Saturday, August 18, 2012

Talkin' about a revolution

I've always been more interested in growing flowers or ornamental plants than vegetables, but over the last few years that's changed. I like the idea of growing more of the food we eat and having more control over what chemicals are used on it but mostly it's just a new challenge. One thing I've noticed is that "heirloom" varieties are becoming increasingly popular. These are the kinds of plants our grandparents might have grown and saved seed from each year. While they might not be as easy or productive as some more modern hybrids, they offer the promise of better taste. At least that's the theory, but my results so far have been pretty poor and we ended up with some tomatoes that didn't taste very good. Still, I'm not ready to give up and I was really looking forward to The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food by Janisse Ray which I received from Amazon Vine.

Ms. Ray recites statistics (several times) of how many varieties have been lost in just the last 100 years – and the huge numbers are disconcerting. Seed companies have bred hybrids with shelf-life and increased output in mind (frequently ignoring how they actually taste), and because they're hybrids farmers and gardeners can't save seeds from one year to the next and have them grow true. Even more distressing, companies and most farmers have turned to genetically-modified (GM) crops that have genetic traits artificially inserted for resistance to pests or – most alarmingly – chemical herbicides. All of this results in a contaminated and much-reduced gene pool and Ray argues that we have lost control of our food supply – which risks imminent collapse – and we are in need of a revolution.

I was hoping for a book that would talk about available heirloom varieties and might offer tips on the different kinds and ways to grow them. 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) Instead she talks about her Georgia farm and visits to other farmers 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 purpose in fighting modernity. But even she admits by the end that not all technology or corporations are evil, although she's not always sure where to draw the line. She acknowledges that 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 sometimes inferior. And spending a few bucks on seed packets is more convenient than the effort to save your own, as even she admits.)

Still, I don't disagree with all her arguments (mostly just her extremism) and I can certainly relate to her desire to grow older varieties. I'll continue to look for heirloom vegetables that grow well for me and that the family likes to eat. It's just a shame that information isn't found in this book.

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