Sowing the Seeds of Change: Meet Dr. Alan “Mushroom” Kapuler
Nate Gartrell, EDN
Alan Kapuler could have done just about anything with his life. In 1962, when he was only 19 years old, he was the number one graduate from Yale University. He then went on to receive a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Rockefeller University in New York.
After graduating from Rockefeller, Kapuler was all set to begin a career in genetic engineering, which he did — for a spell. But then he had an epiphany of sorts, packed his bags, and came to Oregon to become an organic farmer and public domain plant breeder.
“Oregon is a progressive state. It has more intelligent leaders than (most states) generally have,” Kapuler said. “It’s beautiful ecologically and the climate is incredible for growing seeds.”
The source of Kapuler’s epiphany which caused this drastic lifestyle change?
“Bob Dylan. Dylan said, ‘How many times can a man turn his head and pretend that he just doesn’t see?'” Kapuler said. “And that’s what did it. I was involved in primary genetic engineering, and I dropped that and joined the peace movement.”
Today, more than 40 years after that epiphany, Kapuler, who’s now known to his friends simply as “Mushroom,” is still tending to his organic garden. In fact, he has taken a small farm space in Corvallis, added a greenhouse, and turned it into a veritable palace of plants. Kapuler estimated that his greenhouse and the adjacent outdoor garden, contain up to 1,000 different species from all over the world.
“We’re breeding tomatoes for specific amino acid nutritional characteristics, to improve people’s health…” Kapuler said of his research. “…whether you need methionine, or alanine, or serine, or threonine, or tyrosine, or tryptophan or any of the amino acids that make proteins.”
Kapuler said that his garden provides him with about half of his food each day. But his main focus as a farmer is to release the information he gathers about plant genetics, as well as the seeds his plants produce, to the public — without patenting anything first.
“I was one of the co-founders of Seeds of Change and several of the (public domain) seed companies,” Kapuler said. “So we could actually provide a real framework of diversity of species.”
In so doing, Kapuler said he hopes to serve as a counter-balance to large corporations, which create certain seeds through genetic engineering and obtain copyrights, thereby preventing growers from using the seeds without paying for them first. Some of these companies, most notably Monsanto, have been known to sue people over their unlawful use of copyrighted seeds.
Kapuler releases the information gathered from his work through Peace Seeds, an organization that he started. Peace Seeds also distributes seeds for a variety of species from Kapuler’s garden.
“We have about 15,000 different kinds of seeds in our utility room, and we’re making new varieties of plants for the public,” Kapuler said of Peace Seeds. “We would like to see healthy food grown without chemicals and poisons, and a minimal use of machines.”
Kapuler’s work has attracted interest from other organic farmers and plant breeders, including some in Eugene. One such farmer, Nick Routledge, is a member of a movement called the Seed Ambassadors Project, which trades species with people in other countries.
Routledge said two members of the Seed Ambassadors Project recently traveled to Denmark, and exchanged some fast-growing cantaloupe seeds for a number of grain specimens. Since both climates are similar, Routledge said the trade opened doors for farmers both here and in Europe.
“In Denmark, they haven’t been able to grow cantaloupes,” Routledge said. “Now they can.”
The Seed Ambassadors Project is tied closely to public domain plant breeding because the patenting of seeds by companies has caused the dynamic between farmers to become more tense, Routledge said. Whereas international companies can transport plants, seeds, and bio-genetic material relatively easy, the two members of Seed Ambassadors who traveled to Denmark had to jump through a series of legal hoops to be able to bring materials into and out of Europe.
“There used to be, not too long ago, a sense of collaboration among plant breeders worldwide,” Routledge said about the effect seed patenting has had globally. “And essentially what we’ve seen recently is a complete lockdown. People are now far more reluctant to collaborate with one another because the commercial and legal pressures are such that there are a number of disadvantages to doing that.”
Kapuler said individuals can contribute to this movement by growing a garden organically. “(It’s) not easy–people put it down; that’s because it’s hard. But it’s interesting. Life goes on in the garden.“