Seeds: they are amazing. That these tiny things hold within themselves the complete potential for an enormous tree, beautiful flower or delicious vegetable is a wonder of nature and evolution.
That anyone can harvest a seed, plant it, and grow plants to feed themselves is an extraordinarily beautiful thing. Seeds are part of our heritage, our culture, our civilisation. Without the ability to cultivate plants from seed we’d never have formed agricultural societies, and without agricultural society you would not be reading this.
Seeds are integral to what it means to be a modern human; to how we feed ourselves, how we structure our societies, how we manage our land and other natural resources. Such tiny things are so critical to who we are and how we live.
Seeds are important, and they are under threat.
I’ve written before about how important crop diversity is. Why it matters to grow rare and heirloom vegetables, and to save seed to cultivate plants best suited to local conditions. The maintenance and continual evolution of plant genetic diversity is critical to food security, to making sure we can feed ourselves and future generations.
The science behind this is incontrovertible.
That’s why I was horrified to find out about the proposed EU regulation “On the production and making available on the market of plant reproductive material” (aka the Plant Reproductive Material Law). Under the legislation, any seeds sold commercially must:
- belong to an acceptable variety or clone that has been registered with the UN;
- comply with the specific requirements adopted for the marketing category of that plant; and
- comply with legislated labelling, handling, certification and identification requirements.
i.e. for an annual fee and a pile of paperwork, you can be permitted to sell your seeds. Maybe. If the government decides your plants meet the registered “definition” for that variety.
What does a plant definition mean anyway? That means the seeds can’t show much genetic deviation from the registered type specimen for that variety, retarding development of strains and varieties that suit local conditions. That means restricting genetic diversity and increasing susceptibility to disease and climatic changes.
Although these laws don’t apply to backyard gardeners like me, they do apply to anyone in the EU who grows plants or distributes seeds for commercial sale. That includes your market stall holder, local nursery, native plant suppliers and market gardeners.
Why does this bother me? Because we’re letting politicians decide what constitutes a valid variety of food plant; because we’re stifling innovation and local adaptation, and at the same time reducing plant diversity; because the law gives advantage to large corporations who can manage the administrative imposts and pay the registrations, not to mention lobby governments over the very definitions of “acceptable varieties”.
Companies with have a track record of patenting plant genomes (making a food crop somehow “copyright”) and taking farmers to court who accidentally sow their seeds[3, 5,6]. Companies that deliberately push genetically modified (GM) crops that cannot be bred by farmers, forcing them to continue buying seed from Monsanto every year and preventing the development of new varieties and the adaption to local conditions.
Monsanto alone is alleged to have lodged 144 seed patent infringement lawsuits in the US thus far.
These companies aren’t in the business of protecting biodiversity. They don’t believe fair and free access to seeds is a fundamental principle of human rights. For these corporations, the narrower the range of crops and the less adaptable the plant genetics, the more opportunities they have to make profits by developing and selling copy-righted seeds. If we lose our ability to develop and distribute locally-adapted and unusual varieties, we lose control of our food sources, we lose our ability to develop crops that suit our soils, climate and cultural traditions and grow dependent on the corporations to sell us patented seeds to feed ourselves. Patented seeds the farmer cannot harvest and re-sow, sold for maximum profit, from the narrow range of crops that these companies invest in.
That’s a pretty scary road to be travelling down.
The science of genetically modifying, or engineering, plant materials forms part and parcel of the debate about seeds. GM science gets all caught up in the politics and corporate sociopathy, but it’s vital to examine the science in its own right. The science of GM is neither good nor evil; it’s how it’s applied that determines that.
GM: genetically modified. What does that mean? It means humans have messed around with a plants genome, the DNA that codes how that plant grows, what nutrients it has, how sensitive it is to chemicals, how tolerant of certain conditions. The genome that is copied into a plant’s reproductive materials: its seeds. The agri-corporations are using GM science to develop plants that are resistant to specific herbicides, usually owned by the same company, like Monsanto’s Round-up and their GM “Roundup Ready” seeds.
GM science can also be used to develop crop strains that can be grown in new areas, places too dry, too wet, or with soil too poor to grow traditionally-bred varieties. It can be used to reduce reliance on fertilizers, herbicides and pesticides, to increase crop yields, to improve nutrition and to develop plant resistance to famine-causing diseases.[4,7] The scientists working on GM foods are doing so because they see the science as a powerful tool for helping to feed a growing global population in an uncertain future, and maybe there’s a place for GM in the world-feeding toolbox. There’s just not when it’s in the hands of vested interests.
GM’s still a relatively new science too, and we’re not sure what the long term effects of GM foods might be. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on the science though: it means we should be cautious and make sure the long-term studies and trials are done before we leap into GM cropping. That’s not what’s happening though, with the agri-corps pressuring government to permit GM seeds on the market before these (costly, long-term) studies are done. GM might not be evil, but right now there are a lot of good arguments for caution and maintaining large agricultural areas that are completely areas GM-free.
So what does all this mean?
To me, all of this shows how important it is that the community is informed, aware and involved in the business and politics of seeds. It’s too big an issue to leave to the lobby groups and politicians: all of our futures are caught up in the incredible potential of seeds.
Concerned? Take the time to get informed and make sure your voice gets heard.
I’m keeping an eye on the EU legislation and have signed the international petitions against the proposed EU legislation here (AVAAZ) and here (Noah’s Ark Foundation).
I’m also paying attention to the discussions happening here in Australia around GM crops, agribusiness and associated legislation. Here in Tasmania our temporary ban on GM crops is due to expire next year, and there’s good reason to get involved in local action campaigning for a renewal.
Seeds belong to all of us. It is critical to the future of humanity that this remains the case: that we can breed, grow and freely trade the food plants that best suit our climates, cultures and local conditions to ensure a future where we’re all well fed.
 The European Commission (2013) Proposal for a regulation of the European Parliament and of the Council – On the production and making available on the market of plant reproductive material (plant reproductive material law); European Commission, Brussels.
 Rabesandratana T (2003) Overhaul of E.U. Seed Regulations Triggers Protests; Science magazine; American Association for the Advancement of Science.
 Cornell University Law School (2013) Vernon Hugh Bowman v. Monsanto Company in first sale doctrine patent exhaustion infringement; Legal Information Institute, Cornell University.
 Kruft D (2001) Impacts of Genetically-Modified Crops and Seeds on Farmers; The Agricultural Law Resource and Reference Center, Pennsylvania State University.
 Wikipedia: Monsanto Canada Inc. vs Schmeiser.
 Tepper R (2013) Seed Giants Sue U.S. Farmers Over Genetically Modified Seed Patents In Shocking Numbers: Report, Huffington Post, TheHuffingtonPost.com Inc.
 Walsh B (2013) Modifying the Endless Debate Over Genetically Modified Crops; Time Science & Space, Time Inc.
 DPIPWE (2009) Policy Statement: Gene technology and Tasmanian Primary Industries 2009-2014; Policy Division, Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment, Tasmanian Government.
I’ve been working on a serious post on seed legislation, GM crops and sustainability, but it’s going to take me a little longer to finish. I’m struggling to find time to research the issue thoroughly and I really want to make sure I’m properly informed. In the meantime, here’s something I wrote a little while ago and didn’t get around to posting. Hopefully I’ll have some science-based content ready for you soon! T.
Recently I realised, really properly realised, that my life is completely dependent on modern technological society.
It’s something I’ve been aware of, to some extent, but it’s only now that it’s really clicked how total that dependency is. I’m not talking the small stuff, like how I derive my income, clothe myself and support my lifestyle. I’m not talking about the medium stuff, like my dependence on modern agriculture, transport, water and sanitation systems. Yes, if those systems collapsed right now I’d be in a lot of strife. Our society would fail and life would be extremely different and difficult, but it wouldn’t kill me. The loss of modern medicine? That would.
I am medication-dependent. I have no thyroid gland. We killed mine, modern medicine and I, bombarding it with radiation until my ability to regulate my own metabolism was no more. There was nothing wrong with my thyroid, per se. We killed it because we couldn’t find a way to stop my immune system from attacking it, and with a rogue immune response on the rampage I was pretty sick and would eventually get terminally so or go into thyroid burn-out anyway.
I am medication-dependent. My life depends on the technological-industrial machine. Somewhere they make synthetic thyroid hormone, press it into tablets and pack it into blister-packs of 100 doses. From that somewhere they ship it great distances to my local pharmacy, where it finds its way to me. They need to be refrigerated, my little life pills, as the hormone starts breaking down after two weeks at ambient temperatures.
I am medication-dependent. I need access to a doctor who understands my ailment. I need routine blood tests to confirm my synthetic dose. I need international freight, aluminium blister packaging and refrigeration just to survive. That means I need the mining, mineral processing, manufacturing, petroleum, transport, refrigeration, pharmaceutical and health-care industries so that I can stay alive. I am completely dependent on the system, and that’s a very sobering thought indeed.
If I go off-grid, I get sick and I die.
How many of us are there? Every person with a thyroid condition, with insulin-dependent diabetes, with rheumatoid arthritis or one of hundreds of other non-terminal-if-treated conditions. Millions of us, all dependent on the technological-industrial complex to keep our bodies functioning, to stay alive.
Today I was seriously thinking about my future, about where I want to go, what I want to do with this one precious shot at life. I want to change the world, but at the same time I have to live within it. I could choose to reject this modern technological society, to live outside it, truly sustainably and free, but to do so would, ironically, be choosing to die.
A grim choice, indeed, but one I’m lucky to even be able to make because I had the good fortune to be born here, in the turn-of-the-century developed world. I got sick and modern medicine took care of me. For how many others is there no choice at all? No access to the life-saving interventions and drugs we rarely stop to consider? It’s making me stop and really think about what a human life is worth versus the value of our planet and the ecosystems that support the whole 7 billion (and rising) of us. Is it justified, this environmentally-costly medical intervention? I’m certainly very happy to be alive and in good health, and being aware of just how tenuous good health can be, has driven me to make the most of the time I have here, to try to leave the world in a better state, but is my life really worth it? Am I worth the sum of my impacts? Is caring for the sick environmentally sound?
Whatever the answers, I know I’m incredibly privileged to be here, to have the machine on my side. I’m forever grateful to my doctors and for everything that goes into these little white pills that keep me alive. I can’t opt out of the machine now, my life is tied to it, but I can choose what I do with this life. I’m lucky to be here, the least I can do is try to make the world a better place, not just for me, but for everyone.
Last week I was lucky enough to score an invitation to tour the new Sustainability Learning Centre, under construction here in Hobart (thank you, day job!)
Developed as a partnership between the Department of Education, Greening Australia, the Catholic Education Office, the Association of Independent Schools of Tasmania and the CSIRO, the Centre will be a mixed educational, research and operational facility, attached to Hobart College. That’s pretty cool and all, but what makes the Centre so exciting and the reason for our tour is that the construction is a showcase of sustainable design in action.
The architects (morrison & breytenbach) are aiming for a 6-star Green Star rating from the Green Building Council of Australia, which would place the building in the “world leadership” category for environmentally sustainable design. To get this certification the building uses a range of clever designs and materials. Being able to get a look at the construction process to see how it’s done was fascinating!
Here are a few of the design aspects and construction techniques they’re using for the project:
- Recycled building materials – all steel including the roofing, major structural timbers, bricks, crushed glass (as fill, aggregate and in concrete) and some insulation. Even the office desks will be made with recycled floorboards!
- Passive solar design – floor-to-ceiling north-facing windows (double-glazed) with Trombe walls and other convective and radiative heat transfer structures, coupled with clever insulation (ceiling, under-floor, window frames, etc.) and venting systems to allow good thermal control (openable windows – how sadly novel in a modern building).
- Alternative energy infrastructure – solar photo-voltaic cells, solar evacuated tubing water heating, underfloor water-based heating (powered by used cooking oil) and maximised sunlight.
- Alternative building materials & techniques – clinka for insulating aggregate and ‘concrete’, PVC-free materials (polyethylene plumbing and e-cables), using screws and nails in place of adhesives, minimal steel and concrete use (mostly recycled)
- Water saving – rainwater, greywater and blackwater capture, treatment and re-use, including water-garden filtering and small-scale drinking water treatment.
Sadly I forgot to grab my camera (first thing Friday morning is not my sharpest time) so I don’t have any photos to share. More disappointingly, there isn’t a web site for the project, so at present there’s no way yet to share all the great information and resources from the project with the wider public. Greening Australia are planning to put a site together soon though, and students at Hobart College have been able to study the design and construction as it progresses: a great hands-on way to build interest in and understanding of sustainable design.
I really hope this project gets some more promotion and the partners involved work to get information out about the techniques and materials used and the resources available for those of us interested in applying sustainable design principles to our own homes and projects. The people I spoke to seemed surprised that I thought it so important as “the information’s all out there”. Yes, there’s a lot of information out there, but without serious research or expertise it’s impossible to know what will and won’t work in a specific city or climate, or what is suitable and efficient to apply at domestic scales. It’s also hard to find information on what’s actually available in terms of resources, materials skills and knowledge in your local area, and to build those networks between designers, suppliers, builders and ourselves.
Hopefully Greening Australia Tasmania will get a suitable website going soon and we can all share in what’s been learnt through this project; meanwhile I’m happy to be sharing the many things I learnt last Friday. Most of all I’m very pleased to know that we have the knowledge, skills and determination to get a project like this happening in Hobart: little city on an island at the bottom of the world, far away from the environmental leading lights of Europe. If we can do it, with our small population, apparent skills shortage, shitty economy and the tyranny of distance, then most anywhere can. The key ingredient is finding the people with the drive and leadership to steer the idea to reality.
We need more people who believe that projects like this can be done, and finding that they exist might just have been the most exciting part of my little tour.
Have you thought about building ‘green’? Please share your projects, inspirations, experiences and resources!