Seeds: The Buried Beginnings of Food by Simran Sethi (Full Transcript)

The following is the full transcript of Simran Sethi’s TED Talk on Seeds: The Buried Beginnings of Food at TEDxManhattan.

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Simran Sethi – Journalist

About a year ago I told my book editor that I wanted to write a book about seeds. He hemmed and hawed, saying something to the effect of seeds not being sexy enough. Now I shared this with an Italian scientist working on seed conservation who until this point had seemed pretty disinterested in me. I honestly think he picked his teeth with my business card.

But when I shared this story, he leaned in, and said in an intoxicating Italian accent, “Simran, I don’t understand. Seeds are sex.” I know I butchered the accent but I hope you’re receiving this with the same kind of surprise I received it with. Which is that seeds are indeed sex. They’re literally sex packets. And they hold the potential of everything. They’re the beginning and end and the beginning all over again.

And seeds are the building blocks of every meal we eat. All our fruits and vegetables, all our grains, plus the meat that’s raised on grass and grain, all come from seeds. Barley seeds bring forth beer, grape seeds bring forth wine, and alfalfa seeds through hay bales and cows bring forth milk and meat.

But seeds are more than food, they’re also cotton for clothes, they’re plants for medicine, they’re wood for shelter, they’re corn for fuel. The story of seeds is embedded in the story of us. And these seeds, the beginning of everything that we rely upon, are disappearing. I’m going to stay focused on food because this is a part that freaks me out the most. That while we’ve been talking about slow food and fast food, counting our calories and our food miles and watching Top Chefs and Iron Chefs, the buried foundations of food and future food are disappearing.

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I know what you’re thinking. Oh my God. Now I have to worry about seeds? Yeah. And they’re already part of what you already care about. Because nearly everything we have, maybe everything we do is connected to seeds. Our work, our loved ones, our past, our future are all connected to seeds.

Of the 80,000 plant varieties that are edible, we only cultivate about 150. And of that, 95% of the world’s calories now come from about 30 species. Here in America 4 crops: rice, corn, wheat and potatoes, comprise half our caloric intake. The shrinkage of what we grow is known as a loss of agricultural biodiversity. And it’s the unintended consequence of a system that was originally intended to increase productivity and feed the world: large-scale, industrialized agriculture.

Now in this system we raise monocultures. You’ve seen them, single crops on huge tracts of land grown with little genetic variance. It makes it easier to add inputs like water, fertilizers and pesticides. And it makes it easier to harvest. And let me be clear, as many of you know, farming is backbreaking work. And this eases some of the challenges. But it comes at a very high cost. The homogenization of our crops strips plants of the ability to adapt to climate change, pests and disease.

And it puts our entire food supply at risk. This is exactly what happened in the mid 1800’s when one third of the Irish population was dependent on potatoes for food. And one eighth of that population — about 1 million people died when a pathogen wiped out the entire crop. Now this story has echoed through Asia, Africa, and other parts of Europe.

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Let’s come back to today. 50% of our calories come from rice, wheat, potatoes and corn. We’re in the worst drought we’ve experienced in a quarter century and corn yields are expected to be down 25% this year. The US Department of Agriculture estimates this drought will push retail food prices up by 3% to 4%. Now maybe that doesn’t feel like a big deal to you here. But because the United States is one of the largest producers of food in the world, these price increases impact everyone. We’re so vulnerable to this shrinkage in our diets and this erosion in what we grow.

Erosion is a great term because it highlights that this has happened incrementally. Over time our diets and use of land have shifted, a shift that shows up on the farm. Over time seed varieties have diminished. And every time a variety isn’t saved and drops out of cultivation a set of genes disappears. Which means that over time foods have gone extinct.

The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations estimates 75% of crop varieties have disappeared since 1900. Seventy-five percent. All right. While this change has happened slowly a faster change in our food system is also giving me pause. And that’s a consolidation of ownership of seeds, essentially seed monopolies.