The Seed Underground

Libby Peake reviews Janisse Ray's book, The Seed Underground

Seed UndergroundThe Seed Underground:
A Growing Revolution to Save Food
Author: Janisse Ray
Pub: Chelsea Green
Price: US$17.95/£12.99

Working in the environmental sector can be very depressing: the mess we modern-day humans have made of the earth is so immense, and the resultant problems we now face so overwhelming, that it is sometimes tempting to throw in the towel – especially as the political will for real, sometimes difficult, change is non-existent and so much of the general population is blissfully, sometimes wilfully, oblivious.

So, I was intrigued at Janisse Ray’s preface to The Seed Underground, where she writes: ‘I feel around me a cavernous hopelessness. But I do not feel hopeless.’ I was especially intrigued as the dust jacket makes clear the size of the challenge the book attempts to address: 94 per cent of the seed varieties that were available at the start of the twentieth century have now been lost to us forever, it says, and seeds are still being neglected, despite the burgeoning local food scene.

In the introduction, Ray writes: ‘This is not a text book on seed saving. I am looking to inspire you with my own life.’ And while many inspiring personal stories are included in this book, there are also a lot of useful practical tips and interesting historical facts. Ray offers a history of agriculture and eloquently outlines the faults of industrial agriculture: big agriculture’s mainstay, hybrids, for instance, pose problems as they only display their desirable mixed characteristics for one generation and so farmers are bound to purchase the seeds from the large companies that own the genes.

And far from only addressing issues to do with her own life, Ray also tackles some very big societal problems. Ironically, as supermarket aisles swell with more and more choice, the industrialisation of agriculture has meant that the plant varieties on which we rely are dwindling – making our food supply less secure: wheat, corn and rice account for 87 per cent of all grain production, and the number of the varieties of these staples are now only a fraction of the thousands upon thousands that once existed.

Most of the book though is, as Ray promises, an account of her own life – her encounters with other seed savers recounted with a healthy dose of dialogue. It’s engaging and well written, and there is indeed more here to enrage and inspire than there is to depress. 

The main drawback, however, which isn’t made at all evident by the cover, is that it is very, very US-centric – that headline figure of a 94 per cent decrease in seed varieties is not as universal as it first appears and is, in fact, based on comparing current seed catalogues (or, as Ray would have it, catalogs) to the US Department of Agriculture’s American Varieties of Vegetables for the Years 1901 and 1902. 

The chapter headline ‘What is Broken’, moreover, is followed by the subheading ‘How the American Food System Is Broken’, and there’s no consideration of other parts of the world, though I’d suspect there are plenty of problems in Europe and elsewhere that also need addressing. 

It’s an important book about an important topic, but it’s just a shame for this UK-based reader that it is so narrowly focused…

Libby Peake