It will not be long now. The garden catalogs arrive almost daily, bright and fat among thin sad bills and tax statements. From the dark of a closet, I pull the jar of black bean hyacinth seeds, snapped free of their wrinkly purplish-brown pods in December, and unscrew the lid. They are as smooth as river stones, satiny black with a crooked side-stripe of ivory. Inside that husk coils a wild vine that will cover our wrought iron fence with deep purple and lavender flowers.
This is my single reliable foray into growing from seed. Other attempts proved too fiddly for my taste, the tiny compartments tearing, the tray too wide for the only sill that gave it enough sun, the seedlings delicate and easily discouraged. But I am building courage again, because while seeds can break your heart, they can also work magic. A beanstalk made a giant approachable. A tiny mustard seed grew big enough to mean the kingdom of God.
In the Ojibwe creation story, God first blew life into the woman. The first thing she did was pick up a birchbark basket full of seeds.
Stuart Roosa, one of the Apollo 14 astronauts, carried a bag of seeds on his trip around the moon, then brought them home to plant. Those seeds are now tall sycamores, redwoods, pines, firs, and sweetgums. More are discovered, their adventure remembered, every year.
The Cherokee carried pole beans in their pockets when they were driven out of the Carolinas by the federal government. John Wyche, one of the founders of the Seed Savers Exchange, collected those Trail of Tears seeds carried by his ancestors, and they are now available to all of us.
Would that all our grandparents had saved seeds: 93 percent of the varieties from their day are already gone. Which is why, when Aeron Bergman and Alejandra Salinas, a married couple from Portland, created Consuming Nature at The Luminary, local artist Margaret Keller suggested that together, they start a seed library in St. Louis—a city surrounded by farmland and home to Monsanto.
They call the new library Seed as Idea, because a seed is a metaphor for a creative idea, and because seeds have gotten trapped by ideology. “In capitalism,” Keller says, “seeds are objects of control, speculation, manipulation, and ownership.” After centuries of saving and sharing seeds, we commercialized them, scaled them up, and rendered them impotent. No longer could farmers gather soybean, corn, or wheat seed to sow the following spring; engineered seeds had to be purchased new every time. In Seed Money: Monsanto’s Past and Our Food Future, Bartow J. Elmore describes the company hiring a small army of Pinkerton detectives and former Canadian Mounted Police to prevent farmers from saving seeds and make sure they bought new “Roundup Ready” seeds every year.
Seeds of change, indeed.
The Seed as Idea project aims to toss a few defiant snowballs at the avalanche of genetically engineered seeds that began in 1980. Only three companies currently control more than half of the global seed market. The herbicide tolerance that was engineered into their seeds has in many ways backfired: herbicide use first fell, then climbed dramatically as weeds developed their own resistance. The Midwest Center for Investigative Reporting found that use of glyphosate alone (the herbicide in Roundup) increased from 4.6 million pounds in 1992 to 188.7 million pounds in 2016—and it continues to rise, as does the use of other herbicides, and pesticide use in general has increased fivefold since 1960.
Agriculture is thoroughly corporate now, and that is a high beanstalk for a handful of artists to climb. But Seed as Idea will gather culturally significant seeds, distribute them in informative packets, explain their history, plan poetry readings and meals around them. The first choice is golden amaranth, sourced from El Instituto Mesoamericano de Permacultura. Before the Spanish conquistadores arrived, this ancient and sacred grain sustained the Mayans; it was taken from them. The seed survived only in remote mountainous areas. Cultivating it was punishable by death.
Cultivating golden amaranth now is a marker of hope.
Written into Seed as Idea are rich themes of community food resilience, security, sustainability, diversity, and social justice—and a chance to educate the rest of us. I had no idea there was a Global Seed Vault—appropriately called the Doomsday Vault—protected by thick rock in the Norwegian permafrost. I had not heard of seed bombs—balls of soil, clay, water, and wildflower seeds that are used to beautify urban wastelands. And I am stunned by how little we know of the riches around us. Of 300,000 species of plants, 30,000 are edible, Keller reminds me, and we eat only ten of them with any frequency.
What we do eat has been monocultured flat. The thousands of varieties of heritage wheat that existed when my grandmother learned to bake bread? Today, we have a basic engineered wheat that is so high in gluten, our systems are rebelling. Nearly all our soy and corn are engineered, and if farmers wanted to switch back, they could not; most of the conventional seeds are gone. Even organic farms rely on seeds that were developed for conventional, chemically intensive agriculture systems.
In 1897, the federal government distributed more than 1.1 billion seed packets to farmers to strengthen regional crop diversity and encourage local adaptation. The program lasted through 1923. But first with hybridization, then with genetic engineering, we have turned those packets upside down. Lost the seeds, lost the diversity, lost the ability to share seed. Lost our common heritage.
This did not need to happen. Amazing benefits could be had from careful genetic engineering of seeds that do not drift or run rampant, seeds that were created by companies more concerned with long-term consequences than quick profit and industry domination. Instead, as Michael Pollan notes in The Botany of Desire, “biotechnology has overthrown the old rules governing the relationship of nature and culture in a plant.”
The giants have prospered, and we are all the poorer for it.
Read more by Jeannette Cooperman here.