The books section is supported by a generous donation from Anne Germanacos.
When Mark Schapiro told friends he was writing a book about seeds, the first thing they’d say was, “Monsanto, right?”
The St. Louis-based agrochemical giant, which was known for producing Roundup and genetically modified seeds resistant to that herbicide, was indeed the world’s largest seed company, infamous for forcing farmers to rebuy its seeds every spring, instead of saving them from year to year according to traditional farming practice.
But in his latest book, “Seeds of Resistance: The Fight to Save Our Food Supply,” the longtime environmental journalist, who also teaches in UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, takes on much more than Monsanto’s shady business tactics (Bayer bought the company last year). In fascinating detail he lays out a meticulously researched and terrifyingly persuasive narrative showing how three multinational companies that were created from mergers and that made their money producing chemicals — Bayer-Monsanto, DowDuPont and Syngenta-ChemChina — have managed to gain control of the world’s supply of seeds, and now threaten not just the livelihood of millions of farmers but also the Earth’s food supply.
And the only thing standing in the way of this impending food crisis, he says, is a grassroots movement of farmers and activists desperately trying to collect and preserve as many kinds of seeds as they can.
Schapiro visited his first “seed vault” in 1982, in Colorado. There he learned how the genetic material within seeds allows the crops most adaptable to their growing conditions to flourish, while less hardy strains die out. For thousands of years, he writes, farmers have been storing those “good” seeds for future replanting.
His book chronicles the growing sophistication of the environmental movement over the past decades. In the ‘80s, activists were concerned about the effects of monoculture, the death of family farms and the growing hegemony of large-scale industrial farms.
“Looking back, it seems like an age of innocence,” he writes. “Who could guess that within a decade dozens of formerly independent seed companies would be purchased by the world’s largest chemical companies? Or that those companies would eliminate thousands of locally evolved seeds and favor the ones reliant on their chemicals?”
Unlike most books on this topic, “Seeds of Resistance” maintains a reserved tone that relies on apolitical scientific reports rather than emotional arguments. That, Schapiro said, was deliberate.
“I didn’t want to fall prey to emotionally based observations,” he told J. “I focused on the multiplicity of forces that led us to the industrial model we have today, and that model’s vulnerability to climate change.”
Fact: Genetic diversity in seeds allows crops to withstand environmental stress, from drought to rising temperatures. Another fact: Climate change is real; more of the Earth is becoming hotter and drier. A third fact: Three-quarters of the seed varieties that existed in 1900 are now extinct, even as genetically modified seeds draw upon a very narrow gene pool.
Schapiro does not argue that genetically modified foods are unhealthy. He doesn’t have the credentials to make such a claim. But based upon the many interviews he had with agricultural experts, from farmers to scientists to government regulators, he points out the precariousness of our dependence upon a shrinking seed gene pool, which, given ever-increasing environmental stresses, threatens the global food supply. And that’s true no matter what one’s political leanings, he points out.
“You don’t see famine, but you do see declining yields,” he told J. “That means less food and rising prices, which creates long-term stress on our ability to grow food reliably over decades.”
Schapiro has been an environmental journalist since that first trip to Colorado in the early ’80s. The author of two critically acclaimed books on environmental issues, “Carbon Shock” and “Exposed,” he has won many prizes for his investigative work, something he can connect to his Jewish upbringing.
He grew up in Los Angeles in a secular Jewish family with a strong cultural sense of Jewish identity. He learned Yiddish at the JCC of the San Fernando Valley, and instead of a bar mitzvah, his father, a neuro-endocrinologist, took him to New York for a week, including a visit to the New York Academy of Sciences. “It was mind-blowing,” he recalled.
Throughout his career, he has been motivated both by his father’s work and “by the values I was raised with, the value of caring for the wider world and for the common resources we share,” he said.
“Injustices and abuses of those common resources are deeply insulting to me. A lot of that comes from my Jewish education and the largely secular Jewish community I grew up around in L.A.”
Though his book overall paints a distressing picture, Schapiro also pays tribute to what he calls the “rapidly growing movement” to save seeds and, by extension, the world’s food supply. There are hundreds of seed libraries throughout the United States, including a half-dozen in the Bay Area, where the public can actually check out seeds, plant them, and return new seeds after harvest. There are also mammoth seed banks maintained by universities and quasi-governmental entities in many countries. There are individual entrepreneurs sending endangered seed varieties to secure locations, activists trying to change U.S. laws and agricultural scientists researching sustainable ways to grow food in the face of high climate volatility.
In November, the fourth National Climate Assessment was released. This federal report is considered the most authoritative analysis and documentation of climate change, and the recent findings validated much of what appears in “Seeds of Resistance,” according to Schapiro. “It was filled with prognoses of the impact of climate change on American agriculture,” he said. “It showed this is particularly acute in the Midwest and the Southwest, which I write about.”
Tu B’Shevat, the Jewish holiday of the trees marked this year on Jan. 20, is an opportune moment to remember the Jewish commandment to respect the Earth and its bounty, he said.
“Jewish traditions are all about sharing food around a common table,” Schapiro said. “By being able to grow food, [ancient humans] created civilization. Tu B’Shevat is, in a way, the recognition of the seeds that are at the root of life.”