On a frozen island near the North Pole, a huge hole has been blasted out of the side of an Arctic mountain and a tunnel has been drilled deep into the rock.
When the facility under construction here is completed, it will be lined with one-meter-thick concrete, fitted with two high-security blast-proof airlock doors, and built to withstand nuclear war, global warming, terrorism, and the collapse of the earth's energy supplies. It's known as the "Doomsday Vault," and in it will be stored millions of seeds and mankind's hope for the future of the world's food supply.
The idea is that in the event of massive ecological destruction, those seeds could be used to reconstruct the planet's agricultural systems. Exactly who might remain to begin replanting the earth after such a catastrophe is only one of the questions this astounding project raises. The more immediate question is, are seeds in peril? The answer is yes, especially the seeds that provide us with food, fiber, and fuel. Both the diversity and the integrity of seeds are threatened, in the wild and on our farms. They are being put at risk by agricultural technologies, patents and corporate ownership, and the overall degradation of the environment. The plight of seeds is one of the most important environmental stories of our time. Until now, however, this critical issue has not received the attention it deserves.
Seeds are as critical to our survival as air, water, and soil. And yet despite the everyday miracles that they perform, we tend to take them for granted. Seeds sustain the beauty and vitality of the earth. Seeds are essential to the regenerative capacity of the planet. We will need their natural resilience and adaptability even more as temperatures rise. Biologically, each seed has a unique way of fulfilling its promise. Taken together, the world's seeds maintain the plant systems that keep the planet breathing. Every breath we take has been exhaled by a plant, which turned it into oxygen for us. Seeds have always been our silent partners in maintaining life on earth.
People and plants coevolved through the ages, and that relationship has been mutually beneficial. Seed plants dependably meet our needs, producing the corn and rice we eat, the flax and cotton we weave, and the oak and pine we use for shelter. Eighty percent of the people in the world still rely on plants as their primary source of medicine. The remains of long-dead plants provide all of us with our fossil fuels. As metaphors, seeds are a rich source of inspiration in art, literature, and religion. We cannot afford to lose any more of this generosity, this beauty, this abundance.
We find ourselves at a dramatic turning point for life on earth. Population and consumption are rapidly expanding. Industrial food production is exhausting the planet's basic biological support systems, making them even more vulnerable to the effects of global warming. The natural world is experiencing catastrophic losses of biodiversity, fresh water, and fertile soil. All of these trends are threatening seeds and forcing us to take a careful look at how we will feed ourselves in the future. It comes down to this: whoever controls the future of seeds controls the future of life on earth.
Is industrial agriculture, with its focus on chemical and genetic technologies, the best choice for ensuring a healthy future? Genetic engineering is a commercial technology controlled by private corporations, who use it to dominate agricultural production from seed to stomach and to profit from every bite. Given the enormous environmental stress the planet is under right now and increasing demands on our natural resources from all forms of human activity, can this one technology provide for our food and environmental security? The answer is, unequivocally, no.
There are five solid reasons that genetic engineering is not right for agriculture. One: it's bad science. It was developed on the basis of flawed assumptions, which have since been discredited by the scientific community. Two: it's bad biology. It was deployed without regard for its potential for genetic contamination and its risks to human health. Three: it's bad social policy. It puts control over seeds and the fundamentals of our food and farms into the hands of a few corporations who have their own, not our, best interests in mind. Four: it's bad economics. After billions of dollars and thirty years, only a few products have been commercialized, and they offer nothing new. No one asked for genetically modified organisms (GMOs), and given a choice, consumers would reject them. Five: it's bad farming. GMOs don't address the real issues plaguing agriculture; they're designed to substitute for or increase the use of proprietary weed and pest control chemicals. Patented and genetically altered seeds perpetuate the very worst problems of the industrial food system, and they are undermining the autonomy of the farmers who use them.
According to the Global Crop Diversity Trust, the organization that is building the Doomsday Vault, there are more than 50,000 edible plants in the world. About 150 of them have been commercialized, and only 40 of those are cultivated regularly. Only three of them – rice, corn, and wheat-provide most of humanity with its mainstay foods. Three others – soy, cotton, and canola – get more than their fair share of attention because of their industrial uses. Other plants are important sources of sustenance for many people in the world, especially potatoes, cassava, and taro, as well as barley and sorghum. That's the short list of plants that we rely on for our basic needs, and all of them, as well as tobacco, sugar, coffee, sunflowers, and most fruits and vegetables, have been patented or genetically modified.
Seeds are the common heritage of all humanity, and yet they are being stolen right from underneath our noses. If someone came into your kitchen and took all the food off the shelves and out of the refrigerator, you'd notice. If someone came onto your farm and stole the seeds you were about to plant, you'd notice. But the theft of the world's genetic heritage has not been so overt. It's been done by changing the biological and legal character of plants, so that while the food and seeds remain where they were, ownership of them has shifted.
While all this has been going on, there have been plenty of welcome countertrends. A dynamic new food and farming movement is rising up all over the world, bringing local food and farming back to life and restoring agriculture to its ecological roots. This is where the hope lies. It can be found in the natural world, in the promise of the seed, and in the hands of the farmers and the native planters who tend the earth with the wealth of nature in mind. Organic farmers, chefs, urban and rural youth, artists, and activists are all working in their own ways, and sometimes together, to change the way we produce and consume food. New sustainable strategies and green technologies are being created. There are many proven ways to produce food and energy that protect both human health and the life of our soil and water while providing for our prosperity. These new agrarians are restoring respect for the skills of the human hand and the ingenuity of the natural world. They're putting the culture back into agriculture.
The story of agriculture is often told as the story of man's domination of nature. Now a new story is being told. The new story of agriculture combines the guidance of the old creation myths with the insights of science. We are learning the language of generosity from nature and of tolerance from our experiences in returning to local economies. As we go about searching for ways to return meaning and morality to our lives, and possibly, dare I hope, to the political system, the decisions we make now, and the wisdom that we choose to guide us, will make all the difference. What's at stake is nothing less than the nature of the future.
The Doomsday Vault is only one way of preparing for an uncertain future. Someday we may be glad it was built. My hope is that we will create a future for ourselves in which it will never be needed. Right now we can let others decide our fate and continue living in a fundamentalist "Frankenstate" where the corporate gene giants feed us artificial food and drugs produced with their genetically modified patented plants and lull us into complacency with their choice of electronic conveniences and entertainment. Or we can summon the courage to resist the worst of all that and begin restoring ourselves to our rightful places, as members of both human and biological communities and caretakers of our commonwealth.
We are facing a planetary emergency, as Al Gore says, but our "collective nervous system" still has trouble recognizing the threats to our survival. As an environmental journalist, I see this all the time. I often feel it myself. I wrote this book because I love seeds and because I have found that telling the stories of the people and places behind these issues can help us face them and the complex challenges they present. Industry spends millions telling its story and defending its products, and it stands poised to convert our upcoming ecological crisis into a commercial opportunity. I'm not offering a prescription for the future, just an invitation to consider our options carefully. The answers we need will come when we begin the conversation that starts with telling and listening to each other's stories.
I have brought all my life experiences, as a mother, a farmer, an environmental lawyer, an advocate for traditional native land rights, and a journalist, to weave together a meaningful context for the subject of genetic engineering and the future of seeds. All of my work has been guided by one central value: respect for the integrity of the natural world. This is what I have learned: if we can, even for a moment, pause and stop looking at the world through the lens of technology, then suddenly the beauty and wonder of nature reappear. Then we remember who we are and where we are, and the healing begins.
From Uncertain Peril, by Claire Hope Cummings (Copyright © 2008 by Claire Hope Cummings.) Reprinted by permission of Beacon Press, Boston. Visit Beacon's website at www.beacon.org and Beacon's Blog at www.beaconbroadside.com