Sowing the Seeds of Food Diversity
By Samantha Levy
March 15, 2017
The desire to save seeds comes from an ethical urge to defend life’s evolution. ~ Vandana Shiva
This is the perfect moment to discuss the benefits of diversity in our food system. Many don’t know this, but a 1980 Supreme Court decision, Diamond vs. Chakrabarty, changed the landscape of food diversity forever. When the court upheld a patent application by microbiologist Ananda Mohan Chakrabarty for a man-made, oil-eating bacterium, it unwittingly laid the groundwork for a new industry that would undercut the self-sufficiency of farmers, limit our food supply and threaten our future food security.
Prior to this decision, research and development for new crop varieties took place at the university or government level where discoveries remained common property. Afterward, companies were incentivized to make huge investments into R&D to create patentable biological organisms and processes. In effect, seeds could now be deemed intellectual property that requires permission in order to be planted. This has resulted in the creation of an aggressive, multi-billion dollar GMO seed industry that controls a large portion of what we grow and, increasingly, what we eat. (Currently, 95% of soy grown in the country is GMO, as is a large portion of the corn, thought not sweet corn, as well as papayas and some summer squash. If you are looking to avoid eating GMO products, eat USDA certified organic or purchase Non-GMO Project-verified foods).
It’s not news that corporations like Monsanto create genetically modified organisms. Nor is it news they vigorously defend their patents in ways that hurt small farmers (see the documentary Food Inc. for more information on this point). But you may not know that farmers who buy patented seeds from one of these companies (Monsanto, Dupont and Syngenta being the largest three) are prohibited from saving their seeds each year – thereby necessitating the annual purchase of something that literally had been free for the picking.
Further, it disconnects the creation of seeds from their regional context and breaks a biological cycle of care on the farm. These purchased seeds are not designed to adapt to local climate and growing conditions. So, decisions about optimal size, flavor and growth are no longer made by farmers sensitive to local cultural needs. This has completely changed the landscape of our food system. Reliance on these uniform, origin-less seeds not only limits biodiversity in the environment and our food supply, it also compromises the viability of agriculture in the face of climate change.
Darwin taught us that assurance of a species’ survival is in the variation of traits and resulting resilience in the face of environmental pressures. But the development of genetically designed and patented seeds has turned Darwin’s principle on its head. According to the Canadian Seed Library, 75% of global food biodiversity has become extinct in the past century. This “genetic erosion” creates a situation where the crops upon which we rely are vulnerable to the increasing pressures of climate change, drought, disease, pests etc. The future success of agriculture is dependent upon a food system that is more, not less, diverse. And right now, we are losing out on the heirloom and heritage varieties that carry with them the independence, history, stories and unique flavors that make eating precious, pleasurable and reliable.
It is essentially true that we are stronger when we are diverse. To carry it one step further, one of the most prescient areas of human health research surrounds biodiversity in our gut and its link to immune health. Early research has shown a difference in gut biodiversity between cultures eating primarily uniform, processed food and those that feed on whole foods grown on farms with diverse, thriving soil communities. Unsurprisingly, the diverse gut profiles display greater immune resiliency (see the book, The Hidden Half of Nature by Anne Bilke and David Montgomery for more in this topic). This brings the diversity argument as close to home as one can get. In simplest terms, the more diversity on the farm, the more diversity in our gut, the healthier we are.
I am not here to advocate for or against GMOs on the whole. However, it is clear that large businesses enjoy a competitive advantage over small seed companies and community seed saving and sharing initiatives, thanks to economic pressures and unfair intellectual property laws. We must change laws so that they do not undercut those democratic efforts. To rescue our food supply, we as consumers must learn the ways to demand diversity and decentralize power back into the hands of our communities and our farmers.
We must demand and purchase heritage breeds of beef, pork, chicken and turkey where consolidation of genetic material is frighteningly high (for example, did you know that 98% of turkeys on our Thanksgiving table were Broad Breasted White Turkeys bred to grow quickly and give meat generously, rendering them unable to walk or exercise on the farm due to their top-heavy form?). We must preserve what is precious and delicious about our culinary and cultural heritage through one of the most intimate acts we perform, feeding ourselves.
In this case, voting with your fork and “eating it to save it” are important. When shopping for food, go on a culinary vacation by seeking out and experimenting with new varieties. Explore unique, new flavors and uses by trying different recipes. Open your eyes each day and make efforts to discover and appreciate the abundant diversity still available to us, especially at the farmer’s market where it is chiefly still found. Learn from indigenous peoples and how they care for seeds, which they view as their children. They respect the miraculous power that is a tiny seed’s ability to nurture and feed whole communities. We must root and grow historic, regional and culturally significant varieties so that these stories and flavors are not lost.*
At this political time, we must find reasons to celebrate diversity even if it just begins on our plates. We are stronger when we include and celebrate as many differences as possible. It is best for our food system, our personal health and the health of the planet.
*Here are some good resources:
http://www.seedsavers.org/learn, http://hudsonvalleyseed.com, https://www.highmowingseeds.com/, https://www.slowfoodusa.org/ark-of-taste-in-the-usa, http://www.huffingtonpost.com/danielle-nierenberg/seed-banks_b_3696260.html
Also look for and participate in community seed swaps and check out seeds from your local seed library.