The Seed Conspiracy

THIS IS THE SEASON OF THE garden seed, that time of pure promise when the entire contents of a quarter-acre patch of vegetables—the yield of which will burden a small truck come August—can still fit inside an envelope and be sent cross-country by Fed Ex. The seeds themselves betray no sign of the prodigies they contain, but there, in a handful, they are: this weightless, buff disk packs a complete set of instructions for the making of a two-pound beefsteak tomato; that crinkled, blond tablet is etched with the blueprint for a 10-foot-tall sweet-corn tower.

But this is not the only kind of information encoded in a garden seed. For the seeds I order are inscribed with cultural, political and economic information as well. And if I am to believe some of the more polemical seedsmen whose catalogues-cum-tracts have found their way to my mailbox this season, the decision to plant one variety and not another is freighted with moral and environmental significance. A political fight is not exactly what I came to vegetable gardening to pick, but I seem to have stumbled into one anyway.

There I was, looking for a new variety of corn to try, and I wind up reading in the catalogue from Seeds of Change—part of a growing army of seed firms fired with a sense of political mission—about the negative impact that the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (GATT), of all things, will have on the free exchange of seeds and global biodiversity. Then Seeds Blum, a boppy counterculture catalogue published in Boise, Idaho, buttonholes me to explain that by planting modern hybrids, I am helping multinational corporations to monopolize the gene pool. And J. L. Hudson, Seedsman, who publishes the somewhat forbidding Ethnobotanical Catalogue of Seeds, preaches that by planting traditional nonhybrid seeds in my garden I can help to preserve cultural as well as genetic diversity.

The alternative seed catalogues paint the “F-1″ hybrid, in particular, as an environmental menace and make a point of refusing to handle the dread seed. In the last few decades F-1 hybrids, which are simply the first generation produced by the crossing of two plant varieties, have become the stock in trade of the commercial seed industry, and they are gradually crowding traditional “open pollinated” varieties (ones pollinated by bees, birds or wind instead of plant geneticists) out of the marketplace. According to the Seed Savers Exchange, an organization established in 1975 to encourage backyard gardeners to preserve certain open-pollinated varieties, almost half of all the nonhybrid vegetable varieties on the market just 10 years ago have been dropped from mail-order catalogues. This often results in extinction, since many domesticated species will not survive unless they are planted over and over again by humans. W. Atlee Burpee & Company would tell you that the disappearance of traditional varieties is simply the Darwinian operation of the marketplace: if the old varieties were any good, they’d compete more successfully. In fact the chairman of Burpee made exactly that argument last spring in a Times Op-Ed piece in defense of the embattled hybrid, likening open-pollinated seeds to Model T’s.

The seed savers see another, darker reason for the hybrid’s predominance. As the Seeds Blum catalogue puts it, in words plain as those of Marx and Engels, “The reason hybrids exist is to protect the breeding investment of the seed company.” Unlike the seeds of open-pollinated varieties, the seeds produced by an F-1 hybrid plant don’t “come true”—their offspring are apt to exhibit the undesirable traits of one or the other parent. In other words, seeds of these hybrids can’t be saved or reproduced; their biology makes them proprietary. By forcing gardeners and farmers to return for new seeds each season, the companies selling F-1 hybrids have effectively taken control of the means of production.

These are not the only ways in which modern hybrids remake nature in the image of capitalism. Given heavy doses of fertilizer, F-1 hybrids grow swiftly and produce high yields. They also produce genetically uniform plants. What could better suit factory farming than a robust field of identical tomato or corn plants genetically coded to ripen all at once, thereby facilitating mechanical harvesting?

But the same uniformity that smoothes capitalism’s way into the farm and garden also violates one of nature’s cardinal principles: genetic diversity. A field of genetically identical plants is much more vulnerable to disease, as American corn farmers discovered in 1970 when a blight decimated the nation’s crop, which had grown dependent on a few genetically similar hybrids. After such blights, breeders have historically turned to traditional varieties of corn, found in places like Mexico, to refresh the gene pool and provide new resistance. But what happens when Mexican farmers have been sold on fancy new hybrids and their traditional varieties have become extinct?

Seeds of Change claims in its catalogue that, second to destruction of habitats, “possibly the biggest single trigger of extinctions is the introduction of hybrid seeds.” This sounds like hyperbole, and yet the seed insurgents are probably right to perceive a threat to biodiversity in the commercial seed trade’s promotion of hybrids. We’re accustomed to think of biodiversity only in connection with wild species in places like the rain forest, but the species that humans have selected and bred since the invention of agriculture are no less important. They represent a priceless worldwide store of genetic and cultural information, the heritage of some 10,000 years of coevolution between humans and their crop plants.

As the seed savers see it, the battle for the survival and control of that heritage is about to intensify. The promise of genetic engineering has set off a “gene rush” as breeders seek to identify and control plant genes for a variety of traits—resistance to disease or frost, say, or to weed-killing chemicals. At the same time, under the new GATT accords, which will be phased in over the next five years, the world will take a giant step toward the privatization of seeds. That’s because the GATT provisions on “intellectual property rights” require all signatories—many for the first time—to set up a system for the patenting of plant varieties.

This development has already ignited powerful protests in the third world. Many farmers worry that by promoting F-1 hybrids and patenting local plant varieties that were previously saved and exchanged freely, multinational corporations will ruin traditional agriculture. Last July a group of Indian farmers destroyed a Cargill seed-processing plant under construction in southern India, the second attack on the American seed giant’s facilities there. (During the first, in December 1992, 300 protesters broke into Cargill’s office in Bangalore and made a bonfire of corporate documents.) And in October, in what may be the largest protest ever against GATT, more than 500,000 farmers in India rallied in defense of their “sovereignty over seeds.” Though it has gone virtually unreported in this country, India’s “seed satyagraha” suggests that freedom of seeds is becoming a point of sharp contention between North and South.

SEEDS OF CHANGE, WHOSE LATEST CATALOGUE brings news of this seed savers Boston Tea Party, bids me to see a connection between my garden and the freedom and diversity of the world seed trade. Take the packet of corn seeds I’m in the market for. What I’m really in the market for, the catalogue makes clear, is a particular set of corn genes, and the choice I make will constitute a kind of evolutionary vote. I could, for example, order a hybrid from Burpee. This year I see they’re offering several of the modern “supersweet” hybrids (several years ago some university researchers figured out how to double the gene for sugar in corn and slow its conversion to starch), including Illini Xtra-Sweet, which the catalogue claims is “four times as sweet as standard hybrids 48 hours after picking!” This is a revealing boast. It suggests that Illini Xtra-Sweet and hybrids like it were developed with factory farmers rather than backyard gardeners in mind. For what gardener would need a corn that holds its sweetness for two days?

To order Illini Xtra-Sweet would be a vote not just for a particular kind of corn but for a kind of agriculture—indeed, for a kind of culture. You could probably deduce a great deal about contemporary America from the genes of Illini Xtra-Sweet; for example, that this is the product of a capitalist economy whose farms rely on petrochemicals (which most hybrids require to thrive) and are typically located a long truck ride away from their consumers, who prize sweetness over nutrition and tend to boil rather than roast their corn. (New corn hybrids have been bred for sweetness and tenderness, usually at the expense of nutritional value.)

The alternative seed catalogues brim with unusual varieties whose genes encode whole different cultures and culinary possibilities that seem worth experiencing—and helping to preserve. From Seeds of Change I can order Black Aztec, said to be a pre-Columbian Aztec variety that does well in poor, dry soils and whose kernels stand up well to roasting. (At maturity the kernels turn blue black and can be ground into a highly nutritious cornmeal.) Seeds Blum recommends Trucker’s Favorite, an heirloom “dent corn” that supposedly makes up in corn flavor what it lacks in sweetness and looks. J. L. Hudson, the most radical of the seedsmen, offers several native American field corns whose appeal seems distinctly less gustatory than, well, ethnobotanical (but then J. L. Hudson believes that we work for the seeds rather than the other way around). This year he’s carrying Pod Corn, an ancestral strain whose every kernel is encased in its own husk, and Mandan Bride, “a beautiful multicolor corn said to be from the Mandan people in what is now called North Dakota.”

Hudson’s catalog is such a vast, teeming democracy of seeds that it makes room for common weeds such as mullein and burdock, four varieties of leaf tobacco (including one grown by Zapotec Indians), even seeds for giant sequoia trees. As one of his cranky, enlightening catalogue essays makes clear, Hudson believes in preserving human as well as genetic diversity—hence the Zapotec tobacco and the Mandan Bride corn, both of whose genes encode specific cultural practices he’s bent on saving. And who knows, one of the old Indian varieties he carries might turn out to contain a trait we will desperately need someday, perhaps the gene that will help us adapt corn to a warmer, drier climate.

That’s the wager J. L. Hudson and his fellow seed insurgents are urging me to make—to turn a corner of my garden into a kind of botanical ark, a blooming, fruiting archive of genetic and cultural information, a multicultural free-port city of open-pollinated, public-domain seeds to be saved and freely disseminated, Burpee and Cargill and GATT be damned! Hudson, Seeds of Change and Seeds Blum hold out a powerful, beguiling and wildly ambitious vision of the garden—and yet it awaits nothing more than a handful of seeds.

I’m expecting my packet of Black Aztecs in the mail any day now.