seed bank

The Universe Next Door: A Visit to the ECHO Farm

Spring 2003

(Photo:  Moringa tree leaves)

The ECHO farm lies several thousand yards north of the Caloosahatchee River, on the southeastern fringe of Ft. Myers, a few miles inland from the Gulf of Mexico.  Much of the land in the area is swampy, part of the wetlands that lie just north of the Everglades National Park and the expressway through Alligator Alley.  Cross the expressway to the east coast of Florida and you can turn toward Miami, an hour southward, or head north toward Cape Canaveral, named by the Spanish for its thick cane vegetation, and now site for most NASA launches. 

Arlyne and I were in Florida with Gordon’s Cabinet and Board of Trustees on the first of February in 2003, when the Space Shuttle Columbia disintegrated upon re-entry over Texas.  Our meetings took a sober turn after the disaster began to fill the screens in the hotel lobby.  In time we learned that the engineers in Houston and Canaveral had been quietly fearful about the descent.  Days earlier, some of the thermal protection tiles on the Shuttle had been damaged during the launch over the Atlantic, when a small piece of foam insulation broke away from the main propellant tank and struck the left wing.  When the Shuttle hit the ozone, the worst fears took hold:  the leading edge of the wing overheated from the compression of atmospheric gas, reaching over 3000 degrees Fahrenheit.  The trouble became apparent even to casual viewers in California, as a luminous trail followed the spacecraft in the pre-dawn sky over the Pacific.  Thermal tiles, engine debris, and some of the biological specimens carried for study on the flight were eventually found scattered as far away as Arkansas and Louisiana.  Some scavengers sold scraps of the wreckage on eBay.         

Less than 24 hours before the tragedy a carload of us—Barry and Donna Loy, Arlyne, a few trustees and myself—took advantage of some free time during the trustee retreat to visit the ECHO site.  None of us had any intimation, of course, of the nerves at NASA.  Our attention was far from the high-tech frontiers at Houston, but rather on the ingenuity of simple farming methods in world’s poorer regions.  For most of the retreat we had been discussing our mission—how best to blend intellectual maturity, Christian character, and service. The farm at ECHO promised a picture for our thousands of words.

ECHO—Educational Concerns for Hunger Organization—is an interdenominational Christian enterprise dedicated to “bringing glory to God and blessing to mankind by using science and technology to help the poor.”  Founded in the 1970s by business leaders and clergy from Indiana and Florida, ECHO was originally devoted to service projects in Haiti, but expanded its scope with the hiring of the current director, Martin Price, in 1981.  From the days of biology professor Tom Dent, Gordon has enjoyed strong links with ECHO.  Irv Levy, Craig Story, Ming Zheng and others have led service trips to the site during spring breaks, when our students hit the farm rather than the Florida beaches.  Recently Grace Ju, former chair of the biology department at Gordon, accepted a post as ECHO's seed bank manager.  Now, as an adjunct faculty member with us, Grace teaches a winter-break course in sustainable agriculture.  After a few days of study at the ECHO farm, students head off to Haiti, flying over the barren, defoliated hillsides and the tall grasses until they touch down at the rural airstrips.  For a few days in the tropical heat they carve the earth with hoes, build sod terraces for crops and soil preservation, and live with the missionaries and the Haitian people.

We met Grace at the library when we arrived.  Supported by private donors and churches, ECHO boasts an impressive library of science journals and books as well as several acres of property for experimenting with crops.  Interest in ECHO has exploded of late.  PBS's Frontline did a documentary on the organization, and its acreage has tripled in the last few years.  As Grace packed us onto a golf cart, we began a tour of the demonstration farm, including its "Global Village," which replicates six different environmental regions—urban gardens, rain forest clearings, hillside farmland, semi-arid terrain, a monsoon locale, and hot and humid lowlands.   Scores of student interns from colleges around the country study and work at the farm, occasionally for as long as fifteen months. At present, the farm is one of South Florida's most popular sites for educators and tourists.  Each year numerous school children visit ECHO, chomping on starfruit or moringa leaves picked from the field.  In the main administrative building, a wall-size map of the world, covered with small stickers, indicates ECHO's international contacts—the missionaries, churches, NGOs and agricultural workers that look to ECHO for guidance on environmental and nutritional problems. 

Once cramped into an old trailer, Grace's seedbank office has been expanded recently.  Along the many shelves are small plastic bags of seeds, some of the over 600 varieties of common and obscure vegetables and multi-purpose trees that ECHO mails out to agricultural workers.  Often these are trial seeds of “underexploited crops”—those with potential for growing in regions that are too dry, too wet, too rocky, or too ravaged for most crops.  From the missionaries and field workers, ECHO gathers data about the performance of the seeds, publishing their results for planters and scholars, some of whom attend ECHO's annual agricultural conference.  Farmers from distressed regions can request free seeds, such as the perennial jack pea, which can survive arid or acidic soil and high salinity due to its deep root structure, or sunnhemp, a leguminous ground cover that suppresses weeds and erosion, provides fodder for livestock, and fights off early frost.   Of all ECHO's endeavors, the moringa tree has been the headline success—its leaves and pods have fed malnourished mothers and babies in West Africa and the Philippines and been crushed into a high-nutrition powder for underfunded hospitals.  Materials from the moringa trees can absorb bacteria in water sources or can be transformed into feed for herds. 

After a few hours digging and hoeing in Haitian sun, most students—as Grace tells it—are ready to climb aboard a John Deere.  Most of the farms in the developing regions, however, do not immediately need tractors or modern robotics but "appropriate technologies.”  Plenty of high-end agricultural equipment, often donated by well-meaning philanthropists, is rusting in empty fields or tin sheds, due to the lack of technological training or support to keep it functional.  ECHO searches for ways of making tools and sowing fields without petroleum-powered, computer-aided machinery.  Even as NASA continues to measure plant growth at negligible gravity, ECHO helps poor communities transform some of their own goods and commodities into the engines of their own agri-business. According Jules Pretty and Rachel Hine at the Centre for Environment and Society at the University of Essex, the “conventional wisdom is that, in order to double food supply, we need to redouble efforts to modernise agriculture.”  After all, it has been successful in the past. But there are doubts about the capacity of such systems to reduce food poverty. The poor and hungry need low-cost and readily available technologies and practices to increase local food production.  The successful advances in sustainable agriculture over the past forty years are due largely to “appropriate technology adapted by farmers’ experimentation” and a “participatory approach between projects and farmers”  (Pretty and Hine, pp. 10, 12).

At first glance, some of the appropriate technology at ECHO’s farm seems worthy of Dr. Seuss:  it is a compendium of old, discarded stuff, worked up into eccentric devices.  Plants take root in old socks or tires, rather than in the stony ground.  Animal manure is pressed into old tin barrels and capped to produce gasses for inexpensive fuel, a benefit for those villages where energy costs absorb most of the profit from their labors.  Old ropes, car wheels, PVC pipes and tire patches get concocted into water pumps.  Simple sticks and stones help farmers survey and tier their land.   

All this may bewilder some visitors, like myself, who struggle to reconcile the relentless images of world poverty with the rapid technological advances in American farming.   By most reports, there’s plenty of food in the world to go around.  Since 1960, per capita food production has grown by 25%, and prices in real terms are now only three-fifths of what they were forty years ago.  In fact, in the United States we destroy so much of the food that we cultivate.  Farm subsidies keep several American dairy farmers in business, even though millions of gallons of milk are dumped each year, largely to control prices in a market where supply exceeds demand.   In Florida, the ECHO folks told us, hurricanes with their destructive force and windblown bacteria have occasionally been seen as blessings by some citrus growers, since they reduce the stock of lemons, grapefruits and oranges in the marketplace and push prices higher. 

Faced with their own overproduction, Americans often wonder if they can do more to feed to the world.  But transferring excess food from the richest farm belts to the poorest nations has always confronted numerous hurdles.  Some of the obstacles are economic and political.  The costs of relocating surfeit food from American growers often eats up the farmer’s thin profits.  And, not infrequently, despotic leaders or ineffective bureaucracies in poor nations impede the distribution of food to the needy.  Deficient roads and transport systems can lead to delays in the delivery of food to rural communities.  Often, during massive humanitarian crises—such as the famines in eastern Africa or the destruction of crops from hurricanes or floods—wealthier nations have been effective in rushing grains to help serve the starving populations; however, the world’s largest agricultural producers have been less successful in using their own crop surpluses to offset smaller, more habitual fluctuations in the food supply among the poor.  These short-term shifts in food stock often depend on rainfall.  In areas without advanced irrigation systems, even a small decline in precipitation can decimate a harvest, boosting hunger and death.  ECHO’s work often focuses on developing and distributing drought-resistant seeds, such amaranth.  The highly nutritious grain—now prevalent in the arid parts of East Africa—requires less than half the water that wheat demands and only three-fifths of that needed for maize. 

Much of the media attention on hunger comes when famines or floods create the need for international “relief,” yet ECHO is among the increasing number of non-profits attempting to stabilize worldwide nutrition—to achieve “food security,” as it is often called, without relying on spare harvests or the ebb and flow of charity from North America and Europe.  Sometimes rushing food aid into a poor region actually hurts the local farmer:  maize growers in Mozambique recently lost the value of their harvests when the market was crowded by philanthropic shipments from the West.  As promises of international relief have risen, some governments have actually reduced their food storage and buffers, only to find that their inexperience in global grain markets kept them from responding quickly enough to their people’s needs when food crises actually came.  In several nations—notably, India—government initiatives aimed at bolstering food supplies have underwritten farmers to insure the profitability of their harvests, but in so doing let prices remain beyond the range of the poorest consumers. By keeping farmers in business, then, many well-meaning government programs end up being “friendly fire,” creating stockpiles of food that are beyond the reach of the hungriest people.  So more and more hunger experts are asking sociological questions.  How can regions organize their own social capital—values, traditions, family and communal relationships, and trust—to sustain agricultural programs and advances?  Even though fertility rates are falling in the West, the world population should climb near nine billion by 2050, and 84% of those people will be in the “developing world.”  With the growth of cities, more people and more jobs are moving to metropolitan areas, and that is only increasing the demands on the farmers, most of them women, who remain in the rural areas to produce meats and cereals for the urban palette.  

Worldwide nutrition, therefore, depends not just on the high-tech production of crops. What matters is who controls the production and who can pay for the harvest.  About 80% of the agricultural work in Africa is done by women, even though women own only a small portion of the land and receive only 10% of the financial credit and advice.  In the year 2000, more than one in four children in the developing world had stunted growth, usually the result of limited food choices, vitamin deficiencies, or the mother’s malnutrition during and before pregnancy (see Bisi Ogunleye, “Statement”).  Simply put, the women farmers who feed most of the world often lack the resources to pay for their own health or that of their children.  In the long-term, raising education levels for women and children in rural regions will be essential for improving their nutrition, status, and quality of life.  In the short-term, helping rural communities thrive with appropriate technologies can save lives. 

ECHO brings its own social capital to its task—the network of Christian missionaries spread around the globe that test and observe their experimental seeds.  Since “foreign missions” have often borne their share of criticism as a remnant of colonialism, it is refreshing to see new opportunities to transform those stigmas.  In many cases, it is the missionaries who have achieved the long-term trust with rural communities to be able to support initiatives and experiments in sustainable agriculture; on the other hand, some western scientists and corporate philanthropists have been disappointed when their agricultural devices and short-term counsel have not yielded the results that they had hoped for, often because a village found itself bound to the equipment and expertise of an industrial nation rather than to its own social assets.   

Once the Columbia disaster spread over the networks, our trip to the ECHO farm became almost unavoidably linked in our minds with the Shuttle’s descent.  From some angles, the contrast appears stark—seedlings growing in the threadbare tires on a muddy field do seem far removed from the tragic overheating of Niobium compounds in the exosphere.  But safety is usually a tapestry of simple things:  loose tiles can destroy a billion-dollar craft and claim the lives of the seven of the nation's best minds; a few packages of seeds and mosquito netting can save thousands of the world's children.  Hunger relief, in fact, has often competed with aerospace engineering for the nation’s attention and funds.  Today, though, NASA often justifies its budget requests by promising that it will help feed the world.  The Shuttle is now a link to the international space station, where Russians and Americans researchers envision joint nutrition experiments.   Between 2000 and 2002, substantial study on soybeans was done in the microgravity of the space station, with an eye to enriching the oil, protein and carbohydrate content of one of the world’s most common foods, often a valuable rotation for the overworked rice paddies. More and more NASA research in the coming decade will be devoted to ecosystems and global climate.  Without NASA, many of the threats of climate change might have gone unnoticed, and the distribution of seeds and fertilizers can mean little if poor regions are affected by changing rain patterns, both droughts and monsoons.  Increased flooding in tropical areas breed infectious diseases and often contaminates water supplies.  

It’s an opportune but precarious time for NASA, as it strives to link the passion to explore the universe with the possibilities to serve the hungry next door. The challenge, as with most global problems, will be about proportion and balance in the allocation of time and money to respective tasks and experiments.  It is also an opportune but precarious time for Christian colleges. Evangelical Christianity is less consumed by the rhetoric of American triumphalism, as younger parishioners think of themselves as global citizens and servants.  Yet schools like Gordon—which generally educate well-nourished families—cannot assume that graduating their share of astute, liberal arts students will necessarily help eradicate social problems rather than simply contributing to the widening gap between the well-educated and the large percentage of people who live on less than two dollars a day.   So I was encouraged to see our partnership with ECHO firsthand.  The organization appears to have tapped into the evangelical impulse for service but also to display respect for indigenous societies, even as it pushes the frontiers of scientific research.  In the next few years, especially as we prepare for the science center, we need to explore emerging fields like astroculture and agroecology, which examines crop development and intermingled land uses.  Perhaps one day an alumna from Grace’s course at ECHO, now with her doctorate in botany or astrophysics, will load the Shuttle with petri dishes full of seeds and plant specimens for study in microgravity or head a UN delegation on soil erosion.  

We left the farm at ECHO just before dusk to return to our hotel.  As we climbed into the car, I stepped over some fallen leaves and bananas from a nearby tree, and looked up through the windshield at the spreading shadows and at the kaleidoscope of tropical flora. Despite the dense growth there were reminders of vulnerability; the clipped edges of some shrubs and trees betrayed the severity of a recent frost.  The night air was warmer now, yet the winds remained brisk.  A few stars were evident in the misty sky, but the world still seemed to be at our feet.  Beside a nearby tree there was an old basin, full of run-off from the irrigation.  Someone had left behind a ragged towel.





For the information on sustainable agriculture and world health, I am indebted largely to Jules Pretty and Rachel Hine, “Reducing Poverty with Sustainable Agriculture:  A Summary of New Evidence.” Final Report of the ‘SAFE-World’ (UK Department of International Development, Essex, England, 2001).

ECHO’s mission and activities are well represented on their website:  The website includes full accounts of their various seed bank productions and experiments, as well as information about amaranth and the moringa tree, one of their primary success stories.

Information on food security issues is drawn from “Food and Nutrition Security:  Why Food Production Matters,” in The State of Food and Agriculture 2000.  Report of the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations  (Rome, 2000). 

On women’s land ownership and participation in agriculture, see Bisi Ogunleye, “Statement on Land Issues” for the CSD NGO Women’s Caucus, CSD Intersessional, February 29, 2002. on Land Issues 

NASA’s work with soybeans, a collaboration largely with DuPont and the University of Wisconsin-Madison, is summarized in NASA report: “Soybean Chemical Composition Study using ADVANCED ASTROCULTURE™ (ADVASC) - Expedition Five.”