Botanical Explorer, Ethnobotany Expert Promotes Self-Sufficiency

Published: April 30, 2015 | By Michael Souza

The Westerly Sun


Seeds have never been so interesting.


Joseph Simcox, a world food plant ecologist, spoke before a gathering of the Mystic River Historical Society on Wednesday. He is a leading expert on ethnobotany, the study of relationships between people and plants. He is a consultant to some of the largest crop farms in the Midwest and a renowned international speaker.


He is also an advocate of growing things as naturally as possible and spoke to that effect to an audience of about 50 people.


Simcox is an enthusiast and a genius. With the worldliness of Anthony Bourdain and the enthusiasm of the late Steve Irwin, “The Crocodile Hunter,” Simcox travels the globe in search of rare native seeds. From the arid Sahara Desert to the Amazon River and the rural mountains of Armenia, he travels with his small crew searching for the seeds of just about every edible plant on the planet. Known as “The Botanical Explorer,” he has traveled to over 100 countries over the last 30 years looking for under-utilized crops and wild species.


He insists Americans have become detached from their food sources and blames large agricultural businesses for creating the problem.


“We have become so disconnected that we don’t even know where our food comes from,” Simcox said.


He cites that in Europe and Asia, many families grow their own food to supplement what they purchase. Fruits, vegetables and even livestock are raised and eating fresh is a way of life.


He takes exception to the manner in which big agriculture industries specializing in chemicals have started to infiltrate the food industry. Threats of climate change and an impending giant population are used to push forward their agenda of increasing the use of herbicides and genetically modified organisms, commonly called GMOs. In fact, some of the country’s highest governmental advisors recommend their use.


Instead, Simcox believes GMOs do nothing except make crop maintenance easier and less labor intensive. He is bemused that scientists insist they can outsmart nature.


In the Midwest, one farm can dedicate thousands of acres to corn and if the wrong insects become overwhelming the crop can be lost. In GMO modified corn, the plants are genetically modified with a gene from a strain of bacteria that is poisonous to the cutworm, the plant’s most prolific predator. No insects, no pesticides.


In a similar manner, soybean plants have been modified to be resistant to certain herbicides, enabling the use of widespread chemicals designed to kill weeds but leave the beans intact. But Simcox isn’t buying it. “I still believe in nature and believe it’s going to outsmart the chemicals because nature has to fight back,” he said. And he appears to be right because new “superweeds” herbicide resistant weeds are starting to sprout up and they’re more difficult to kill than ever before.


What alarms him the most is that industries are now given patents for seeds, giving them the right to own the plant. Farmers can buy these seed from a company, say Monsanto, grow and sell them to whatever market or purpose they desire. But the crop cannot be replanted unless the farmer buys more seeds; harvesting the seeds and saving them for replanting is not an option. “These companies want to own the seeds,” Simcox said.


He is also very concerned about the growing lack of variety in edible plants. “Prior to colonization, Native Americans were harvesting and eating over 3,500 different plants. They were all delicious and plentiful,” he said. “In our world today, 90 percent of the world’s calories come from 15 species of plants. It’s absurd. Over the course of human history over 20,000 different plants have been eaten. We’ve narrowed that down to 15.”


These circumstances have motivated Simcox to span the world in search for samples of the multitudes of plants and seeds available for consumption. This quest has taken him to such places as New Guinea, Namibia, Chile, Borneo, Holland, Uganda, Vietnam and India, to name just a few. No melon, cactus, squash, tuber, bean or leafy green is immune from his collection.


In one valley in the Andes he has collected over 30 varieties of corn, ranging from blue and green to yellow, orange, brown and red. Similarly, his collection of beans resembles an assortment of marbles in just about every color, pattern, size and shape imaginable.


“I’ve eaten thousands of plants from around the world and there is absolutely no reason why this kind of variety isn’t available. It’s all a matter of convenience,” he said. “This is all real food that’s been eaten for thousands of years, but because of our lifestyles in a modern world it is slowly being forgotten.”


Now 51, Simcox has made this his life’s work and he’s never known anything different. For his seventh birthday he requested a squash and had the photograph to prove it, much to the delight of the audience. “I got a banana squash and I was very happy. No G.I. Joe,” he said.

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