GMO-free Seeds For Gardeners

Kaua’i celebrated St. Patrick’s Day with plenty of green this year. A diverse crowd of about 200 backyard gardeners and organic farmers came to the 11th biannual Seed and Plant Exchange March 17 at Church of the Pacific in Princeville.

All seeds and plants were given free or traded, and everyone was encouraged to attend – even if they had no plants or seeds to give away.

At noon, GMO (genetically modified organism)-free, pest-free and noninvasive material were collected from local growers and displayed on tables indoors. Seeds included several varieties of eggplant, chocolate, carrots, okra, herbs, lettuce, kale, squash, cucumber, sweet peppers, marigold flowers, teak and many beans, such as burgundy-and-white speckled lima, deep-black lima and mottled pinto beans.

At 2 p.m., Tintin Pu’ulei of Kaua’i O Ohana gave the opening blessing, asking Akua for guidance and strength in freeing Kaua’i of the 12,500 acres of genetically modified seed crops grown on the West side, as well as in Lihue and Poipu.

“Everyone, please take what you need and plant what you take,” said event co-organizer Jill Richardson of Regenerations Botanical Gardens and the Kaua’i Community Seed Bank.

After that, gardeners swarmed like bees to colorful, sweet-scented, pollen-laden flowers. Soon, we were drunk on hope and possibility. Our imaginations cooking up freshly harvested food, grown from seeds accustomed to Kaua’i’s unique climate.

Outside, starts and plants included red sugar cane, taro, lilikoi, breadfruit, roselle, purple sweet potato slips and about 10 different kinds of chili peppers. I got a sprouting chayote squash, as well as habanero, daikon radish, lemon basil, globe and purple eggplant, and a variety of squash seeds. Since my husband Dan and I are chili heads, I grabbed four starts.

Fatalii, a lemon-yellow pepper with a fruity, citrus flavor, is rated by the Scoville Food Institute as the seventh-hottest pepper; Nardello, an Italian sweet frying pepper, is listed on the Slow Food USA “Ark of Taste” (a catalog of more than 200 delicious foods in danger of extinction); the Santa Fe Grande chili pepper is mild and ripens from pale yellow to vibrant orange and bright red; and rounding out my selections, Thai chili pepper, a fiery redhead called nioi in Hawaii.

In 2007, seed activist Nancy Redfeather from Hawaii Island came to Kaua’i to share her experience of building a successful seed exchange program in Kona. Redfeather was sponsored by a grant administered by Hawaii SEED, an umbrella nonprofit of the Islands’ GMO-free groups.

“We wanted to create a venue for planters and growers to come together and share plant diversity and knowledge, as well as build community,” explains Paul Massey, one of the original organizers, as well as founder of Regenerations Botanical Gardens and the Kaua’i Community Seed Bank. “We had heard about this kind of event and thought that it would be fun and embraced by Kaua’i.”

Seed and plant exchanges are a growing movement across the globe and serve as a fertile protest against GMO seed companies, their ability to patent life, and their quest for global seed domination. You may think that is an extreme statement, but many seed farmers, as they are called, have come forward in countless publications and documentaries such as Dirt! The Movie to address the disadvantages of GMO seed crops. Seed farmers have to buy “suicide seeds,” or seeds that do not reproduce, from GMO seed companies. It’s expensive to buy new seeds every year, as well as the necessary chemicals that act as moth-er’s milk for these plants. Organic farmers have been sued by seed companies when Mother Nature carries a GMO seed and plants it in their fertile soil.

GMO seed farmers grow corn and soy that cannot be eaten in their raw state, rather they are processed into cheap “food” such as pasta sauce, soda pop, corn chips and animal feed.

Organizers of seed and plant exchanges are a new kind of freedom fighters, protecting the diversity of life – fighting for what occurs naturally, spontaneously and abundantly just like Akua, God and the Universe intended.

Although full of aloha and information, the need for a seed and plant exchange is a ridiculous concept to me. It’s like we’re thieves in the night stealing what’s always been free. Some homeowners associations even prevent residents from growing food in their front yard! We’ve been told by people who want us to buy their stuff that family farms can’t grow enough food to feed the world and that cooking is drudgery. Research indicates that small family farms can feed the world, that organic farming outperforms GMO farming and there’s a resurgence in cooking as evidenced by TV cooking shows and high cookbook sales.

In the end, it was the sense of camaraderie at the exchange that I appreciated most.

We were doing what mankind has done since civilization began: perpetuating life by sharing knowledge and seeds.

“There are many reasons to feel hopeful that Kaua’i and the Hawaiian Islands can achieve food self-sufficiency,” says Richardson. “By combining the right island-adapted crops with organic growing techniques, we can eat healthy, fresh food grown right here on Kaua’i every day!”

Regenerations Botanical Gardens is a nonprofit that’s seeking donations for a new community seed bank and training center. Every Saturday, residents are invited to the Regenerations Seed Garden and Food Forest to help with gardening tasks, and every Thursday, volunteers meet to clean, dry, sort and store island-adapted seeds.

The seed and plant exchanges are timed to the spring and fall equinox, so look for the next one around Sept. 22. For more information, visit, or email

Marta Lane is a Kaua’i-based food writer. For more information, visit