A Brief History of Seeds and Plant Domestication

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Diversity of food crops has been dwindling worldwide, and untold numbers of human foods are going extinct. What are at risk are our seeds, especially ancient breeds, and our crop biodiversity. And our health.
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In “The Seed Underground,” author Janisse Ray brings us the inspiring stories of ordinary gardeners whose aim is to save time-honored open-pollinated seed varieties like Old Time Tennessee muskmelon and Long County Longhorn okra — varieties that will be lost if people don’t grow, save and swap the seeds.

Seed varieties have declined significantly since the beginning of time, and even more so with plant domestication. World blight may come upon us if we continue to depend on limited varieties of corn, soy and wheat. This excerpt from The Seed Underground (Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012) by Janisse Ray covers a brief history of seeds and how we must diversify our crops with heirloom and vintage seed varieties in order to increase agrodiversity and protect the health of Mother Earth. This excerpt is from Chapter 1, “More Gardens, Less Gas.” 

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The woman who answered my knock didn’t look like a revolutionary. She was slim, in blue jeans and hyacinth turtleneck. Sporty reading glasses hung from her neck.

“Right on time,” she said.

I smiled. “For once.”

When I decided to learn as much as I could about seeds, I was directed to a village in central Vermont where a woman lives—a quiet, under-the-radar revolutionary, I was told—who understands some things I’m trying to understand.

She invited me inside, into a sparkling and artful kitchen. The walls were red, the stove green, the counters blue. On a woodstove rested a pan filled with seed heads I did not recognize. The woman followed my eyes. “Leeks,” she said.

Meet Sylvia Davatz, radical American gardener. Somewhere in her well-kept home in the forested hills of central Vermont is a seed collection of plant varieties salvaged from the dustbins of history. “I’m the Imelda Marcos of seeds,” she laughed. “I have a thousand varieties in my closet!”

She asked if I wanted to go right away to look at the gardens, since the temperature was still cool. I said that I did, and I followed Sylvia out a patio door and into a backyard full of riches, better than stocks and bonds, silver-plated with dew. As we wandered through her garden, she talked about the state of the world; afterward, as I mulled over her thoughts, one line kept turning like plow-dirt in my head.

“The system is so broken,” she said. “Not only broken, but destructive and self-destructive.” By “system,” I figured she meant the agricultural or food system. Maybe she meant the entire political system. But I didn’t ask, I just listened. “I see in activism a kind of futility,” she said, brown eyes sincere. “The real power is in doing. The real power is in making the system irrelevant. That means nonparticipation in the existing broken system.”

Sylvia didn’t know I was an activist. I organized rallies to protest the climate crisis. I dressed in a penguin costume and waved an End Climate Change sign at a gallery walk. Wearing wetsuits, three friends and I tubed down Vermont’s West River one January to highlight the fact that the water wasn’t frozen a foot thick, as it should have been. We hung a Where’s Winter? banner from the Dummerston covered bridge. I watched two friends get Tasered as we protested a proposed truck stop: More Gardens, Less Gas. I petitioned and wrote letters to editors and called politicians. A couple of times I got arrested.

Sylvia wasn’t protesting anything in her peaceful garden: “What I am doing is making a broken system irrelevant.”

A Brief History of Seeds and Plant Domestication

Why would I call a quiet gardener and simple seed saver a revolutionary? First you must understand what is happening with seeds.

Let’s start more than one hundred million years ago, around the time flowering plants appeared, in the great inflorescence of earth, as the late theologian Thomas Berry called it. For millions of years, flowering plants evolved, diversifying and developing sophisticated mechanisms for growth and reproduction. Humans first appeared on earth much later, a couple hundred thousand years ago. For our entire tenure on this planet, we have been surrounded by flowers, by the pollinators that evolved to tend the flowers, and by the subsequent fruits and seeds that those flowers produced. We are truly Flower Children.

A history of civilization is a history of seeds. Thousands of years ago we earthlings, hunter-gatherers, began to use flowers to our advantage. We started to experiment with growing food rather than simply chasing it or wandering around looking for it and so inaugurated plant domestication and evolution to the agrarian cultures that bore us all. Seeds, and the development of varieties, both allowed and encouraged our ancestors to settle down and become agricultural.

When humans roved from Asia across the Bering land bridge to what we know today as the continent of North America, they carried seeds with them. Likely one was the gourd, which originated in Africa, homeland of modern humans. It was transported to Asia in the original migrations and from East Asia was brought to North America.

Cultivation has at its root the simple word cult—from the Latin cultus, to care for. For thousands of years—at least 12,000, but perhaps many more—humans have engaged in plant domestication, developing and caring for progenitors of the crops familiar to us today. (The date of agriculture’s genesis is highly contested. Some archaeologists believe that agriculture was happening 23,000 years ago, even in North America. However, in his book Africa: A Biography of a Continent, journalist John Reader estimates that the manipulation of food crops could have begun 70,000 years ago. He bases his dates on both carbonized deposits of native tubers and roots in cave sites in South Africa and on a definition of agriculture as a process of manipulating the distribution and growth of plants so that greater quantities of their edible parts are available for harvesting and consumption.)

Plant domestication conceivably happened like this: Out walking along some river, perchance the braided Nile, some long-ago human would discover a strange fruit and would taste it. She would not die. The tribe might save the seeds and begin to grow the plant in spots where they paused during a summer sojourn. Then someone would discover that a certain crop had a particularly large fruit, and that plant would be specially guarded and its seed saved to plant the following spring. A plant with a large fruit might be crossed with a plant with a sweet fruit. And on and on.

Corn, for example, was not discovered in some far valley, pendent with plump, sweet ears. No—corn was developed. The genetic ancestor of corn is teosinte, a large grass with multiple stalks whose ear is not even as long as a jackknife and is simply a line of triangular seeds linked to a stem. Its kernels are so hard they will break your teeth.

Modern corn is most genetically kin to a teosinte that still grows in the Balsas Valley of Mexico. Mesoamerican women planted teosinte. From it they chose the longest ears with the fattest kernels, and were jubilant when they crossed plants whose harvest eclipsed all prior. This was happening about 9,000 years ago in southwestern Mexico, long before European contact.

Over several centuries humans transformed teosinte into the plant we know today. Imagine the ruckus that cobs created. In 23,000 more years, who knows what corn will look like? If we follow the same trajectory, maybe it will be two feet long and five inches across. Maybe future humans will get to pour moonshine right out of a cob.

Slowly, from the wild bounty of the earth’s biodiversity and natural mutations, ancient humans coaxed forth the early stages of crops we have come to know.

Most of our food was developed in seven hotbeds of world plant domestication, where agriculture was independently invented. A man named Nikolai Vavilov figured this out. He was a Russian breeder who created in Leningrad the world’s largest collection of plant seeds and earned the Lenin Prize in 1926 for his research on the origins of cultivated plants, as well as his discovery of plant immunity to infectious diseases, a trait attainable by breeding. Vavilov, however, had a dangerous colleague. Stalin’s chief of biology, Trofim Lysenko, did not accept Mendelian genetics, particularly the idea that offspring inherit characteristics from their parents. Lysenko followed Jean Baptiste Lamarck’s theory of inheritance of acquired characteristics, which meant that external changes in an organism (like losing an ear) would be repeated in the offspring. Lysenko believed that giraffes, for example, evolved from animals with shorter necks by reaching higher and higher into the trees for leaves and stretching their necks. Vavilov criticized Lysenko and thus came in opposition to Stalin. Vavilov was arrested in 1940; the man who had collected seeds of 200,000 plant varieties died in prison three years later of malnutrition.

The Andes was one of the centers of domestication. The other six were China, South Asia, Southwest Asia (the Fertile Crescent), the Mediterranean, Ethiopia, and greater Mexico. Beans, for example, were domesticated first in the Andes of Peru about 5,000 years ago and again in Mexico a couple thousand years later. Native peoples in North and South America also domesticated squash very early on. Seeds of one species (Cucurbita moschata) found in coastal Peru have been dated to 10,300 years ago. A species (C. pepo) found in Mexico was dated to 10,000 years ago.

Since Vavilov’s time, eastern North America, New Guinea, and the Amazon have been added as three more centers of plant domestication. North America contributed to the world table a half dozen or so very minor crops: sunflowers, pecans, blueberries, cranberries. For the most part, as seed saver Will Bonsall would say to me, “Our crops, like us as people, are refugees. Our crops are immigrants.”

Out of the richness of evolution and the mystery of life, then, we developed food. It was both a process of discovery and creation, a process that deserves a verb of its own. Maybe creacover. Our ancestors creacovered food in legitimate acts of creation, humans in tandem with nature, no technology required, our fates intertwined.

Over millennia, as humans became dependent on food that we domesticated, the food became dependent on us, a symbiosis of epic proportions. Humans coevolved with food plants like maize and now it cannot exist without us. Human intervention has removed maize’s ability to self-perpetuate and it is no longer a “natural” plant. It needs humans. Without humans to care for the maize, the species would soon die out.

And what amazing food we milked from nature. Walk with me through a farmers market, and look at what we can eat. It’s a mind-boggling diversity: sugar snap peas, snow peas, carrots, lettuce, arugula, radish, beet, mustard, rhubarb, bok choy, and much more—with multiple varieties of each plant food. In the twenty-first century, we find ourselves—as John Swenson, an elder archeobotanist, put it—sitting at the end of a rainbow. We have pulled our chairs up to a feast, a wealth of plant foods, a groaning board with heaped trenchers.

My son Silas invites me to eat with him in the dining hall at his university and I am rocked by all the choices—pizza or sushi, wrap or grinder, stir-fry or burger. But the real feast I’m talking about is not processed food, boxes and bottles at the supermercado. It’s the whole food from which the dishes are concocted: wheat, melons, broccoli, rape, apples, peaches . . . you get the idea.

Behind this food wealth are legions of mostly unnamed and unknown plant breeders across the globe who for millennia shook pollen onto certain corn silks and not others, onto certain stigmas and not others, producing a spectacular fare.

Thanksgiving constantly dwells in my mind.

History of Seeds: The Decline of Seed Varietieties

My saying this may seem crazy when you think about the bounty of the farmers market or the availability of boxes and bottles at the supermarket, but we are, in fact, losing food. Thousands of distinct varieties worldwide, especially ancient breeds, are threatened; fewer and fewer farmers are growing them—and in many cases, no farmers are growing them and varieties are dying out, the seeds for them no longer found. Foods are going extinct. University of Georgia researchers Paul J. Heald and Susannah Chapman searched 2004 US seed catalogs for varieties that had been commercially available a century before. To obtain the names of the vintage varieties, they used the United States Department of Agriculture’s comprehensive American Varieties of Vegetables for the Years 1901 and 1902, published in 1903. Heald and Chapman found that 94 percent of the 7,262 seed varieties from 1903 were no longer available in 2004 seed catalogs—430 were. This 6 percent survival rate meant a stunning loss of diversity. This study does not even take into account the thousands upon thousands of heirloom varieties never sold commercially.

Surprisingly, Heald and Chapman’s study also found that the diversity of varieties available commercially actually did not fall much in the century between 1903 and 2004. A total of 7,100 varieties among the same forty-eight crops were listed in 2004, as opposed to 7,262 in 1903. This stasis in commercial numbers is due to varietal replacement—mainly introductions of new varieties, but also imported varieties and heirlooms rescued by preservationists and returned to the market. But here Heald and Chapman were comparing apples and oranges. Open-pollinated varieties that evolved over millennia and whose seed has been saved for generations do not equal scientifically produced varieties. What Heald and Chapman did not analyze are numbers of open-pollinated varieties today that were available a century ago. This figure would have more accurately portrayed what we are really losing. A variety lost to seed saving is a variety lost to civilization.

The fact remains that in the last one hundred years, 94 percent of seed varieties available at the turn of the century in America and considered a part of the human commons have been lost.

Three things result from varietal decline. First is the loss to our plates and palates. It’s sad to miss, and not know we’re missing, all those different kinds of apples, cabbages, corn, tomatoes, and so on. Second is the loss of sovereignty over seeds and the ability to control our food supply.

Third, there’s another scary reality to this. All the lost varieties did more than liven up the table and keep farmers independent. Varietal decline threatens agrodiversity. We know this—the less biodiverse any system is, the greater the potential for its collapse. In shriveling the gene pool both through loss of varieties and through the industrial takeover of an evolutionary process, we strip our crops of the ability to adapt to change and we put the entire food supply at risk. The more food varieties we lose, the closer we slide to the tipping point of disaster. We are gazing already into the abyss. Maybe you haven’t seen it yet, because maybe you were looking the other way. You were focused on grocery shelves stocked with an overwhelming selection of breakfast cereal.

And the cereal aisle looks pretty diverse, with flakes and puffs and charms and squares. But how diverse is it, really?

Three crops account for 87 percent of all grain production and 43 percent of all food eaten anywhere—wheat, corn, and rice. As Edward O. Wilson writes in The Future of Life, these three foods stand between humanity and starvation. “The world’s food supply hangs by a slender thread of biodiversity,” he wrote. In fact, 90 percent of the plant species recognized as edible come from 103 plants, out of 250,000 plant species known to exist. A small number of plants are feeding a lot of people. Wheat alone meets 23 percent of the world’s food energy needs.

When you read the fine print, most of our breakfast cereals contain wheat. I’m walking down an aisle with so many choices my head is spinning and yet it’s wheat. We haven’t even arrived at the bread aisle.

Let’s look more closely at wheat. Traditionally, there were thousands of distinct wheat varieties, as many as 100,000, in fact: Reward, a Canadian heritage wheat; Ethiopian Blue Tinge; Einkorn Gotland, an old Swedish variety; Crimean; Red Fife, a landrace likely of Ukrainian origins; on and on. (A landrace is a local variety of a domesticated species, one with a lot of variety, largely developed through natural means and not through industrial breeding.) Now, half of the wheat grown in the United States is nine varieties. Not only is the breakfast aisle heavy on wheat, it’s genetically homogenous.

Crop sameness leads to vulnerability, and not only because it’s risky to have everything ripen at once. Ireland’s potato blight in 1846 illustrates what can happen in monoculture agriculture; it led to the Great Famine and the emigration of an entire people. About 90 percent of the potatoes eaten by the Irish were a variety called Lumper. It was prolific and an acre could feed an entire family. When a late blight began to wipe out potatoes in Ireland, the Lumper had a slight resistance in the leaves but not in the tubers, which basically rotted in storage.

Think of the consequences if a wheat blight were to descend.

In a way, however, a wheat blight has descended. As Montana farmer and food activist Bob Quinn has said, “Wheat was once known as the staff of life, now we can’t even eat it.” Modern, industrially bred wheat has been associated with a steep rise in gluten intolerance and with structural changes in wheat proteins that lead to obesity and many other diseases. (Dr. William Davis, author of Wheat Belly, has been especially vocal on this subject.)

Not only have our diets become more industrialized, they’ve become less diverse. Michael Pollan calls corn, soy, and wheat the “building blocks of all processed food.” In a talk given at the Georgia Organics annual conference in 2009, he said our diets have changed more in the last one hundred years than in the previous ten thousand. “Monocultures in the field lead to monocultures in food,” he said. Diversity of food crops has been dwindling worldwide, and untold numbers of human foods are going extinct. What are at risk are our seeds, especially ancient breeds, and our crop biodiversity. And our health.

Historically, seeds were everyone’s responsibility. First they had to be collected. Then they couldn’t get wet. Mice and birds couldn’t be allowed to trespass against them. Winter was like a river our ancestors had to cross, loaded with waterproof and mice-proof packets and bags.

Furthermore, between growing seasons, the seeds had to be traded, because traditional societies understood that, as in human reproduction, plants do better by outbreeding. To swap seeds is to keep a variety strong and valuable—a genetic currency, the exchange of priceless genetic material. How interesting that the agrarian within us understands that to survive, to keep our food crops viable, we have to be openhanded. Seeds have a built-in requirement for generosity. Otherwise they suffer inbreeding.

Throughout the history of seeds, if humans up and left a place or a country or a home we had to bring with us the future of food. We have been carrying our food supply with us for at least the past twelve thousand years, kernels tied in leather bags around our necks or sacks stored in large warehouses—a bit like the Japanese Buddhist monks at Daisho-in who’ve kept a flame lit for twelve hundred years. We’ve had gigantic winds blowing through the monastery hall, and the fire isn’t as big as it used to be, and it isn’t so bright. As with most of the biota of earth, we’ve lost some of the kindling.

This excerpt has been reprinted with permission from The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, published by Chelsea Green Publishing, 2012. 

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