The Industrialization of Hydridization - Book Excerpt from The Seed Underground by Janisse Ray
Jeff Gangemi Aug 13, 2012 Real Food 0 comments
Below is the second of two excerpts from The Seed Underground by Janisse Ray (click here to read the first one), which offers a fascinating look at the critical role that seed saving plays in our food sovereignty. As part of a new partnership with Chelsea Green Publishing, FarmPlate will be promoting some of Chelsea Green's great food and farming books, offering discounts and other promotions.
Industrial ag went after seeds themselves and with appalling swiftness took over the seed supply. They began to hybridize, a hybrid being the offspring of a genetic cross. Hybridization is simply plant breeding sped up. The pollen from one plant with desirable characteristics is rubbed on the stigma of another similar plant with desirable characteristics. This flower produces a seed that, when grown, exhibits a combination of desirable characteristics—excellent productivity and growth—called hybrid vigor. Because of this and because new varieties are often bred to be disease resistant, hybrids are tempting to grow.
In the mid-1920s, the first hybrid seeds reached the market in the United States. The first hybrids were two varieties of corn. In 1924, the Connecticut Agricultural Experiment Station introduced Redgreen, and Henry A. Wallace introduced Copper Cross. (Wallace was a corn breeder who would go on to start the Hi-Bred Corn Company, the world’s first hybrid seed company, which would come to be owned by DuPont and allied with Syngenta.)
When farmers planted hybrids, bluntly put, they made more money. The bad news about hybrid seeds, however, is that although they often perform better, a farmer can’t save them for another year’s crop. The offspring fail to “grow true”—to produce fruit similar to the ones from which they came. When a gardener plants seed saved from a hybrid, he doesn’t get the same beefsteak tomato or supersweet corn but a hodgepodge of the ancestral strains used in breeding.
Using science to improve food production is not intrinsically bad. Science is worrisome when it only serves the interests of mercenaries and their employees in the long run. Seed companies patent F1 hybrids and have proprietary control over them in an attempt to achieve monopolies on genes. A farmer, then, is forced to return year after year to the company that produced the seed, infecting our food supply with greed.
A sea change happened in the blink of an eye. In 1935, less than 10 percent of Iowa corn was hybrid. Four years later, 90 percent of it was—specifically Golden Cross Bantam. In the slip of time between 1935 and 1939, an interval during which both my parents were born, the face of our agricultural landscape forever changed. Trusting the advertisements, not knowing long-term consequences, not understanding the loss, and wanting to survive, farmers stuck their canisters of homegrown seed-corn on back shelves in sheds and went to town for Golden Cross Bantam. By 1946, according to Jeff L. Bennetzen’s Handbook of Maize, Iowa was 100 percent hybrid; 90 percent of the corn belt as a whole grew hybrid corn.
Hybrids are designed to be successful in a wide range of climates and growing conditions. They are broadly adapted, as opposed to the more localized open-pollinated varieties—allowing a national
and international seed trade to function. Before long, American cornfields transacted almost exclusively in hybrid varieties. To grow them was to enter the milieu of progress.
Nobody faults the farmers, who were acting in their financial best interests and did not know they were joining a system that was already cracked and would be soon broken. Hybridization itself is not really even the issue. As plant pathologist Albert Culbreath told me, “Hybrids have a place and are of use. But they should not be used exclusively and they should be of diverse parentage as well.” The real issue is what hybridization represents—including the loss of an extensive seed heritage and agroecological diversity. The problem is the industrialization of hybridization.
Images provided by Chelsea Green Publishing and Raven Waters