Thursday, July 31, 2008

Book Review: Uncertain Peril

"Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds" (What is it with these subtitles?) by Claire Hope Cummings is all about seeds – a topic to which I’d given very little thought. It was so interesting that I want to share it all, but I’ll try to resist.

The history of seeds goes all the way back to Genesis. For most of history, farmers have carefully bred new variations and saved their best seeds, but somewhere along the way, seeds became privatized and patented. "Uncertain Peril" is about what has happened as a result. I found the subject both fascinating and infuriating!

Cummings tells stories of seeds in different places: how we ruined farming in Iraq, how GMO (genetically modified) contamination showed up in corn planted by Zapotec Indians deep in the jungles of Mexico, and how Hawaii’s papaya industry was decimated by GMO papaya patented by Hawaii’s own university. She describes how a few large corporations get rich manipulating agriculture and make farmers here and abroad subservient when they used to be independent. The scariest part of the book concerns GMO seed which is largely untested for health risks (but likely to have them), contaminating other plants and recklessly handled by greedy corporations. Our elected officials could easily put a stop to it, but they don’t.

I’ve noticed a recurring theme in ecological books that I’ll simplify as "East" vs. "West." East represents the whole, the community, and native cultures while West represents the parts, the individual and western civilization. Western thought led to technology, antibiotics, standardization and conventional agriculture. Eastern thought led to the environmental movement, herbal remedies, diversity and organic farming. Clearly we benefit from them both, but West usually dominates over East. Cummings argues that Eastern thought and organic farming methods have the potential to save the world from the damage done by Western industrial agriculture. Like Kunstler of "The Long Emergency," she believes there will be a rise in diversity and locality as oil becomes more scarce. Let’s hope so.

I highly recommend "Uncertain Peril." It’s not exactly light reading, but it’s a fascinating and important topic. Just take your blood pressure meds first. Rating: 5 out of 5. Readers: Medium to dark green.


Kale for Sale said...

Thank you for posting your review of this book and I'm so glad you gave it a 5 out 5 rating. The blood pressure meds line cracked me up. Yes, some of the information is infuriating but she did a good job of balancing it and kept me hungrily reading to the end.

Green Bean said...

It sounds like a great book, Donna. I remember Katrina loving it. I'm getting to the point, though, where I'd like some books that people don't like. My list is getting so large! ;-)

I love how you summarize the East/West type of distinction that seems to play out again and again in these green books. I'm not sure how likely, though, America will do an about face and embrace "the Eastern way" - the dichotomoy presented in most of these books. As you point out, there are good and bad to both ways.

Donna said...

kale: Glad I could give you a laugh. :) I was amazed -- it is a pretty deep book, but I wanted to keep reading it, too. It's well written.

gb: Sorry about that growing list -- what a problem! Thanks for your comment on East/West. It certainly is a recurring theme, and I'd be surprised too, if America seriously embraced some of the "Eastern" philosophy that might actually save us from ourselves. But the pendulum swings sometimes, so I guess you never know.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the review.
This topic is far more serious than most people realize.
Say, for instance, you have a really delicious tomato plant in a pot on your patio. You want to grow and eat that tomato forever because it's so delicious.
You pick one of the nice tomatoes, and squish it, and save the seeds. Next year you plant those seeds, and you get lots of leaves and no tomatoes. Why?
That is because the "manufacturer" of the seed does not want you to grow your own, but wants you to buy that tomato new from them again this year.
It's called hybridizing. And though hybridizing makes for some neat plant characteristic, it also means that companies that produce the hybrids "build in" the inability to reproduce.
Neat trick, eh?
Now extrapolate that idea to all grains, beans, corn and rice.
So unless we want to starve, we need to take back our ability to save fertile seeds.
I know this is a simplified explanation, and i am leaving this topic open to lively discussion, but it begs the discussion.
Again, thank you for reading this book and reviewing it.

Donna said...

leslie: Thank you very much for your commments and explaination. You explained one of the great mysteries of my garden which is why my tomato "volunteers" never produce any veggies.

You're absolutely right that this is a really serious issue.

Theresa said...

I think I've heard those non-fertile seeds called "terminator" seeds, which may be more apt than the person/corporation who coined the term intended.

Saving seeds is something I'm trying to do more and more of. I grew some things this year in small batches just so I can save the seed. Every time I look out into a field of yellow GMO canola seed, I just shake my head.

Thanks for a this review of a book about such an important topic. It seems there are just no unimportant topics anymore, doesn't it?

Donna said...

theresa: Thanks for your comments. I think the "terminator seed" technology is something a little different and the big-ag companies are not currently using it due to the outrage it generated. We need to watch them, though! You're right that it seems every topic is becoming very important!

Best of luck to you with your seed saving. I've done really well with peas and string beans, and I don't even know what I'm doing. :)