Tommy's Ark: Exploring Medicinal Plants, GMO's, and the Future of Agriculture


In 1991, Tommy Thomas bought a piece of land overlooking the central valley of Costa Rica. At first, he was just looking to build a traditional, big house on the 7.5 acre property, but he ran into a guy there that grew herbs for export to the US and learned the tricks of the trade. What started as a hobby exploded into a jaw-dropping collection of thousands of trees, herbs, and plants.

Tommy calls his place the Ark, named after the Biblical allegory. He knew that Noah saved the animals, but wondered who saved all of the plants.

More impressive than Tommy's collection is his knowledge. Tommy has an encyclopedic recollection of all the various uses of each species, and a number of interesting, educational stories to go along with each of them. He also has a lot of experience with importing and exporting these plants, which gives him an interesting perspective on a lot of the issues surrounding agriculture.

Given his knowledge and experience, I thought it would be interesting to sit down with him and talk a little bit about organic farming, industrial agriculture, GMO's, and the like. 

You can also take an aerial tour of the farm below.

Show Notes:

Glow-in-the-dark trees

On BT and GMO's


Spenser Gabin: You called it, the Ark. Which is funny, because, we've been talking, you're an atheist, I'm an atheist, but you choose to call it the Ark, so why the Ark, in terms of collecting plants and all of that?

Tommy Thomas: Well it was just--the real issue there was, if there was a Noah and he had an ark of animals, who saved the plants?


Spenser: You need the plants, too, right?

Tommy: Right! You can't have the animals if you don't have any plants.

Spenser: Right.

Tommy: So I said, "somebody had to do an ark of plants, obviously," to do that. 

Spenser: Right, and now you have hundreds of plants--

Tommy: Thousands--

Spenser: Thousands. Thousands of plants from all over the world--you have it in this part of Central America. Did you see it as having that scope from the very beginning?

Tommy: No, it just grew. I bought this farm because I was looking maybe for a place to build a house, traditional kind of big house, kind of thing, and I bought it and I didn't have any intention of farming--

Spenser: Yeah.


Tommy: I ran into this guy who did herbs and exported to the United States from here, and he taught me into trying and doing a few of these culinary herbs, and that's how I got into growing basically. Then it just became a hobby that got out of hand.

Spenser: Right--I mean your knowledge on the subject is incredible and there's thousands of plants and you seem to know something about everything--did you have that love of it from the very beginning?

Tommy: No, it just grew. At one point in the late 80's, early 90's, is that I really thought that medicinal plants had a future in commerce--and I was wrong. Yes, they sell medicinal plants, but the grower never makes any of the money. And in the middle 90's, the pharmaceutical companies of the world bought up almost all of the small herb companies. They didn't change them, they didn't put them out of the business, but they wanted to have them, so that they knew what was going on, because again, all the pharmaceutical things come from plant-base--originally. And so, they just wanted to keep their hand in the thing so that they knew what was going on with the plant medicine. So, and that meant that there was no chance of making any money in growing these things anymore.

Spenser: Right.

Tommy: They're looking for the cheapest product and so, I'll give you an example--I did large-scale Echinacea for a lot of times. I had a hundred small farmers here in Costa Rica, growing for me. I exported ten containers of Echinacea leaf and root--it was a couple million dollars worth of stuff--but, I never really made any money from it because I paid my growers good for this, and as soon as the pharmaceutical companies started taking over, they went to what we call standardized extract--where most of the herbalists prefer the entire plant, and used the entire plant. The root has a lot more of the Echinacea signs in it that they're looking for, the leaf has very little. What they found was they could go the farmer in Texas or in Canada and he could plant out hundreds of hectares and use mechanized equipment and harvest the leaf, and that would then--even though it has much less, they could take out all they needed because they were only looking for a 4% standardized extract anyhow, so they were paying a very high price to get root because Western culture couldn't harvest roots because it's too labor intensive. So this was a way of mechanizing their production.

Spenser: So I guess over the years, you've come to more of a conclusion that you want to phase out production a little bit more, and focus more on education.

Tommy: Education, it's all education. That's why I think the botanical garden idea--with educational tours basically. 

Spenser: Right, I guess the question is, you of course think there's a need for such education. Why is there that need? I mean I still know so little about it but all of the medicinal properties that plants have, the enormous variety of them, and all of the different uses and everything--I grew up just taking the pills from the pharmacy--you don't care where it comes from you just care that it works, right? But do you see that as kind of your role is to just stimulate that interest--

Tommy: But it's not just medicinals. The plants have so many uses, I mean--all of human's endeavors have come from plants, right? And so I have the artist that does the natural colorants, I have friend who's a woodworker, I have the Canadian guy who did the essential oils, a woman that did the alcohol extracts from things, and the food, the actual food. So again, we do a lot of things with local, rural people, to show them easy, high-protein vegetable sources that they can plant--the katuk, the pigeon pea, the chiscasquil or the chaya. All those things have high-protein value, and all the other things that you need nutritionally--teaching them how to use that because they're easy to grow--you can do it in your backyard if you live out in the countryside, cause you have plenty of food that's nutritional.

Spenser: Right, so it's really kind of that theme of self-reliance.

Tommy: And how to use the plants.

Spenser: Well, we've been talking a lot about technology and it's role in agriculture, and all those things, and of course that leads into the GMO debate, and I definitely come from the scientific, skeptical side of things, generally speaking, but I've also spent a good bit of time with the hippie, permaculture, anti-GMO crowd, and I'm just interested in kind of hearing from somebody that has so much experience with this, to just weigh in on that a little bit, not necessarily say, "I'm pro-this or anti-that," but just talk about the different issues that GMO's bring up. It's not just about--cause the debate in the U.S. to me, is just dominated by labeling--just yell back and forth, "this should be labeled", "this shouldn't be labeled," but there's a much richer, larger conversation there about, "Well, should we be using GMO's? How should we be using them? What are the risks? What are the benefits?"

Tommy: Well I don't know any better than anybody else. Labeling is a no-brainer, they obviously should be labeled. There's no evidence that they're harmful yet. They might be--but we don't know that. So to do all this anti on the basis of no information, because I don't see any scientific studies that would show that this is harmful--I think the real issue is back to the monoculture. And the GMO's obviously help to make monoculture more lucrative, it makes it easier to grow products with less hassle and more production.

Spenser: So the threat, if anything is more just in shifting our stock into monoculture, not so much the worry about, oh well we modified a gene, therefore we might have messed something up--

Tommy: Even though I don't see any real way to avoid monocultures, either. That's a basic problem. That's why I think all the permaculture, hippie movements are advocating growing closer to home, small farms, and that's why they push the organic aspect, because if you're doing it on a small-scale, you probably don't need the chemicals, with the exception of fertilizer, that's where the organic people go wrong, is that they make it too stringent, rather than trying to reduce the reliance on chemicals, they go for absolutely no chemicals.

Spenser: Zero.

Tommy: Zero chemicals. I don't think that's going to work.

Spenser: To scale?

Tommy: Only on a very small scale. Home gardens and stuff, obviously, and hey, I'm sure that'd be better for you, I don't see an argument about that. But on a large-scale, I don't see how that is ever going to work, and I think we have to be more reasonable and say, "ok, let's cut out all these really bad chemicals and go for the ones that have the short half-lives and are basically not harmful to the environment, and use them rationally.


Spenser: Well, one thing I've read is that in some cases, using GMO's in a monoculture would actually allow you to use less pesticides, less chemicals, than if you didn't do that--

Tommy: Some of them. The Roundup Ready, obviously is still going to use Roundup. And Roundup has a fairly short half-life so it's not the bad thing that everybody makes it out to be--but it's not good. We all agree. The BT example is where they don't want any of the BT GMO, but that would reduce spraying and it is considered organic, but they're against it because it's GMO, and that doesn't seem to make much sense to me. 

Spenser: And then there's a related issue about Monsanto copyrighting a seed basically--and then the seed gets into their neighbor's farm, and then they say that--

Tommy: I don't think that's really a big deal, I don't think that's really the issue though. That's how it's being played out because of the court battles between Monsanto and some of their neighbors where they grow--I don't think that's a real important issue myself. Yes, localized it might be, but in the world picture, I don't think that's the issue.

Spenser: Right, well I think one concern is that there's a movement to decentralize power a little bit, and allow people to grow more of their own food and take more power back locally, and I think that when you see Monsanto, the big corporation, with their GMO's, probably for some good reasons, there's kind of a sense that they have some underlying scheme where they get to take over and own all of food-production somehow by infesting the world with their own seems and taking over. How much of that do you see as hysteria versus...

Tommy: Well I think that it might happen.


Spenser: It's not hysteria?

Tommy: It's not hysteria, might happen, but it will happen for the reasons that they can produce more food, than the other systems.


Spenser: But the motive is producing more food, but making more money--

Tommy: For them, I understand. We're all against big anything, ok, and big agriculture is one of the worst. But that changes over time. I always loved Archer Daniel Midland's, they were the ones that started out with corn. They made margarine and so they put out of business, a lot of the dairy people, in the north central area of the United States, because everybody bought margarine. Then they started using high fructose sugar from it, so they put US sugar out of business, because they got Pepsi and Coca Cola to buy it instead of sugar. So US sugar, it no longer exists. And then he went, Dwayne Andreas went to China, was advisor to Mao Zedong, he came back from China and he says, "They have 800 million people, they all drink milk, and I didn't see one cow, because they drink soy milk."

Spenser: Right.

Tommy: So he started planting soy in the United States, and everybody thought that was great, we're getting away from corn, we're getting away from wheat, it's great to have soy. Now, everybody hates him because he planted soy, and now soy is hated. It changes over time, and it really depends. How are we going to feed all these people?

Spenser: And golden rice is a hot issue right now, do you think that's the best example of a case where the benefits to using it are so great, that even if there are some potential underlying risks, it's so overwhelming that if we can get golden rice to the most impoverished people that don't have the tools to do agriculture, that would save lives and also it would reduce hunger and do all these things...

Tommy: And increase population.

Spenser: Right, right, so that's a concern.

Tommy: That's a concern also, but it seems to me that the increase in population is really just due to a lack of education, and as soon as we get most of the world educated, the population will level off and not increase anymore, they say about 9 billion, it will stop growing because of education.

Spenser: Let's hope so.


Tommy: And we can probably feed 9 billion. So that's really an issue there. And this has been happening for a long time, it just wasn't GMO, is because Ford and Rockefeller foundations, developed all the hybrid rice and corn and wheat, back in the 60's and the 70's, that kept Asia growing.


Spenser: Right, you need food to grow population.

Tommy: Right, and we definitely were a part of that, and so maybe that wasn't the right decision at the time, but now it's too late to change our minds.


Spenser: Right, is there any way, in your particular plot of land and situation, where a GMO could potentially be useful?

Tommy: No.

Spenser: No.

Tommy: I'm not monoculture, I'm not large scale, there's just no reason for it.

Spenser: Ok. Even those glow in the dark trees?

Tommy: Well, the glow in the dark trees--

Spenser: It sounds so cool.

Tommy: Right, and that can cut our energy needs tremendously. You could plant your highways with these glow-in-the-dark trees, and you wouldn't need a lot of the streetlights, so this could be very, very good for the long-term development of the humans and their energy needs.

Spenser: Yeah, definitely.

Tommy: That's a long way away, still. 

Spenser: Yeah, absolutely. Do you have any recommended literature, surrounding issues around GMO's?

Tommy: No, I really don't. The literature, it's almost always site-specific, the location. Because every plant changes in every location, you can bring a plant down from the temperate climates to the tropics and it's going to change, and it's requirements are going to change.

Spenser: Just like when I come down from the temperate to the tropics, things change, you need different stuff.

Tommy: I was doing the Echinacea and I did a lot of testing, both chemical testing and DNA testing, and these plants changed their chemical components, and changed their DNA in a new location.

Spenser: Changed their DNA?

Tommy: Yes.

Spenser: Is that like the epigenetic kind of thing?

Tommy: I don't understand it, but we know in the Echinacea, it was interesting because there were basically three varieties of Echinacea that were the most--and the angustifolia grew in the north or in higher altitudes, and the purpurea grew in the south, or in lower altitudes. And so you try to take one and bring it down to--angustifolia--and bring it down, Europeans liked that one more, so they paid more for it, so I brought that one down, and it did ok, but over time, it started to revert back to the lower altitude and lower latitude--ok. And the DNA actually changed.

Spenser: Wow. I don't think I've ever heard of that.

Tommy: I don't think we know anything about plants, really. The academics, they never participated in farming, really. 


They don't go out and grow these things, and so their experiences are limited.

Spenser: Sure. Well, why do you think that things have evolved this way? I mean, food production and farming is so important, it's at the very heart of human existence, is eating and producing food, but it seems to me like it's not given the respect that it deserves, in terms of economics--we don't pay farmers a lot of money, and they end up getting shafted on a lot of these things, even though what they're doing--what could be more important than growing food? Why is it that it's kind of seen as a sort of a working-class kind of endeavor, uneducated people do it--

Tommy: First of all, it's easy to get into. There's no requirements to become a farmer.

Spenser: Right, other than having land.

Tommy: Other than having access to land. In the past, it was always his land, I do the farming, and I share half of it with the owner. And today, what's happened is we want to keep the price low so that everybody can afford it, so the only way to make any money is to increase the amount.

Spenser: The yield.

Tommy: And that's why we go to monoculture and big corporations to manage all of this stuff. Now they can produce a lot, make a small margin, but they're producing so much that it's a lot of money. 


Spenser: Right, but it does seem like it's such a rich area for more research and for lots of really intelligent people to dive into, just food science and new techniques for--it just seems like you're saying, we don't know enough about plants.

Tommy: Well, probably, what we have at the same time happening is that we're starting to reduce our reliance on meat, because it's not as efficient as growing and eating the plants themselves.

Spenser: Calorie in, calorie out.

Tommy: Right, so just that alone will probably make us put more attention to getting the protein out of plants. And so we are starting to get more and more of that kind of research and information down. And that's why there are lots of plants that become very popular in the short run, because they're high protein plants. Beans have always been the one that we've relied on, but we're going to have some other ones now, that I think will be a big deal. I mean I think the breadfruit is another good example. In a lot of places in the tropics, it's hard to grow potatoes. Too hot. So they're going to substitute the breadfruit for the potatoes, in those hot climates. Even McDonald's in the pacific islands, uses the breadfruit for their french fries. 

Spenser: Really?

Tommy: Yeah.

Spenser: Even they couldn't figure it out.

Tommy: Well, it's just too hard, they don't want to have to import. I mean here, in Costa Rica, they still import Idaho potatoes to do their french fries here.

Spenser: Cause it's cheaper than--

Tommy: No, it's because the potatoes we grow in the tropics aren't very good, for that kind of thing.


Spenser: Nobody would buy them.

Tommy: They become very pasty.

Spenser: Yeah, right. So you've done some conferences and stuff on...Mind States Costa Rica? Can you just talk about your interest in that?

Tommy: Well, I got invited because I have all those plants.

Spenser: Right.

Tommy: The people at that conference are the ones who've been researching it, and they were psychologists, psychiatrists, medical doctors, chemists, and a lot of like, priests, they use them in terms of therapy with different clients of theirs. And so I was invited because I have all the plants and I grow all the plants, and so that was the only reason I got invited to speak, is because nobody there, they only knew about them in a processed form, and not in a plant form.

Spenser: Right, you're growing them so you have some interest in their properties to some extent, right?

Tommy: To some extent, yeah, but that's not my focus on them really. My focus is to see how they grow and I do get people that come through and show me how you use them and how to make the mixtures and that kind of thing.

Spenser: Right, so are you one of the only sources that's growing that actively, in Costa Rica? Are you a predominant source?

Tommy: I definitely was the first one, and now there are a number of these small communities around the country that have gotten plants from me and now grow some of these things, like the ayahuasca, that kind of thing. And yeah, I did it because I'm a collector.


And I have two of everything, it is the Ark. And so, that was my whole intention when I first started, I just wanted to be a collector and have some of these things, that over the years, I've had all these other people come, spend some time here, and teach me what they were doing, how to use the plant for whatever reason, so you see all the different--the chair you're sitting in is water hyacinth. 35 years ago, they said the water hyacinth was going to destroy the world, because it was stopping up all the rivers of the world, because now we believe that it actually helps to purify water, to take the heavy metals out of the water, to clean it up, and so, if you have cheap enough labor, it actually makes a nice chair.


Spenser: Cool. Well, you've certainly been successful, I think God himself--

Tommy: I never made any money on this farm.

Spenser: Not with the money, but certainly with what you created.

Tommy: It's kind of the right location because it's not really good for production for anything. I'm too high for tropical stuff, and I'm basically too low for temperate stuff.

Spenser: You're in the middle.

Tommy. Everything grows, but it's not prolific, it doesn't produce a lot. And so that's why I ended up doing the leafy stuff, because that you can somewhat control.

Spenser: Well, I just mean you'd be a hard collection to top. I think that Noah would be impressed with what you've done. What are your plans moving forward?

Tommy: Just to basically turn the whole farm into a botanical garden. I'm going to concentrate more on usable products like fruits, fruits and nuts I think are the future, and so I'd like to see what does well in this climate, and do those, and offer those into the market. There are so many tropical fruits that the world doesn't really know, and I think that that is kind of going to be the next step. Some of them don't lend themselves to export, to shipping, unless you process them, is one of the main problems with tropical fruits, is that you can't export them fresh, really, you have to process it to export it. 

Spenser: Dry them--

Tommy: Or freeze them, is a good solution to that, in a lot of cases. 

Spenser: Cool. Well, thanks so much for your time.

Tommy: My pleasure.

Spenser: I've had a great time, I'd recommend the place to everyone if you want to know anything about any plant here, Tommy knows about it.

Tommy: Well, I try, but there are a lot of plants.