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We are as Gods?

“We are as gods and might as well get good at it.” Stewart Brand, opening sentence of the Purpose of the 1968 Whole Earth Catalog

Those words have haunted me over the ensuing thirty-plus years. I still pondered them as I gazed at my living room rugs, spread wall to wall with edible green soybean seeds drying.

I’d dabbled at saving a quart of soybean seed each of the previous two years, but this was my first venture at larger scale production. I’d thought they’d be a cinch. They weren’t. I couldn’t have picked a worse year to plunge...cold and wet. The plants grew enormous but refused to get seedy. They acted like they had forever until jolted by a frost on September 6. Then they played hurry-up. Three weeks later, with serious frost forecast, I had to pick them partly moist.

I had shelled my previous small crops by hand and found the pods quite unyielding. On this larger scale, shelling them by hand would take forever. Still, I had no idea how I would thresh them.

How many times had I heard necessity is the mother of invention? As the semi-moist pods lay on the floor I fired up the wood stove. By the next morning they had dried considerably. Now I took off my shoes and started gingerly trampling them. Cracks! resounded through the room as I trod on them. Soon they were popping out like popcorn. Even after I stopped the sound continued to punctuate the air every few seconds for hours.

Reflections from this experience: When I started a seed company I didn’t know the first thing about seeds. They came in packages just like the eggs I bought. I knew our seed coop could save people money and that we had a market, but I didn’t know much else.

I was perfectly content to get seeds from Johnny’s or from the large wholesalers or from wherever they came, just as I was satisfied to get eggs from a carton in the supermarket. I trusted that they were safe to plant and safe to eat. America had created an incredibly efficient technological society that could produce and deliver them quickly and cheaply.

A decade of marketing seeds through coops and gardening groups taught me a little more but I still didn’t know the first thing about how they were grown. I got curious only when for one reason then another I became convinced that our seed supply was in jeopardy and I didn’t want to be dependent on others any longer.

By this time I had found out what happens when you leave everything to experts. They make the key decisions for you and come to control your life.

They filter what information you get so that the result benefits them, not you. Then they rationalize their greed with high-sounding but ultimately empty principles. That’s how we get to Terminator seeds that will feed the world!

I grew the soybean crop because I wanted to find out what it’s like. In the so-called information age I was starved for real information.

I’m not getting the information I need from the biotech industry. They are not shy about playing God, about breaking species barriers, about creating new life forms, and about patenting and owning them. But their justifications are unconvincing and they appear utterly unready to take responsibility for their mistakes.

They are not good at being God. They would design plants as factories to meet human needs for food and fiber without pausing to ponder our interrelationship with these living beings. To the factory owner, no doubt the factory is a very good concept. But how do the factory workers feel? How about those beings impressed into the factory without even being offered a choice? What is missing is an appreciation of the awesome subtlety of nature, a reverence for all forms of life, a comprehension of deep ecology.

Classical plant breeding deals with such complex interrelationships that it makes genetic engineering seem like the work of mechanistic simpletons. Yet, our society and universities have withdrawn support for classical plant breeding until there are only a few Baggetts and Loys* left. We’ve put all our eggs in the GE basket.

To the gene giants my soybean crop is utterly laughable, not even a pinprick on their endless miles of genetically altered fields. But to me it is a symbol of what Brand talked about in his purpose: “personal power is developing–the power of the individual to conduct his own education, find his own inspiration, shape his own environment and share his adventure with whoever is interested.” I don’t believe my soybean crop makes me better at playing God. Rather I grow soybeans in order better to understand ancient laws. I like what Brand put on the back of the Whole Earth Catalog. “We can’t put it together. It is together.”

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Copyright Fedco Seeds Inc.     February 20, 2004