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The science (and business) of sowing seeds

A photographer holds kernels of wheat in his hand in a field of wheat that is ready for harvest on August 15, 2012.

Image of The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food
Author: Janisse Ray
Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing (2012)
Binding: Paperback, 240 pages

This November, voters in California could be the first in the nation to approve a new law requiring all genetically-modified foods to be labeled. So what exactly does it mean to genetically modify a plant?

It all starts with that tiny little spec of life that we owe our very existence to: the seed.

Janisse Ray spends a lot of her time with seeds, thinking about them, writing about them and (of course) planting them in the ground. Her new book is called "The Seed Underground."

Ray explains that it's only in the last hundred years that farmers have shifted from caretakers to "renters" of genetic material in the form of high-tech seeds. 

"With the advent of patenting laws and the ability to patent life, basically, a patent supercedes the rights of a farmer to save his own seeds," says Ray. Seeds have always had value, but the legal right to plant is a new phenomenon -- thanks to "G.M." or genetically-modified seeds.

"The Seed Underground" also takes readers to farms and neighborhood gardens around the country where people are cataloging and cultivating the seeds their families have planted for generations.  Ray says this underground movement (made up of those she has dubbed "quiet revolutionaries") is one way to preserve varieties of fruits and vegetables for the future.

Ray herself is "not opposed to technology," but she believes science should be used for "the good of all humanity" over the long haul. 

"I'm opposed to science or technology being used for short-term profits," she sums up. "I can say that hybrid seeds have brought us a lot of good, and perhaps [genetically-modified seeds] could."

But, she adds, "there are more questions than answers about genetically-modified organisms at this point."

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
Image of The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food
Author: Janisse Ray
Publisher: Chelsea Green Publishing (2012)
Binding: Paperback, 240 pages
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I look forward to reading Ms. Ray's book and I think she touched on a very important impact of agri-business and patented GM crops in very fine fashion.
However, I would encourage a broader assessment of impacts (business, environmental, soci-economic, etc.) of GM crops on Marketplace.
In addition, while Ms. Ray did a fine job of the elementary notions re seed saving and its prohibition with GM crops, she mischaracterized several important issues:
1. Hybridization of plants and genetic modification of plants are very different processes with very different potential outcomes (i.e., genetic modification involves interspecies 'tinkering' - genes from one plant or animal inserted into another species).
2. Seed savings, even on large scales, has been practiced much more recently than 100 years ago and is still practiced today albeit on far less a scale than is desired - Ms. Ray is correct that Big Ag has patented seeds thereby expressly prohibiting seeed savings so that they can sell the seeds annually to farmers. Big Ag does want to outlaw all seed savings because some genetic material is naturally transferred beyond the fields of the farmers who use the GM seed to other farmers non-GM fields, but this raises a very interesting and arguably more important issue than seed savings (although seed savings is important) - the unintended cross fertilization and how the Big Ag companies have addressed this issue; instead of apologizing for 'contaminating' the fields of non-GM crops, they have sued the farmers for 'stealing' GM seeds and unlawful use of their patented product.
3. Many other important issue re GM agriculture were not addressed by Ms. Ray (lack of adequate federal review, recent influence of Big Ag to allow GM plant trrials before regulatory review completed, ignored human health consequences, perservation of seeds so as to archive the world's genetic heritage, effect on small farmers and organic farmers, pesticide over-use encouraged by GM crops, etc.); perhaps she was an adequate spokesperson for garden level seed saving per her book but this issue is much more significant and broad than what she presented. Perhaps you might go to experts in technical areas (e.g., seed saving large scale companies in the MidWest) as opposed to using a poet turned garden seed saver in future broadcasts.
I very much enjoy your show and appreciate the chance to comment.

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