The debate over genetically modified food in the past year has taken on a kind of hysteria, laced with photographs of tomatoes with piranha-like teeth and catch phrases that attempt to simplify what is a truly complex topic.
Scott Chaskey, the poet and farmer who oversees the Peconic Land Trust’s Quail Hill Farm in Amagansett, has always taken the careful path in his writing, choosing his words with care and a sense of their history and meaning.
His new book, “Seedtime: On the History, Husbandry, Politics and Promise of Seeds,” released by Rodale Press in January, doesn’t promise an exposé on genetically modified food, but it eloquently makes perhaps the most cogent argument against their use: the resilience of humanity depends on the natural complexity of the seed stock we use to produce our food.
“Seedtime” draws heavily on the writings of others who have studied public policy and seeds before Mr. Chaskey, most notably Cary Fowler and Pat Roy Mooney, authors of the 1990 book “Shattering: Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity.”
Fowler and Mooney, as well as Mr. Chaskey, are fascinated with the life of early 20th Century Russian botanist and geneticist Nikolai Vavilov, who traveled the world searching out pockets of genetic diversity in plants, which are centered in such hard-to-reach places as Afghanistan, Indo-Burma, the Peruvian Andes and Ethiopia.
“Vavilov was keenly aware that in order to improve food crops, it was essential to maintain a diversity of plant resources, which preserves genetic variability and ultimately increases the likelihood that plants will adapt to climate shifts,” writes Mr. Chaskey.
Vavilov was ultimately imprisoned by Joseph Stalin, who was looking for a quicker fix to increase Russia’s crop yields, because the process of carefully selecting the best naturally occurring specimens of plants (known as open-pollinated varieties) takes numerous growing years. He died of starvation in a Soviet prison in 1942.
The Soviets don’t have a monopoly on tragic seed politics. Monsanto’s legal battles against farmers whose fields have accidentally been contaminated by Roundup-Ready Monsanto strains of crops, which spread by the wind, have been well-documented, but they aren’t the beginning of the seed wars in the United States.
Mr. Chaskey points out that, when the U.S. Department of Agriculture was founded in 1862, its main function “was to search for plant germplasm and to distribute seed to America’s farmers, free of charge.”
In 1883, 34 seed companies formed the American Seed Trade Organization, which lobbied for 34 years to convince Congress to stop distributing free seed. They won in 1924, not long before the Great Depression.
“Imagine how productive the free exchange of seeds could be—in a spirit of trust—between present-day farmers, the USDA, and the land grant universities,” muses Mr. Chaskey.
Aside from the genetic strength and resiliency of open-pollinated seeds, Mr. Chaskey is quick to remind readers that the patenting of genetic material found in seeds is also a social justice issue.
“After centuries of a free flow of genetic material form the south to the north, it was absurd that the northern seed trade would now claim ownership,” he writes.
He also relies heavily on the work of Vandana Shiva, an Indian seed activist and physicist who has written more than 20 books, including one that sharply criticized the Green Revolution’s reliance on a limited variety of cultivars.
“The perverse system that treats plants and seeds as corporate innovations is transforming farmers’ highest duties—to save seed and exchange seed with neighbors—into crimes,” wrote Ms. Shiva.
Mr. Chaskey reminds readers of Paul Erlich’s assertion that “the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.”
To that end, a growing network of seed savers around the globe is beginning to hoard away seeds, most notably in a mountainside seed bank on the far-northern island of Svalbard, Norway.
Conceptualized by Cary Fowler, the seed bank allows anyone to deposit and remove their own seeds, said Mr. Chaskey, ensuring that the seeds do not come under corporate control.
In the U.S., he says, seed savers are beginning to form seed libraries, where gardeners can take out a variety of seeds, grow plants, and then return seeds from the next year’s crop to the next gardener.
In this manner, he says, an average farmer or gardener can help undo the damage done by a century of industrialized agriculture.
“The practice of agriculture, like other human industries, can severely obscure the landscape too, he writes, “but if performed with a seasoned restraint and the intention to protect diversity and to improve soil fertility, a farmer can raise a crop and also enhance the delicate balance between the cultivated and the wild.”
It’s this type of message of individual human capability and capacity for change that will ultimately turn the tide on the current assault on our food supply by the GMO industry.
Scott Chaskey will be reading from “Seedtime” tonight at 6 p.m. at the Concerned Citizens of Montauk Headquarters at 6 South Elmwood Avenue in Montauk. He was also featured in an interview on WPKN’s Sustainable East End earlier this week. A podcast of the interview is available online here.