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