Thursday, September 19, 2013

Post Industrial Agriculture - Plant Genetics

                Here is the next installment on “Post Industrial Agriculture”. In this entry, the focus will be on plant genetics in regard to organic seed saving in a post industrial fashion.
                To begin, before agriculture became industrialized, seed was saved from a season’s crops and selected along the lines of the healthiest looking fruit. It was a simple theory of saving seeds from the best crops and thus, over countless generations, those crops grew to be what are commonly known as “heirloom” varieties today. “Heirloom” varieties were almost eradicated over the past fifty plus years due to industrialized agriculture, although thankfully, some die-hard farmers and gardeners kept these amazing strains of vegetables and fruits alive.
                Once industrialized agriculture entered the scene, no longer was the health and the flavor of a given crop viewed as important. Instead, what was deemed important was only along industrialized lines; ship-ability; that is, being able to be shipped long distances without rotting or damage from stacking in crates, etc., uniformity in appearance; seemingly correct color and shape; and productivity, how much can be produced and harvested off of one plant, etc. Flavor, that which tells our taste buds that a given vegetable is healthy, was deemed unimportant, just so long as the vegetable “looked” right after being shipped vast distances and were not noticeably bruised, etc. This is just the start of how seed saving changed over the decades through industrialized agriculture.
                This particular entry was inspired by an article I read in Acres, USA magazine. The article appeared in the January 2013 issue, and was titled, “Modern Seed Movement”. Essentially it was an interview with plant breeder, John Navazio, co-founder of the Organic Seed Alliance. I was absolutely inspired but what I read, and following on the heels of Joel Salatin’s situation as described in “The Omnivore’s Dilemma” by Michael Pollan, it fell neatly into the situation of Post Industrial Agriculture.
                When it comes to current industrialized agriculture, genetically modified seeds are the norm. Almost all of the countless fields of corn and soybean across the country come from genetically modified seed. And almost all of that corn and soybeans are actually inedible for humans without heavily processing with the use of lots of chemicals… But I won’t get into that here. How that “food” which is actually… literally, poison is manufactured, etc. will be dealt with in another entry.
                However, when it comes to vegetables that consumers purchase in a grocery store, not all of those originate from genetically modified seed, and it is rather difficult to discover which ones actually are genetically modified. Some of those varieties actually start from “real” seeds…
                But let’s get back to the seeds. Putting genetically modified seeds… behind us, industrialized agriculture seeks those characteristics listed above, ship-ability, uniformity in appearance, productivity, etc. Taste, flavor is of no concern. The bottom line from this approach is simply how to make the most money with the least effort possible. And to continue with the simplistic level of thought here, genetics, that is, the diversity in genetics which has everything to do with adaptability is not even an afterthought, but I will dwell on that a little later.
                One hundred years ago, seeds were saved almost exclusively from “open-pollinated” plants. This simply means that the plants were “open” to the natural means of pollination, whether from wind, bees and other insects, or even self-pollinated as some plants actually reproduce. It takes little thought with this process, simply let nature do what nature does. And, that little thought is OH SO MUCH wiser than ANY of industrialized agriculture’s thoughts. But I digress.
                The problem with “open-pollinated” seeds from the industrialized agriculture point of view is that any gardener or farmer can easily save seeds from those crops, and then plant their own saved seeds the next year. Where is the money in that? Hmm? The point, once again, is to make as much money as possible. The answer to that question is hybridized seeds. A hybrid is the result of taking pollen from two parent plants and creating a specific offspring that has the traits… ship-ability, etc. desired by the large seed companies. The resulting plant will NOT produce seed that reflects the same characteristics. Only by crossing the two particular parent plants can that offspring actually be developed. These are also known as F1 plants or hybrids. If a farmer or gardener grows F1 plants, saving seeds from those plants will result in nothing close to the plant they hoped.
                Whenever I peruse seed catalogs, which for me are often exclusively organic seed catalogs, I grow extremely frustrated over the vast number of hybrid (F1) seeds offered. The write up in any given catalog swears by certain traits that are reliable with the hybrids, but I cannot see beyond the F1 in the name. There are two things involved here. The first is MONEY. The main aspect behind hybrid breeding is that the breeder can essentially patent their seeds without actually obtaining a patent. Only one entity has the two parents and that entity owns that particular hybrid. The second is that that particular hybrid is by nature inferior to “open pollinated” varieties, ALTHOUGH, they pronounce themselves to be just the opposite. The main issue with all of this is that humans think they can improve on nature, WHICH THEY CANNOT… and that is the error that has decimated our food situation as it currently stands.
                When I read the Acres, USA article on John Navazio, I was immediately enamored with the substance of what he had to offer. In essence, this is not incredibly complex stuff,… but it is COMPLEX in its own right. By comparison to the industrial agriculture approach, which is essentially producing food stuffs through poison, resulting in food that is… POISON, Navazio’s approach is from a straight forward genetic stance that accepts what nature offers and attempts to steer nature toward traits in produce that would better benefit us.
                I will pause here to state that when it comes to the plant kingdom and seed production it is extremely versatile and diverse. There is no ONE way plants reproduce, and as mentioned above, some reproduce through wind, some bees and others insects, and some can do it on their own. However, in order to attempt to relay a more “simple” example, I will use the example in the article, which was zucchini.
                Navazio worked with an organic zucchini farmer who grows a couple of acres of zucchinis. The variety was Black Eel. Out of the plants he grew only one in four would produce a quality zucchini, which is often a HUGE disadvantage in organic farming with open pollinated seeds. Navazio provided a means to help this situation.
                Seed was saved from the best 26 zucchini plants grown, only instead of tossing all of those seeds in the same basket, as was the process in our past, the 26 groups of seeds were kept separate. The next year, one row each was planted from the 26 batches… and the result astounded the grower! Some of the zucchini were vining squash instead of bushes, some were yellow in color… what the…? The farmer was exasperated, but Navazio reassured him that that was the point of the procedure. The point of the procedure was to cull out the bad traits of that particular zucchini strain and keep the good traits. So, all of the vining plants were destroyed, along with the yellow or misshapen plants. In all, six rows were deemed the “best” and those were allowed to cross pollinate and produce the next season’s seeds. As a result, the ensuing year produced much more reliable zucchini than any crop previous.
                This may sound rather simple, but the scope is EXTREMELY large. The point presented by Navazio is that no one outside of organic farming would exert the effort to improve the natural genetics of an “open pollinated” variety. There is simply no money in it. Instead, the money invested in plant geneticists is spent on creating hybrids, which no one else can duplicate… and… equals… MONEY!!!
                The point behind the scientific genetic approach as described by Navazio is a healthier plant. While certain traits that are unwanted, like yellow zucchini or vining squash, the remaining plants are still “open pollinated” which maintains a wide genetic diversity. And this is key. While the large companies attempt to manipulate nature into producing a particular type of fruit, Navazio’s approach merely steers it. Instead of limiting the gene pool to the size of, say, a wading pool, the gene pool remains that of an ocean. As the climate continues to change rapidly, a farmer has no idea what one season will do in comparison to another. It could be a cold rainy year. It could be a hot dry year. By allowing for genetic diversity, the plants are more adaptable to the varying climate.
                This has been a rather brief description of what is involved in the organic approach to plant genetics. Each species of plant has a different means of reproduction. The entire process is EXTREMELY COMPLEX. However, the process of reproduction is not… so long as we allow nature to do what it has done for countless years! The point is to work “with” nature and not to attempt to “manipulate” it. There is a vast chasm of difference here and it all revolves around money.
                The fact is that industrial agriculture is NOT sustainable… and EXTREMELY destructive to our species’ health, the health of all the other animals on the planet… and EXTREMELY destructive to the environment from which all life still clings to… life! If we steer away from the shortsighted and simplistic approach of industrial agriculture, through true science, we can use our knowledge of plant genetics, not to modify those genes in some macabre gruesome nature that leads to a myriad of health ailments, but to allow nature to create plants that, as food, will better allow our bodies to keep healthy… merely by eating what nature provides!

1 comment:

  1. Nice article Tom, I enjoyed reading this one. These industrial models never take into account real people. I am so over the industrial chemical revolution. Epic fail.