Gardening old-style with my great-uncle Alfred in Seattle

 

The other day my great-uncle Alfred gave me a handful of the year's green beans, dried and ready for planting next summer. "Give them something high up to grow on," he told me. "They'll grow seven feet tall."

Alfred knows. He's planted this variety in his garden for seven years now, every year saving a bit of his harvest for the next year's seed. And for good reason: This variety is resistant to a common garden pest known as the black aphid. As green beans go, this is a true garden-variety green bean. Its flat pod is delicate and tender, its fresh taste sublime in a salad. The pulpy beans in the produce aisle of your supermarket -- more roadworthy than table-ready -- are a distant relative at best.

Alfred's green beans have a history that goes back 60 years. That's when his neighbors settled in the Seattle, Wash., neighborhood where he still lives. They were Greek immigrants, and a satchel of seeds was tucked in the luggage they carried. These beans had come from the old country, a place where vegetables are precious, almost like gems -- never just commodities to be bought and sold.

Like his Greek neighbors, Uncle Alfred saves seed every year. As a kid on the farm, this is how Alfred learned to prepare for the coming year: You save the best of the crop. It's natural, like breathing. In Guatemala, Mayan subsistence farmers hang next year's seed, the most perfect ears of yellow, white and blue corn, from the beams of their adobe homes.

On the Great Plains, farmers fill 10,000 bushel-silos with saved seed. And in a quiet Seattle neighborhood, Uncle Alfred keeps a 60-year-old neighborhood tradition alive by saving a few strings of beans for next year's garden.

Every seed contains a genetic signature -- Alfred's green beans included -- that does not belong to anyone. This signature is as public as the air we breathe. Yet recently, U.S. companies such as Monsanto have won permission to patent the genetic signatures contained within their genetically engineered seeds. In this way, business is now selling what has never before been up for sale. It's changing the way we grow our food.

Private ownership comes at a price that the well-oiled public relations machine of the biotech industry neglects to tell us. What's at risk is the millennia-old practice of saving seed. That's because when farmers plant genetically-engineered crops such as corn and soybeans, they are no longer allowed to put aside the best of their crop for next year.

Put another way, if Uncle Alfred's green beans were an engineered variety, he'd be breaking the law by saving them.

The patented plants we're talking about boast some unusual characteristics that border on science fiction. The leaves of the new Monsanto corn contain a bacteria that wards off insect pests. It's considered a plant that packs its own pesticide. What's worrisome about these genetically engineered varieties of corn is that their sci-fi abilities can spread to other plants. This means that this so-called "terminator technology" could end up in a neighbor's crop, and in the era of globalization, your neighbor doesn't necessarily live next door. Genetically engineered corn has appeared in the crops of subsistence farmers in Oaxaca, Mexico, though nobody knows how it got there.

The new technology has tipped the cart of the world's farmers. "All of the traditional varieties could be lost," says seed collector Kent Whealy. "Genetic contamination means that Monsanto could control all the seed a farmer could save."

He ought to know. For more than 20 years, he has run the Iowa-based Seed Savers Exchange, a nonprofit group with a collection of more than 20,000 varieties of heirloom seeds. By collecting these varieties, Seed Savers hopes to preserve seeds that could otherwise go extinct as manipulated varieties spread.

Whealy says there is something consumers can do. We can follow the lead of the European Union and ask decision-makers in Washington, D.C., to require the labeling of all foods containing engineered ingredients. We can also press food companies to stop including genetically engineered ingredients in their products.

It's time to act: Our supermarket shelves are already full of genetically engineered ingredients while the jury is still out on what's safe to eat. Labeling genetically engineered foods is a step towards educating consumers about what they're feeding their families, and how corporate agriculture is changing the way we grow our food.

Dustin Solberg is a contributor to Writers on the Range, a service of High Country News in Paonia, Colorado (hcn.org). He is a Westerner temporarily living in Decatur, Georgia.

High Country News Classifieds
  • COMMUNICATIONS AND OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Communications and Outreach Associate Position Opening: www.westernlaw.org/communications-outreach-associate ************************************************* Location: Western U.S., ideally in one of WELC's existing office locations (Santa Fe or Taos, NM, Helena,...
  • FREELANCE GRAPHIC DESIGNER & PROJECT COORDINATOR (REMOTE)
    High Country News (HCN) is seeking a contract Graphic Designer & Project Coordinator to design promotional, marketing and fund-raising assets and campaigns, and project-manage them...
  • FILM AND DIGITAL MEDIA: ASSISTANT PROFESSOR OF INDIGENOUS MEDIA, CULTURAL SOVEREIGNTY AND DECOLONIZATION (INITIAL REVIEW 12.1.21)
    Film and Digital Media: Assistant Professor of Indigenous Media, Cultural Sovereignty and Decolonization (Initial Review 12.1.21) Position overview Position title: Assistant Professor - tenure-track Salary...
  • REAL ESTATE SPECIALIST
    To learn more about this position and to apply please go to the following URL.
  • ENVIRONMENTAL GEOPHYSICS
    "More Data, Less Digging" Find groundwater and reduce excavation costs!
  • RARE CHIRICAHUA RIPARIAN LAND FOR SALE
    40 acres: 110 miles from Tucson: native trees, grasses: birder's heaven::dark sky/ borders state lease & National forest/5100 ft/13-16 per annum rain
  • CENTRAL PARK CULTURAL RESOURCE SPECIALIST
    Agency: Oregon Parks and Recreation Department Salary Range: $5,203 - $7,996 Position Title: Central Park Cultural Resource Specialist Do you have a background in Archaeology...
  • STAFF ATTORNEY
    Come live and work in one of the most beautiful places in the world! As our Staff Attorney you will play a key role in...
  • ARIZONA GRAZING CLEARINGHOUSE
    Dedicated to preventing the ecological degradation caused by livestock grazing on Arizona's public lands, and exposing the government subsidies that support it.
  • OPERATIONS MANAGER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo (friendsoftheinyo.org) is seeking a new Operations Manager. The Operations Manager position is a full-time permanent position that reports directly...
  • WATER RIGHTS BUREAU CHIEF
    Water Rights Bureau Chief, State of Montana, DNRC, Water Resources Division, Helena, MT Working to support and implement the Department's mission to help ensure that...
  • EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR
    The Amargosa Conservancy (AC), a conservation nonprofit dedicated to standing up for water and biodiversity in the Death Valley region, seeks an executive director to...
  • DEVELOPMENT & OUTREACH ASSOCIATE
    Southeast Alaska Conservation Council is hiring! Who We Are: The Southeast Alaska Conservation Council (SEACC) is a small grassroots nonprofit based out of Juneau, Alaska,...
  • DESERT LANDS ORGANIZER
    Position Summary: Friends of the Inyo seeks a Desert Lands Organizer to assist with existing campaigns that will defend lands in the California desert, with...
  • IDAHO CONSERVATION LEAGUE
    Want to help preserve Idaho's land, water, and air for future generations? Idaho Conservation League currently has 3 open positions. We are looking for a...
  • LUNATEC ODOR-FREE DISHCLOTHS
    are a must try. They stay odor-free, dry fast, are durable and don't require machine washing. Try today.
  • EVENTS AND ANNUAL FUND COORDINATOR
    The Events and Annual Fund Coordinator is responsible for managing and coordinating the Henry's Fork Foundation's fundraising events for growing the membership base, renewing and...
  • EDUCATION DIRECTOR
    Position Description: The Education Director is the primary leader of Colorado Canyons Association's (CCA) education programs for students and adults on the land and rivers...
  • 10 ACRES OF NEW MEXICO HIGH DESERT
    10 Acres of undeveloped high desert land in central NM, about 45 minutes from downtown Albuquerque. Mixed cedar and piñon pine cover. Some dirt roadways...
  • WATERSHED RESTORATION DIRECTOR
    $58k-$70k + benefits to oversee watershed restoration projects that fulfill our strategic goals across urban and rural areas within the bi-national Santa Cruz and San...