The Saguaro is found exclusively in the Sonoran Desert, which covers parts of Arizona, California and Mexico, according to the American Indian Health and Diet Project ( The Saguaro is particularly bountiful in southern Arizona, where there is more water but temperatures are still warmer than the northern reaches of Arizona. (William Herron/Flickr)

Grants To Grow On: New Funding Will Improve Food Security in Sonoran Desert

Lee Allen
July 10, 2013

It takes both seeds and smarts to grow foods in the hot and dry Sonoran desert that only grows hotter and drier with global warming. Two new grants totaling $350,000 should help to reintroduce traditional crops in advance of severe climate change, which threatens food security.

The Gila River Indian Community has awarded the Tucson, Arizona-based seed conservation nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH a two-year, $200,000 stipend to support a new program, "Laying the Foundation for Climate-Smart Agriculture in the Southwest." Meanwhile, the Christensen Fund anteed up $150,000 for Native Seeds/SEARCH to launch another innovative effort called "Growing Opportunities for Native American Farmers."

“We’re trying to provide a refined focus on both seed access and planting information to any regional growers who want to be involved with locally adopted crops—that’s it in a nutshell,” says Chris Schmid, director of conservation at Native Seeds/SEARCH, who will spearhead both projects.

“The grants are different, but complimentary, linked together in overall mission objective because both are designed to help support local seed security and seed sovereignty in the southwestern United States and northern Mexico.”

The concern around food sustainability is not limited to the southwest region, but everywhere. “If you look at the way our current food system is structured, it’s dependent on high inputs of water and chemicals and relies to a large extent on hybrid or genetically modified seeds controlled by just a few large companies,” says Schmid.

“As we look to the future, climate changes that are already impacting us—diminished water resources, increases in population, degradation of farmlands, depletion of fossil fuels and other non-renewable resources—will worsen,” Shmid continued. “It’s hard not to be concerned about future outlooks of food production anywhere, and it’s more of a concern in the southwest because of our harsh environmental conditions.

“We see a key to future food systems as genetic diversity that provides a potential for continued adaptation to climate change, providing resilience to environmental changes and new crop pests or diseases. The outlook for regional climate change is pretty grim, and in some ways, we’re at the frontlines of our changing environment.”

The grants for the Gila River Indian Community center on funding the establishment of an agricultural system that provides some resiliency to climate modifications. “Ultimately, what we’d like to see is what everybody did 100 years ago when farmers saved their own seeds to help with crop evolution. That’s how we got the crop diversity we have today because generation after generation protected their seed bank. Increasingly, there’s less and less traditional agriculture happening in indigenous communities, and that’s part of this two-grant package, to help support traditional farmers to maintain their crops and farming practices.”

Native Seed/SEARCH currently has close to 2,000 different unique seed varieties (500 for corn alone), and this funding will allow more research to understand the characteristics of those traditional crop seeds, things like drought tolerance, disease resistance, and agronomic yield traits. “As the agricultural landscape gets reshuffled due to climate change, we’re going to use change models to link farmers to the crops most appropriate to their location,” says Schmid. 

Another innovative aspect of this funding will be experimental contracts involving Native American farmers who will be provided seeds and a stipend for operational costs, then their harvest seeds will be bought back to re-stock a seed bank that distributes over 6,000 seed packets a year to Native American growers. “We’ll give seeds to the farmers and in exchange, they’ll return one and a half times as much as we gave them, and they can do as they wish with the rest. The goal is to provide some economic incentive benefits to Native farmers. We’ve used a similar model in the past with wheat seed that has been very successful.”

Anxious to get underway on both projects, Schmid admits that no matter how much progress is made, more will be needed. “It’s a constantly evolving effort with the key being farmers saving seeds. Crops are not static, they’re constantly evolving, and as conditions change, there will always be a need for new seeds—it never ends.”