustainability

Based on research from Colorado State University, an acre of corn needs to use 600,000 gallons of water to produce 200 bushels of corn. Today farmers are fighting climate change by adapting their techniques and crops to prepare for the seemingly adverse weather conditions of the future. 

With modern technology the world of agriculture has never been more advanced. On Oct. 5 and 6, 2023, student correspondents for Planet Forward were invited to see two different approaches to the constant efforts to create sustainable crops through selective breeding. 

Creating “Smart Corn”

For pharmaceutical and biotechnology company Bayer, that means precision breeding by identifying genetics within each corn seed they plant at their 7-acre facility located in Marana, Arizona. Bayer’s efforts are highly advanced, but not completely new. It is an entirely different approach than that of TEK (Traditional Ecological Knowledge), which has been used to adapt crops by Indigenous farmers for generations. 

At Bayer’s facility, every seed has a purpose. It is tracked to see how the seed acts in different environments, with decisions aided by artificial intelligence to design the best seeds with traits such as drought resistance or shorter stalks. 

With the latest advancements, the seeds produced in the greenhouse will be used to create the best, most wind-resistant feed corn for the commercial industry. For these seeds, planting them densely helps, and their shorter stature means that the crops are sturdier in high winds. These seeds will primarily be used as feed corn for livestock and for ethanol production, according to Brett Sowers, Bayer Marana’s site enablement lead.

A student with Planet Forward inside Bayer’s Short Stature Corn greenhouse in Marana, Arizona. (Elena Mantilla)

Where Bayer is focused on maximizing yields, other agricultural stakeholders in Arizona have slightly different priorities when it comes to sustainable agriculture.

The San Xavier Co-Op farm located on the Tohono O’odham Nation grows traditional crops while supporting traditional values and the community economically. In accordance with principles of TEK, the farm uses no chemical pesticides or fertilizers and focuses on respecting all aspects of the seed growth process. 

TEK equates to the ever evolving knowledge gained by Indigenous and local people from the previous generations of farming. It provides a method that can create sustainable crops by means of adaptations and changes found within each generation of crop. With these crops, the farmers select desirable traits and use those seeds to build their future harvests. 

While Bayer’s methods are highly technical, there are other, more simple methods that could potentially yield an equally efficient crop. In fact, these methods have been around for many generationsgenerations — thousands of years. With TEK, farmers from the past and present have been able to successfully breed their crops to survive harsh conditions as well. 

When asked if Bayer works or aids local farmers, especially Indigenous farmers, the specialists we met with in the research and development department couldn’t answer. They assured us that it wasn’t that they didn’t care, rather that this kind of outreach wasn’t any of their personal areas of expertise. During the discussion, Holly McLaughlin, who works as a sustainability specialist, stepped in and insisted that it wasn’t because the desire wasn’t there. 

“It’s not that there’s not a desire, it’s just that the focus has been on understanding how to get the infrastructure, that is the precision breeding Marana greenhouse, automated,” McLaughlin said. “On the traditional ecological piece, though, I will say that those conversations are most definitely had, we just don’t have exposure to them in the field, at this time, when that’s really the community we should be serving.”

Learning from TEK

Michael Kotutwa Johnson, an extension specialist with the University of Arizona, and Hopi farmer challenges the western mindset regarding climate change. According to Johnson, Indigenous generational knowledge has been used by his people to grow corn for generations. 

Johnson’s grandparents didn’t starve during the Great Depression. They simply grew their own food. Johnson said he can grow corn and save it for up to 40 years at a time. The methods haven’t changed for him, he uses the same seeds to grow corn that his family has been using for generations. 

“I lost about a third of my crop to heat stress. But the crops that I did manage to save I’ll plant next year, because we’re drying it, so those plants adapt over time… no irrigation. We’ll get six to 10 inches of annual rainfall a year. That’s important to know, because Cornell University said I need 33 inches or more. I thought that was crazy,” Johnson said. 

What this and Johnson highlighted throughout the presentation and panel demonstrated that Indigenous generational knowledge can still be used today to help with modern problems in agriculture. Through selective breeding, these crops can be more resistant while also needing less water. 

The true key that Johnson talked about was biodiversity, which is what will save his next harvest next year because his seeds are more resistant than the previous generations. With biodiversity we can adapt to the changing world climate. 

Indigenous belief systems and practices which have been in place for centuries as an answer to food scarcity and adversity can still be used today because the world continues to change. 

“When we’re talking GDP,  we’re labeled as first or third world countries, low income countries, developing nations, global, north and south. What is wrong with that pitch? It does not give us a chance to show us how resilient we are,” Johnson said.  

To change and adapt for climate change, framing and mindset are among the most important things to keep remembering. What matters is the biodiversity found within the various regions of the world, and using those things to fuel our developments in sustainable agriculture. 

Using less water and being drought tolerant are features that many farmers wish their crops could boast. With the knowledge everyone finds, if they shared it with each other and lifted everyone up with them, getting to a sustainable world would happen a lot faster. But these efforts to make indigenous methods known, along with changing the narrative of being victims, will make Indigenous agricultural knowledge become recognized and potentially used on a larger scale. 

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