George O’Neal: Seeds for you and me
05/13/2014 12:00 AM
05/07/2014 1:35 PM
Seeds hold all the promise of our future inside of them.
It’s totally insane that something so small is the reason that humans have been able to settle down and civilize. We went from spending our caveman days hunting and gathering, maybe working on a cave painting here or there, to choosing the wild plants that we liked to eat, saving those seeds, carrying them on to other places, then planting again, selecting and saving, repeat until Boom!, farming was born.
Every plant we currently eat has an ancient ancestor that probably looks and tastes nothing like the version we know. Over several millennia we saved those seeds with the traits that we liked, and fine-tuned them. We saved seeds from the plants that grew taller, thrived or made a bigger, sweeter fruit. We passed those seeds on from generation to generation, and fine-tuned them to give us modern treats like tomatoes or watermelons.
The seeds we really seemed to fixate on were those of the big grasses, cereal crops. Corn, oats, wheat and rye were the cornerstones of our ability to store food for the future. These storable, protein- rich grasses gave us the ability to quit roaming about and instead build cities and towns. Basically we had the ability to cultivate enough calories in one spot and not have to be moving around constantly to find our sustenance.
For the first time, there were people who spent entire days doing things other than food procurement and a few produced food for all, so that some of us could focus on creating alphabets and writing, laws and poems, tools, and clothes. We invented work specialization and Boom!, socioeconomic class was born. We now had the ability to pursue all kinds of things that were never possible before. As a result, we invented some amazing things, art, music, tractors ... Nintendos. All the greatest inventions owe their successful invention to grass, or at least a plant of some kind. Thanks to innovation and technique, the amount of food produced has kept pace with the massive increase in the number of people on this planet while simultaneously the number of farmers decreases each year.
Early last century we even outsmarted ourselves when it looked like we were going to run out of the vital nutrients needed to keep this now massive worldwide agricultural system up and running.
The shipping industries of the world were running out of huge piles of phosphate rich bat guano and Chilean nitrate to ship back to the farms of the world that had become totally dependent on the external imports of fertility. Then in 1910 a couple of clever chemists in Germany figured out how to pluck the most crucial nutrient, nitrogen, right out of the air and put it in a form plants could use. Boom!, synthetic fertilizer was born and a starvation crisis averted (and with it bomb material as well, but who’s keeping track, right?).
We now had the ability to feed the world all over again. It was a farm-expanding bonanza, the Green Revolution, and more farmers up and quit and headed to the promise of neon lights and our rapidly growing cities. Fertilizers got stronger; we invented pesticides and herbicides and ended up where we are today.
Thanks to farmers and farming more of us can spend our day to day not worrying where our food is coming from. We don’t even have to think about who produced it or how; we have removed ourselves from the reality of it. The people that do society’s work of providing food have historically not been well compensated. Which in context sounds crazy or just stupid, right? The other thing we’ve lost track of is valuing the seeds that helped make civilization possible. So maybe it’s time to start thinking more about seeds and particularly seed diversity and adaptability. Just like us, those seeds are still evolving and adapting and changing with this wide, wild world we live in. When it comes to eating, and with it survival, the best security we have in the face of climate change or something akin to another potato famine is seed diversity.
Right now large companies are buying up patents on these seeds that our ancestors took thousands of years to produce. They are literally patenting up varieties of veggies like tomatoes or corn and making it illegal for you or me to save those seeds and replant the way we always have. I’m pretty sure when the experiment of farming started way back the goal wasn’t for a group of greedy execs to generate crazy profits, or put a stranglehold on the seeds that masses need to get by. These things are quite literally your heritage, and should therefore always be available for you to use.
I would say it’s probably about time now for a Green Evolution, huh?
George O’Neal owns and operate Lil’ Farm in Timberlake. You can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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