Does Food Security's Future Lie in Organic Seeds?

The Seed Matters website illustrates "the story of seed." Cultivator Matthew Dillon works to keep the narrative going for a long, long time. (Photo:, Clif Bar Family Foundation).

You’d be hard pressed to find a young visionary quite as passionate about the organic seed movement than Matthew Dillon of Seed Matters.

Founded in 2009 as the first special initiative of Gary Erickson and Kit Crawford’s Clif Bar Family Foundation, a foundation dedicated to supporting individual grassroots organizations working to make a change in the areas of environmental protection and education, sustainable agriculture, personal well-being and last not but not least, bicycling, Seed Matters revolves around a physically small yet unequivocally vital commodity that holds the key to the future of food security.

The overarching mission of Seed Matters is threefold: To conserve genetic crop diversity, to protect farmers’ roles as seed innovators and stewards of the land, and to reinvigorate seed research and education. So how does Seed Matters attempt to achieve these goals? This is where Matthew Dillon, cultivator for Seed Matters, comes in.

To learn more about Seed Matters and the importance of good seed stewardship — particularly how it affects how we eat and, ultimately, how we live — we asked Dillon a few questions about his work with the initiative and what he hopes to achieve. What we learned is that this isn’t a heavily romanticized vision of agriculture that you’d find depicted on Super Bowl commercials for expensive trucks — it’s urgent, it’s important and it’s largely collaborative. And it all starts with a single seed of change.

seeds of the world illustration

MNN: When many folks see the word "cultivator" they think of tillage tools, not official job titles. What does your role of Seed Matters cultivator entail?

Dillon: Going back to the root of the word cultivate, you come upon the Latin cultus — "to care for" — and further back the Proto-Indo-European quelō — "to turn around" — and I think both of these describe my role as cultivator for Seed Matters. Long-term sustainability in agriculture requires stewardship of our seeds, caring for the natural resource of plant genetics that is at the foundation of our food systems. In order to care for them we need to turn some things around, particularly a narrowing of crop and genetic diversity, loss of regional seed systems and a lack of focus on breeding for organic agriculture. My job is to bring together a collaborative of scientists, farmers, nonprofits and food companies to make a transition toward more resilient seed systems. Our work includes organic seed research and education grants, graduate fellowships, a farmer seed stewardship initiative and development and distribution of community seed tool kits.

You've been working within the organic seed movement for some years now, including serving as executive director of the Organic Seed Alliance. How did you come to work with Clif Bar Family Foundation and Seed Matters? Have you always been involved with agriculture in some capacity?

I grew up in an agricultural family and community, and went to a boarding school in Nebraska that had an organic farm, but I did not initially pursue it as a career. In my mid-20s my father passed, and it was his passing that inspired me to go back to gardening, which led me to farming, and then to seed.

I co-founded and directed OSA and cared deeply about the mission. When it was time to allow the organization to evolve, I moved on to Clif Bar Family Foundation, which was a funder of OSA. Clif Bar Family Foundation was interested in launching a long-term initiative with the business and private foundation community to improve organic seed systems. The foundation had discovered that most organic farmers were relying on seed bred for high-input conventional agriculture and knew this was a disadvantage for them. It was an important idea — food companies that rely on seed for their success are often disconnected from the seed itself. The foundation realized that we all have a collective responsibility to care for our seed legacy, and that we could improve organic farming for people and planet by improving seed.

You mentioned the Seed Matters graduate fellowship program. Can you tell us more about that?

Funding for agricultural research has sharply moved from our public land grant universities to private research firms, and this is particularly true in plant breeding. Even the larger biotech companies have recognized that our agricultural schools are not training enough plant breeders who actually work with plants in the field. Universities are graduating plenty of molecular biologists who can sequence a genome, but not enough people who interact with farmers, soil and crops. In organic the situation is worse, with less than $1 million a year going to research and education (including training of graduate students) in organic plant breeding. Seed Matters believes it’s important to make an investment in the next generation of plant breeders, and to reinvigorate public seed research and education. Seed Matters Fellows work with skilled professors to breed organic crops, but more importantly they are the future thought leaders of the organic movement — in research, agricultural policy and entrepreneurship. These students inspire me and are reason for all of us to feel positive about the future.

Conventional agriculture has taken its toll on the natural environment in myriad ways. What is the biggest threat in your mind?

It’s difficult to point to one threat above others because agriculture occurs in a very complex ecological and social system, and one area always touches another. I’m particularly concerned about consolidation of ownership in food and farming, and think we need a greater diversity of decision makers, investors and actors (people doing the work). In seed there has been a 30-year trend toward a few companies controlling the vast majority of the seed farmers sow, and determining the goals of plant breeding for the future. Seed Matters is working to decentralize seed systems, creating resilient and regional public seed systems that work for the public good. This is an essential step for creating the plant genetic diversity that future generations will need as they face challenges such as climate change, depleting natural resources, less fresh water, and so on.

Any pointers or advice on starting a community seed project? What's the most important aspect when starting off? How can casual gardeners practice plant breeding in their own backyards or community plots?

I encourage gardeners to start small — saving seed from one or two crops — and to not be afraid of making mistakes. Trial and error have always been a part of growing food and learning how to improve how we grow food. Same goes for seed saving or breeding your own backyard veggies. The work is easier in community, as you then don’t have to reinvent the wheel on every technique. As far as launching a community seed project I believe it is best to start with a Seed Swap among local gardeners and market famers. Bring people together in the winter and exchange extra seed you have and share stories about how the varieties grow, or how to save seed from them. At these events create time for brainstorming about how your community might collaborate on future projects — a dedicated community seed garden or seed library, for example. At Seed Matters, we think of the steps as Gather (people and seed), Grow (seed and community), Share (knowledge and seed).

Have to ask: What's your favorite veggie to grow?

I know this is not a single veggie ... but the growing I love the most is scattering a dozen different varieties of mustards, lettuce, arugula, kale and other greens, and watching a carpet of diverse color and leaf shape emerge that I can trim with kitchen scissors and get salad after salad after salad.