The Cabbage Coalition
|“Crop varieties incorporate the values of their creators. When you grow varieties bred by others, you propagate their values along with their varieties. Today’s professional plant breeders – university and corporate – are breeding plants to facilitate and serve the modern megafarm agribusiness pattern. These varieties produce well in huge moncultures grown with massive doses of herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Bred into the varieties are the values of their creators – that more is always better, that monocultures are best, and that pollution, biodiversity, and sustainability don’t matter.
“It is time for new patterns – new patterns for agriculture, and new patterns for plant breeding. It’s time for the rising up of a new generation of plant breeders out of the soil of our farms and gardens. It is time for farmers and gardeners everywhere to take back our seeds, to rediscover seed saving, and to practice our own plant breeding. It is time to breed plants based upon an entirely different set of values.”
– Carol Deppe
Why am I growing thirty different varieties of winter cabbage? Well, I like cabbages. I also believe that the world stands on the cusp of a plant breeding revolution – in the values which inform it; its purposes; its strategies and tactics. Here’s an edited and enlarged excerpt from recent emails to a couple of friends, outlining some of the context for the shift I perceive.
Very recently, a stranger asked me who my heros were. Without hesitating, I heard myself say, “plant breeders.” As circumstance would have it, the years have gifted me the friendships of some of the key food plant breeders Stateside who, for several reasons – local ecology among them – are concentrated in my bioregion. These are the greenworld equivalent of IT open-source developers – a fiercely independent tribe whose lives are devoted to breeding open-pollinated, organically bred varieties of food plants. They happen to be some of the more remarkable souls I have ever met.
What I’ve been attempting to hang words on of late is that Wendell Berry’s observation that we can have agriculture only within nature, and culture only within agriculture (“At certain points these systems have to conform with one another or destroy one another”) is a great deal more than a tidy philosophical maxim. What fundamentally underpins the behavior of our civilization is nothing less than the literal, embodied fabric of the germplasm which sustains it (for IT hands, read OS). And because it is food crops which sit at the very apex point of our most immediate (thrice) daily interface with the greenworld, so our attitude and approach to co-evolving with our foods determines the very nature of the meme-foundation of our lives.
No plant breeder worth her or his salt will pretend that the major imperative behind plant breeding strategies is not an economic one. This has had profound implications for the foundational genetic structure of our world because the vast majority of commercial companies sell food crops that are not open-pollinated (that is, they are not the greenworld equivalent of open-source). Instead, the overriding focus of recent decades has been on fashioning breeding techniques to create plants that are hybrids – life forms that are literally, structurally, proprietary. When we save seed from a hybrid, the ‘temporary holding pattern’ of a cross between two typically highly-inbred parents, and replant it, the resulting progeny is highly unstable. It does not breed true. What we get, instead, is a highly variable mess that also ‘disguises’ the genetic inheritance of the parental lines. Hence, farmers and, more specifically, competitors, see little benefit in ‘growing out’ hybrids. Hybrid vendors therefore literallylock a recurring annual profit into the structure of life and their balance sheet.
Why this technology is interesting to me is because evidence strongly suggests that the defining plant breeding motif, one that so far has put a great deal of money in people’s pockets, nevertheless flies fundamentally in the face of evolutionary trends. Not only do we see this in the the fact that plants naturally tend toward greater OP-ness where they are able, we see it most particularly in the essential nature of hybrid behavior. Hybrids are inherently, intrinsically, degenerative. They are designed, deliberately, to lack evolutionary resilience. In a nutshell, hybrids have no sense of place.
This, I sense, is where we encounter the not-insignificant cultural implications of dehybridization, among other practices. It’s my unshakeable sense that the fundamental essence of effective cultural regeneration will be underpinned, literally, by nothing less than an evolution in food plant breeding strategies – that in deconstructing food crop breeding as it stands, by applying strategies and tactics that honor ecological truths as distinct from synthetic ‘economic’ falsehoods, we do nothing less than deconstruct civilization and refashion it in the image of freedom, openness, sharing and the regenerative power of Nature; because our approach to seed, of course, is the foundational archetype upon which our culture is sustained. I believe this claim is not unsound.
Everything I’ve learned since even before I began my working life hopscotching around the deepest reaches of the international capital markets tells me that hitching a survival strategy, in this day and age, to breeding strategies that are fundamentally closed, is a Loser’s Game; that “the irresistible march of evolution” as Teilhard de Chardin puts it, has our economic imperatives beat. Hands down.
For complicated reasons, what it takes to raise food genotypes with a deepening capacity for co-evolving intelligently with local ecologies through the years, as distinct from ‘self-destructing’ after one season, isn’t simply a question of tweaking our existing approach: it will require a fundamental re-engineering of our culture and the assumptions which sustain it. A shift in collective conscience, perhaps. But as we move toward the evolutionary inevitability of inherently sustainable – as distinct from unsustainable – foodsheds, the plant breeding story moves center stage because it, of all human activities, provides us with a tangible, navigable cultural roadmap into the roots of authentic health.
Quite how this transition in breeding tactics and strategies, and the profound cultural shift it embraces, will unfold, I have absolutely no idea. We are all steering, after all. Tim Peters’ work is one example of what we might describe as a ‘deeply contextual’ approach to breeding – one which comes closer than most to annihilating the distinction between breeding plot and the harmonic chaostrophy of wild nature – as distinct from the moncultural segregation that conventional breeders typically seek to foster. What kind of lifestyle and awareness does it take to breed plants in this way?
And here in Eugene-Springfield, we are now co-ordinating growouts among the various non-profit teaching gardens in town. This is affording us the opportunity, for example, to work simultaneously with several crop types of Brassica oleraceae (which include, among others: kale, cabbage, broccoli, brussels sprouts, cauliflower, collards, kohlrabi and rutabagas). This species is highly problematic for small scale independent plant breeders, given that it accounts for an extraordinarily high percentage of our food crops, yet brings with it cross-pollination-isolation concerns that are typically only assuaged by spreading growouts, expensively, across disparate, isolated plots – one of several factors contributing to the very great paucity of independent efforts to develop depth in OP B. oleraceae especially, in recent years.
Stateside in particular, independent breeders’ efforts to develop B. oleraceae (particularly of the heading types) have, with a tiny number of notable exceptions, been paltry. Let us hope that in time, conventional breeders will bring their remarkably sophisticated array of knowledge, expertise and passion to bear on the OP B. oleraceae story.
Of course I’m aware of the fundamental structural resistances standing in the way of such a transition. As a plant breeder with the Dutch transnational powerhouse, Bejo Seed- and one of the more impressive souls lurking around the PNW plant breeding scene – responded politely and matter-of-factly to me a few weeks ago: “Plant breeders need to be paid.”
The man’s concerns are as deeply valid as care for one’s family get – especially, goodness, in this day and age. But we live in an evolving universe, and the life forms which sustain us are not economic abstractions, even as our dominant cosmology treats them as such. As Terry Tempest Williams puts it:
And these abstractions, if insufficiently faithful to life, are innately harmful and intrinsically unsustainable. Look about us: a Reckoning with such false idols was always predetermined.
We can, however, choose to be servants of, rather than slaves to, this Reckoning: because, blessedly, this challenge amounts to one and the very same thing as our great responsibility, our great opportunity, our great salvation. Conscious, generous-hearted work with the plants that hold up our world points us to the heart of a pathway into authenticity. It gifts us a pathway toward “ontological concurrence with the facts of the world” as George Steiner puts it, toward fashioning the cornerstones of our lives in the harmonious image of Nature rather than in the image of an incoherent and, as it happens, quite temporal abstraction – the authority of the bottom line.
As Tessa Gowans at Abundant Life told me when she gifted me seed to carry on my 2001 cross-country seedswapping adventures: “Seed wants to be free.” Interestingly, this is an exact analogical echo of philosopher Stewart Brand’s prescient observation: “Information wants to be free.” Regard seed: regard information. Perceive how they work. Perceive how this seed of an idea works. (“Seed-syllables travel and carry certain efficacies” – Anne Waldman.) Life, indeed, wants to be free: and will be free. This, we can be certain, is an evolutionary inevitability. The fight to fight, is lost.
In the meantime, the Universe has accorded me the immense privilege of living a life which aspires to what Jim Corbett referred to as the Quixotic Principle: “To open the way, a cultural breakthrough need not involve masses of people but must be done decisively by someone.” Right now, I am growing 30 different varieties of winter cabbage, together. Mostly hybrid. I hope to let this array of characters cross, and to use the immensely rich genetic squishfest which results, a de-hybridizing ‘grex’ we call it, to provide the foundation for local, grassroots efforts to segregate out stable, ecologically resilient, open-pollinated winter cabbage varieties over the long-term. The seed will be free. Succeeding seceding seeding, you might call it.