Tuesday, July 25, 2017

Seed Saving

As I was driving across the Midwest yesterday, I crossed time zones and moved from one public-radio market to another, so that I was able to hear some programs twice. Although I had the car well-stocked with music CDs, I prefer to drive to good discussions. Our dog was the only passenger, and she either likes NPR or does a good job pretending to.
Image: Indiana Grain
So I came to hear an interview about the global seed vault twice, as I drove past field after field of identical corn. When I see cornfields, it seems my eyes are playing tricks on me. The lack of genetic diversity gives the fields an odd kind of harmonics, as the identical structures of each plant create wave patterns with an unsettling symmetry. When Hollywood uses CGI to create masses of soldiers in a field, some randomness is introduced to make the image more realistic. Not so in corn fields -- every stalk is the same.

This was no ordinary interview about seeds. This was Terry Gross talking with Cary Fowler. Terry Gross is the best interviewer -- I have heard her interview hundreds of people over a period of more than 30 years. I remember Johnny Cash ending their interview by telling her, "You are really good at what you do." This is why I was happy to listen to the same interview twice in a row. Cary Fowler has the ultimate pursue-your-dreams. He went from thinking there should be a global repository of seeds to figuring out the perfect location for it (geography!) to building and directing it.

His sense of humor about the work comes out in his discussion with Gross, as do some of the ways that he and his spouse promote crop genetic diversity in their daily lives.

Back to those fields I was driving past. Agriculture is more productive than it has ever been, but it is also more vulnerable to perturbation. The very specialization that gives us high yields and disease resistance also cuts us off from the genetic richness from which such specialization is drawn.

Listen in:

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