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HUMANS HAVE DOMESTICATED thousands of plant species but currently use only a few hundred. In the United States, just two or three big companies dominate the commercial seed market. But lately, nonprofit groups and communities are working to conserve agricultural biodiversity and regain control of seed breeding and exchange. And they’re being watched by Nurcan Atalan-Helicke, a faculty member in en - vironmental studies.


She joined Helen Alemayehu Mebrate ’16 (at left) and Lauren Bosche ’15 (at right) to pore over catalogs and Web sites and to interview seed purveyors, breeders, and nonprof- its. They've studying who is involved in seed-exchange net- works and what their concerns are, in order to understand the influence of seed exchanges in the agricultural and food system—for example, do such networks actually boost the resilience of their communities’ agricultural production in the face of droughts or pests?


The first seed-saving exchange network was established in 1975, and today there are more than 340 seed libraries in the


10 SCOPE SPRING 2014


US, but their impact is still minor. Bosche felt the same way about her research, she says, until “I saw Nurcan present at a conference, and I was inspired. I returned to campus with a greater sense of how our work contributes to the larger de- bates.” Focusing on a library in New York and a native-seed group in Arizona, Bosche enjoyed the challenge of not just fact-gathering but “trying to get a handle on what wasn’t readily available or what was left unsaid.” Another crucial subject for the researchers was the con- nection between seed exchanges and the notion of food sovereignty. While food security is about access and suffi- ciency, food sovereignty is about communities’ rights to de- termine their own seed choices, food markets, and farm policies. Like seed exchanges, the food-sovereignty move- ment is spreading fast. For Mebrate, that growth is comfort- ing; she was impressed by the large conferences she and her colleagues attended, and she says that if more people learn about food systems, “hopefully we’ll make better decisions.”


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