Friday, April 25, 2008

Seeds of Thought ...

from Jacqueline

I come from a long line of gardeners, but I confess, although I love gardening, I think I am the least knowledgeable and proficient. From my grandmother and her postage-stamp gardens in London, to my landscaping brother and the huge estates he has managed, our lot have proven their mettle with anything that grows. And we care very much about how things are grown and the land underneath our feet.

Moving right along – last weekend I was one of four women writers speaking at the Bay Area Bluestocking Festival of Authors in Pleasant Hill, California. I love this sort of event – I always learn something new, or am reminded of something I knew, but hadn’t given sufficient thought to. And if you are wondering about the link between my greenish fingers and writing, stay with me, folks, there is a route through the undergrowth here. One of the authors – who sadly, I was not able to stay to listen to, but had a great conversation with her – was Claire Hope Cummings, a former environmental lawyer turned journalist. Claire has been honored for her coverage of food and farming and herself has farmed in both California and Vietnam. She was a 2001 Food and Society Policy Fellow. She knows her apples and oranges.

Claire’s book, “Uncertain Peril, Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds,” caught my interest straightaway. In Britain and the rest of Europe, any foodstuff containing Genetically Modified Food (GMO) has to be labeled, so we know what we’re buying. Some years ago, I heard an expert on GMO (why can I never remember these people’s names?) talking on public radio about GMO, and he likened it to lead in gasoline or nicotine in cigarettes – it’s the next big thing to be really, really worried about. At the time the US was getting bent out of shape because that new labeling law had just been passed in Europe, and if US companies wanted to sell their food in Europe, they had to get with the program. GMO is very, very big American business.

So, here’s the thing, one interesting point in Claire’s book, that I knew and had forgotten, and that – years after the start of the war in Iraq – is giving food for thought: If you didn’t already know this, in terms of agriculture, Iraq was like California and the Bread Basket states rolled into one, bearing fruit in the “Fertile Crescent” of Middle Eastern legend. The Garden of Eden is thought to have been located in southern Iraq.

Given this bounty, Iraq had a priceless seed heritage, with all manner or cereals, vegetables, herbs, fruits and medicinal plants grown on its land, and keeping the integrity of the seeds were the farmers, who harvested their own seeds or bought seeds from other farmers in the many markets of Iraq. To further protect the environment, in the 1970’s the Ministry of Agriculture gathered seeds from all over the country and established a seed bank (1400 varieties), a plant-breeding institute and botanical garden in a suburb of a town called Abu Ghraib. In March 2003 that seed bank was destroyed in the invasion of Baghdad.

In her book, Claire describes the way in which Paul Bremner (remember him? The guy who was given the job of restoring Iraq’s infrastructure?) and Donald Rumsfeld spent $12 billion ($9 billion of which was never accounted for) and issued over one hundred orders to create a market economy tailored to American interests – agriculture being a major interest. The ability of the farmers to provide for themselves was all but destroyed, leaving the path clear for the Monsanto-type companies to move in with their GMO products. As Claire states in the book, “What is clear is that the United States intends to use the occupation as an opportunity to remold Iraqi agriculture to fit American agribusiness interests.” And we know what those interests have done for American farming don’t we?

I could go on, make my comments (I know, as usual) about the various interests behind the march to war, but I’ll leave that to you. In the wake of the usual beat-your-head-against-the-wall fury that comes with each new revelation about the power of big-business and the connection to war, lies a deep sadness. There is something achingly tragic about the thought of seeds so genetically modified that the plants they produce are effectively barren, unable to reseed in the way Mother Earth intended.

When I was a child, my parents grew all our vegetables. OK, so we had the occasional can of peas – ironically, my brother and I really looked forward to eating anything that came in a can! I remember my dad drying seeds in the greenhouse and keeping them for the following year, and the flavor of those vegetables. There was a wonder there, for a child, watching as he emptied the dried pods, then began planting seeds that would soon bear a small shoot that would grow and grow, then be planted in the garden ... and the cycle would begin again.

“History celebrates the battle-fields whereon we meet our death, but scorns to speak of the ploughed fields whereby we thrive; it knows the names of the king’s bastards, but cannot tell the origin of wheat. That is the way of human folly.” (J.H. Fabre from The Wonders of Instinct. Quoted from Uncertain Peril, by Claire Hope Cummings).

See you at the farmer’s market!


  1. Morning Jacqueline,

    Very good stuff. It's good to be reminded of these things from time to time.


  2. Living in Iowa, the breadbasket of the United States, with both of my parents raised on farms and many ties to agriculture, I might have a slightly different perspective, Jackie.

    Frankly, I think that it's sad thst the common farmer's response to low prices for their product is to used genetically modified products to produce more. That's not how the law of supply and demand works.

    My arguments go far beyond this, Jackie, so I'll just leave you with that thought, and thank you once again for a lovely column.

    I finished Maisie Dobbs last night, by the way. Still digesting it...but I enjoyed it vewry much.

  3. Thank you, Robert and Jeff, for your comments - yes a big subject wherein all is not black and white, but one we should all think about.

    And thank you for your comments about "Maisie Dobbs," Jeff.