Sunday, August 25, 2013

“Miracle” Seeds of Sorrow’s Kingdom

Who invented seeds?

Certainly no human mind.

Every seed is a tiny parcel of DNA, complete with initial energy source, protective packaging, encoded plan for growth.

I helped a friend and her kids plant their first garden this year: clearing stones and weeds, loosening the soil, reading instructions on depth and spacing, planting peas, beans, lettuce. It was fun to share their excitement at the first green shoots leaping up, savoring the miracle and mystery of seed: we plant, water, wait. As Wendell Berry says in a lovely short poem: 
“The seed is in the ground.
Now may we rest in hope
While darkness does its work. 
For most of human history, humans have played at the edges of this mystery: looking for the sweetest fruit, the sturdiest vine, then saving seed to try again the next season.

In the mid nineteenth century, an Augustinian monk from Silesia, Gregor Mendel, spent years observing peas, painting pollen back and forth from green peas to yellow, studying traits, wondering. He’s considered the grandfather of hybridization, the first to find a way to selectively cross-pollinate in pursuit of specific traits.

Andean Potatoes, Marcello Marengo,
Slow Food Foundation for Biodiversity
But he wasn’t the first to selectively breed plants or animals with valuable traits. The earth is full of plants and creatures bred to suit specific places and tasks. Persian Greyhounds and New Guinea Singing Dogs have been bred for thousands of years, as have Arabian horses, Icelandic sheep, Dorking chickens, Ibérico pigs.

Indigenous growers in the Andes mountains created over a thousand varieties of potatoes, each suited to an optimum altitude and microclimate. Sri Lanka at one time was said to have two thousand varieties of rice, adapted to different elevations, soils, varying water conditions. A search for heritage apples in the US has so far yielded 950 varieties – bred by farmers, orchardists, , families. Historians say a century ago there were 16,000 named varieties: Albany Beauty, Allen’s Everlasting, Arkansas Black, Smokehouse, Sops in Wine. They were bred for specific growing conditions, specific purposes, or for the beauty of their skin, the color of their stripes, an unexpected flavor perfect for pie, applesauce, or snacking a brisk fall day.

But somewhere along the way, the bounty of natural hybridization was deemed not enough, and technology took over. In the years following World War II, Norman Borlaug, a plant pathologist and agronomist, turned to something called “mutation breeding” – the use of radiation or chemicals to force mutations in a population of seeds. The resultant plants were examined for traits that would expand yield and reduce susceptibility to wheat rust. The resultant high-yield disease-resistant dwarf wheat dramatically increased wheat yield in countries like Mexico and India, so much so that Borlaug was given the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970; the selection committee said of him: “More than any other single person of this age, he has helped provide bread for a hungry world. We have made this choice in the hope that providing bread will also give the world peace.” 

Borlaug’s wheat seeds were called “miracle seeds,” and the changes in farming practices promoted along with his seed spurred what has been called “the Green Revolution.”

Advocates of industrial agriculture still sing the praises of Borlaug and the Green Revolution, with supporting statistics: increases in productivity, acres planted in Borlaug’s hybrid wheat and subsequent high yield rice.

Other voices are not so congratulatory. The statistics also document the billions of pounds of pesticide and nitrogen dumped on fields, the acres of bio-diverse food systems plowed under.

And questions have been raised about ways of measuring yield. If an acre of land once supported maize, millet, peas, beans, squash, oil seeds, sorghum, and interplanted herbs, is an increase in one of those crops a benefit if all the rest are lost? 
Spraying Pesticide in India, Mark Edwards, Still Pictures

And then there’s the subtext of profit and expense. The Green Revolution promoted ever higher expense in inputs: tractors, chemicals, expensive seed. Global companies profited. Small farmers went deeper into debt.

It all comes back to seed.

Borlaug’s experiments with chemical and radioactive mutagenesis gave way to genetic modification: removing genes from one species to insert into another. In one version of this, genetic strands from an agricultural virus (Cauliflower Mosaic Virus) are inserted into genetic sequences of various crops (corn, soy, sugar beets, cotton, canola) to create disease resistant varieties.

Another common genetic modification uses gene coding from glyphosate-resistant enzymes obtained from a plant pathogen (Agrobacterium tumefaciens), creating crops that can be sprayed with weed-killing herbicides without harm to the crop itself. Another modification makes use of genetic material from a soil bacterium toxic to insects and root worms, creating plants that are resistant to insect and rootworm predation.

While billions have been spent creating and marketing these seeds, very little has been spent investigating their long-term impacts on human and environmental health.  Market introduction follows a voluntaryconsultation between seed-designers and regulatory agencies, with applicants providing results from their own 90 day investigation to a panel often composed of industry consultants.  Independent research is often stifled.

Growing coalitions of doctors, scientists, and farmers have asked for better regulation of these “miracle” seeds and more extensive research regarding their impact on both environment and human-health.

Monoculture Pesticides,The Permaculture Research Institute
But even if the miracle seeds of high-yield wheat, Round-up Ready corn, virus-resistant soy are perfectly safe, the context of their growth is without doubt harmful. These miracle seeds were made to be grown in monocultures dependent on petrochemical intervention: huge fields of depleted soil drenched in nitrogen fertilizers, sprayed with herbicides, toxic to pollinators, song-birds, farmers.

The pesticides inserted in the miracle seeds’ DNA, or used to coat the seed itself, or sprayed across the growing plants, linger in thesoil, run off in our water, aggregate in the animals fed pesticide-laden feed, cross through placentas to the blood of unborn babies. 

Last winter I heard a speaker from the National Institute of Environmental Health Services share his agency’s concern about “chronic, complex exposures.” Safety tests for pesticides and genetically modified crops are rarely longer than ninety days, and test only one new substance at a time. What happens, he asked quietly, when we eat those substances day after day, for years at a time? What happens when they mix in ways we can’t predict? He showed a series of charts documenting illnesses that have increased exponentially in the last twenty years, charts that mirror the exponential rise in pesticide use, and the spread of genetically modified seed.

These miracle seeds have become for me both sign and symbol of an industrial model that believes more is always better, technology holds the cure, and any problems caused by human interference can be solved with ever more interference.

Around the globe, consumers and farmers are asking that genetically modified foods be labeled, that patents on seed be banned, that huge seed monopolies be slowed in their relentless quest to swallow smaller seed suppliers. 

What happens when the source of food is gathered into ever tighter corporate control?

And what responsibility rests with me, in this global dialogue about seed, health, profit?
No one invented seed.
The word sings out in every tongue:
Samen, semente, sēklas, siol.
The gift of life itself is passed
From hand to hand, sacco to sac,
Promise of harvests yet to come.
No one invented seed.
God’s own earth-magic, ancient miracle,
Hope wrapped in fibers paper thin,
In small round pellets, green, or brown,
In precious flecks, in salt-sized dots,
In shells, in pods, in kernels, grains.
No one invented seed,
Yet countless farmers, peasants, monks
In gardens, fields around the globe,
Waited for the greener pea,
The sweeter corn, the stronger vine.
Saved seed, then handed on the fruit.
No one invented seed,
Yet someone, seeing green in green,
Pushed patents, lawyers,
Drove from field to field,
Grabbing up time-tested treasure,
Narrowing the flow of seed into one strong hand.
“No one invented seed!”
Cry cotton farmers, in their dying fields,
Cry Haitian peasants, on their rubbled hills.
Cry campesinos: “No Monsanto maize!”
Around the globe, small growers stand to say:
“No to your GMOs, your patents and your seed!
No to your theft of ancient wisdom.
No to your Roundup and your greed.”
As millions march, they chant this truth:
“Seeds are life!
No one invented seed.”
  (C. Kuniholm, 2012)    
Who Owns the Seed? Seed Freedom
This is the third in a series on food and farming, Jesus' nature parables, and the intermingling of justice, sabbath, shalom, and the sweet, shared hope of God's green equity:
God's Green Equity: August 4, 2013
Seed Parables: August 11, 2013            

Sunday, August 11, 2013

Seed Parables

I’ve been doing battle lately with invasive plants that are taking over a park near my home. Mile-a-minute, or Asiatic tearthumb, (Persicaria perfoliata) is an annual vine with beautiful blue berries. Back in the 30s, a grower in York (two counties west of me) planted some holly seeds from Japan, and mile-a-minute grew up alongside the hollies. The grower found it interesting, propagated more, and now it’s smothering fields and meadows in a constantly spreading circle hundreds of miles wide. Those beautiful blue seeds can linger in the soil for six years before germinating, and every plant produces hundreds of seeds, carried to new locations by flocks of hungry birds.

Mile-a-minute is prickly (hence the name “tearthumb”), but with gloves, not too hard to gather: it pulls off easily, and can be rolled into a ball. The difficulty is that it climbs over everything, far into trees, over bushes, out of reach of diligent weed warriors. Once it’s seeded, seeds fly off when the vine is disturbed. Despite the efforts of a faithful band of volunteers, in Exton Park and areas beyond it seems to be winning.

Purple loosestrife (Lythrum salicaria) is the other thug we’ve been battling. It has beautiful flowers, butterflies love it, and it blooms for months, which is why it’s still sold as an ornamental except in states wise enough to ban it. Some loosestrife is marketed as “sterile,” suggesting it's okay to plant, but researchers have shown that the so-called “sterile” plants are as prolific as their peers.

The problem with loosestrife is that, grown on a continent where it has no natural insect predators, it takes over wetland habitat. It spreads from its roots, a foot a year in every direction, and seeds so prolifically (two to three MILLION seeds a year) that in just a few seasons there’s a solid mat of purple haze. It crowds out everything: native grasses, fish populations, wetland birds. And digging it is hard, mucky work, since its roots are huge and it grows in wet spots, often under water.

The Synchroblog topic this month is “Parable: Small Story, Big Idea,”  and as I’ve been thinking about parables, it’s occurred to me that quite a few are about seeds. In simple stories, Jesus catches the complexity and challenge of seed, and the interplay of natural forces, human effort, inherent risk, distant reward.

Maybe the most familiar of the seed parables is the story of the farmer sowing his seed in good soil, rocky soil, hard soil. The seed on hard soil is eaten by birds. The seed on rocky soil grows fast, but dies prematurely. Some young plants are strangled by weeds, but some seed finds a home in productive soil and grows to produce good fruit. 

I’ve seen firsthand how easily young plants, even trees, can be strangled by weeds. One of our weed warrior jobs is to chop back invasive vines that threaten the health of older trees, bend saplings into strange, contorted shapes, weigh branches toward the ground.

I’ve also seen firsthand how troubles and temptations strangle faith, which is probably closer to the point of Jesus' story. I’ve seen even mature believers sink under the weight of tragedy, or snap in the stranglehold of unattended sin. For young faith, the hazards are many, and it takes real care to help roots grow deep enough to face the pressures that will come.

Another parable is about enemies who come to sow weed seeds in a farmer’s wheat field, and the farmer instructs his servants to let weeds and crop grow together, rather than disturb the wheat by pulling the weeds. Both will be harvested when fully grown: the weeds bundled to be burned, the wheat stored in the farmer’s barn.

I remind myself of this parable when I fall behind in weeding my own small vegetable plot. But I’m fairly sure Jesus wasn’t advocating sloppy gardening, but rather reminding his listeners: it’s sometimes hard to see what’s a weed and what isn’t. It sometimes takes time and patience to recognize the good from the bad, the helpful from the harmful. And sometimes we aren’t wise enough to know. And sometimes it isn’t ours to judge.

A third seed parable is so short I can quote it here in full: “The kingdom of heaven is like a mustard seed, which a man took and planted in his field. Though it is the smallest of all seeds, yet when it grows, it is the largest of garden plants and becomes a tree, so that the birds come and perch in its branches.”

Wrestling with purple loosestrife this past week, I found myself reflecting on the growth of the mustard seed, and Jesus’ mention of the birds perching in its branches.

The mustard we know (Sinapis hirta or Brassica juncea) doesn’t grow into trees. It’s an annual plant that grows three or four feet tall. Sparrows or wrens might land on mustards, might even pick at the seeds, but you wouldn’t call it a tree, and a bird would have trouble perching.

The mustard seed of the Middle East (Salvadora persica) grows into a small, multi-branched tree, with edible seeds, shoots that provide nutritious forage for camels, sheep and goats, and sweet fleshy fruit that can be eaten raw, cooked, or dried: great habitat for birds, and a welcome food source for a wide mix of hungry creatures. 

In Jesus’ very short, simple story, I hear the resonance of the green equity I wrote about last week: God’s kingdom, as it becomes visible, is good news not just for those who follow him, but for all creation. As his restoration and goodness become evident, it provides space for even those creatures we’ve ignored, or crowded out.

The challenge is to sow seeds of the Kingdom, and provide space for them to grow. 

We are constantly sowing seeds, sometimes wisely, more often foolishly.

And the impact of those seeds, while felt by us and those around us, is often multiplied in the natural world.

Mile-a-minute, purple loosestrife, kudzu, norway maples, Japanese honeysuckle, oriental bittersweet, Phragmites australis, the list goes on and on of plant species introduced in expectation of beauty, pleasure, financial reward. The harm to humans is sometimes in time and effort trying to control the runaway invaders; the harm to birds, insects, fish, habitat is far greater, pushing some species to the edge of extinction.

I’ve had the good fortune to hear Doug Tallamy speak at a nearby arboretum about the interplay of plant, caterpillar, butterfly, bird, and the danger to the ecosystem when native plants are replaced with plants from other places. He and his enymology students at the University of Delaware have done years of research on the feeding habits of insects, and have found that very few non-native plants provide essential food for the biodiversity essential to a healthy ecosystem.

We’re often so busy sowing seeds that suit ourselves (the biggest flowers, the longest bloom) we often lose sight of the larger system, and the seeds we sow crowd out the rarer butterflies, the song birds dependent on bugs for food. And as some of those seeds become invasive and spread, they threaten the biodiversity, beauty, and function of the natural world.  

But Jesus’ discussion of seeds was not so much about physical seeds as about the seeds of the kingdom of God: the humility, love, patience and mercy that grow into wisdom, compassion, self-control, grace. Those seeds are choked out by the patterns of the day: fears of betrayal, grief over loss, self-protective anger, habitual cynicism.

And those seeds are strangled even more by the patterns of our life together: unabated competition. Constant judgment of those around us. Unrestrained consumption. Insatiable hunger for success.

The seeds we sow scatter far beyond us, rooting deep in our communities, carried along by social media to communities far beyond our own. Daily I find myself struggling to root out attitudes and ideas that have taken hold that have no place in the kingdom of God.

And daily I ask God to teach me to sow wisely: seeds that will bring nourishment, beauty, places of rest, not only to the people I love, but to the larger world beyond me.

Photo by George Tallman, an Exton Park weed warrior, 2013

Your thoughts and reflections are welcome. Link to "comments" below.

Sunday, August 4, 2013

God’s Green Equity

Swamp White Oak at Exton Park
Say among the nations, “The Lord reigns.”
    The world is firmly established, it cannot be moved;
    he will judge the peoples with equity.
Let the heavens rejoice, let the earth be glad;
    let the sea resound, and all that is in it.
Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them;
    let all the trees of the forest sing for joy.
         (Psalm 96:10-13)

This summer I’ve found myself involved in some new projects that have me thinking more than ever about the physical world around us, how we use and abuse its resources, and what it means to be stewards of what we’ve been given.

And I’ve been digging deeper into that strange stew of words that swim through scripture: justice, equity, righteousness, faithfulness, shalom.

I’m involved in a League of Women Voters national committee studying the state of food and farming: confined animal feeding operations, subsidies for ever expanding monocultures of corn, transgenic salmon, nanotechnology in food, health impacts of pesticide exposure.

As part of my involvement in the League, I attended a convention in Lewisburg, PA, and a council meeting in Leesburg, VA, where I found myself talking to a wide mix of women concerned about food, farms, and environmental impacts: a beekeeper from Illinois, worrying about bee colony collapse; a daughter of generations of shrimpers from Louisiana, grieving the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico; a professor of energy policy from Nebraska who explained quietly over a leisurely dinner that natural gas drilling has turned the expansive grazing lands of native grasses into industrial landscape. I carry her voice with me as she said, very softly: “The Wind River Valley now has the worst air quality in the country.”

Yes, and I carry the voice of the woman from rural Erie County, who explained that abandoned oil wells not far from her home are being used as repositories for contaminated natural gas waste water – too near Lake Erie, and too near the small family farms that supply the few jobs of the region. “We finally got the lake clean, and now this. And what happens to those farms when they can’t get clean water?”

My other involvement this summer is with Friends of Exton Park, a group I’ve helped start to promote and protect an 800 acre park in the middle of our county, a pond, wetlands, and surrounding fields and woodlands, a green jewel in the middle of the suburban sprawl of shopping malls, highways, and developments.

In the park, we’ve been removing invasive plants that threaten the native habitat: cutting back oriental honeysuckle bush, freeing native trees from the stranglehold of oriental bittersweet, balling up miles of mile-a-minute vine, digging up purple loosestrife before it fills in chokes the fragile wetlands

In both arenas, I’ve encountered people surprised to find a Christian concerned about such things.

Here’s what I’ve been told: 
Christians don’t care about climate change or global warming.
Christians believe the earth is here for us to plunder.
“Green,” to Christians, is pagan. Or pantheistic. Or both.
And God will destroy this earth, the sooner the better, so why bother? 
Let me take a moment to grieve.

I wonder, sometimes, how God feels when his people misrepresent him so badly.

Yes, there are loud voices that insist emphatically that climate change is a propaganda tool of godless liberals.

Voices that equate unfettered consumption with patriotism and righteousness.

But surely there are other voices?

Several years ago, Byron Borger of Hearts and Minds bookstore posted “ Learning to love what God loves: Creation care and Christian discipleship”. He described almost four dozen books on what he described as “green theology--a strong emphasis of the doctrine of creation (what Calvin called "the theatre of God.")”
Reflecting on the many strong titles about love and care of creation, Borger wrote: 
“It breaks my heart to know that so few of these kinds of resources are well-known, most not on the shelves of church libraries or resource centers, not selling well at most Christian bookstores. Some fine green titles quickly go out of print since customers do not buy them from the stores, or the stores don't by them from the publishers.  (Some stores refuse to stock them, even, which is another sad story.)”   
I’ve been spending time in a series of psalms: 96 to 98. Parts of them are familiar: “Sing to the Lord a new song.” “Shout for joy to the Lord all the earth.”

But there’s something going on in these psalms I hadn’t noticed: the joy and celebration rest in confidence that God will return to act on behalf of the suffering earth. 
“Let the fields be jubilant, and everything in them.
Then all the trees of the forest will sing for joy;
They will sing before the Lord, for he comes,
He comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
And all the peoples in his truth.”
       (Psalm 96:12-13) 
These psalms and other parts of scripture make clear: the earth is part of God’s plan of redemption, and his justice will be occasion of joy for nature itself: fields, trees, seas, mountains.

Which suggests that those who want to understand the joy and hope of God’s justice might need to engage in some way with this earth we call home: its struggle, its pain, its beauty.

In Engaging God’s World, theologian Cornelius Plantinga says:
“Biblical hope has a wide-angle lens. It takes in whole nations and peoples. It brings into focus the entire created order—wolves and lambs, mountains and plains, rivers and valleys. When it is widest and longest, biblical hope looks forward toward a whole “new heaven and new earth” in which death, and mourning, and pain will have passed away.” (13)
I’ll be spending the rest of the summer looking for ways to engage more volunteers in caring for Exton Park.

Experimenting with best practices of phragmites control in wetlands.

And wrestling with my own expansive crop of smartweed and creeping charlie.

Spending as much time outside as I can, bird-watching, kayaking, traveling to the Adirondacks to spend time with extended family in my favorite New York wilderness.

And finishing my part of our national study, trying to understand how federal policy shaped our current food supply and what needs to change to support more sustainable farming.

I’ll be exploring some of the voices listed by Byron Borger, and looking for other voices as well that affirm “green theology.”

And I’ll be blogging about food and farming, Jesus’ nature parables, and the intermingling of justice, sabbath, shalom, and the sweet, shared hope of God’s green equity. 
Let the sea resound, and everything in it,
    the world, and all who live in it.Let the rivers clap their hands,
    let the mountains sing together for joy;
  let them sing before the Lord,
    for he comes to judge the earth.
He will judge the world in righteousness
    and the peoples with equity.
           (Psalm 98)