Photo by Edible Office.

“In the course of getting a plate of food to our table, we’re paying a lot of attention to the farmer, the chef, the farmers market — all of that is as it should be, but we pay very little attention to the thing that starts it all, the seed.” That sentiment comes from Janisse Ray, farmer and author of the new book The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food.

And it’s true; for many of us, seeds are a mysterious, invisible piece of the food puzzle. While we’re busy thinking about how to fix our food economies, seeds often slip through the cracks. And we’ve lost an almost unfathomable amount of genetic diversity as a result; depending on whom you ask, anywhere between 75 to 95 percent of our fruit and vegetable varieties have been lost for good. Highly functional, often bland, hybridized and genetically engineered varieties have taken over the commercial market — as opposed to the more delicate, complex heirloom varieties with stories and names attached, such as Dragon Tongue beans, Country Gentleman sweet corn, and May Queen lettuce — and Monsanto, Dupont, and Syngenta now own over half of the world’s seeds.

So, you might say Ray’s book has appeared just in time. In it, she makes a compelling argument for seed-saving as a subversive act that has the potential to undermine industrial agribusiness and takes readers to the farms and gardens of people around the country who are growing, collecting, and swapping seeds.

Janisse Ray.

“Our grandparents and great-grandparents were caretakers of seeds. Now we rent them,” she told me in a recent interview. Eighty-eight percent of corn is genetically engineered, for instance, says Ray, and it has been engineered so that it’s impossible to save. Every year farmers must buy new seeds from the companies that engineer them in a laboratory. On the other hand, says Ray, “100 years ago there would have been thousands of varieties of corn all across this country. Local, vintage, place-adapted corn. When seed companies patent genetic material, own it, and decide what you get to buy, it’s time to pay attention.”

Open-pollinated, non-GMO seeds also have a role to play in helping us prepare for climate change, says Ray. She describes “place adaptation” as one of the secret miracles of seeds. (It only takes around seven years of planting and seed-saving in the same location for, say, your favorite pepper variety to become adapted to where you live.)