Janisse Ray’s book, The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food, is an exhortation to get outside, plant seeds, and save the future of food, told in the form of a personal gardening journey.
Combining personal memoir, nature writing, basic botany, and how-to information, Ray weaves together the history of American food. From family farms to industrial monoculture, agricultural biodiversity and loss, she walks the reader through what she calls the “broken” food system in the United States and introduces a colorful spectrum of seed savers across the country. In the process, Ray gives the reader an idea of the hopeful passion and urgent commitment among seed savers.
According to Ray, seed savers are a special breed of gardeners. They seek out those plant varieties which are in danger of disappearing, the ones left behind in the rush towards commercialized agriculture. As Ray explains, “94 percent of the 7,262 seed varieties from 1903 were no longer available in 2004 seed catalogs – 430 were. This six percent survival rate meant a stunning loss of diversity.” Furthermore, “three crops account for 87 percent of all grain production and 43 percent of all food eaten anywhere – wheat, corn, and rice.”
Seeds, writes Ray, represent relationships between the people and communities that share them. Seeds are bridges between humans and their history on Earth. They are “metaphors for so much: innovation, potential, multiplication, plenty, the future.”
Ray describes the relentless march of industrialized agriculture. In this world, diversity is “an impediment to efficiency and productivity.” But the monoculture and consolidation of seed material into a few corporate hands, such as Monsanto and Syngenta, means more to Ray than just what happens out in the fields.
Ray discusses how the current food production system harms the soil and destroys pollinators like bees. She delves into the link between food security and monoculture farming, which can be susceptible to massive crop. Not even organic monoculture is spared – in Ray’s view, monoculture is an unhealthy approach, even if it’s practiced without pesticides. When it comes to declining biodiversity, “extinction is not an event, but a process,” she says.