THE BLOG
10/01/2016 12:29 pm ET Updated Oct 02, 2017

Seeds and the Future of Life

I remember after every harvest my peasant father saved enough wheat and barley for the next sowing season. But since I left my village in Greece in 1961, things have turned upside down. Peasants barely survive. Their seeds are also disappearing.

Hundreds of Greek varieties of the life-giving wheat, rye and barley are lost. Rodakina (peaches), like the breasts of Aphrodite, are gone. The bees of Crete will never make their fragrant honey again. And the Thessalian war-horses that led Alexander in his global conquest and spread of Greek culture throughout the world are becoming extinct.

Greek villages and rural towns are not yet like America's agribusiness towns, but they are marching that way. There are no more donkeys, mules, and horses in my village. The country of Homer and Aristotle is losing its agrarian culture - the sole unbroken root to its ancient past.

The strategy of the West of dumping its hazardous agricultural technologies and seeds on Greece and every other country that did not industrialize its countryside is threatening millennia of agrarian wisdom and practice.

This awesome agricultural upheaval signifies the rise to power of ruthless corporations that care less about human wellbeing and the health of the Earth.

The result is that pesticide and pharmaceutical companies monopolize seeds. They develop seed-sterilizing technologies to prevent farmers and peasants from saving seed. The very idea of engineering food seeds for only one harvest is equivalent to ending farming, as we have known it for millennia.

Not even gods have the right to act in such arbitrary and violent way.

Yet seed companies have replaced a large amount of the world's fantastic wheat, rice, maize, potatoes, and sorghum with their hunger seeds hooked on pesticides, fertilizers and water. These "science" seeds are also defenseless against most pests and diseases.

In contrast, traditional seeds mirror nature and culture. They attract insect predators and parasites that keep hostile insects and weeds in check. They also have a greater resistance to disease.

The life and death struggle of the peasants as guardians of real life-giving seeds is finally attracting international attention. Two important Japanese and Indian civil-society organizations, Shumei International and Navdanya, published in 2015 "Visions of the Living Seed."

This is a timely, well-written, and lavishly illustrated book. The founder of Navdanya, Vandana Shiva, wrote the introduction to this riveting collection of essays by international environmentalists and farmers.

"In every culture, seeds have been regarded as sacred gifts of life. Seed diversity and the ability of seeds to adapt to changing climates and geographical conditions have allowed the human population to flourish over the millennia," writes the Japanese Shumei. But the industrialization of agriculture has led to a "frightening loss of seed diversity" with dire implications for human wellbeing and survival.

Shumei urges us to relearn how to live in harmony with the natural world and break through the deceit of modernity and "allow unmodified seeds to follow Nature's course as they have for millennia." After all, seeds are "our inheritance from our ancestors and our legacy for future generations.... It is not too late to reclaim agriculture, to renew our commitment to clean and pure soil, unpolluted water and pure, natural seeds."

I rarely come across this great ethical and ecological vision of reclaiming our agriculture and civilization.

However, the reality on the ground (endless wars, overpopulation, 9 / 11, war and poverty refugees, natural disasters, and the calamitous fate of the life-giving seeds) convinced an American scientist to think through an almost science fiction "solution": collect a sample of the unmodified seeds and bury them as far as possible from "civilization." That way, they may survive not merely agribusiness greed and genetic engineering but, possibly, global warming and nuclear war, the most ominous threats of our times.

Cary Fowler is the name of the American scientist who conceived such a daring if desperate plan for a desperate and irresponsible international community. His book, "Seeds on Ice" (Prospecta Press, 2016), is a marvel of great story and beautiful pictures illustrating the wilderness of the Norwegian mountain hosting the frozen seeds. But, above all, "Seeds on Ice" is a monument to this man's passionate love for traditional farming and seeds. In a 1990 book, "Shattering," he said the loss of agricultural genetic diversity - "silent, rapid, inexorable" -- was "an equally devastating time bomb" as nuclear war and global warming. But after exhausting himself with decades of hopeless efforts to stop the marching agribusiness-government goliath destroying seeds, he managed to attract enough international allies that the seed bank on ice is a reality.

The name of the seed bank is Svalbard Global Seed Vault. It is located in the archipelago of Norway close to the North Pole. It is protecting thousands of varieties of food crops from all over the world.

Fowler looks at the Svalbard Vault as the home of "humanity's most precious treasure, the largest and most diverse seed collection ever assembled: more than a half billion seeds."

Fowler tells the story of how "Seeds on Ice" came into being. He summarizes the continuing loss of crop diversity and, rightly, defends the construction of the Svalbard Vault as a sign of "unvanquished optimism" and an effort "to save the past and the future of agriculture." He is appealing to the world "for the conservation of crop diversity, the biological foundation of agriculture and arguably humankind's most important natural resource." If we fail to protect crop diversity, he warns, we are doomed: no adaptation of our seeds to climate change, pests, and diseases; no hope for food security, much less agriculture.

"Seeds on Ice" complements the story of "Visions of the Living Seed." They are telling similar passionate stories that seeds are life, warning us to wake up and defend unmodified seeds and traditional farming, which are the bedrock of life and civilization. Read them - and act to protect our seeds!