Diversity

by Bill Duesing

First broadcast on WSHU/WSUF-FM, February 16, 1996

Seeds are living, breathing packages of genetic information. They are the result of fertilization which occurs when the sperm from a pollen grain is delivered to the egg cell (in the ovary at the base of the pistil in a flower).

This union of the male and female reproductive cells (or gametes) produces the seed which contains a new and unique set of genetic information. It is derived from both parents, but is not exactly like either one. This simple process, in conjunction with the selection pressures of the environment, is the substance of evolution.

The male and the female reproductive cells can be from the same flower (as in green beans) or from different sex flowers on the same plant (as in squash) or from flowers on different plants with the male sex cells in the pollen carried on the wind or by insects (as in corn or runner beans).

For about 10,000 years, humans have been active participants in the evolution of plants - especially the plants which are important for food and fiber. Until the last few decades, thousands of varieties of many important plants were grown around the world.

The cultivation of wheat began about 7,500 BC, in the Fertile Crescent of the Middle East. Seventeen thousand different varieties of this grain have been produced, many of them the result of centuries of cultivation in a specific ecosystem with the best seeds saved each year and planted the next. Plants, weather, agricultural techniques and the human diet evolved together in unique ways at each place on Earth. The variation in plants is related to the variation in culture from one bioregion to another

In recent decades we have been manipulating the evolution of our food plants at a scale and pace unheard of in the history of civilization. Thousands of scattered varieties are brought together, screened for important traits and bred to produce the hybrid varieties of the Green Revolution and beyond. These "super varieties" are then sent out to replace many individually adapted varieties over much of the earth.

Hybrid seeds are the result of the crossing of unlike parents to bring out desirable traits. For example, breeders may cross a small but flavorful tomato with a large but tasteless variety to produce a large sweet tomato. However, a seed of the hybrid large sweet tomato will more likely produce a plant with small or tasteless tomatoes. Farmers who grow hybrid wheat cannot save their own seed and are dependent on the seed company for next year's crop.

As seed companies around the world were swallowed up by large agrochemical and pharmaceutical corporations, hybrid seeds became even more dependent on synthetic fertilizers, pesticides, and machinery for successful growth. The need to become a consumer of farm inputs in order to be a producer of food, drove many families off the land and into cities all over the world.

Today, seed companies are going even further. With genetic engineering, one company is producing soybeans that are resistant to an herbicide that is useful against the competing weeds. Selling that seed to a farmer guarantees a customer for the herbicide.

At each step in the advance of seed breeding, the wonderful male/female fertilization processes (which make our world such an interesting and diverse place) are further removed from the farmer and from traditional methods.

These new seeds foster the dependence that multinational corporations are so good at creating. These high-tech seeds, in the hands of the ever more highly capital-dependent, and larger farmers, displace the results of centuries of careful evolution in the relationship between people and the Earth. Seeds of unique varieties are lost. People are pushed into the cities and culture is scattered in the same way fast-food restaurants, television programming and imperialistic nations and corporations have pushed aside time-tested diets and foods, family and village traditions, and more benign ways of organizing society.

Hybrid seeds, like the mass world culture of fast food, fast cars and quick fads produce a dependence on energy, chemical and capitol inputs for our basic needs and diminish the Earth's stock of diversity and traditional wisdom.

This is Bill Duesing, Living on the Earth


This page and its contents are copyright © 1996-1997 by WSHU-FM, Fairfield, CT, and by Bill Duesing.