How the Seed Saved the World: Guest Blog by Nick Rhodehamel

Eschatologists abound. The world, in someone’s view, however you wish to define it, is always about to end.

A pair of predictions was put forth a few of years ago by Rev. Camping of Oakland, CA. Many of the Reverend’s radio followers sold all their belongings to join him, without encumbrance, at the Rapture. When the date came and went, he doubled down, as we now say, and proposed a date 6 months hence. When that date too expired, the Reverend (to my mind to his credit) apologized, withdrew from the public eye, and within months passed on to walk the streets of Glory. He was 92.

With the New Year, the news is filled with forecasts of economic doom. Not since the days of Napoleon’s conquest of Europe has the world been so debt ridden. What’s coming, we are assured, will make the recession from which we have not yet fully emerged look like a cake walk. Life is filled with anxiety.

End-of-the-world narratives are nothing new. Some predictions are sincere no doubt, while others are craven cynicism designed to sow fear and reap reward. Furthermore, there is nothing new in the clear and certain truth that prognostication is notoriously wide of the mark. For myself, I prefer to effect what I can.

There is one remedy to the perpetually purported bad-times-coming that appeals to me. Along with all the ominous forecasts, it too is replete on the web—it is the sale of what is variously called “ark” or “survival” seed. This is vegetable seed, the ads go, that will help tide one over during times of civil chaos or collapse; it’s packaged for storage and is said to be “quality…non-hybrid, open pollinated, non-GMO, heirloom” seed that will breed true year after year.

Now to me, planting a vegetable garden is always a good idea. It’s good exercise for the body and focused relaxation for the mind; you consider more carefully what you eat and you enjoy it better too, all the while saving money.

Beyond that, in a larger and very real sense, seeds have been the salvation of human kind for millennia. They have played a fundamental role in human economic solvency, creating and supplementing a food supply that is ample and assured. Those first farmers who were actually engaged in genetic engineering when they began collecting, cultivating, and saving seeds 10 or 12 thousand years ago were setting the stage for civilizations obviously well beyond anything they could imagine.

But those wild, weedy species that became today’s crop plants were very different from what we know. In their natural state, they had evolved for self-perpetuation, not food, feed, fiber, or fuel for human use. Before plants were domesticated, life was a lot tougher; human existence was largely consumed in searching for food. To huddle at the end of the day around a warming fire with a simple safke, with a little meat or not, would have been luxury.

To be sure, an edible hanging garden of Babylon was not created overnight. Domestication was a slow undertaking, requiring somewhere in the neighborhood of 1000 generations, more or less depending on the plant. It was driven by cultural practices. Sowing regimes imposed selection pressures on such traits as germination timing and seed size, making seed germination and seedling establishment more reliable and predictable and yields more profitable. Harvest practices led to the loss of natural seed dispersal mechanisms—seed shattering in grains, pod dehiscence in bean, which increased yield and harvest efficiency. In grains, such as barley, seed-row architecture was affected; two- and six-row barley arose. Again, yield as well as productivity was increased. Other, different selection pressures were imposed by carrying and planting seed at different foreign latitudes. Photoperiod sensitivity was lost or altered and adaptation to new environments was gained.

Plant domestication allows humans to produce more than they need and to develop varieties in domesticated form that are adapted across a very broad range of environments. Civilizations have thrived.

Grow a vegetable garden this spring. Plant some old, open-pollinated heirloom varieties; revel in the successes of the past. But look too to the future; there are some great new hybrid cultivars available. Try some of them; they capitalize on the best traits of the old varieties. The “ark” seed available on the web may be great stuff. Who knows? Burpee seed I do know. It has been bred and selected by traditional methods and is adapted to North American conditions; it will thrive, and so will you.

This entry was posted on Friday, January 10th, 2014 at 2:54 pm and is filed under Guest Articles. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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