January 21, 2016


The Story of Seeds: From Mendel’s Garden to Your Plate, and How There’s More of Less to Eat around the World. By Nancy F. Castaldo. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. $17.99.

     A polemic in the guise of a documentary, Nancy F. Castaldo’s The Story of Seeds hides, behind its innocuous primary title, the instincts and approach of a Michael Moore film. Selective in presenting information and omitting extremely important facts that do not gibe with its underlying opinions, the book takes readers through a First World analysis of biodiversity while purporting to represent the interests of Third World nations.

     “Why plant heirlooms?” Castaldo asks at one point, offering three unconvincing reasons before getting to her real answer. First she says heirlooms offer a variety of tastes (true) and “in some cases” have higher nutritional content than modern varieties – but “some cases” is scarcely a major rationale. Next she says heirloom seeds grow true to type every year, but hybrid seeds “might not” do so – again, scarcely a strong statement. Then she says heirlooms “are usually quite hardy,” with “usually” being the operative word (and an arguable one). Finally, she gets to what she really wants to say: “Heirlooms come with stories that are continued and added to by farmers who plant them. They are a legacy that is given to us from the past and that we give to the future.” This is a perfect example of noblesse oblige, entirely ignoring the soaring populations of Third World countries and their desperate need for far larger and more-reliable crop yields than “heirloom” varieties of seeds are capable of providing.

     Castaldo’s main argument is that modern seeds are produced by evil corporations that actually make profits from doing so. And she is right to be angered – from a certain perspective, anyway – at the excesses of corporate protectiveness toward their products. But corporations are not social-service agencies, and after spending hundreds of millions of research-and-development dollars, cannot reasonably be expected to give away what those dollars created. Castaldo prefers to focus on tales of individual heroism and warmth rather than take an overview of the world’s need for food; as a result, The Story of Seeds includes some interesting stories of people, from genetic pioneer Gregor Mendel to seed collector Nikola Vavilov to Iraqi seed-bank scientist Sanaa Abdul Wahab El Sheikh. Castaldo presents the stories of “seed warriors” who are currently alive in a uniformly positive way, openly applauding someone who “speaks about a food revolution, a return to growing and eating genetically pure food,” never considering the underlying reasons for the increasing dominance of hybrid and human-produced seeds over “heirloom” varieties, and never ever allowing anyone from an agribusiness to make any positive comment about the corporations whose products now feed so much of the world.

     The problem with Castaldo’s Moore-like approach is the same as that of Moore himself: extreme tunnel vision. Corporations did not develop new hybrid seed varieties because they are evil entities determined to undercut heirloom growers. They developed them out of a pressing need to help feed a world population that currently numbers more than 7.4 billion and continues to grow. That issue, the population issue, is the proverbial elephant in the room of agriculture, and one that Castaldo – who lives in a rural part of the United States and maintains a plot in a local community garden – resolutely refuses to address. Nicely appointed heirloom-seed sales locations in the United States are thoroughly irrelevant to feeding the 1.4 billion people of China, the 1.3 billion of India, and so on. Perhaps Castaldo would care to explain how to feed the world, in which so many already go hungry, without the use of seeds that were created specifically to address the need for greater and more-reliable productivity, even though at the expense of dietary variety? Perhaps not.

     There are certainly abuses in agribusiness, and certainly practices that are ethically questionable, if not clearly abusive. But that is a nuanced view, and there is as little room for nuance in The Story of Seeds as in a Moore movie. Instead, to cite just one egregious example among many, Castaldo uses the fact that Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas was once an attorney for Monsanto to imply, wholly without basis, that the Supreme Court is somehow in Monsanto’s pocket because of a unanimous decision it rendered relating to patent law. And Castaldo tends to get so carried away by her own rhetoric that she makes statements that simply do not make sense: “When I was a baby my mother noticed that the color of my skin had turned a weird color.” “Years ago scientists grouped everything living thing into two kingdoms – plants and animals.” Castaldo seems sincere in her concerns about biodiversity and attempts to re-establish a greater genetic variety of seeds to hand down to future generations. But she never really escapes a certain moral haughtiness and self-aggrandizement of privilege that lead her largely to ignore the plight of the millions and millions of people in Africa, Asia and elsewhere who would be justified in telling Castaldo and other well-meaning First World advocates what Bertolt Brecht encapsulated so well (albeit in an admittedly different context and for different purposes) in The Threepenny Opera: Erst kommt das Fressen, dann kommt die Moral.” Food first – morals (and moralizing) later.

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