A couple of weeks ago, I was crowing about the amazing progress of the national media in following the home gardening story. No doubt about it, stories about gardening appear in the Wall Street Journal, New York Times, USA Today and countless smaller newspapers. Since I believe that home gardening is one of the answers to hunger in this nation, not to mention obesity, poverty and boredom, I was thrilled. If people become gardeners, Ive reasoned, theyll feed themselves and re-learn some of the self-sufficiency and memories of culture that they must re-learn to gain power over their lives. The gifts of neighborhood and democracy will flower again.
Boy. Im a real dork.
It turns out that home gardening is just a growth industry for the corporates. In fact, theyre finding a pernicious new way to close the commons even more tightly. I wonder if Michelle knows about this.
For many of us, the high point of the gardening year is the moment we bite into that first juicy, ripe tomato. On our farm, for years, weve been raising open-pollinated heirloom tomatoes. These are interestingly shaped, colored and flavored tomatoes raised from seeds collected in the gardens of grandmothers. Open-pollinated seeds are fertilized naturally by the wind or traveling insects. Unlike hybrids, which are pollinated by humans carrying one blossom to another in the effort to create a specific seed that will yield a specific plant, the open-pollinated seeds are somewhat unpredictable. For that reason, they arent much loved by the professional seed companies that value uniformity.
Heirloom tomatoes are red, sometimes, but also purple, yellow, orange, apricot, green, striped you name it. The flavors are similarly unusual, varying from extremely sweet to extremely acid to fruity or even wine-like.
And, for the most part, a plant bearing Cherokee Purple tomatoes will yield fruit with seeds that come up as Cherokee Purple next year, but sometimes the daughter plants will be different than the mothers. Cherokee Purple ripen bulbous and bruised, with green blotches and a taste thats often called smoky. Heirloom growers still save the seeds, put up with the variations and even enjoy it.
Every year, I meet a new favorite, but Im pretty loyal to the green zebra, a green egg-sized tomato striped with gold that really seems to sparkle in the sunlight, and the yellow pear, a cherry-sized tomato that you pick by the handful and pop into your mouth warm from the sun. I was banned from the yellow pear plants last summer because I could never get them into the van to go to market.
The most important point is that the heirlooms are different than the Big Boys and Better Boys developed and patented by breeders. At least, that was the point when we started.
Now it turns out that the seed geniuses, many housed at a university in your state, are hybridizing heirloom-like plants and, you guessed it, patenting the seeds. They have, in their minds, improved the plants. In the minds of the rest of us, we should recognize that they have patented and captured the plants that once were common property of gardeners who saved seeds.
Reading a glowing review of these heirlooms in the Wall Street Journal, Im bummed to see that the first innovation was based on the classic Brandywine tomato. A breeder in California has developed the Brandymaster. She says it has more uniformly-shaped fruits and better resistance to diseases.
One of my neighbors raises brandywines, saving the seeds from year to year. I look forward to seeing her at the market, her boxes full of oddly-shaped tomatoes. I never thought the lack of uniformity was a problem. In fact, it lets me choose the shape Ill use big sloppy burger bun tomato? Wedges for a salad?
That first hybrid came out three years ago. This year, almost all the good ones have been hybridized for (according the the Journal) longer shelf life and making shapes more uniform for ease of packing, and creating more compact plants that are easier to maneuver.
And heres the really bad part, for all you that love the idea of gardening and farming as an independent gesture of self-sufficiency: 11,000 of the seed patents are owned by Monsanto. They now have an estimated 85-90% of the seed market in the US.
Besides buying parts or all of the major seed companies, Monsanto is a supplier to many of the independents. Those folks may raise a portion of their own seeds, but they also buy in bulk and re-package because, it turns out, consumers are accustomed to such a huge selection that the independents, in order to compete, cannot grow all they need to satisfy buyers.
So, while the hybrids are probably not genetically modified or in need of certain chemicals to survive, the door is open for that kind of manipulation by the mad scientists in the St. Louis suburbs.
Margot Ford McMillen farms and teaches English at a college in Fulton, Mo. Email: email@example.com.
From The Progressive Populist, May 15, 2010
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