Sunday, August 16, 2009

Final Watson Report!

So, pasted below is my final "report" to the Thomas J. Watson Fellowship. After stressing about it for weeks and trying to organize my absurd amount of interviews and information, I talked to the Watson staff and they reassured me that it needed to only be a long letter home. Its obvious impossible to sum up a year in 5 pages, so they just want to hear some reflections, lessons learned, and challenges.
I am not fully satisfied with this report at all, but I sent it in because the due date is fast approaching. I will begin working on more academic, organized reports soon and will hopefully post here. They will be sent to some of the great seed-saving groups that have helped me all year.
Click Read More to see the entire report

Watson Final Report “Crops and Cultures: The Preservation of Heirloom Varieties”
Adam Forbes – Pitzer College
August 1, 2009

Dear Watson Foundation,
I am now flying back home and saying goodbye to a year of travel, seeds, and transformation. For months I have pondered what it would be like to be here, sitting on my last flight bound for the USA. There is no sense of finality or ultimate conclusion like I expected. I am sad to see it all end, but excited to tackle to next chapter of my life. My lessons have built up over the year and seeds have come to mean the world to me. They are more than a protest against Monsanto, but a symbol of freedom, a carrier of values and traditions, a tool for ecological agriculture, survival for peasant farmers, and the basis for all life. Local seeds connect us with our history while also carrying hope for the future of humanity. They provide tasty, healthy crops which promote a different way of life, are an integral part of community, resist pests and disease, adapt to climate change, provide options for breeding, and much more. Put simply, I have spent the past year studying traditional agriculture and crop diversity in India, Italy, Thailand, Ethiopia, Canada, Peru, and Greece. I have not done formal research per say, but have embraced a wide range of experiences in an attempt to learn about every aspect of this international seed saving movement.

At the start of the year, I thought my research would be a study of the loss of genetic diversity and the effect it has had on the world. However, the hope I have found through the seed-saving movement has been the core of my year. I have seen that diversity survives much better than expected and many people around the world are fighting to keep not just our distinct seeds, but our diverse cultures and ways of life. The free exchange of seeds among farmers, based on cooperation and reciprocity, continues to maintain an astounding amount of agricultural diversity. Using traditional seeds we can help to improve farmers’ lives, and promote a better way of life. Seeds are needed for all aspects of agricultural development. Breeders need a diversity of seeds to create more drought resistant or productive crops in the future. Peasant farmers who cannot afford hybrids and expensive chemical inputs depend on a diversity of seeds to produce the food and products their family needs in challenging environments. The reasons are endless and each day this year I learn more about the importance of seeds, their uses, and connections to cultures and farming systems.

Aside from all I learned about sustainable agriculture, the past year of independent travel have given me a chance to step back and examine what my life is about. The best thing about the Watson is that it is about more than just research, it is about learning and growing as a person. It is about being truly free to follow your heart and passion around the world. Before I left college, my professor (a Watson Alum) said to me “This trip will change you forever! Good Luck.” At the time I didn’t know what he meant. I now return home and can firmly say I am changed forever. The change comes not from a single moment, a certain memory, or an unforgettable mountain view. The change comes as a result of all the days I’ve shared with people and their seeds. I have seen the world and am filled with positivity and hope that I never had before.

Perhaps the greatest realization I have come to all year is that the world is a kind place. I have been continuously blown away by the hospitality of strangers. Everyone from elite Greek businessmen to poor Ethiopian farmers have fed me feasts, hosted me, taught me, shared laughs, and exchanged seeds. My hosts and friends have shown me that there is an infinite number of ways to live this life and view our world. I have been provided a glimpse into some of the other ways people live, love, dream, and last but not least prepare their food. In the end I concluded that there is more which unites us than divides us. We all are yearning to live a happy life, eat good food, find love, and gain some sort of respect or admiration. Our values and ways of living are defined in very different ways. However, there is a similar thread which links us all together.

None of what I’ve done this year would have been possible if I had not opened my heart and every essence of my being to listen and connect with others. I have tasted all foods at least once (including raw meat in Ethiopia), tried my hardest at each language (at least 5), slept on mud floors with 12 children, laughed when others laugh, cried when others cried, stared into strangers eyes and listened to their stories. Each person I’ve met this year has had a different lesson to teach me. I never truly valued the power of listening until the Watson experience. I used to always be the one talking, teaching others, and taking control of the situation. This past year I surrendered all control over my life and in turn saw how easy it is to learn from others.

While the year has flown by it seems like a lifetime ago when I left. I can barely remember when I first boarded the plane to India over a year ago. I do remember I was scared, lonely, and completely unsure of how the year would unfold. Somehow, it all worked out better than I ever could have imagined. People keep asking me how I made so many contacts and found my way to all the inspiring groups and incredible places. Miraculously, my whole year evolved organically. Each person I met would introduce me to another kind, inspiring person.

One of the most powerful experiences was my time in Punjab, India. This is a prime example of the benefit of being flexible and letting the journey evolve. After hearing about a farmer’s freedom movement from someone I met on the train, I called the organizer. Through broken English and Hindi I explained why I wanted to come. Umendra told me to meet him at the station at 4:30 AM the next day, when the first train arrived. Our phones then disconnected and I boarded an overnight train with no idea of who this man was or even if he would meet me. To my surprise, Umendra met me right when I stepped off the train. For the next two weeks they organized every minute of my time with interviews, tours, farm work, community seeds banks, family stays, meetings with doctors, and much more. I was immediately accepted as a brother in the farmers’ freedom movement and got to learn about their struggle for ecologic agriculture, biodiversity, and local seeds.

In India, I met a couple who ran the Institute for Sustainable Development in Ethiopia. They ended up hosting me, providing me with a translator, taking me to the real centers of diversity, and much more. A seed saving group I heard about while in Canada has helped to organize my whole time in Greece: taking me to remote mountain villages, putting me to work in the fields, and bringing me to speak at a conference. Just two weeks ago I stumbled into the village which my family is from with a terrible grasp of the Greek language and no idea of where I would sleep. Again, a kind old man hosted me and filled his days with showing me seeds and teaching me all he could. These are just a few small examples of how my year has evolved miraculously from the very first day to the last.

The past year has been a year of adventure, truly epic adventure. I have been pushed to extremes I never imagined possible. However, through these challenges I have learned the most. I still cannot comprehend all I have seen and felt. My photos remind me of a strange mix of memories from diverse rice harvests in India to pesticide covered villages, dark seed banks, colorful potatoes, strong local beers, glorious meals, laughing villagers, formal interviews in Rome, massive conferences, tiny smoke-filled kitchens, oca soups, black breads, brightly colored fields, and large temples. Many times I wake in the morning to vivid memories of digging potatoes in the Andes or riding through the mountains in the back of a pickup truck filled with Thai rice breeders. I must close my eyes, take a breath, and convince myself that this is all true. I know that each of these experiences has changed me and shaped who I am today.

For once in my life I couldn’t blame anyone else or make excuses. This was my journey and everything that happened was a result of my choices. Each morning I woke up and had the freedom to do what I wanted. I could have relaxed on one farm all year or vacationed on beaches. However, I forced myself to constantly tackle new challenges, interview as many farmers as possible, run up another hill to find a family seed bank before dark, travel to one more area to learn about their agricultural practices, or drink another potent liquor just so I could connect with the old villagers. One realization I came to was regarding my intense workaholic tendencies. After being told to relax in at least 5 languages, the lesson finally stuck. Over time, I also worked past my white guilt and shame I felt from being a privileged American. I put aside much of my ego and expectations, resulting in deeper social connections than ever before. Having so much time alone with my thoughts helped me to confront issues in my life. I learned to listen, not only to wise old women, but also to my own hearts desires. I did not have my mother telling me what to do or some grand goal to achieve. I finally accepted that the only requirements I had were ones I placed on myself.

This year has also shown me the power of simplicity. For twelve months I lived out of only a small pack. I stayed with many people who owned significantly less than me. However, these kind people gave up everything they could to make me happy, a complete stranger. The villagers in India, Thailand, Ethiopia, Peru, and some parts of Greece had very few possessions, but laughed more than anyone I’ve seen. They took time with family to enjoy good food and showed me that basic happiness is as much a part of living as any “success” we have been trained to strive for. I have become confident that I will never change the world. An individual can only do a small bit, but through our connections the actions ripple out and affect many others. While I saw many beautiful, joyous villages, I am not idealizing their situations. I did also see a farmer dying of malaria, children with distended bellies sweeping the leftover rice fields, slums of thousands of people, widows of war, and much more. Seeing the incredible complexity of our world and the problems we face, I have become less idealistic and extreme than when I left.

This trip has put things in perspective for me. I am more inspired than ever to work for positive change and have a clear vision of what my path in life must be. Life is fleeting at best and we must enjoy each minute we are given on this wonderful planet. After years of being fed depressing information on globalization and the state of our world, I have now benefited immensely from the globally connected nature of our planet. The diverse people I have stayed with have shown me what it means to live a good life. We will never go back to some ideal simple existence that may have existed in the past. However, we will continue to grow and adapt, like our local seeds. There are concrete ways I can help by teaching others, promoting ecologic agriculture, organizing community seed banks, and growing healthy food.
While tackling these efforts in the USA, I am confident that I can stay connected to this international struggle. For once I have hope a brighter future exists. I have met enough inspiring people to keep me motivated for the rest of my life. The solutions are even more complex than the problems and the only way we can win is to work together. Someday, we will harvest the power of the sun, honor authentic diversity, create sustainable farms, invest in children instead of war, and learn from each other through mutual respect.

The Watson Fellowship gave me the power to take my life in my own hands. I followed my heart and it led me to the most magical places. Nothing was perfect, but I learned to be happy with imperfection and to embrace uncertainty. Some lessons I learned may seem mundane, like the ability to talk to strangers on the street for hours or the various ways Peruvian farmers store potato seeds. However, each new memory, experience, and skill has helped me to grow as a person. At the end of the year I cancelled my trip to Mexico because I felt an intense need to learn about my own heritage in Greece. Miraculously I found the village where my ancestors were from and even got to learn about our old wheat varieties, water mills, and agricultural festivals. The experience did not answer my questions about who I am or what my life means. The Greek villagers simply helped me to accept my lessons of the year. Unlike nearly all the people I stayed with, I have lost my connection to a place and even a distinct culture. Despite this, I am now beginning to grasp who I am and am able to happily spend many hours alone with my mind.

When I first conceived of my Watson proposal I knew I loved seeds and I knew that they were important politically. I was afraid of what the future held. For years I had a quote on my wall, “Seeds are the very beginning of the food chain. He, who controls the seeds, controls the food supply and thus controls the people.” This fear and the facts of how much diversity has been lost filled me with negative expectations. During my first weeks in India I was immediately shocked at the diversity of crops Navdanya was growing and conserving. After working in the fields, I spent hours listening to the various uses for each vegetable and the ways to produce the unidentifiable grains. From this moment on, my year became a study of positivity. I quickly learned that seeds inherently carry the expression of hope. I never imagined there were so many individuals, initiatives, communities, and organizations all over the world deeply engaged in safeguarding seeds.

While some farmers and organizers I met with knew about the political ramifications of local seeds, the majority did not. I was told many times, in many languages, that “Seeds equals life” or “If we don’t have access to affordable, locally-adapted seeds we don’t have access to food.” Seeds do not represent a fight against Monsanto or globalization for most farmers. Seeds most often represent food or survival. The second most important reason I saw was taste. Even in the most poor, drought-prone regions of Ethiopia the villagers would rave to me about the taste of their local varieties. Countless old women told me that they couldn’t enjoy the crops from hybrid seeds. Even the cows wouldn’t eat the wheat straw or rice bran from improved varieties. I saw that hybrids or improved varieties have a great value when they can be grown with adequate water, fertilizer, pesticides, etc. However, many farmers do not have access to these inputs. They experience severe yield decline after a few years or become trapped in a “fertilizer treadmill” of buying more and more to supplement their degraded soil. In Punjab, thousands of farmers suffered from cancer and severe debt as a result of their “modernized” agriculture. Nonetheless, these people did not sit back and complain. They were filled with pride and excitement for the future. Instead of relishing in their sorrows, they proudly displayed the local seeds they were growing again, taught me how to make organic fertilizers, and fed me every traditional dish they could imagine.

Not only do the crops from local seeds taste better, they often cook faster and are a crucial part of traditional dishes. In Ethiopia the farmers continue to grow a red teff (a native grain) because it grows on degraded soil and can make the most incredible injeera. In Peru, many farmers grow over 100 native potato varieties in their field because each variety has a different texture and taste (they also resist different pests or climate conditions). I did see overall that there is a general whitening of our foods and extreme homogenization of our agriculture. However, people of all walks of life are resisting this. I am so glad that I travelled to a range of countries, including highly “developed” nations like Italy or Canada and “developing” countries like Ethiopia, India, and Peru. I was shocked at how far-reaching this issue really is. Citizens from doctors to peasant farmers are passionate about the importance of agricultural biodiversity. I saw different crops in each country, different agricultural systems, diets, recipes, seed saving methods, and cultural traditions.

The most inspiring projects I saw were ones that combined the old with the new, while actually working with the people. Unfortunately, in many efforts like the Green Revolution in agriculture we have totally ignored traditional knowledge. The scientists who pushed these approaches on the world never actually listened to the farmers, like I did this year. The scientists had good intentions in wanting to produce a higher yield of rice or wheat per acre. But, they did not know that Indian farmers typically grow up to twelve crops in each field and the “minor” crops were even more important to diet and nutrition than the rice. The scientists did not ask the farmers how important the wheat straw was to their animals or even what the climate conditions were like. Now, people like Ethio-Organic Seed Action and even the International Potato Center are actually speaking to villagers and honoring the thousands of years of accumulated knowledge. Participatory Plant Breeding, Community Seed Banks, and other efforts combine modern scientific techniques with the complex traditional knowledge of subsistence farmers. These efforts are dynamic and participatory; they actually benefit the people who need it the most.

None of our food that exists today simply appeared in the wild. For over 10,000 years farmers have selected, bred, developed, and grown crops. All of our current agriculture relies on germplasm which the world’s traditional farmers have developed and protected. While we in America are very disconnected from our food systems, approximately 1.4 billion people still live in families who rely on farm saved seed. We must value the incredible knowledge of these farmers and improve it slightly with modern methods. The future of the seed carries within it the future of humanity.
Giving up practically everything I know and love to travel the world alone is not an easy thing to do. However, the rewards far outweigh any negatives. I cannot put into words exactly how this journey has changed me yet, but I know my life will never be the same. I have more motivation than ever to work for ecological agriculture and seeds, but have also seen the value of relaxing with friends, listening to others, and sharing in a long meal. I cannot ever thank the Watson Foundation enough for this experience!


Luigi said...

Congratulations, Adam!

But where can I get a copy of the full report, I don't see it...

aytowler said...

Forbes. Beautiful, inspiring, filled with passion and hope. Your words painted a world very hard for me to imagine- places I have never seen, people I have never met, but somehow I feel connected to your experience. My experience on Fulbright Nepal I think was extremely different from your Watson experience but people's kindness and generosity- peoples' insisting on relaxing and enjoying each moment are things I can resonate with. I also became close with people who spent all of their saving on fertilizers and pestisides to grow tomatoes and corn as cash crops. And when the harvest time came and they carried heavy loads of lushious ripe tomatoes hours on their heads to the nearest town buyers offered only pennies. Pennies.

But I love what you you said about the fact that people arent growing seeds to fight monsanto or DOW, they are just living their lives. I am thinking now about the water mills of nepal and people spending hours to make the most nutritious, wholesome flours. In other places the same amount of flour is made by a machine in half the time but squanders most of the precious micronutrients- and yet many people are happy to be able to be watching TV instead and have their foods white and shiny like the pretty people in most advertisements.

There are so many issues out there and I am astonished at how bravely and deeply you have dove into this ocean of seeds- now fully soaked with hope and positivity.

Keep on inspiring us all!!

p.s. if you get a chance check out an article I just posted on my blob which I wrote for Himal South Asia Magazine but did not get published at

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