Categories
BLOG

the seed underground

The seed underground

More than ninety percent of U.S. seed varieties available in the early 1900s have disappeared. Janisse Ray trekked through the backyards of gardeners and farmers who are trying to keep the rest of our seeds from going to pot. Host Steve Curwood talks to Janisse Ray, author of the book “The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food.”

Transcript

CURWOOD: It’s Living on Earth – I’m Steve Curwood. A seed is a small thing, but it’s wrapped up in huge issues – food, politics, history. Janisse Ray, author, gardener, and activist, trekked through farms and backyards in search of seeds and the stories connected to them.

Cover for Janisse Ray’s new book, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food. (Photo: Janisse Ray
)

She’s here on the line with us from her farm in Southern Georgia to talk about her new book, “The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food.” Hello, there!

RAY: Hi, Steve, thanks for having me.

CURWOOD: Why did you go searching for seeds?

RAY: I’ve been a gardener since I was a little girl. My grandmother gave me my first seeds, and I think it’s just natural for me being a gardener and a seed saver to want people to understand what’s happening to our seed supply, that our seeds are in jeopardy. We need to all be turning our head to look at seeds. Every morsel of food we put in our mouths is dependant on a seed.

CURWOOD: Now, in your book, you say that 94 percent of seed varieties that were available in the United States in the year 1902 are now gone. What happened to all those seeds?

RAY: What happened was genetic erosion due to a number of things. Fewer of us live in rural areas. You know, 80 percent of us are now urban. Fewer of us farm. In 1900, 41 percent, now less than two percent.

But I think the real reason is the industrialization of agriculture, which came about in the so-called ‘green revolution’ which ushered in chemical fertilizers, standardization, mechanization. I remember when my grandfather got a tractor, for example, and stopped working with mules.

CURWOOD: What do you think is the most important reason to be concerned about this loss in seed diversity?

Janisse Ray, behind her: Green Glaze collards, Running Conch cowpeas, Old-fashioned Running butterbeans, Moon & Stars watermelon, & Long County Longhorn okra. (Photo: Janisse Ray
)

RAY: Well, the more biodiverse any system is, the greater its chance for survival. And, we see what happened with the potato famine in Ireland. Ninety percent of Irish families grew a potato called the Lumper, but it began to suffer from late blight. That led to widespread famine and the Diaspora.

That would be our major concern but also, Steve, we’re missing out on these myriad tastes; the beauty of our tables is diminished as we have fewer and fewer varieties to choose from. You and I can go into the grocery store and choose from a Granny Smith, or a Red Delicious, Yellow Delicious apple, but 100 years ago we had 7,000 apple varieties in this country.

CURWOOD: Now, by the way, the subtitle of your book is “Growing Revolution to Save Food.” What is this revolution?

RAY: This revolution is happening in gardens across the country. I call these gardeners ‘quiet revolutionaries’ who’ve been on the margins, keeping alive these very interesting heirloom, place-adapted, vintage seeds.

CURWOOD: Lets talk about some of the seed savers in your book. Tell me about Will Bonsall in Maine.

RAY: Will is a very famous seed saver. He’s been connected with the Seed Savers Exchange almost since its inception. Will has hundreds and hundreds of varieties that he’s curating. . .a very dedicated man who’s really committed his life to keeping alive old varieties.

He said to me that, you know, it would be a huge loss to humanity if his house happened to burn down. He has deep freezers that serve as seed banks. And he’s right. I walked his gardens with him and there are just all kinds of amazing varieties growing there.

CURWOOD: In your book, you talk about Randy Gardener. He worked at a publicly funded plant-breeding program in North Carolina. Tell me about his operation and what happened to the seeds that he developed?

RAY: Randy works at a public institution near Asheville, North Carolina. He was a plant breeder there, so a government hired scientist. What he’s doing there is developing tomatoes that are specifically adapted to the mountain south.

First Seeds Planted. (Photo: Flickr CC/Pictoscribe – Home again)

Over time, Randy was no longer able to support his work very well with government funding. And, what happened is that they developed some new variety, like this little new grape tomato that we are now seeing in grocery stores, and he would basically auction it off to seed companies. Basically, he would sell them the recipe for the seeds.

This brings us the question, Steve, of how should we be breeding our crops now? We need to still be breeding seeds to extend seasons, to adapt to lower inputs, to adapt to climate variability as we move deeper into climate change. And, do we want to have our government breeders simply be breeding for corporations, or do we want them to be breeding with the future of humanity in mind?

CURWOOD: Now, who owns seeds? And, what rights do farmers have to their seeds?

RAY: Seeds, I believe should be. they are part of the great commons of human history, like water and like air and like fire. Nobody can own fire. And I understand that we’re favoring biotech companies and we’re patenting life itself, but I believe those seeds belong to all of us.

CURWOOD: In your view, of course, it’s important to save the genetic information that’s contained in seeds, but you also talk about the culture associated with them. Why do you say that seeds have cultural information wrapped up in them, and why is it important to save that?

RAY: Most every heirloom seed, or open pollinated seed I know has a story. We are made of stories, stories are our culture, stories help explain who we are, why we’re alive right now, what we’re meant to be doing. The stories are enough for us to protect every variety of heirloom seed that is available, that is found. Seeds are only a small part of life on earth. But I think, in this case, they represent every thing else.

CURWOOD: Janisse Ray’s new book is called “The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food.” Thank you so much.

RAY: Thank you so much. I very much enjoyed it.

More than ninety percent of U.S. seed varieties available in the early 1900s have disappeared. Janisse Ray trekked through the backyards of gardeners and farmers who are trying to keep the rest of our seeds from going to pot. Host Steve Curwood talks to Janisse Ray, author of the book

The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food

There is no despair in a seed. There’s only life, waiting for the right conditions-sun and water, warmth and soil-to be set free. Everyday, millions upon millions of seeds lift their two green wings.

At no time in our history have Americans been more obsessed with food. Options- including those for local, sustainable, and organic food-seem limitless. And yet, our food suppl There is no despair in a seed. There’s only life, waiting for the right conditions-sun and water, warmth and soil-to be set free. Everyday, millions upon millions of seeds lift their two green wings.

At no time in our history have Americans been more obsessed with food. Options- including those for local, sustainable, and organic food-seem limitless. And yet, our food supply is profoundly at risk. Farmers and gardeners a century ago had five times the possibilities of what to plant than farmers and gardeners do today; we are losing untold numbers of plant varieties to genetically modified industrial monocultures. In her latest work of literary nonfiction, award-winning author and activist Janisse Ray argues that if we are to secure the future of food, we first must understand where it all begins: the seed.

The Seed Underground is a journey to the frontier of seed-saving. It is driven by stories, both the author’s own and those from people who are waging a lush and quiet revolution in thousands of gardens across America to preserve our traditional cornucopia of food by simply growing old varieties and eating them. The Seed Underground pays tribute to time-honored and threatened varieties, deconstructs the politics and genetics of seeds, and reveals the astonishing characters who grow, study, and save them. . more

Get A Copy

Friend Reviews

Reader Q&A

Be the first to ask a question about The Seed Underground

Lists with This Book

Community Reviews

Janisse Ray is likely the best nature writer of this generation! She combines a knowledge and passion for the environment with a down-home view of the culture and the people working in their own ways to protect it.

The Seed Underground is no exception – I laughed, I cried, I was inspired and enraged. I saw a passion for seeds and plants that was not cultivated through a microscope but through front porch conversations, walks in a garden, and in gatherings with others who shared that passion.

Ther Janisse Ray is likely the best nature writer of this generation! She combines a knowledge and passion for the environment with a down-home view of the culture and the people working in their own ways to protect it.

The Seed Underground is no exception – I laughed, I cried, I was inspired and enraged. I saw a passion for seeds and plants that was not cultivated through a microscope but through front porch conversations, walks in a garden, and in gatherings with others who shared that passion.

There is some valuable information in here on how to be a seed saver yourself, but more importantly, it is a call to be in touch with the world around us and to resist its commodification.

Highly recommended for gardeners or would be gardeners, plant lovers, nature-ophiles, and anyone who likes a good story and is open to a deeper dive into the world around them. . more

Home gardeners are increasingly turning to “heirloom” varieties of plants. Whether it’s to remember flowers their parents or grandparents kept or to find better tasting vegetables, it’s a growing movement of sorts. And Ms. Ray recites (several times) statistics of how many varieties are no longer available – and the numbers are disconcerting. Seed companies have bred hybrids to the point where a gardener cannot save seeds from one year to the next and have them grow true. Even more distressing, Home gardeners are increasingly turning to “heirloom” varieties of plants. Whether it’s to remember flowers their parents or grandparents kept or to find better tasting vegetables, it’s a growing movement of sorts. And Ms. Ray recites (several times) statistics of how many varieties are no longer available – and the numbers are disconcerting. Seed companies have bred hybrids to the point where a gardener cannot save seeds from one year to the next and have them grow true. Even more distressing, companies have turned to genetically-modified (GM) crops that have genetic traits artificially inserted for resistance to pests or – alarmingly – chemical herbicides. Ray argues that we have lost control of our food supply risking imminent collapse and are in need of a revolution.

I really looked forward to reading this book. I recently began planting vegetables again and was interested in growing some “heirloom” varieties mainly because so many modern hybrids have been bred for output or shelf-life instead of taste. (I’ve even ordered seed catalogs from Seed Savers and other small heirloom companies.) Unfortunately, my results have so far been poor (no one in the family liked the taste of the varieties I tried) and I hoped this book might provide some guidance. However, as Ms. Ray writes in the Introduction “This is not a textbook on seed saving. I am looking to inspire you with my own life.” (pg. xv)

And she tells us about her farm and visits to others to acquire old varieties. Some of these episodes are interesting, and she offers a few bits of advice, like pollinating squash flowers or saving tomato seeds or growing sweet potatoes. This is when the book really shines. But, “You won’t get many of those details from me here,” she writes. “My goal is simply to plant a seed.” (pg 151) Much of the book is a paranoid screed against “big ag” and “big chemical” companies and how evil they and our government and justice system are (and some of her stories are indeed troublesome). “Science is worrisome when it only serves the interests of mercenaries and their employees. infecting our food supply with greed.” (pg. 12) And in spite of her claim in the Preface that “I do not feel hopeless” (pg. ix) she later says “Who needs hope? . It’s not hope or love that keep me going. It’s fight.” (pg. 193)

Ms. Ray describes herself as a “granola” (a “back-to-the-earth” hippie who grew up post-60s) and comes off as a Luddite when it comes to technology. We get an earful of her philosophy of not flying and avoiding fossil-fuels (“Plastic is bad stuff.” pg. 129) and basically living apart from modern society. Her attitude is militant and she calls anyone saving seeds a “revolutionary” and seems to find meaning in fighting modernity. But even she admits by the end that not all technology or corporations are evil. Sometimes hybrids combine beneficial traits and are useful, and public and private companies can do “good” (see pg. 174). (Incidentally, this is why many gardeners choose hybrids over heirlooms – they often grow better and are more reliable even if the taste is often inferior. And buying a packet of seeds for a dollar or two is more convenient than the effort to save your own, as even she admits.) Still. I completely relate to her desires for older varieties and will continue to look for ones that grow well for me and that the family likes. I’ll just have to look elsewhere for information on them. . more

Part memoir, part exploration of the seed saving community, Ray’s book spans a century where seed variety for our foods has shrunk dramatically. The main cause is the bottom line greed of multi-national corporations that want to control seed stock and their genes, not for better food but for more profit.

There is hope. Like the explosion of interest in CSA’s and locavores, interest in regional seed saving and swapping is reviving. For example several towns in Maine have passed ordinances describe Part memoir, part exploration of the seed saving community, Ray’s book spans a century where seed variety for our foods has shrunk dramatically. The main cause is the bottom line greed of multi-national corporations that want to control seed stock and their genes, not for better food but for more profit.

There is hope. Like the explosion of interest in CSA’s and locavores, interest in regional seed saving and swapping is reviving. For example several towns in Maine have passed ordinances described as “food sovereignty” to take local control of the sale of local goods “like fresh milk or locally slaughtered meat.” p. 168

One chapter describes how to save seeds from a tomato, a deceptively easy process of leaving the ‘goop’ in a mason jar to ferment for some days. The fermentation and mold remove chemicals that can prohibit the seeds from growing. Best tried with local heirloom varieties; the hybrid/GMO tomatoes from the supermarket won’t grow from those seeds. They are designed not to.

My favorite quote from the book:
“Like seed, each of us has traits hidden deep inside that under the right conditions can emerge. . We can become something even stronger and more useful than we were before.” p.67 . more

This book contains some interesting stories and some good information about collecting, preserving and saving seeds. It has been criticized for being inadequately fact checked and I was disappointed in the amount of technical information that was provided without specific references or footnotes. Some of the people put forward as scientific experts are well respected experts, others do work that is questionable but all are treated the same way by the author as long as their information fits the This book contains some interesting stories and some good information about collecting, preserving and saving seeds. It has been criticized for being inadequately fact checked and I was disappointed in the amount of technical information that was provided without specific references or footnotes. Some of the people put forward as scientific experts are well respected experts, others do work that is questionable but all are treated the same way by the author as long as their information fits the argument that she is making at the moment.

Her experiences on her own farm are interesting and her enthusiasm for collecting and preserving seeds to grow heirloom varieties of different food plants is evident in her writing. Some of her history is suspect — writers and social commentators have been bemoaning the death of the American small town and migration from town to city since the 19th century, and the agrarian economy that Thomas Jefferson touted was supported by slave labor. The author’s efforts to grow her own food and reduce her personal carbon footprint are noble but ignores the larger challenge involved in feeding all of the people in the world today a nutritious diet as climate change is making that task even more challenging. . more

I found this book inspiring, validating, enthusiastic, thoughtful and entertaining. A few years ago, I read and enjoyed Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, so I was already primed for excitement when I heard of The Seed Underground. That, plus also being a believer in keeping the genetic diversity of vegetable varieties alive and in the hands of growers.

The Seed Underground has the power to pull us out of any inclination to wallow in hopelessness about our food supply, by providing man I found this book inspiring, validating, enthusiastic, thoughtful and entertaining. A few years ago, I read and enjoyed Janisse Ray’s Ecology of a Cracker Childhood, so I was already primed for excitement when I heard of The Seed Underground. That, plus also being a believer in keeping the genetic diversity of vegetable varieties alive and in the hands of growers.

The Seed Underground has the power to pull us out of any inclination to wallow in hopelessness about our food supply, by providing many ideas, many examples of what we can do to improve the state of agriculture by acting locally to help and support people developing and preserving regionally adapted vegetable varieties.

Janisse exudes a sense of wonder, of fun and of appreciation for those who have been leading the way. And she recognizes that it is her turn to step forward and teach and encourage others. Her central message is to save seeds and not let the big acquisitive corporations control our food supply and therefore the length and quality of our lives.

The book contains stories from her life and stories of farmers, gardeners and organizations who have saved certain seeds: the conch cowpea, preacher beans, keener corn, various sweet potato and tomato varieties, mustaprovince pumpkins, Stanley corn.

Our seed supply is in crisis – when we do not control our own seed supply, we do not control food supply. There is a corporate robbery of the commons (publicly owned, publicly used resources). As the first verse 17th century English protest poem against common land enclosure, The Goose and the Common, goes:
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
But leaves the greater villain loose
Who steals the common from the goose.
The last verse is:
The law locks up the man or woman
Who steals the goose from off the common
And geese will still a common lack
Till they go and steal it back.
In other words, we need to cultivate a working system for propagating, preserving and distributing seeds, so that corporately “owned” seed varieties become irrelevant.

The rate of loss of vegetable and grain varieties is very worrying – 43% of all food eaten everywhere across the world consists of just three grains, wheat, maize and rice. A dearth of crops leads to vulnerability, both in the fields and in the body. A crop disease can wipe out an entire variety – think of the Lumper potato in Ireland, the Cavendish banana. Modern wheat is associated with a sharp rise in gluten intolerance and obesity – it isn’t well suited to our needs. My favorite chapter title is “A rind is a terrible thing to waste.” Janisse points out that if we have to peel our apples to reduce the pesticide level before we eat them, it’s bad news.

This book tells tales of the author’s travels to meet various seed growers, breeders and savers as well as seed swap groups. The cast of characters is variously passionate, inspiring, quirky, nerdy and eccentric. New varieties are being breed to grow under organic conditions in particular regions. What are the ethics of profits in this situation? There are stories of seed banks and vaults, with discussion of public access and ownership.

There’s also basic information on how to select good plants, isolate from other varieties, hand pollinate and save seeds. And examples of farmers who banded together to get legislation passed to protect their property rights over their land, plants and seeds. Of course Monsanto should be responsible for their genetic drift when GMO pollen pollutes other plants! The book includes a list of “What you can do” and an eight-page small-print collection of resources.

Hope is valuable, but not essential before action is taken – no-one feeds a child because of what kind of future they hope that child will have. Love leads to determination to strive for what we value, and gives us courage. Don’t use lack of hope as an excuse for lack of action.

Her closing words are “Look around, so many people have put their shoulders into the load. You. Find a place to push. Pick up a tool.” Become a local hero, increase your circle of influence. Claim food sovereignty, preserve local seeds. “Have the courage to live the life you dream. There is nothing greater than this.”
. more

The Seed Underground book. Read 84 reviews from the world’s largest community for readers. There is no despair in a seed. There’s only life, waiting for …