Gary’s work as a writer and agricultural ecologist has greatly contributed to the re-emergence of the local food movement, helping local farmers by teaching them to conserve the links between biodiversity and cultural diversity. Gary is often hailed as a pioneer of the local food movement, and was even named “the lyrical scholar of genetic diversity” by famous agricultural historian Peter Hatch.
A Direct Approach to the Food Issue
Gary understands the significance of food, and that is why he prefers hands-on work with local food communities to working with international food organizations. He understands that food is a personal issue to everyone and, in order to address the issues properly, it is important to reach out to people in a personal way:
“The interesting thing is that doing conservation work through food communities rather than doing conservation work through, say, The Sierra Club or World Wildlife Fund has put me into contact with people of far more walks of life, income levels, and ethnic backgrounds than any of my previous conservation work, working for non-profits and universities. That’s because everyone at some level deeply cares about their food and has food memories from a more diverse time in America.”
How the food issue Affects Us All
After many years of working as a food activist, Gary never ceases to be amazed by the way the issue affects all people. It does not matter what culture, political stance, religion or economic status someone is from; when the discussion is on food, all agree on one thing – better and healthier food choices not only for themselves, but also for coming generations.
As Gary says:
“What I find is that the food activism crosses cultures more easily than other kinds of environmental issues—that I’m talking to Republican conservative ranchers one day in a small town in Idaho or Texas, and the next day I’m talking to urban permaculturists living in multi-ethnic neighborhoods in Chicago or New Orleans. To me, that’s pretty amazing that people across all colors and walks of life are concerned about our food system and want something healthier not only for themselves but also for their children and their parents.”
Gary’s Early Life
Gary Paul Nabhan was born on March 17, 1952 in Gary, Indiana. He is the son of Theodore Nabhan, a Lebanese native who immigrated to the United States a few years before Gary was born, and Wanda Mary Goodwin. Both Theodore and Wanda played significant roles in the young Gary’s life not only by showering him with all the love and care he needed, but also by instilling in him the importance of eating healthy.
Gary recalled an experience which inspired his interest in the local food movement:
“My family always fished and gathered grape leaves, wild fruit and berries along the shores of Lake Michigan, so I thought everyone did such things and ate their own culture's heritage foods. But I was wrong; when I first went on cafeteria food at age 17, I lost 15 pounds in four months. And so I became curious about how to keep place-based heritage foods from falling off our tables.”
Time as a Student: A Genius in the Making
As a young student, Gary did not waste time showing everyone that he was a true prodigy. In his elementary years, Gary was a straight-A student, and impressed his teachers and classmates with his intelligence. Aside from excelling academically, Gary also showed great leadership, and was often chosen to lead group exercises. By the time he reached high school, he also became more active in extra-curricular activities, particularly in the field of agriculture.
After leaving high school, Gary entered Prescott College, where he studied Environmental Biology. His excellent performance at the college earned him his Bachelor’s degree in 1974. Afterward, he went to the University of Arizona to continue his studies and, four years later (in 1978), finished his Master’s degree in Plant Sciences. That same year, Gary entered the final phase of his college studies by choosing Arid Lands Resource Sciences as his Doctorate degree.
Throughout his time at the University of Arizona, Gary dedicated himself to promoting the preservation of Native American tribes of the Southwest United States, their cultures/lifestyles, and the native desert plants and seeds of the region. For his doctoral dissertation, entitled “Papago Fields: Arid Lands Ethnobotany and Agricultural Ecology,” Gary spent some time working and living with several Native American tribes, including the Tohono O’odham Indians. Gary completed his college studies in 1983 and successfully earned his Doctorate degree.
A New Turn on Conservation: The Culture of Food
As Gary continued his research on how to preserve the culture of Native Americans, as well as the native plants and seeds of the Southwest, he came across a bigger issue: the rapidly-changing food culture that is enveloping the United States. Traditional food and culinary practices are being changed by more “modern” types of food and cooking. The introduction of microwave technology and the concept of fast-food have contributed to the inevitable decline of traditional cooking methods, and thus threaten the local food industry.
Gary said in an interview:
“I realized that not just genes and species were being lost from the American landscape and its waters, but culinary and cultural traditions as well. There had never been a comprehensive inventory of foods unique to North America, and little on their conservation status. So I brought together seven of the most effective organizations in the U.S. to see if we could forge an ‘eater-based conservation strategy’ where sustainable market demand helps recover foods and their habitats rather than depleting them.”
Establishing “Native Seeds/SEARCH”
Not long after he started working as a research associate for the Office of Arid Land Studies, Gary, along with several colleagues from the office, established “Native Seeds/SEARCH,” a non-profit organization which aimed not only to save and preserve the native agricultural plants of the Southwestern United States, but also study the uses and benefits of these plants.
One of the things Gary did to promote the advocacy of “Native Seeds/SEARCH” was encourage local farmers to innovate by taking advantage newer technology, but without neglecting the traditional foods that have provided their living for many years. And while some farmers were initially apprehensive of doing something different from what they were used to, Gary’s persistent promotion made them realize that trying something different was not bad, after all.
Gary recalled this in an interview many years later:
“At first, some market farmers, orchardists and gardeners think we're trying to discourage them from trying out varieties new to their areas; instead, we're trying to encourage food biodiversity that incorporates the old and the new. Farmers have always been innovators, trying out new things; we just don't want to abandon or neglect any time-tried, taste-worthy heirloom seeds or heritage breeds. We also want to respect tribal food sovereignty rather than seeing traditional foods commoditized, genetically engineered or outsourced. Many traditional wild foods have a special role to play in preventing diabetes.”
The Rise Of “Native Seeds/SEARCH” And Gary’s Career
“Native Seeds/SEARCH” saw success soon after it was established. Through the efforts of Gary and his team, more and more people came to know about them and their goals. Aside from research, Gary also wrote articles on the subject of preserving native seeds and plants, and won the “John Burroughs Medal” for distinguished natural history writing in 1987. He was then named a MacArthur Fellow in 1990.
Since 1990, Gary has continued to advocate the preservation of traditional foods and methods of cooking. One of the reasons for his success has been the growing awareness of the effects of modernized cooking on our health. Since the late ‘90s, Gary has also worked to help farmers and promote the local food industry. Gary stressed the importance of American farmers as food growers in an interview:
“I think we need a lot more farmers. We've broken the chain of orally transmitted traditional knowledge that's been passed down for 8,000 years among farmers. You can't learn to farm just from textbooks. Some of the mistakes I've made raising sheep are due to my not having access to my grandfather's knowledge of raising sheep. Had I had him teaching me, I probably wouldn't have made those mistakes.”
As “Native Seeds/SEARCH” has enjoyed success throughout the years, Gary’s own career has also moved upward. Since he started working in the 1980s, Gary has been active in supporting the local food movement and preservation of traditional food. Aside from his work with “Native Seeds/SEARCH,” he was also a founding director of the Center for Sustainable Environments at Northern Arizona University, and was appointed as the Assistant Director of the Desert Botanical Garden in Phoenix, Arizona.
Recognition as a World Leader
In 2008, Gary was invited to join the faculty of the University of Arizona as a Research Social Scientist in the Southwest Center. Later on, Gary became the Kellogg Endowed Chair of Southwestern Borderlands Food and Water Security, a position he still holds today. He is also a member of the Scientific and Project Committee of the Ethnobiology and Conservation Team, which is comprised of numerous scientists, activists and philanthropists from around the world.
Today, Gary continues to advocate the local food movement by travelling to events and meetings around the world to discuss the importance of connecting the old and new ways of producing food. He is also involved in the campaign against global warming, believing that it will greatly affect the production of food.
Gary’s work in establishing and running “Native Seeds/SEARCH” has greatly impacted food production – not just in the United States, but around the world. Through his books, articles, speeches and general advocacy, Gary is a leading voice in the preservation of traditional food production while also discovering new ways to improve it:
“I feel that I’m made from the very molecules of the place I live in, from the soil I live in, because so much of my food is from my place. So, I don’t feel displaced anymore. I feel connected to the community and the land in a way that I carry with me spiritually, emotionally, and viscerally. I think that grounds my life and makes me feel less lost in a rapidly changing world.”
Organizations and Programs Supported
- Native Seeds/SEARCH
- Conservation International
- The Nature Conservancy
- Borderlands Habitat Restoration Initiative
- Renewing America’s Food Traditions
- Wild Farm Alliance
- Santa Cruz Valley Heritage Alliance
- Sabores Sin Fronteras
- Franciscan Action Network
Awards and Achievements
- 1987: Awarded the “John Burroughs Medal for Nature Writing”
- 1990: Conferred the “MacArthur Fellowship”
- 1991: Awarded the “Pew Scholarship for Conservation and the Environment”
- 1999: Received the “Lannan Literary Award” and the “Western States Book Award”
- 2000: Received the “Distinguished Service Award” from the Society for Conservation Biology
- 2002: Included in the “Best 100 Food Initiatives” by Saveur Magazine (Renewing America’s Food Traditions)
- 2004: Received the “Emil Haury Award” from the Western Parks and Monuments Association
- 2005: Again included in the “Best 100 Food Initiatives” by Saveur Magazine (Renewing America’s Food Traditions)
- 2006: Received the “Copper Quill Award”
- 2011: Named an “Utne Reader Visionary”
- 2013: Received the “MOCA Local Genius Award”
- Received “Lifetime Achievement Awards” from the Quivira Coalition and the Chefs Collaborative
- Honored by Edible Communities
- Named the “Father of the Local Food Movement”
- 2009: Honorary Doctor of Science from Carleton College, U.S.A.
GaryNabhan.com (About Gary Nabhan)
Wikipedia (Gary Paul Nabhan)
Arizona Archives Online (Gary Paul Nabhan papers, 1969-)
Worldwatch Institute (Maintaining Food Crop Diversity: An Interview with Gary Paul Nabhan)
Up North Foodies (Eat it to Save it: An Interview with Gary Nabhan)
Indiana Public Media (Gary Paul Nabhan: “Father Of Local Food Movement”)