‘The Seed Underground’ maps plan for saving agriculture from corporate greed

Don’t look now, but seeds are disappearing.

That includes seeds our grandparents and earlier generations grew that were brought to this country from all over the world as well as some that got their start in America.

Some of these old seed names are both evocative and unfamiliar, lyrical and memorable: Bulgarian Triumph tomato. Arkansas Traveler tomato. Czech’s Excellent tomato. Listada de Gandia eggplant. Chocolate Sweet pepper. Granny’s Scarlet Runner bean. Georgia Rattlesnake watermelon. Black Becky bean.

According to a study conducted by two University of Georgia researchers, seed catalogs in 1903 offered 7,262 varieties of vegetable seeds; by 2004, that number had dropped to 430.

What happened? Are the missing seeds still out there? Are they lost forever?

Poet, writer and environmental activist Janisse Ray, author of “Ecology of a Cracker Childhood,” “Wild Card Quilt” and last year’s “Drifting into Darien,” has the answers in “The Seed Underground: A Growing Revolution to Save Food.”

A passionate gardener with a working farm in South Georgia, Ray addresses a critical problem in today’s society: the privatization of public property, of the commons — in this case, seeds, which, she reminds us, “can no more be owned than fire, or the ocean.”

A handful of multinational corporations that want to own and control them don’t agree. Chemical companies like Monsanto, Dow and Syngenta, Ray warns, are on the brink of a hostile takeover of the global seed market, which, in turn, determines what kinds of food we eat, how they’re grown, and whether they begin from a healthy seed or one genetically modified and stacked with insecticides, herbicides and bacterium.

Happily, all is not lost. Offering her own experience as a template for grass-roots resistance, Ray traces the evolution of her love affair with farming, shares the passion for seeds she inherited from her grandmother, includes the story of her return to her farming roots in Georgia in the 1980s, and delivers a wealth of information along the way about the history of cultivation, hybridization and industrialization.

Ray is harshly critical of today’s biotech companies, whose predatory practices and disregard for farmers and the soil, abroad and in the U.S., threaten to take the “culture” out of agriculture, she says. The sections of her book itemizing the breakdown of the American food system through hybridization and monocropping are devastating.

“All the lost varieties did more than liven up the table and keep farmers independent. Varietal decline threatens agrodiversity … the less biodiverse any system is, the greater the potential for collapse. In shriveling the gene pool both through loss of varieties and through the industrial takeover of an evolutionary process, we strip our crops of the ability to adapt to change and we put the entire food supply at risk.”

Hope returns in the form of Ray’s interviews with farmers and gardeners from Maine to Alabama who are fighting back by saving, labeling, storing and reselling heirloom and open-pollinated seeds.

Saving seeds isn’t just good science; it’s a subtler war against the loss of our stories, our history, our connections with each other: “Where we live and what we live with is who we are.” Add to that, what we eat. And share.

For readers eager to get started, several how-to chapters offer basic seed-saving tips and lessons on hand-pollinating and controlling the purity of certain seeds. “The Seed Underground” not a seed-saving manual, but Ray recommends several reliable guides in the resource section at the end of the book.

The effect she hopes to have on readers, Ray claims, is modest: “My goal is simply to plant a seed. In you.”

But a poet knows full well the power of words, and if a rally could be contained in the pages of a book, “The Seed Underground” is one, its language by turns incantatory, pleading, rabble-rousing, a challenge to rise to the occasion, to “man up or lie there and bleed.”

From the stirring call to reclaim our seeds — “developed by our ancestors, grown by them and by us, and collected for use by our citizenry” — to their irresistible names, like Little White Lady pea, Speckled Cut Short Cornfield bean, Purple Blossom Brown-Striped Half-runner bean and Blue Java pea, Ray boldly seduces us into joining this critical and much-needed revolution.

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