February 3, 2018
A fortuitous thing happened 100 million years ago. A new type of plant sprouted among the ferns, mosses and conifers that fed the dinosaurs and blanketed the Earth for the prior 100 million years. These new plants contained something magical: flowers.
I love picturing this transformation, deep green turned technicolor, a parade of buzzing pollinators co-evolving alongside a floriferous menagerie.
But this landscape wasn’t just for T-Rex’s viewing pleasure. These plants developed sophisticated reproduction methods as they evolved. By the time our ape-like ancestors arrived 95 million years later, these plants provided a tasty array of fruits and seeds that eventually allowed humans to be farmers instead of hunter-gatherers.
Our existence depends on seeds. Every bite of food started as a seed or is a seed or was a seed that fed the cow that became last night’s hamburger. Trees that provide wood to frame our homes started as seeds. Shrubs that hold the cures for our diseases? The oxygen we breathe from photosynthesizing plants? The carbon sequestered in leaves that regulates the earth’s temperature? Seeds, seeds, seeds.
Selecting, saving, storing and swapping seeds is in our DNA. We’ve been domesticating seeds for thousands of years, driven by taste and security. It’s what transformed a skimpy stem of rock-hard kernels to summer’s lip-smacking ear of corn, and turned a hollow, tough, watery Peruvian fruit into a juicy tomato. Families and farmers kept food available for generations. The U.S. government also helped, providing free seeds for 100 years until it caved to pressure from the American Seed Trade Association and killed the program in 1924. The result? A behemoth seed industry with $45 billion in annual global sales.
Recently there has been a shift toward commercialization, consolidation and control of seeds. Today ten companies sell 73 percent of all seeds. Farmers, once the seed-breeding innovators, are now the customers. In 1980, the Supreme Court made the controversial decision to make genetically engineered (GE) organisms patentable. Let me be clear: I’m not talking about the health of foods grown from GE seeds. That is a subject unto itself. I’m referring to the ownership of seeds. In other words, if Farmer Brown buys GE broccoli seed, can he or she save the seed harvested from that crop for next season like farmers have done for millennia? This is being battled in courtrooms now, and the seed companies are winning. Unsurprisingly, GE foods have become ubiquitous: 88 percent of corn is GE, 93 percent of soy, 90 percent of canola.
Commercialization has significantly reduced seed choices: only 6 percent of seeds available in 1903 are available today, not counting the thousands of heirlooms never sold commercially. Ninety percent of edible plants come from just 103 plants — out of 250,000 plant species in existence. According to author Michael Pollan, our diets have changed more in the last 100 years than in the previous 10,000.
Grains are particularly worrisome. Today, wheat feeds 23 percent of the world. Add corn and rice and you get 87 percent of all grain produced and 43 percent of all food eaten anywhere. There used to be thousands of wheat varieties, but today half the wheat grown in the US comes from just nine varieties.
Relying on fewer varieties threatens our entire food system. Ireland’s 1846 potato famine proves the point: 90 percent of the potatoes grown were one variety. When the blight struck, there was no way out. Some wonder how we would we fare in a wheat blight.
We’ve clearly made an evolutionary U-turn, but it’s not too late for an adjustment. How can you help? Find a seed exchange. Support local organic farmers. Grow heirlooms. Help reform patent laws. Most importantly, make your voice heard for increasing biodiversity. The future of food depends on it.