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barton cole :: veni, vedi, vero scripsi
Sunday, January 11, 2009
"Though I do not believe a plant will spring up
where no seed has been,
yet I have great faith in a seed.
Convince me you have a seed there, and
I am prepared to expect miracles."
-- Henry David Thoreau, Faith in a Seed
A seed is a package that conveys the plant's genetic material into the future, like a slingshot or a slow, persistent rolling ball, but forward -- think of a pod traveling through deep space, drifting among the stars, eventually arriving at landfall and deploying itself on its mission, which is to create the machine that makes more pods and shoots them into the future, again and again...
They're perfect machines, seeds. I find myself constantly amazed at the means by which they travel from the source plant to their destination. They store the instructions on how to deploy the mechanism, and how to utilize a native energy source efficiently. They just arrive, set up shop, and get busy.
Some seeds take longer to arrive than others: some plants rapidly grow and distribute seeds (think of dandelions, et al), while others seldom do, and perhaps not many seeds.
The seed; a projectile aimed at the future. And essentially, its goal is to propagate its genetic material into the future in a successful, self-replicating mechanism.
This is much the same as a book, isn't it? A repository for data, to propel it into the future, with the added imperative to propagate itself.
An idea is the same way - this, and the preceding notions, are outlined cleverly and compelling by Richard Dawkins, in his book, The Selfish Gene. His concept of a self-replicating idea, an abstraction, is called a meme.
This essay is a meme; a moderately successful one, I hope - i.e., able to self-replicate.
I learned, yesterday, that Monsanto had acquired Territorial Seeds; which, if true, meant that we sensitive organic gardeners would have a hard time doing business with them; Monsanto has long been accused of aggressive, global, agricultural terrorism, and our organic dollars are unable to support that.
The situation was hyperbolic, and before making scattershot, reactionary statements, I needed information.
Naturally, the search engine retrieved my downed fowl in nanoseconds, and I learned some of what was going on…
Monsanto had indeed acquired Seminis, the world's largest vegetable seed company. This gives Monsanto, the developer and promulgator of the "terminator gene," control over the largest quantity of vegetable genetic material on earth.
Without genetic diversity, most people on the planet would experience profound deprivation and famine in short order - imagine the square miles, upon thousands, in the Midwest United States, all planted with the same crop - say, corn - and all the same strain, likely from the same source.
Plants are under constant barrage from pathogens, just like everybody else. By being resistant to fungal and viral diseases, plants succeed in launching their projectiles into the future, blindly, although they might be launched into the bellies of the world.
If, however, a pathogen develops the ability to affect this up-to-date, genetically-modified foodstuff, there goes an area larger than the state of Illinois, not producing any food. Not only that, but likely providing a successful host for the pathogen to make landfall, so to speak.
Our cornucopia is in peril.
Botanists are constantly trying to stay one step ahead of the pathogens by breeding in resistant genes from strains which show favorable characteristics. Where do they get those? Often from "landraces;" strains grown in some remote valley far off in the world, and kept as heirlooms.
The fundamental right of our relationship with seeds is to be able to hold that projectile for a moment in your palm before you send it on its way to the future. It mustn't die, quivering its last, in your palm.
If Monsanto acquired Seminis, how does that affect Territorial and Johnny's? Not to mention all the other completely reputable seed companies out there…
Well, I have learned that, as you can imagine, seed production and distribution is complicated. For one, if a farmer is growing fields of cabbages that are seed crops, they mustn't be within a certain distance of any other of the cabbage family (broccoli, kale, Brussels sprouts, and on), lest the plants cross and the field produce some unintended hybrid seed.
Of course, this shuffling of genetics is how diversity generates new strains, with favorable traits or perhaps not, but it doesn't, in this case, serve the interests of the seed farmer - he wants to produce a wagonload of valuable, consistent, dependable-performer seeds, not some random hybrids. So they've got to work together, to ensure that they're not risking pollen "contamination" from neighboring fields. They plan and cooperate; the avenues of communication and resource development are serpentine and complex.
That's merely the arcane and complicated network and cooperation of the seed producers; the seed distributors are another layer in the web.
So companies like Territorial, et al, sell products generated by Seminis all the time. They have their own sources, true, but to fill in their inventory, they purchase it from a broker, who's getting it from the producer - being the world's largest seed producer, that's often Seminis, directly or indirectly.
Personally, I will do nothing that will line the pockets of Monsanto; consider this syllogism:
1. Monsanto has developed, patented, and deployed the "terminator gene," as well as other dangerous genetic modifications;
2. Monsanto now has control over the world's largest producer of plant genetic material;
Therefore, Monsanto is in a position of dangerous power...
The enlightened concern has been the issue of water rights, but what about the rights to genetic material?
It's no small leap to putting this plot in an international intrigue scenario, complete with the desire for world domination…
Think of it - if you control the access to seeds and genetic material, you control access to food.
Essentially, you have control over the human population of the world.
I won't support Monsanto. I won't, therefore, support Seminis. I think that also means that I won't support Territorial, and others.
What's to be done?
For one, as I discovered has already begun to happen, consumers should put pressure on seed companies to disclose, in their catalogs, who produced the seed, so they can make informed choices and support Territorial's own production of seed, and not support Seminis or its subsidiaries.
As our right to have access to genetic material, we also must demand access to information about its provenance.
Second, gardeners should endeavor to save their own seed.
I've been saving seed for years, among them, the garlic I replant every year, and also a lettuce of which I am quite fond that I have casually (but successfully, over some years) selected for cold-tolerance (it's a Cos type that handles snow just fine), slow-bolting, and superior flavor. It's also attractive.
I grow what other seeds I can, considering the need to isolate some plants and varieties, as described above.
There are many other gardeners who save seeds; now, they're aggregated into a successful network of their own, like the big producers: the Seed Saver's Exchange.
Members grow seed crops and make them available, essentially trading them with other gardeners for other seed crops.
Diversity is maintained - I have acquired dozens of different lettuce varieties from a gardener in Monroe, Washington, USA, who raises over four-hundred varieties of lettuce - that kicks the seed catalog offering way in the ass.
Many of the seeds available through the Seed Saver's Exchange are venerable, often nearly-forgotten heirloom varieties, many of them noteworthy for the home gardener, although unsuitable for market production - hence their marginalization - growing such plants enables gardeners to participate in the noble business of carrying on the genetic diversity, and thus saving the planet.
Again, the Action Steps:
1. demand that seed companies provide the provenance for the seeds they offer;
2. encourage legislation to demand it by contacting your elected officials;
3. save your own seeds, and propagate those projectiles, the future-seeking pods;
4. Join the Seed Saver's Exchange today.
Don't let a menace take away our access to genetic material.
Protect our seeds. A seed is the ultimate expression of hope and faith;
be a seed yourself.