Thursday, July 31, 2008

Book Review: Uncertain Peril

"Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds" (ugh! What is it with these subtitles?) by Claire Hope Cummings is all about seeds – a topic to which I’d given very little thought. It was so interesting that I want to share it all, but I’ll try to resist.

The history of seeds goes all the way back to Genesis. For most of history, farmers have carefully bred new variations and saved their best seeds, but somewhere along the way, seeds became privatized and patented. "Uncertain Peril" is about what has happened as a result. I found the subject both fascinating and infuriating!

Cummings tells stories of seeds in different places: how we ruined farming in Iraq, how GMO (genetically modified) contamination showed up in corn planted by Zapotec Indians deep in the jungles of Mexico, and how Hawaii’s papaya industry was decimated by GMO papaya patented by Hawaii’s own university. She describes how a few large corporations get rich manipulating agriculture and make farmers here and abroad subservient when they used to be independent. The scariest part of the book concerns GMO seed which is largely untested for health risks (but likely to have them), contaminating other plants and recklessly handled by greedy corporations. Our elected officials could easily put a stop to it, but they don’t.

I’ve noticed a recurring theme in ecological books that I’ll simplify as "East" vs. "West." East represents the whole, the community, and native cultures while West represents the parts, the individual and western civilization. Western thought led to technology, antibiotics, standardization and conventional agriculture. Eastern thought led to the environmental movement, herbal remedies, diversity and organic farming. Clearly we benefit from them both, but West usually dominates over East. Cummings argues that Eastern thought and organic farming methods have the potential to save the world from the damage done by Western industrial agriculture. Like Kunstler of "The Long Emergency," she believes there will be a rise in diversity and locality as oil becomes more scarce. Let’s hope so.

I highly recommend "Uncertain Peril." It’s not exactly light reading, but it’s a fascinating and important topic. Just take your blood pressure meds first. Rating: 5 stars out of 5.


Joyce said...

I really should read this. There is constant conversation here about GMO crops, farmers battling Monsanto, European markets, etc. And, I have worked for a local seed corn company in the past, and have a fairly good understanding of how things are done in the traditional hybridization process, since I was the data collecting slave for the agronomist. Humans have always hybridized crops and livestock. It's not inherently bad to do so, but the new methods certainly require scrutiny.
I've got quite a list of stuff to read right now, not all of it "green", but I'll add this one to the mix.

Kellie said...

If you told me a few years ago that I would want to read a book about seeds I would have scoffed. This really sounds intriguing though! Thanks for the review.

Donna said...

Joyce: With a background like yours, I'm sure you would be totally fascinated with the book. The author is not hard on hybrids like she is on GMO seed -- it's really a totally different thing.

kellie: If you read it, I hope you'll report back on what you thought! You're right -- it's very intriguing.

Melissa said...

it's on my paperbackswap wish list, so I'm glad to hear that you liked it. I haven't heard anything bad about it yet!

Donna said...

Melissa: I hope you get it soon! BTW, I'm enjoying your blog. I just added you onto my blogroll.

Melissa said...

Donna, thanks so much! I love reading yours too - you've got a nice mix of topics (and your son sounds like he's a total character!)

Donna said...

Total character is right! And thanks for the compliment.