I got excited last month when I read a one liner that Audrey at Eat Local Northwest had read Uncertain Peril. I waited for her to post a review of the book. And I waited. And waited. Until I couldn't wait anymore and simply asked her if she would. Well, she had written a review for her community garden newsletter but hadn't posted the review on her blog. I'm so glad I asked her about it. Here's her review and it's beautiful and smart. Thank you, Audrey.
Seeds have fallen into the wrong hands, writes Claire Cummings in Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds.
What’s that again? You don’t think of seeds as something that would interest greedy multinational corporations, their armies of lawyers, and the U.S. government? Think twice. Seeds have always had a hand in destiny, since their genes direct how tall a plant grows, what kind of fruit it bears, and when it dies. A century ago humans began manipulating these genes to obtain better and hardier crops like hybrid corn.
Lately though genetic manipulation has taken a dark turn. Seed companies are deploying genetic modification to design novel plants to foster dependence on their products. Such altered seeds are known, of course, as GMOs. There’s Monsanto's Roundup Ready corn, a plant that isn’t affected by spraying with Roundup, Monsanto's best selling weed killer. And there are seeds with so-called terminator genes, whose plants grow sterile seeds, thus forcing farmers to purchase new seed every year.
Cummings reports on just how the US government has nurtured GMOs, issuing patents for individual genes and enabling multinationals to sue farmers wherever the modified genes appear in native crop populations – which can happen anytime wind carries pollen. Cummings tells how American food aid to impoverished countries not infrequently includes GMO wheat and corn seed rejected by North American growers. How the first provisional governor in Iraq, Paul Bremer, paved way for the entry of GMO seeds not long after Iraq’s seed bank was destroyed by American bombers.
This book is a wonky polemic, and Cummings takes the unrelenting position that GMOs are destroying civilization as we know it. Is she fair and balanced? I’m not convinced, in spite of Cummings’ credentials as a former USDA lawyer. Clearly there are downsides to GMOs and much that we just don’t know, both good reasons for caution. But consider a story like local do-gooder Bill Gates’ recent $17 million donation towards GMO sorghum for Africa, a food that was specifically engineered to be richer in vitamins A & E, amino acids, iron, and zinc. Is this just another boondoggle for agribusiness? Possibly, but since no one’s yet solved the most serious food problems of our time, I’m interested in hearing alternate perspectives on GMOs and those simply can’t be found in this book.
On a personal note, I picked up Uncertain Peril not long after a friend gave me a dozen Romano bean seeds, which she’d received from a dying eighty-nine year old neighbor who grew them all his life. He in turn had gotten them from his childhood pals, Italian immigrants whose families had grown the beans organically for hundreds of years.
So I read Cummings’ book while sprouting my friend’s Romanos and I got inspired, even if her punchline is sort of predictable – that organic growing can redeem us. I’ll be saving Romano seed this fall and want to try exchanging mine with others who save, if I can get viable stock. Because the alternative is a multinational corporation telling me what to eat. No thanks.
4 of 5 stars