Editorial: Faith in a Seed – The GE Debate

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 32, Lent 2005

The industrialised world depends entirely on crops and cultivation practices imported from what we now call the Third World (though evidently it was the First)…those who know the seed business are well aware that our shallow gene bank is highly vulnerable; when a crop strain succumbs all at once to a new disease…researchers must return to the more diverse strains for help. So we still rely on the gigantic insurance policy provided by the genetic variability in the land races, which continue to be hand sown and harvested, year in and year out, by farmers in those mostly poor places from which our crops arose. Unbelievably we are now engaged in a serious effort to cancel that insurance policy.

It happens like this. Let’s say you are an Ethiopian farmer growing a land race of wheat – a wildly variable, husky mongrel crop that has been in your family for hundreds of years. You always lose some to wind and weather but the rest still comes through every year. Lately, though, you’ve been hearing about a type of Magic Wheat that grows six times bigger than your crop, is easier to harvest and contains vitamins that aren’t found in ordinary wheat. And amazingly enough, by special arrangement with the government, it is free.

Readers who have even the slightest acquaintance with fairy tales will already know that there is trouble ahead. The Magic Wheat grows well the first year, but its rapid overly green growth attracts a startling number of pests. You see insects on this crop that never ate wheat before in the whole of your family’s history. You watch, you worry. You realise that you are going to have to spray a pesticide to get this crop through to harvest. You are not so surprised to learn that by special arrangement with the government, the same company that gave you the seed for free can sell you the pesticide you need. It is good pesticide, they use it all the time in America, but it costs money you don’t have, so you have to borrow against next year’s crop.

The second year, you will be visited by a terrible drought, and your crop will not survive to harvest at all; every stalk dies. Magic Wheat from America doesn’t know beans about Ethiopian drought. The end.

Actually, if the drought arrived in year two and the end came that quickly, in this real-life fairy tale you’d be very lucky because chances are good that you still have some of the family-line seed around. It would be much more disastrous if the drought waited until the eighth or ninth year to wipe you out for then you have no wheat left at all. Magic or otherwise. Seed banks, even if they are eleven thousand years old, can’t survive for more than a few years on the shelf. If they aren’t grown out as crops year after year, they die – or else get ground into flour and baked and eaten – and then this product of a thousand hands and careful selection is just gone, once and for all…

While agricultural companies have purchased, stored, and patented certain genetic materials from old crops, they cannot engineer a crop, ever, that will have the resilience of land races under a wide variety of conditions of moisture, predation and temperature. Genetic engineering is the antithesis of variability because it removes the wild card – that beautiful thing called sex – from the equation.

Thoreau wrote, ‘I have great faith in a seed. Convince me that you have a seed there, and I am prepared to expect wonders.’ By the power vested in everything living, let us keep to that faith. I’m a scientist who thinks it is wise to enter the doors of creation not with a lion tamer’s whip and chair but with the reverence humankind has traditionally summoned for entering places of worship – a temple, a mosque or a cathedral. A sacred grove, as ancient as time.

—Barbara Kingsolver in Cherish the Earth, Mary Low, Wild Goose Publications, 2003.

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