On Tuesday, Feb. 24, world-renowned ethnobotanist and food systems activist Gary Nabhan visited Colorado College to engage with students and community members on the topic of developing ethical and sustainable foodsheds in the Southwest.

Three months ago, Tucson, Ariz. was the first U.S. city to be designated as a United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) World City of Gastronomy. Nabhan was a central figure in the effort. He admits, however, that he would prefer the title to be a “city of food cultures.” It is clear that for Nabhan, the link between culture and food is immensely important, and his efforts both as a scholar and activist work to bolster and promote this essential connection.

A unique food culture is developing in Tucson that draws on both southwest traditions and cuisine fusion. Food carts are becoming increasingly popular, featuring dynamic dishes such as kimchi burritos.

Although the recognition of Tucson by UNESCO signifies an important accomplishment by the city and the community, Nabhan makes it clear that there are still problems within the food system that deserve our attention. Many farmers and food service workers are underpaid and lack necessary benefits such as sick leave and insurance. Nabhan stressed the importance of building a system that works for everyone and ensures that the “most marginalized people in the food system are raised up and have opportunities that they did not have before.”

Nabhan was a founding member of Native Seeds/SEARCH in 1983. This nonprofit organization maintains a seed bank, which is home to a diverse array of seeds that can be bought by and loaned to gardeners and farmers.

The seed bank functions much like a book library does, only instead of checking out a paperback novel, one can borrow a variety of seeds, such as White Sonora wheat, on the condition that they will eventually return the seeds gathered from their new harvest to the collection. Currently, Tucson has the largest interlibrary seed loan program in the country with connections to seventeen libraries.

Nebhan urges listeners to reexamine their perceptions of the arid Southwest. Through his eyes, the region is a place rich with cultural and agricultural diversity.  Crops that still grow within the city limits, for example, have a legacy of use that dates back four thousand years. In the face of anthropogenic climate change, Nabhan reminds us that embracing historic food practices and farming innovations in the Southwest will be an important part of maintaining resilient food systems.

“We have 4,100 years of experimentation with growing food in water-scarce land,” said Nabhan.

Uncertainty has always been a part of farming in the desert. Rainfall in this region can be inconsistent. Native American, Hispanic, Anglo-American, and Mormon farming traditions all employ adaption techniques for water scarcity. As drought and climate uncertainty continue to be a growing threat in the southwest, Nabhan and others are looking to the past to help plan ahead for the future of food.

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