Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds

If I were to change one thing about the book above, which I read as part of the be a bookworm invitation from Green Bean Dreams, it would be the title.

Last night a friend audibly groaned when I told it to her in response to what I'd read recently. The conversation paused and turned to the weather but inside I was scrambling for a way to turn it around, to make genetic engineering and yes, the future of seeds, a breezy conversation. In the end I let it go.

But I'm excited about this book and I've never before considered the seed. I mean, a seed. What's the big deal? The author, Claire Hope Cummings, however infuses the book with a passion and knowledge of the seed and all things around it. It's impossible to not be ignited.

While Michael Pollan lifted one veil to the realities of industrial food, Claire Hope Cummings, lifts another to the realities of the industrial seed market. Take this line from the first chapter:

... the GMOs that are on grocery store shelves today have never been tested for human health hazards.

It's scary you know what but not without pockets of great hope. That is after all her middle name.

The tale of seeds and the immediacy of their impact on the future of our food moves steadily forward and is grounded in places that provide a recognizable map.

It begins with the seed heritage of Iraq and the controls on seed saving that were ordered upon America's occupation. It moves to Hawaii and the experimental open-air field testing of GMO crops grown there. The extent of all this is new news.

My favorite chapter, set at the University of California, Berkeley, reads like a crime mystery -

In an old laboratory that looks like a museum exhibit on the science of the past, there is an old wooden bench strewn with beakers and rubber hoses. Under the bench, in a wooden drawer, is a plain manila folder, which I was shown. In that folder was a photograph no one's supposed to see. It depicts something that no one is even supposed to know exists. It's a picture of .....

From the revelations in Berkeley the book takes off to America's Heartland to see who owns the seed being farmed today and the affects that corporate ownership has. Then in Vietnam it looks at who owns the rice and the politics of feeding the world, which is surprising in it's starkness -

Famine is a function of how food is distributed, and that is always a political issue.

Next it's Norway and the Doomsday Vault or Noah's Ark for agriculture, the newest and most innovative seed bank in the world, she says, before providing a view inside seed banks everywhere. She likens one seed bank to a church and for a moment I am standing there too.

Then she travels through local food systems starting in Fort Collins, Colorado at the Fort Knox of seed banks and ends with this quote I like by the philosopher Eric Hoffer,

"in times of profound changes, the learners inherit the earth, while the learned find themselves beautifully equipped to deal with a world that no longer exists."

The last third of the book set in Iowa, Mexico and back to Hawaii focuses on the work being done to preserve and generate heirloom seeds and along with them the stories and food of all our cultures. It's the good news and the hope.

Uncertain Peril finally ends in the beginning, in the Garden of Eden, exploring the link between the narrative of creation and agriculture.

And while it's usually cheating to give away the final sentences of a book, in this case it's not. The last lines are an invitation to enter the world of seeds, to encourage native crops, support local farmers. They're an invitation to share the map of what grows in our own gardens and to know what is on our plate.

The story of seeds is also our story. We can be guided by the way of the seed and by knowing that what we do to seeds, we do to ourselves. One thing is certain: the future of seeds in our hands.


Donna said...

Wow! I'll have to check this one out, and with a title like that, I never would have even picked it up without your review. :) Great job!

Christina said...

This is now on my list of to-reads. Thank you for the recommendation.

Green Bean said...

Like Donna, I never would have looked at this book. Your review, though, moves it toward the top of my list. This really sounds like a must read and, as usual, Katrina another wonderfully written post from one of the best writers on the blogosphere. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

Val at Cincy Locavore has blogged on GMO seeds and how companies can shut down farmers whose wild-type crops become pollinated by GMO plants. It's chilling stuff. Thanks for the plug for this book -- I will just have to read it. It's incredible to hear that among the things the US did first in Iraq was control their seed supply. That is truly horrifying.

JV said...

Dear Miss Kale
What a great article and interesting also. I would never know anything about any of this if it wasn't for you. Again, thank you and keep up the good work of informing people.
I agree with Audrey in her last sentence she says' this is truly horrifying,,,IT TRULY IS....

Kale for Sale said...

donna - I nearly didn't pick it up either. The Anne Lamott endorsement helped.

christina - You're welcome. Given what seems to be your enjoyment of seeds I suspect you'll like it.

green bean - I bet your list is as long as mine is too. There are so many books to read!

audrey - There's also a good article in Vanity Fair of all places about Monsanto doing exactly what you describe.

jv - Thanks Mom. I'll loan you the book if you want to read it. It's as scary as the mysteries you like.

Going Crunchy said...

Oh durn, I'll have to order this at the Library. You got me on the teaser paragraph about what we aren't supposed to see! I must find out.......

Kale for Sale said...

going crunchy - If I could add a sound track the back ground would be a dasterdly evil laugh at the moment the folder is opened. Then organ music that would drop off to a chilling silence. I'm getting carried away. Good luck getting the book and thanks for stopping by.