We’d be nothing without seeds, and yet, generally, we spend very little time thinking about them. They’re something we take for granted–as if plants came falling from the sky.
Today, there are reasons to worry about seeds. For one, there’s an extraordinary lack of diversity. Four companies are said to control 50% of all commercial seed supply, and certain crops are highly homogeneous genetically speaking. American corn is widely thought to come from just three or four parent lines.
Matthew Dillon, who leads an advocacy group called Seed Matters, says there’s nothing wrong with that on a good day. The issue is what happens when you get an outbreak of disease, or pests, or extreme weather. The lack of diversity makes us more susceptible to widespread losses.
“They’re like a ballerina. You give them the perfect training, lighting, and direction, and she performs wonderfully,” he says. “Unfortunately, when something doesn’t go well–the weather’s not quite the right weather, or they don’t get the right chemicals–that’s when crops don’t do as well.”
To make the case for seed diversity, Dillon formed Seed Matters with the Clif Bar Family Foundation, which contributed $1 million. Fifteen other companies have now come on-board as well, including Whole Foods and Eileen Fisher. The group sponsors research into organic farming, helps community groups to form their own seed banks and libraries, and generally works to get the word out.
“An insurance policy against climate change is breeding for diversity,” Dillon says. “As we get a more chaotic climate, it’s very important to have greater diversity in our food crops, so they are resilient enough to withstand unpredictable diseases that are already starting to appear.”
Nobody could dispute the successes of modern agriculture. American farms are highly efficient and produce ever cheaper food relative to incomes. The problem is many farms rely on heavy chemical inputs to keep their yields up, and have forgotten traditional techniques that offer effective alternatives. That includes types of plant breeding, and crop rotation practices that break the cycle of pests that fix to particular plants.
“Too many crops were planted in ways that were genetically uniform,” Dillon says. “That’s really good for production agriculture. But hidden in that uniformity are hidden genes that are weak or susceptible to certain types of disease.”
Dillon says we don’t need to invest in technologies like genetic modification to feed ourselves and the world. Through better husbanding of seed varieties, and more research, we can build resilience more naturally, and without harming the environment. He reckons GM Is largely a way for seed and chemical companies to continue business-as-usual, and that the biotech vs. organic debate isn’t really an equal one. While billions of research dollars go into GM research, only 1/70th is currently invested in alternative methods, he says.
There are plenty of people trying to change the game, though. Important universities like Cornell have begun embracing research into organic practices, and there’s a burgeoning organic seed movement out there. Dillon is one of several seed-advocates featured in a PBS show airing this fall.
Dillon hopes it will help to make the case that we should think more deeply about seeds. “There has been a farm-to-table movement, where knowing your farmer is a good thing. But there’s this prologue to that story that consumers don’t quite know. That’s the impact that seed has on their food and the world.”