The legacy and future of seeds

Holding a handful of cabbage seeds, tiny round objects, seemingly as inert as pebbles, I marvel that they can burst into life and produce food crops. The metaphor of seeds has been part of sacred texts from the Bible to Buddhist teachings: “We nourish the seeds of contentment and weed out the seedlings of greed and aversion,” and “we reap what we sow.”

In 1998 I worked with Abundant Life Seed Foundation, in Port Townsend, Washington, a nonprofit organization that preserved, grew, and sold open-pollinated and heirloom seeds. (Open-pollinated seeds are stable varieties that breed true from seed, allowed to freely pollinate with others in field conditions.) We received packets of homegrown seeds along with pleas to protect and maintain them because the senders no longer could continue and wanted to ensure that their heritage would be passed on. The stories were often poignant, about ancestors who brought the seeds from the old country. The most memorable story for me was of a man with tomato seeds from former Czechoslovakia. The seeds he shared were an extra-early heirloom called Stupice that produces a prolific crop even in cool conditions. Tinker Cavallero, a Port Townsend gardener working at Abundant Life grew out and saved the first of those seeds in the late 1970s. This is the one   tomato I always grow. Forty years later Stupice is recognized around the US as a reliable producer, even in our cool maritime climate.

We need vegetable crop varieties that can produce under adverse conditions. We need vegetables that can grow in all different climatic regions. That is one of the beauties of biodiversity. That is what we save when we take time to grow open-pollinated vegetables, save their seeds, and share them. That is part of our 10,000-year heritage as seed savers. As a gardener for almost 40 years, I am greatly concerned that seeds are under attack, specifically the freedom for people around the planet to grow food crops and save the seeds handed down for generations. Justice begins with seeds.

The consolidation of seed companies in the hands of a few major corporations threatens the biodiversity of seeds available to home gardeners and farmers. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN estimates that 75 percent of crop diversity worldwide was lost between 1900 and 2000. Now as I learn more, the legal ramifications of genetically engineered patents are equally ominous. Pollen from the agricultural fields of genetically modified organism (GMO) crops has already inadvertently contaminated neighboring fields and those neighboring farmers, some of whom practice seed-saving have been sued by the patent holder, Monsanto.

What exactly are genetically modified organisms and how much does the scientific community know about them? I did a little research to find out how genetic engineering works.  The University of Nebraska has an animated explanation:

A gene gun is the name for the machine that shoots foreign bodies or vectors, that is, bacteria or cells from taxonomically unrelated organisms into the genes of plant cells in petri dishes. The vector transfers new sequences of genetic material (DNA) into the cell. There are so many genes in plants; wheat has 80,000 while grapes have 40,000 genes. As you saw if you checked out the animation at University of Nebraska, shooting the cells and actually hitting the nucleus is a bit hit-or-miss. When a gene is inserted into a chromosome it is called an event. Although researchers have been working long and hard to add useful DNA to fulfill the promise of drought tolerant food crops and greater yields, they have a long way to go. The whole technology is still pretty young. I have to digress a little here, please bear with me. The most objective statement I’ve read is from Dr. David Suzuki, Canadian molecular geneticist and author of Genethics: the Ethics of Engineering Life. Suzuki argues that the research is still developing.

“When a biotechnologist can clip out or synthesize a specific sequence of DNA, insert it at a precisely specified position in a host genome and obtain the predicted expression of the inserted DNA with no other complications, then we can say that it is a “mature” discipline.”

Suzuki taught at the University of British Columbia and is best known as the host of a CBC television program The Nature of Things, viewed in over forty countries. He goes on to explain that a review of biotech publications still presents a large number and wide variety of new research that suggests that the discipline is not ready to leave the lab and move into the marketplace.

“The problem with biotechnology as it’s presented today is that those pushing its benefits stand to gain enormously from it. While I believe their sincerity, they obviously start from a faith in the benefits and our ability to “manage” the GE organisms and products safely. But we’ve learned from experience with the tobacco, nuclear, petrochemical, automobile and pharmaceutical industries and military establishments that vested interest alone shapes a spokesperson’s perspective and precludes an ability to examine criticisms or concerns in an open fashion.”

Around the world scientists agree that genetic engineering (GE) is different from conventional breeding and that safety assessments should be completed for all genetically engineered crops. The US is the only country among its trading partners that disagrees. In our country the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) says it is up to the companies to determine safety of any GMO. For the last twenty years these crops have been classified as generally accepted as safe, or GRAS.

Joy Phillips, a good friend of mine, is passionate about seed preservation in her region, the state of Tasmania. This island is 150 miles south of mainland Australia. On a recent trip to the US, she collected vegetable seeds that would grow well in Tasmania and took workshops to refine her skills and increase her knowledge base. Organic Seed Alliance was high on her list of places to visit. She invited me to attend the Third Annual Heirloom Expo in Santa Rosa, California. We went in mid-September. There I listened to world-renowned seed saver and eco-feminist Vandana Shiva,  and Andrew Kimbrell, environmental lawyer and founder of Center for Food Safety speak about the threats of GMO crops. They referred to the technique as cell invasion technology.

Andrew Kimbrell said,

“By removing the genetic material from one organism and inserting it into the permanent genetic code of another, the biotech industry has created an astounding number of organisms that are not produced by nature and have never been seen on the plate. These include potatoes with bacteria genes, “super” pigs with human growth genes, fish with cattle growth genes, tomatoes with flounder genes, corn with bacteria genes, and thousands of other altered and engineered plants, animals and insects. At an alarming rate, these creations are now being patented and released into our environment and our food supply.”

Dr. Vandana Shiva, the world-renowned Indian environmental activist is one of my heroes because she manages to hold the balance of a rational, articulate speaker while wearing a sari and beaming at people. Gandhi is her model. She fights for change in agriculture, specifically in biodiversity, bioethics, and genetic engineering.

Shiva has argued that there is no one gene for drought tolerance, as Monsanto has promised. The ability to withstand drought is spread over a number of genes. She argues also that no GMO has increased yields. Using conventional hybrid breeding techniques to backcross the GMO seed with existing hybrid seed for five or six generations may result in higher yielding crops. (Hybrids are produced by cross-pollinating two distinct inbred parents. Difficult but not impossible to save seeds from.) Using more petroleum fertilizer increases yields, but at a cost to the soil ecosystem, and increasing climate change. What RoundUp Ready GMO crops have been bred for is to withstand more herbicides, so farmers don’t have to till the soil thus preventing erosion. But the use of this herbicide causes toxic runoff that gets in the water system and is toxic to the farm workers. The entire system costs the farmers more money.

Andrew Kimbrell told the audience at Heirloom Expo that 64 million acres in the US now have superweeds—weeds that are resistant to RoundUp. So if Monsanto has its way, the next step in the war on weeds will be the creation of new GMOs. This next generation could be crops engineered to be resistant to 2,4-D and Diacamba.

Shiva also told us that one of the problems is that Monsanto is working with a primitive assumption that genes are fixed entities. Unintentional changes may have occurred. Genes do not behave individually, unlike how they are manipulated in laboratories. They are part of interacting networks. No one knows the repercussions.

Her keynote speech at Heirloom Expo was a rousing talk, peppered with statistics and slogans. The crowd kept cheering. She denounced Monsanto for creating a monoculture of the mind. “They only know how to create war, their technology doesn’t enhance life.” She said, “Monsanto’s goal is to make saving seed illegal so they can control the food.” While her statements may seem extreme, this woman has been at the table with these corporations since the mid-1980s in India and at the UN discussing biosafety. She holds advisory positions for governments of Spain, Italy, India, and Bhutan and has been awarded prizes from twenty countries around the world.

Agrarian communities around the world are organizing to protect their seeds. 64 countries around the world label GMOs. A famous quote attributed to Henry Kissinger states, “[Those] who control the food supply controls the people.”  Vandana Shiva extended that to “ The way to control the food is to control the seeds.”

She declares we need a paradigm shift:The Law of the Seed: Seed is the source of life and the first link in the food chain. Control over seed means control over our lives, our food and, our freedom.Maybe this is why countries in the global south and nations across Europe are talking about food sovereignty. One way we all can participate in food sovereignty is to support local agriculture. Another is to recognize the value of open-pollinated seeds.

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