"We are Losing Food" - Book Excerpt from The Seed Underground by Janisse Ray
Jeff Gangemi Jul 23, 2012 Real Food 0 comments
Below is the first of two excerpts from The Seed Underground by Janisse Ray, 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.
My saying this may seem crazy when you think about the bounty of the farmers market or the availability of boxes and bottles at the supermarket, but we are, in fact, losing food. Thousands of distinct varieties worldwide, especially ancient breeds, are threatened; fewer and fewer farmers are growing them—and in many cases, no farmers are growing them and varieties are dying out, the seeds for them no longer found. Foods are going extinct. University of Georgia researchers Paul J. Heald and Susannah Chapman searched 2004 US seed catalogs for varieties that had been commercially available a century before. To obtain the names of the vintage varieties, they used the United States Department of Agriculture’s comprehensive American Varieties of Vegetables for the Years 1901 and 1902, published in 1903. Heald and Chapman found that 94 percent of the 7,262 seed varieties from 1903 were no longer available in 2004 seed catalogs—430 were. This 6 percent survival rate meant a stunning loss of diversity. This study does not even take into account the thousands upon thousands of heirloom varieties never sold commercially.
Surprisingly, Heald and Chapman’s study also found that the diversity of varieties available commercially actually did not fall much in the century between 1903 and 2004. A total of 7,100 varieties among the same forty-eight crops were listed in 2004, as opposed to 7,262 in 1903. This stasis in commercial numbers is due to varietal replacement—mainly introductions of new varieties, but also imported varieties and heirlooms rescued by preservationists and returned to the market. But here Heald and Chapman were comparing apples and oranges. Open-pollinated varieties that evolved over millennia and whose seed has been saved for generations do not equal scientifically produced varieties. What Heald and Chapman did not analyze are numbers of open-pollinated varieties today that were available a century ago. This figure would have more accurately portrayed what we are really losing. A variety lost to seed saving is a variety lost to civilization.
The fact remains that in the last one hundred years, 94 percent of seed varieties available at the turn of the century in America and considered a part of the human commons have been lost.
Three things result from varietal decline. First is the loss to our plates and palates. It’s sad to miss, and not know we’re missing, all those different kinds of apples, cabbages, corn, tomatoes, and so on. Second is the loss of sovereignty over seeds and the ability to control our food supply.
Third, there’s another scary reality to this. All the lost varieties did more than liven up the table and keep farmers independent. Varietal decline threatens agrodiversity. We know this—the less biodiverse any system is, the greater the potential for its collapse. In shriveling the gene pool both through loss of varieties and through the industrial takeover of an evolutionary process, we strip our crops of the ability to adapt to change and we put the entire food supply at risk. The more food varieties we lose, the closer we slide to the tipping point of disaster. We are gazing already into the abyss. Maybe you haven’t seen it yet, because maybe you were looking the other way. You were focused on grocery shelves stocked with an overwhelming selection of breakfast cereal...
Not only have our diets become more industrialized, they’ve become less diverse. Michael Pollan calls corn, soy, and wheat the “building blocks of all processed food.” In a talk given at the Georgia Organics annual conference in 2009, he said our diets have changed more in the last one hundred years than in the previous ten thousand. “Monocultures in the field lead to monocultures in food,” he said. Diversity of food crops has been dwindling worldwide, and untold numbers of human foods are going extinct. What are at risk are our seeds, especially ancient breeds, and our crop biodiversity. And our health.
Images courtesy of Chelsea Green Publishing and Raven Waters