Why You Should Really Start Caring About Seeds

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Two books remind us just how deeply human culture depends on nature’s tiniest offerings.

By Louise Fabiani

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Seeds: A Natural History. (Photo: University of Chicago Press)

In 1941, during the 900-day German Siege of Leningrad, 1.5 million of Joseph Stalin’s countrymen died of starvation. The Soviet leader himself had the blood of more than a few on his hands. During his crackdown on Soviet intelligentsia, he charged Nikolai Vavilov, a renowned plant geneticist, for allegedly “bourgeois” practices. Under Premier Vladimir Lenin’s seed-saving program in the 1920s, Vavilov had gathered, sorted, and preserved thousands of specimens from 64 countries. A couple of years after Lenin’s death, Stalin threw Vavilov into prison, where he died of neglect three years later. Several workers at Vavilov’s institute starved to death during the Siege rather than dig into their priceless crop-seed collections.

Their heroism was not in vain: the seeds they refused to touch later helped prevent, among other things, a famine in Ethiopia; the seed bank itself still stands in St. Petersburg (formerly Leningrad), now called the Nikolai I. Vavilov Institute of Plant Genetic Resources.

With present-day food production and distribution at a historical high, it is important to remember the lessons of the past. Old threats, like war and weather problems, can combine with newer catastrophes, like emergent drop diseases and climate change, to throw long-term food security into question. Two recent books drive this point across in different ways. In Seeds: a Natural History, Carolyn Fryfocuses on how institutes like Vavilov’s preserve the humble but mighty seed. The Triumph of Seeds: How Grains, Nuts, Kernels, Pulses, and Pips Conquered the Plant Kingdom and Shaped Human History, by American conservation biologist Thor Hanson, is one part biology to three parts human history. When you read these books together, the overriding response is awe. Seeds are much more complex — and beautiful! — than they might first appear. Both authors call for profound respect and appreciation as well: The protection of global seed supplies is taking on increasing urgency in a warming world.

Throughout her well-organized, beautifully illustrated book, Fry interweaves sections devoted to plant physiology with those about famous seed banks and with “profiles” of notable plant species, with a no-nonsense, lucid style. A United Kingdom-based journalist, Fry introduces us to the Royal Kew Gardens in London, site of the Millennium Seed Bank Partnership. One current member is the Svalbard Global Seed vault on the Norwegian island of Spitsbergen, located above the Arctic Circle, which has room for more than two billion seeds. It began operations in 2008, and has been acquiring specimens from all over the world, storing them in natural sub-zero facilities. (Power cuts are a major concern for all other MSBP sites; seeds lose viability under the wrong conditions.) The other seed banks that dot the globe also contain international stock but prioritize local breeds. The Food & Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates the number of seed banks worldwide at 1,750.

Food security is more than the absence of food worry. It is the cornerstone of democracy.

Seventy to 80 percent of all species can (or must) go dormant; they are the easiest to preserve — sometimes viable for thousands of years, as discoveries in ancient tombs have proven — and also the least expensive. The costliest are those such as cassava, which can only be saved as tissue samples. One of the saddest ironies in the botanical world is that the most threatened land-based ecosystems, tropical rain forests, are where seeds are least likely to go dormant at all.

Seed banks seek to protect crops and their remaining wild relatives. The stars of the collection tend to be cereal grains, and no wonder. Civilization was built on them — on our ability to transfer to our metabolism the solar power contained in their endosperm, the baby plant’s future food. Should anything seriously threaten the species we depend upon most — wheat, rice, and maize — civilization could just as likely collapse along with them. With the human population inching toward eight billion, and droughts, floods, wildly fluctuating temperatures, and the loss of animal pollinators making headlines, food security is more important than ever. “As impressive and necessary as seed banks have become,” Hanson observes, “they are in many ways an elaborate fix to a problem of our own making.”

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In many ways, our preferences and dependence on industry have painted us into a corner. A drastic reduction in variety and a reliance on monoculture farming mean a narrow margin of error. If ever expectations — ecological, climatological, political, and economic — are dashed again (the Irish Potato Famine was in part a disaster of too little diversity), then we’re in deep trouble.

It doesn’t have to be that way. Heat-adapted crops (e.g., sorghum, a grain originally from Africa) could be excellent alternatives to current water-guzzling species, to name just one of many proposed changes Hanson and Fry mention.

According to Fry, peoples all over the globe used to consume a huge variety of crops, many if not most of them specific to region, and thus hardier. In India alone, for example, there were more than 30,000 varieties of rice. Now, decades after the Green Revolution, that number is down to 10. In time, a large proportion of corn, wheat, potato, tomato, bean, and other important local crop varieties, or landraces, fell out of favor in the human diet. We selected varieties for yield, ease of transportation, size, color, and other parameters. Convenience, of course, always comes at a premium, as anyone eating an imported January tomato knows all too well.

“Taken together, grains provide more than half of all calories in the human diet and take up more than 70 percent of the land in cultivation,” Hanson writes. Grains made us who we are now: a highly adaptable, culture-propped species that mostly lives in cities. Their greatest gift to us was starch. Complex carbohydrates are easily broken down into glucose, a simple carbohydrate that is the basic unit of metabolism. Lucky for us, the grasses that thrived in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East about 10,000 years ago were easily planted and harvested, nutritious, and amendable to selective breeding (domestication). The idea of storing grain — versus gathering it whenever we could — gave Homo sapiens its second revolution. It created divisions of labor, then professions; settlements, then proto-city states.

The rest, as they say, is history.

But history, in a way, began many thousands of years prior to that Neolithic paradigm shift. With the domestication of fire, estimated to be around 750,000 years ago (before Homo sapiens, actually), hominids could essentially outsource a portion of their digestive processes — everything from exhausting bouts of chewing to expensive nutrient breakdown in the gut itself. While it was possible to eat uncooked grains, it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine empires built on raw grass seed and not on the breads and porridges that sustained the earliest farmers, and permitted the first significant uptick in human population.

In more recent times, bread of some form or other has continued to figure in daily diets almost everywhere on the planet, and maintains its symbolic power. The French Revolution, Hanson points out, boiled down to a dispute over the price of bread, despite the official “abolish the monarchy” story. In modern-day France, bread is still subsidized by the government (no one, apparently, wanting history to repeat itself).

Given the central role wheat plays in Western society — and its culturally valuable equivalents, rice and corn — the need to protect agricultural diversity has never been greater. That means we cannot afford to reduce seed-crop problems to the seeds themselves.

Our mouths water at the sight of a fresh Georgia peach for a very good reason. As primates — the only mammals (beside guinea pigs) that cannot synthesize or store vitamin C — humans need to consume that vital nutrient daily. The ubiquity of fruit-eating monkeys and apes suits trees like papaya and fig just fine: The seeds enclosed inside the meal will exit the diner later, at some convenient remove from the parent tree. (After all, even trees don’t want their grown kids hanging around and competing with them.) It’s a win-win arrangement.

Seeds disperse in many ways that seem downright ingenious — from sticking to fur (or socks) to riding the wind. Whenever animals are directly involved, as in passing seeds through their digestive systems via fruit, a relationship of mutual need can evolve. Fry cites the case of mangoes and Asian elephants. Nothing except elephants can possibly carry the seeds far enough away from the tree, so if elephants disappear, mango populations suffer. And, if they do, a multitude of smaller animals and people will suffer too.

Fry summarizes it well:

Today, the once disparate aims of agricultural and wild species seed banks, to underpin food security and to conserve biodiversity, are being united by the need to conserve functioning ecosystems. Scientists now understand that conserving biodiversity by simply saving individual cultivars or species is not sufficient. This is because plants, whether cultivated or wild, form a vital part of functioning ecosystems in which they interact with animals, soil, and the atmosphere.

With regard to the multidisciplinary world of seeds, both Fry and Hanson cover all but one of the bases. Neither, for some reason, acknowledges the tremendous work being done here and abroad by citizen scientists and heritage growers. These grassroots-level efforts are already quietly establishing impressive networks of seed exchange programs and landrace preservation societies. (In many ways, they complement the work done by seed banks.) Top chefs are also getting on board, for they know that nothing can beat the flavor packed into many old varieties.

All of us in developed nations expect the local market to be stocked all the time, and rarely give a thought to food miles or the true cost of easily affordable luxuries like year-round asparagus. Yet true food security is more than the absence of food worry. It is the cornerstone of democracy. In food-insecure regions, the struggle to fulfill basic nutritional needs for the populace drains resources from education, health care, and human rights. The correlation between precarious supplies and unstable governments is no fluke. In fact, many of history’s so-called religious wars were later unmasked as food (or cropland) skirmishes that later escalated. Places like these are not likely to fund seed-protection programs.

Here in the bountiful west, we have developed what amounts to food fetishism, a mania for detail, when we should be ensuring that our agricultural habits won’t lead us down a corridor of no return.

With climate change and rising populations, it is imperative that all countries, haves and have-nots both, become more self-sustaining. That means, for one thing, having faith in a seed.

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