2020 Seedy Talks
Appalachian chef, farmer, seed saver and storyteller Mike Costello is the next speaker for Seedy Talks, a speaker series of the Morgantown Seed Preservation Library. This event will take place on Monday, Feb. 3 at 5 p.m. in 325 Brooks Hall.
The event is sponsored by the Eberly College of Arts and Sciences’ Department of Geology and Geography, C. Eugene Bennett Department of Chemistry and Department of Sociology and Anthropology. The speaker series is organized by Mehmet Öztan, service assistant professor of geology and geography.
About the talk
In this third installment of Seedy Talks, Mike Costello will take a critical look at the actions of chemical companies in West Virginia and reflect on his personal decision to decline his participation in the Crops in Color campaign, a decision defined by his relationships with his community and the land around him, as well as the region’s culture, food, economy and, of course, the seeds he loves and is committed to preserving.
Born and raised in a part of West Virginia known as “The Chemical Valley,” Costello has a personal connection to the state’s chemical industry and especially to DuPont. Costello grew up with members of his community, including his aunt and his grandfather, working at the DuPont Corporation’s Kanawha County plant, as well as nearby plants operated by Monsanto, Bayer, Union Carbide and, later, Dow Chemical. Unfortunately, he also witnessed the industry’s adverse effects.
By the 1970s, the Kanawha Valley came to be known as “The Cancer Valley,” as residents living near local chemical plants were diagnosed with cancer at extremely high rates. In a prominent incident profiled by recent films The Devil We Know (2018) and Dark Waters (2019), DuPont's Washington Works plant in Parkersburg, West Virginia, dispersed more than two million pounds of C8, a toxic compound which is used to manufacture Teflon©, into the mid-Ohio River Valley area, contaminating water resources for humans, livestock and wildlife. According to a 2012 study of 70,000 people in the greater-Parkersburg area, six locally common diseases were linked to C8 from the DuPont plant, now operated by Chemours.
Though he now lives hours away from his hometown, Costello was confronted with DuPont’s troubled Appalachian legacy once again in 2019, when The Global Crop Trust approached him (along with Mehmet Öztan and other Appalachian farmers, seed savers and food producers) to participate in the Crops in Color campaign. Promoted as a photography and social media campaign to celebrate local/regional farmers and Appalachia’s agrobiodiversity and heirloom crops, Crops in Color’s primary sponsor was Corteva AgriSciences, a spin-off corporation born from the merger of DuPont and Dow Chemical. Costello wondered which would be greater: the benefits the campaign might bring to his home region or the public relation benefits for corporations with complicated and troublesome legacies in the region. In the end, Costello, Öztan and a group of fellow seed-saving enthusiasts across the region declined to participate.
“Knowing what I know about the histories of Corteva, DuPont and Dow in West Virginia, I couldn’t bring myself to participate in a campaign that would allow these companies to greenwash their toxic legacies on the backs of our uncompensated labor and institutional knowledge,” Costello said. “Appalachians don’t owe these companies anything. These companies owe Appalachia the world.”
About the speaker
Mike Costello received a bachelor’s degree from the Perley Isaac Reed School of Journalism (now the Reed College of Media) at WVU. Costello is a chef, farmer, seed saver, storyteller and co-owner at Lost Creek Farm in Lost Creek, West Virginia, a historic farm and traveling culinary venture through which he and his partner, Amy Dawson, promote Appalachia’s heritage-based cuisine while they celebrate the diversity of West Virginia’s immigrant history and food traditions.
Mr. Costello is currently a contributing editor at the 100 Days in Appalachia project, where he focuses on issues in regional food and culture, and he serves on the board of directors for the Appalachian Food Summit. His work was featured in the West Virginia episode of Anthony Bourdain’s iconic Parts Unknown documentary, The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times and WVU Magazine.