The following is the full transcript of Simran Sethi’s TED Talk on Seeds: The Buried Beginnings of Food at TEDxManhattan.
Listen to the MP3 Audio here: Seeds – The Buried Beginnings of Food by Simran Sethi at TEDxManhattan
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.
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.
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.
Three corporations now account for over half the global commercial seed market. And that includes hybrid seeds that are replaced annually and transgenic seeds, what we commonly call GMOs, that are patented and can’t legally be saved or reused. Within this model seeds become non-renewable resources, inventions crafted by companies that farmers are required to buy year after year. This insures a consistent yield and insures that farmers will earn money for their hard work. But one company now controls the genetics of nearly 90% of the corn, soybeans and cotton grown in the United States. And that same company in 2005 acquired the world’s largest developer and grower of vegetable seeds.
Monopolies are hideous with cellphones. We know this. But they’re disastrous with food. Because food, seeds, aren’t just any other commodity. Now the refrain around the system has been, this is the only way we can feed our growing population. If this is true, if this is how we feed the world, then why are 15% of American households struggling to put food on the table while at the same time 40% of our food is thrown away? Availability of food does not equal access.
Now add to this research from the NGO Bioversity International that shows a narrowing of variety in our diets coupled with an increase in nutritionally poor processed foods has contributed to the global epidemic of malnutrition. That shows up as both hunger and obesity. Globally more people now die from too much food rather than too little of it.
So if the stories of seeds are the stories of us what we have to ask ourselves is what seeds are we planting? And how do we nourish the seeds we want to grow? Monocultures and monopolies are only part of our seed story. And the seeds that I want to nurture are outside of the system. They’re the small holder farmers that still feed around 70% of the world’s population. Most of their food is grown from peasant-bred seed passed down over generations and grown without the use of synthetic fertilizers. Most of these farmers are women and they live in developing countries. And these ladies breed around 5,000 domesticated crops and they’re the keepers of not only the seeds but the indigenous wisdom about growing seeds and cooking what the seeds bring forth.
They have sustained an exponentially higher degree of agricultural biodiversity and soil fertility than what industrial agriculture affords. And this fills me with hope. These incredible, inspiring people working hard to ensure the security and sovereignty of our seeds and the land on which our seeds are grown. Farmers, gardeners, scientists, policy makers, activists, chefs and all of us. Yes, this is where we come in. Because as Wendell Berry so eloquently reminds us, eating is an agricultural act.
Agriculture started about 10,000 years ago. The loss of most crop varieties has happened in the last 100-odd years. And the consolidation of the proprietary seed market has taken root in the last 20. In the long trajectory of how we fed ourselves these changes are so new. They’re changes that we can come back from. We can plant new seeds. And this is what we do when we take time to learn about and support the people and institutions engaged in seed conservation in seed banks on farms and in the wild. Or when we buy crazy heirloom varieties we’ve never seen before at the farmers market knowing farmers can’t grow what we won’t eat. This is what happens when we cook something new. In essence eating plants, eating foods to save them. And this is what happens when we save seeds and when we share them.
For most of my life seeds were what I spit out. Even after I had spent decades working on environmental issues, just owning it. Even after I spent years living in Kansas, the bread basket of America, I hadn’t really thought about our seed system. And then one day at an early morning farmers market a farmer that I knew looked me in the eye, pressed seeds into my hands and said, “Grow these.” And I was in awe, I have to tell you. These seeds were so small. I was in awe. Because I hadn’t considered what could grow from something so small.
So I planted the seeds. They were my first. And then I watched them like a hawk. And then nothing happened. I got really impatient. For a couple of weeks nothing seemed to be happening and I was on the verge of giving up on my seeds. And then like a miracle a shoot came up through the earth. And it grew and grew and grew. The potential of these gorgeous purple stalks of amaranth that grew taller than me and to my delight and horror took over half my yard originated in seeds the size of a dot on a page. This is how change happens.
As artist Marian Spedone says, “Like seed, all is contained within us.” All future possibilities, all growth, all knowing. So we plant the seeds with every decision we make as eaters, farmers, chefs, scientists, we plant the seeds, knowing that when we make these choices we set in motion a trajectory for food and farming that gives life to a different way of feeding ourselves and starts a ripple effect that extends far beyond our plates.