In October 1996, a spokesman for Monsanto told Farm Journal why his company was buying up seed companies left and right: “What you’re seeing is not just a consolidation of seed companies, it’s really a consolidation of the entire food chain.”

Uncertain PerilToday, Monsanto is the world’s largest seed company — and makes more money selling seeds than chemicals. The company’s biotech seeds and traits accounted for 88 percent of the worldwide area devoted to genetically modified seeds in 2006 — and Monsanto earns royalties on every single one. No one needed to tell Monsanto: Whoever controls the first link in the food chain — the seeds — controls the food supply.

What better way to understand the perilous state of industrial food and farming than by starting with the seed? Claire Hope Cummings’ new book, Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds is a sharp and elegant analysis of the biotech seed debate.

Beginning with the tragic story of how the U.S. invasion and occupation of Iraq led to the destruction of Iraq’s seed bank, and the subsequent dependence of Iraqi farmers on U.S. aid and multinational agribusiness, Cummings explains what’s at stake when farming communities lose the crop diversity that they’ve nurtured and managed for thousands of years.

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Self-reliance in agriculture — whether in Nebraska or Nepal — isn’t possible if communities lose control over seeds that are adapted over centuries to their needs, cultural preferences, and environment. Farmers have been saving seeds from their harvest for 10,000 years. Today, an estimated 1.4 billion people, primarily in the developing world, depend on farmer-saved seed as their primary seed source.

Cummings is passionate about seeds and crop diversity. Seeds aren’t merely an environmental or agricultural issue, she explains, but part of a human story that is sacred for many farming communities around the world.

A seasoned radio journalist, Cummings uses her finely-tuned storytelling skills to explain why crop diversity is important, who controls commercial seeds, and why it matters that the biotech industry has tried to systematically destroy — through legal means and technologies — the age-old right of farmers to save and reproduce their own seed.

In the process, industrial agriculture has laid waste to diversity, the environment and farming communities. The subtitle of her book, “Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds,” doesn’t do justice to Cummings’ work — because the subject she addresses goes beyond the debate on genetic engineering. This isn’t a diatribe against genetically engineered foods; it’s a highly-readable analysis that takes an expansive view of farming, food, and agriculture, focused on seeds, crop diversity, and farming communities.

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Nonetheless, the first part of Cummings’ book does a masterful job of unpacking what is too often a cluttered debate on genetic engineering. If you want to deconstruct how genetic engineering has been used as a tool of corporate science and how powerful interests have worked hand-in-hand with the U.S. government to privatize plant breeding and obliterate the culture from agriculture, read this book.

Cummings shows how biotech corporations have used so-called “sound science” to dumb down government regulatory systems, and how publicly-funded agricultural research has been corrupted to serve private interests.

Seeds have been in the news a lot lately, grabbing headlines in February when the Norwegian government opened a Global Seed Vault on a remote island in the Arctic. Major media networks were captivated by the specter of a “doomsday” vault for seeds — a kind of agricultural Fort Knox — where the world’s crop diversity will be safe from war, natural disaster, electricity outages, even climate change. The seed vault raises some profound issues about control of seeds and strategies for conserving them. Some writers (who didn’t check the facts) mused that the Global Vault was just a corporate-funded plot that will ultimately benefit Monsanto and other gene giants. Others acknowledge that an insurance policy for the world’s seeds (basically, a back-up system) is a common-sense strategy.

But with all the attention that’s going to gene banks, the concern is that governments and the public will think that the problem is solved (the genes are in the bank!) — and, worse still, that funding and expertise will be siphoned away from farmer-based (known as in situ) conservation strategies.

But the real way to save our seed heritage lies not in vaults, but rather in fields: on-farm, community-based conservation in which farmers select and breed crops to evolve and adapt to changing conditions (like rapidly evolving pests and diseases) — just as they’ve done for 10,000 years.

In the face of climate chaos, it will be essential. Genetically modified crops will not provide the adaptation strategies that farmers need to ensure food sovereignty in the face of climate change.

I appreciate the way that Cummings treats the topic of the Doomsday Vault and the bigger issue of seed conservation. She explains that the rise of seed banks has occurred at the same time that the role of the farmer has been compromised and corporations have taken over plant breeding.

When it comes right down to it, Cummings notes, the issue isn’t gene bank vs. farmers. Both can be useful strategies. We shouldn’t have to choose. The vitally important thing is to reemphasize the public interest. She writes:

The rise of seed banking and the demise of the small farmer have turned agricultural seed saving on its head. The solution lies in putting the farmer, instead of agribusiness, back on top as the primary actor and beneficiary of all seed-saving strategies.