The Vanishing Pool
Ma Kettle is at rest, all 700 pounds of her reclining on a bed of fresh straw, slowly heaving. She's black, about five feet long, and rotund, yet remarkably nimble when she finally ambles to the water bucket. The most striking thing about her is the face, all wrinkles and folds arranged around a pug nose and a pair of alert eyes. There's an echo of Major in Animal Farm, or maybe something from Where the Wild Things Are.
Ma Kettle is a purebred Berkshire, a descendant of the pigs English settlers brought with them to the New World. At one point, they were among the most popular breeds on American farms. But in the 1960s, the industry's marketing people noticed that consumer tastes were changing. People wanted bacon rather than lard, and leaner pork chops. Breeders crossed Berkshires with other hogs to produce a longer-bodied animal, and the original type was almost forgotten. The way things stand now, Ma Kettle may be one of the last of her kind. And she looks as if she knows it.
The lonely sow is one of about three dozen animals housed in and around a big red barn in Decorah, Iowa. If things go well for the organization that's keeping her, a mate will be found and the breed will continue for at least a while longer. Which is more than one can say for many of the Berkshire's old barnyard and farmfield contemporaries. As pastures and fields around the world are populated with the highly specialized products of advanced genetics, thousands of animal and plant types are disappearing. Some biotechnologists have taken to calling them "genetic waste."
Farm-animal disappearances are a trifle compared to the rate at which species in the wild are being extinguished: Some 3,000 species are estimated to vanish each month, compared to six domesticated breeds. Yet the numbers add up. Some 27 American farm breeds have become extinct since the early part of the century. Most of the rest are declining in numbers.
Each time one goes, it takes with it a configuration of genes that took millennia to create. Genes for tallness, shortness, fat or lean meat; for disease resistance, fertility, climate tolerance. In some scientific circles, "genetic erosion," as it's called, is considered one of the biggest threats to humanity's future on the planet. But not many people are familiar with the notion, and no one is doing much of anything about it.
The barn in Decorah was built in the late 1860s, when white settlers began to get comfortable in this part of northeastern Iowa. It's beautiful country--rolling hills dotted with massive burr oaks opening toward the Iowa River. In the valley sits Luther College, which until the 1960s operated a farm to raise its own milk and meat. Then it became cheaper to buy those things at the grocery store. By the time Peter Jorgensen came around in 1991, the old barn was about ready to come down.
A lanky, bearded man in a blue flannel shirt, Jorgensen grew up on a dairy farm not unlike this one, in St. Clair County, Michigan. There were hundreds of family operations like it around back then, populated by cows of various hues, shapes, and dispositions. Farmers raised chocolate-colored Brown Swiss, chunky Milking Shorthorns, hot-tempered Guernseys; and, of course, Holsteins, the black-and-white heifers every child knows from the ice cream ads. Today in St. Clair County, a lot of the cow breeds are gone, and so are many of the farms. Larger industrial holdings, populated mostly by uniform herds of Holsteins, are what remain.
Jorgensen had long since left the farm by the time this started happening. He and his wife, Shan Thomas, headed to California in 1980 to "escape the economic disaster Michigan had become" and Jorgensen took up cabinetmaking while Thomas did office work. Then one day Thomas's boss asked Jorgensen to help find someone to run a new program to preserve rare farm breeds. Jorgensen suggested himself, and soon the couple was tending a flock of Navajo-Churro sheep in the hills of Sonoma County.
When the opportunity came up to use an old farm in Decorah for a similar but bigger project, the couple jumped. Last year, after five years of fundraising and restoration, the Institute for Agricultural Biodiversity opened its doors. Run on a shoestring budget, it's the only systematic effort of its kind in the U.S.
The old barn has a comfortable, bittersweet smell made of equal parts rotting wood, animal bedding, and wildflowers. Inside one can hear crickets and the occasional passing car. Tours begin in the lamb enclosure, where three tiny Navajo-Churros rub their budding horns against the wooden fence.
This breed was brought to America by the conquistadors and adopted by Navajo herders, laying the foundation for the Southwest's legendary weaving industry. Over the centuries, the American version developed distinct features, including a tendency to grow four horns rather than two. The trait was suppressed in medieval Spain, where the Catholic church associated the number four with the devil, but flourished among the Navajo. Besides the horns, the breed is known for its long, mottled fleece whose special coating makes it extraordinarily durable.
"These animals," Jorgensen says, leaning on the fence, "represent the work of generations of farmers. They are part of our heritage, a cultural artifact just as much as a piece of music, a painting, a dance performance. And they should be preserved with the same care and attention." But America has never been much for history. With the exception of a project undertaken to save the Texas Longhorn in the 1920s, the government has never gotten into a systematic effort to preserve rare breeds. Nor does agribusiness. Land-grant colleges used to keep around heritage-breed collections, but those programs have fallen to funding cuts. The University of Minnesota wasn't even able to save its own once-groundbreaking introduction to agriculture, the Minnesota No. 1 hog.
That leaves the matter in the hands of a passionate but small band of aficionados. There are collector types who comb through old books and paintings searching for evidence of ancient breeds; administrators of historic sites like Colonial Williamsburg that need period livestock as part of the scenery; hobby farmers who like Norwegian fjord horses because they're great with kids. They have formed an association, the American Livestock Breeds Conservancy, which puts out a newsletter, provides technical advice, and maintains a small semen bank. But, says its Executive Director Don Bixby, it has no way of ensuring preservation on a large scale. Generally a breed will disappear unless someone takes a fancy to it.
The credit for saving the mulefoot hog goes to a cantankerous old farmer in Missouri. Mulefoots are distinguished by a mutation that causes them to have a single toe rather than a cloven foot; they have a brown coat and a muscular build, gain weight fast, and produce good meat. In the 1920s, a breeder's brochure described them as "The Coming Hog of America."
Seventy years later, only a single mulefoot herd was known to have survived in the U.S., on the property of a man named R.L. Holiday. People had made fun of his hogs through the years, and it made him bitter. When preservationists approached him, he said the hogs would go with him when he died. It was five years before he agreed to sell a few to the Institute. They live there now, in an outdoor pen on the hillside behind the barn. There's recently been a litter, and a human's approach will send half a dozen piglets scattering all over the pasture.
Like the Berkshire, mulefoots fell into disfavor as breeders sought to tailor pigs to grocery demands and industrial efficiency. Today's commercial hogs bulk up at a rate of up to two pounds per day, reaching market size in a mere 140 days; mulefoots, by contrast, take 160 days. The new hogs' meat is pale and low-fat and tailored to a marketing imperative: to make pork "the other white meat" in the minds of suddenly fat-conscious Americans.
There are drawbacks, though. That pale muscle is high in moisture, and weak. Commercial hogs can't move well and must be kept confined. They can't tolerate fluctuations in heat or cold, meaning farmers have to run heaters or air conditioners much of the year. And they're so nervous that many of them fall victim to a lethal condition called Porcine Stress Syndrome.
Not so the mulefoot. The institute's herd, Jorgensen says, did fine in an open-fronted pole barn all the way through last year's 40-below nights and 120-degree days. Much of their time is spent foraging out in the pasture, so they're inexpensive to feed. And their meat is delicious. "People may find it odd that we eat endangered animals around here," he says, "but of course, you always have some that you need to slaughter--any breeding program has an excess of males--and we've sold a number of them as freezer hogs. If cholesterol is a problem, this is not the hog for you. But I've stuck them in a broiler pan next to some cuts from the local market, and there's just no comparison. The commercial chops dried out right away."
Gourmet meals aren't the only thing mulefoots come in handy for. Their ability to withstand rough climates and thrive on roughage makes them ideal for a lot of farming conditions--including the kind U.S. farmers may face someday. All it would take to cause serious trouble for the massive feedlots now in vogue, Jorgensen notes, is a hike in the price of oil, which supplies both the fuel for the climate-controlled stables and the fertilizer and pesticides for the feed. Not to mention climate change, and the possibility--increasingly likely, according to economic forecasters--of a world food crisis. "With a growing population, is it going to be defensible to feed corn and soybeans, things that people could eat, to cows and hogs?" Jorgensen asks. "Or does it make more sense to have animals that convert things humans can't eat, like grass, into things we can?"
This is not the kind of thinking that's driven the main currents in agriculture in this century. Ever since Gregor Mendel formulated the basic laws of inheritance after watching peas in his Austrian cloister garden, breeders have been reshuffling the genetic deck of cards in search of a more perfect creature. Farm animals now are products of advanced biodesign, with techniques ranging from artificial insemination to in-vitro fertilization, embryo transfer, and cloning. Cows, hogs, and poultry are put together with the help of computer analyses, and inbreeding is routine: One prize male can sire up to 200,000 offspring, making for herds composed of half-siblings and an ever-narrowing gene pool.
All those improvements came at a price. Today's most popular turkey breed does grow its meat where humans want it, but its huge breasts barely allow it to move, let alone reproduce naturally. Beef cattle can get so muscle-bound that their calves have to be extracted by C-section. And those Holsteins that now populate the farms around Jorgensen's birthplace can keep up their massive milk production only on carefully balanced diets spiked with "protein supplements" (often produced from slaughterhouse waste) and regular doses of hormones and antibiotics.
Yet Holsteins, and their equivalents in the hog and poultry world, are spreading around the globe. Developed on the soggy plains of northern Germany, they have been exported to Asia, Africa, and Latin America. The fine-tuned animals don't necessarily thrive in their new environments. Some researchers liken the situation to trying to run a Formula One race car on diesel fuel.
But by the time that becomes clear, it's often too late for the native breeds that adapted to local conditions over a centuries. There's a type of cattle that thrives on the acidic pastures of parts of Africa, and another with buoy-shaped, inflated horns that help it swim Lake Victoria. Mangalitza hogs, with their long, curly coats, do well on Hungarian steppes, and northern India's pygmy hog is the right size for village farmers. Within each breed, there are variations depending on who's been raising the animals, in what region, and for what purpose.
All those variations are now vanishing. The European Community estimates that half the breeds in existence there at the dawn of the 20th century have become extinct. Worldwide, the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that one-third of the 5,000-or-so currently recognized domesticated breeds are at risk, and many more have already disappeared. Humans, the organization concluded in a recent report, live on "a sinking ark."
A few miles from the Institute for Agricultural Biodiversity there's another red barn, accessible by way of a narrow road that meanders through cornfields filled with the usual row after row of identical stalks, interspersed with an occasional Pioneer Hi-Bred marker.
The gardens adjacent to this other barn bear a lot of markers, too. "Gift from Moldova," reads the tag next to a short row of pepper plants bearing pointy fruit with a sweetly pungent taste. "Black Chinese," says the one by another pepper with dark-purple foliage and hundreds of tiny, midnight-colored pods. There's a pepper that looks like a tomato, and a tomato that looks like a pepper; tomatoes that ripen red, green, white, yellow, and purple, with skins that stretch smooth and glossy over the flesh or fold into what resembles a small leather purse. Some bean pods remain on their vines--short ones, long ones, speckled and striped and almost polka-dotted ones. One row of corn grows barely three feet tall, while the next one seems to reach for the sky.
The story behind this place goes back to 1975, when a man named John Baptist Ott gave his granddaughter Diane a few small bags of seeds. There was a morning glory whose blooms held a deep shade of fuchsia in their throats; a pink tomato; and a bean he called "snipple." They had been in the family since their ancestors came over from Bavaria four generations ago.
Ott died that winter. "We realized," says his granddaughter, whose last name is now Whealy, "that if he hadn't given us those seeds, they would have been gone forever. We wondered how many more times this happened." A little networking revealed that almost every one of the farm families around had a seed handed down through generations, and that most were in danger of being lost.
Intrigued, Whealy and her husband, Kent, put together a brochure listing gardeners who had heirloom seeds and wanted to pass them on. Word got around, and soon envelopes came in from all over the country. "Funny enough, it was almost always something their grandparents grew," says Whealy. "Never their parents. A lot of people didn't have a name--just 'Grandpa Meyer's tomato.'"
This chance preoccupation grew into a passion for the Whealys, who went out and bought a farm with a barn big enough to house their collection. A walk-in freezer and a root cellar followed, and they managed to gather a little grant money for computers and a staff. And, of course, a garden. To stay alive, seeds must regularly be "grown out" to produce more seeds. At Seed Savers Exchange, the schedule calls for each variety to be planted every 10 years; with a collection of 4,000 tomatoes alone, that means 400 each year. There's also a 19th-century apple orchard up the hill where several hundred trees produce fruit in all shapes, sizes, and flavors.
By now, Seed Savers keeps more than 15,000 varieties in its refrigerated storage room. The annual yearbook is two inches thick and features almost 12,000 distinct kinds of seed from more than 1,000 gardeners. Some are listed merely by name, while other entries have a desperate undertone. "This is the original Delicious apple, a.k.a. Common Delicious," one reads. "Pink fruit color, faintly striped, more elongated and more flavorful than Red Delicious. My uncle has some of the last few trees of these apples in the Wenatchee Valley (if not the entire U.S.) and he's talking again about cutting them down."
"We consider it like the National Wildlife Federation trying to save endangered animals," says Whealy, "except that a seed isn't as cuddly as a panda bear." They have enjoyed a measure of success: Seed Savers played a role in rescuing the Moon and Stars watermelon, whose leaves and fruits really do look like a firmament, and the Brandywine tomato--bar none the single best-tasting fruit in the world. Lately the Whealys have branched out, hooking up with seed banks in Eastern Europe to collect local fruits and vegetables before they yield to Western commercial varieties, and combing through seed catalogs for vanishing offerings.
Garden plants, like farm animals, go extinct when they no longer fulfill the demands of industrial agriculture. Contemporary tomatoes are bred to be picked rock-hard and green, shipped over great distances, ripened artificially through doses of methane gas, and displayed uniform and unblemished in the grocery store. Same for lettuce, which loses tenderness and flavor in return for staying crisp longer; sweet corn, whose longest-lasting varieties taste much like cotton candy; and so on.
The same, but more dramatically, is true for field crops. In India, three-quarters of all rice fields are planted with just 12 varieties of the grain, compared to 30,000 just a few decades ago. In the U.S., the entire commercial potato crop is made up of just six varieties, chiefly the Russet Burbank that McDonald's prefers for its fries. Most of the seeds now in use are complicated hybrids, produced by large corporations that invest millions in breeding and have little time for varieties anyone can pick from the field. Hybrid and genetically engineered plants (and, for that matter, animals) can be patented; heirlooms cannot. Just two years ago, the U.S. Supreme Court officially made illegal the practice of farmers "brownbagging" (growing, and sometimes selling) their own seed.
It wasn't, of course, that long ago that those new varieties were supposed to end world hunger. That was the point of the "Green Revolution" spearheaded in good part by the University of Minnesota's Norman Borlaug: He got the Nobel Peace Prize for his work breeding faster-producing varieties of wheat. And in the U.S. at least, the payoff was immense. Between 1930 and 1980, the country's wheat yield more than doubled. Corn harvests increased fourfold. Same for potatoes.
But again, the story was more complicated. To produce the big yields, fields had to be drenched in fertilizers and pesticides. Machinery was needed. And, of course, the geneticists had changed what grew, but not who did the growing and the economic logic by which they controlled the profits. World hunger was never really threatened.
Then the scientists themselves noticed a new problem. In 1980, a tiny bug called the Russian wheat aphid showed up in northern Mexico. Six years later it was in Oklahoma. By 1992, it had spread to almost one-third of the U.S. dryland winter wheat crop; entire fields were withering. Losses attributable to the aphid were estimated at around $850 million between 1987 and 1992.
What U.S. agriculture had done, it became clear, was set out the perfect environment for crop disasters. American farmers grew very few varieties of wheat, and they grew them for acre after acre. A bug could just go on eating forever. Commercial breeding had created varieties resistant to some of the most common diseases, but new blights--or mutations of the old ones--were a different story. The Irish learned that in 1845, when a potato crop that consisted of only two varieties was hit by a fungus.
What came to wheat's rescue, this time, was a seed bank not unlike Kent and Diane Whealy's, but a much bigger one. The federal Department of Agriculture's National Small Grains Collection holds wheat, barley, and oat varieties collected in fields and meadows all over the world. Some of them, researchers found, were resistant to the Russian aphid, and could be crossed with commercial varieties to pass on that trait.
This kind of thing happens fairly often. On average, cultivated varieties of major crops last no more than 10 years, and then must be replaced because a new disease or pest has shown up. To create the next version, researchers draw on both wild and domesticated varieties, using seed banks as genetic libraries.
But not unlike their paper-based counterparts, the seed libraries are in trouble--including the mother of all of them, the National Seed Storage Laboratory at Fort Collins, Colorado. Its refrigerated vaults hold almost 300,000 varieties of major crops, making for, as science writer Paul Raeburn puts it in his book The Last Harvest, "more biological wealth per square foot than anyplace else on earth. Each sample is a living biological snapshot, preserving the evolved traits of a particular plant in a particular place at a particular time."
The problem is that no one knows how many of the samples are, in fact, living. As Raeburn found, the seed archive, plagued by budget cutbacks and negligence, hasn't kept up with monitoring and growing needs for decades. Thousands of varieties have been thrown out or lost, and up to three-quarters of the rest may be past the point where they'll ever germinate. Some scientists call the place a "seed morgue."
The potential result is grim. Only a few types of wheat among thousands screened during the Russian-aphid crisis contained resistance. The next time a disease comes around to feast on the uniform fields, it's not hard to imagine that the cure may be gone for good.
"This may sound far-fetched," says University of Minnesota ecologist David Tilman, "but all you have to think of is the chestnut blight." Brought to America by European settlers, the blight practically wiped out what had been one of the most common trees in North America; their long agony was what made Robert Frost write that the chestnut "keeps smoldering at the roots and sending up new shoots/Till another parasite will come and end the blight." More than a century and a half later, there are still some of the old stumps, growing new branches every few years until they get big enough for the blight to kill them.
Tilman studies biodiversity in wild species--prairie plants in particular--and like most everyone else, he considers the loss of wild species "a crucial question for the future of humanity on Earth." But, he adds, "a more immediate concern should be the loss of varieties of crops. If we hadn't saved genes, we could have already lost all the corn in North America. It might be a matter of one or two centuries until we do."
There's a common saying that if the 1800s were the industrial, and the 1900s the technological century, the 21st will be the century of biology. Geneticists now know how to analyze the DNA of most everything that lives. They can pinpoint bacteria that thrive on oil and toxic waste, plants that produce industrial fibers, animals that yield medications. What they can't do, at least for now, is make genes--which means that the world's most valuable natural resource is the DNA of living organisms.
Pharmaceutical companies know this well; that's why they regularly send prospectors searching for "green gold" in places like the tropical rain forest. By some estimates, only 5 percent of the world's medicinal plants have been found so far; recently, a vine was discovered in Cameroon that might hold the secret to stopping HIV. Fields and forests also contain the genetic keys to new crops and foods, building materials, and discoveries as yet unimaginable.
And it's not just plants. There are international scientific efforts to catalog the properties of the world's animals, domesticated and wild, before they're lost forever. And under a program called the Human Genome Diversity Project, researchers are collecting DNA from people, especially indigenous populations threatened by development, war, and land theft. At least 50 blood samples are to be taken from each of several hundred targeted groups; the number was chosen, the project's director once explained, because "one person can bleed 50 people and get back on the airplane in one day." Just like rare animals and plants, rare humans may be the keepers of crucial and potentially very valuable genetic information--a fact the U.S. Department of Commerce acknowledged when it applied, a few years ago, for a patent on the blood line of a woman from Panama's Guaymi tribe. She was thought to be a carrier of antibodies that might help fight AIDS and leukemia.
The implications to all this are difficult. Though First World genetic prospectors are interested in Third World countries' biological riches, they consider them raw materials not unlike oil and copper--things to extract and refine for a profit. The woman from the Guaymi tribe was not slated to receive royalties should her blood yield the clue to a multimillion-dollar drug. Neither, generally, are the indigenous healers who help scientists pinpoint medicinal plants, or the farmers who developed what are now valuable exotic crops. Controversy over this issue has been boiling over in international forums for years, and it was the reason the U.S.--almost alone in the world--refused to sign an international convention on biodiversity earlier this decade.
But the argument over who should gain is itself running out of time as both wild and domesticated plants and animals continue to disappear--often as a result of the same technology that wants to make use of them. Thus the urgency, among a growing number of fretful geneticists, to find some way to keep disappearing DNA "on the shelf."
The easy answer to that challenge is what you might call the master archive approach--to collect and freeze, dry, or pickle a piece of every variety on the planet. That's the philosophy behind the beleaguered seed bank at Fort Collins, the vials of blood in the human-genome project, and the collections holding semen, ova, and embryos from endangered animals. With reasonable care, the thinking goes, there will always be the material to reconstruct whatever has disappeared. On a small scale, that's already been done: The Irish Moiled cattle breed, down to a few dozen animals some years ago, was rescued in part by the semen of a bull 30 years dead.
The problem is that living organisms, as the "seed morgue" experience shows, don't keep forever. And even if it does, life stored in a vault isn't the same as the real thing; it is, in Raeburn's words, "evolution frozen in time." The preserved samples may not survive in an environment that's changed--shifting climate, new pests--while they stayed the same.
The optimistic alternative is to get dying species back into circulation. For wild plants and animals, that generally means protecting the places where they live; for domestic ones, it's reintroducing them to working farms. Jorgensen pits his hopes for the institute's animals on a growing network of "preservation breeders" who have signed up to raise mulefoots, Navajo-Churros, and the like; some of them are testing agriculture methods that rely less on "inputs" like fertilizer, pesticides, and high-efficiency feed, yet produce respectable bottom lines. Jorgensen says he's convinced that "probably not within my lifetime, but within my granddaughter's lifetime," farmers will have to return to the breeds and seeds they're now shunning.
By the same token, of course, it's possible that biotech will come up with a different fix; humans could, say, derive dinner from vats of genetically engineered bacteria. They might not be as scenic as amber waves of grain, but you could always keep those kinds of things around in living museums. Farm parks are already a favorite family destination in Europe, and the same thing is starting to happen in Decorah: Most of the visitors at Jorgensen's institute aren't rare-breed enthusiasts, but people who simply want to see livestock in flesh and blood.
"To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering" reads the motto of the institute. Aldo Leopold wrote it in A Sand County Almanac in 1944. Little more than a year away from his death, he was struggling in that book to come up with a rationale for environmental conservation against what seemed like overwhelming odds.
Most of the world's plants and animals, he acknowledged, will probably never be "sold, fed, eaten, or otherwise put to economic use." Yet, he went on, "these creatures are members of the biotic community, and if (as I believe) its stability depends on its integrity, they are entitled to continuance. No special interest has the right to exterminate them for the sake of a benefit, real or imagined, to itself."
What Leopold was driving at was what he would end up calling a "land ethic," a system of values in which animals, plants, and ecosystems would have a place of their own. It sounded like a fragile, romantic idea at the time, and it's gotten a fair amount of ridicule since. But the astonishing result of the past half-century's worth of genetics is that the implications of what Leopold wrote may be the same whether the driving force is love or raw necessity. The interests of rare plants and animals may be the same as humans'--survival. "People ask me what we're saving these things for," says Jorgensen. "And I tell them, we don't know. That's the point."
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss City Pages' biggest stories.
- Nicole Curtis hates 'affordable housing' that replaced south Minneapolis homes
- Minneapolis Police Chief Janee Harteau will keep her job, but not without critics
- Minnetonka Schools remain oddly silent after teen assaults Chris Carr's daughter
- Luke McAvoy, ex-Minnesota football player, comes out in powerful essay