By Keith Roulston
There’s something about human beings that fascinates us with magic, whether it be that of the sorcerers and with doctors of ancient times or technological advances of today.
Right now, the magic that fascinates us generally comes from the rapidly changing world of artificial intelligence. People are falling in love with those electronic home assistants where you don’t have to make the supreme effort to get up and change the thermostat if you’re feeling cold, you can just ask Google or whatever the name of your assistant to change it for you Your assistant can see who’s at the door when the doorbell rings. It’s also fascinating to think that a car can drive itself, although a large part of the population isn’t sure it’s ready to ride along on that one yet.
But the thing about humans is that we very quickly adapt to the latest bit of wonder and we need some new shot of magic to impress us. You have to go back and see the world through the eyes of a young child to rediscover the magic we take for granted.
I was thinking about that the other night when I watched a show on TVO about the miracle that is a seed. Inside a small seed is the beginnings of an entire plant, whether it’s a stalk of wheat or corn or a 70-foot-tall maple or pine tree. Put it in soil, add moisture and warmth, and this dead-looking thing comes to life, sprouting a stem and roots and beginning a new life that will last a summer or a hundred summers, depending on the species.
Farmers have moved on from the wonder of a single seed, of course. Farming has always been about improving on nature – selecting the seeds that will produce the best offspring whether it be a grain or fruit tree or bush and creating conditions under which as many of the seeds as possible will grow, compared to the random ways of nature.
The initial steps in this husbandry came about through observations of the more curious of the early farmers – reducing competition from other plants would maximize growth and yield, or adding animal dung would spur growth. Later, closer to our own time, the selling of expertise to farmers meant people could profit without getting their hands dirty. Farmers have gained enough from this that they (mostly) didn’t mind.
As the limits of advancement from fertilizing and spraying crops with chemicals to kill weeds and insect pests approached, companies supplying farmers with seed and other crop inputs needed new magic to sell. Improved crop varieties through hybridization, then genetic alteration wowed growers who were quick to buy in.
The TVO documentary I watched was not very complimentary toward the big seed and chemical companies about these recent bits of magic, likening them to the snake-oil salesmen of a 150 years ago. Hybrid seed means a farmer can no longer keep his own seed to plant next year. Seed genetically altered so, for instance, it can be sprayed with Roundup, ties the farmer forever to the agri-giants.
These are tradeoffs the majority of farmers have willingly made, and society in general has benefited from large volumes of relatively inexpensive food.
A valid point the documentary made is even though we’ve developed a better seed for this particular place and time, we can’t afford to let the original, unaltered plants become extinct. Seed banks have been started because we never know when the traits still within these varieties might be required to meet new conditions, for instance, created by climate change. We can’t afford to be like the kid in the movie Toy Story who gets so excited about his new toy that he forgets the importance of the old favourite. We need to save the boring old seeds and recognize their value.◊