An Iowan on Biodiversity and Seed Banks

An Iowan on Biodiversity and Seed Banks

by Paul Deaton

Ari LeVaux asserted on AlterNet last week, “How Seed Banks, Vaults and Exchanges are Saving Our Food from Disaster.” It is hard to argue with preserving seeds to maintain crop diversity and genetic stock. One sentence in the article gave me pause.

“If a global version of the Irish potato famine were to wipe out the world's potatoes, the crop could be revived with seed-bank tubers. And in the face of challenges like global warming, it's possible the genetic information stored in seed banks could be used to create new varieties better able to withstand whatever climatic curveballs may come our way.”

So seed banks can serve as a genetics development project in the event of disaster, or so asserts LeVaux.

If one reads the comment thread on the article, there are multiple references to Monsanto, the modern day seed patenting monopoly. There is also a detailed explanation of how Paul Bremer, head of Coalition Provisional Authority during the Iraq war, established protection of patented plant genes for large multinational corporations like Monsanto in Iraq. As much as Monsanto is vilified in these comments, one has to ask LeVaux, who would be better at genetic engineering, a well capitalized multinational corporation who does this work for a living, or the Vavilov Research Institute of Plant Industry in Leningrad, which, along with some of its genetic stock, is about to be sold by the Russian Federation to private developers? Rhetorical question.

When we consider loss of biodiversity in the complex basket of things we need to work on in the world, it is important. There are also bigger problems.

In his 1989 book, The End of Nature, Bill McKibben wrote,

“an idea, a relationship, can go extinct, just like an animal or a plant. The idea in this case is 'nature,' the separate and wild province, the world apart from man to which he adapted, under whose rules he was born and died…We never thought that we had wrecked nature. Deep down we never really thought we could: it was too big and too old; its forces – the wind, the rain, the sun – were strong, too elemental…

“the meaning of the wind, the sun, the rain – of nature – has already changed. Yes, the wind still blows – but no longer from some other sphere, some inhuman place…”

By changing the atmosphere through greenhouse gas emissions, according to McKibben “we are changing the weather.  By changing the weather, we make every spot on earth man made and artificial. We have deprived nature of its independence, and that is fatal to its meaning. Nature's independence is its meaning; without it there is nothing but us.”

My point is this. If there is a global equivalent of the Irish potato famine, it may be too late for plant genetics stored in seed banks to save us. The idea that humans can manipulate plant genetics to adapt to changing climate and thereby ensure our future is a further assertion of human domination over nature. It doesn't matter whether Monsanto is doing the genetic engineering, a government funded group of engineers or private individuals. In each case, it doesn't address the problem that we have entered what The Economist refers to as the Anthropocene era, where humans have changed the way the world works.

At some time we will realize that what was once the idea of “nature” has vanished and we are left with a different new idea. The idea is that we increasingly live in an environment where the old rules no longer apply and new rules, driven by our reliance on practices and technologies that produce greenhouse gases, will determine them. This includes development of plant genetics.

When we took the world and made it what it is, we had no idea that we would end up here, with a man-made environment impacting crop production and reducing biodiversity. If awareness of this doesn't help us turn off the television and try do something about it, I'm not sure anything will. The solution is not clinging to the past in the form of seed banks.

Deaton is a native Iowan living in rural Johnson County and weekend
editor of Blog for Iowa.
E-mail Paul

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