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Deconstructing civilization with cabbage

Evolutionary ontology and "rules analogs"

By Nick Routledge

"Crop varieties incorporate the values of their creators. When you grow varieties bred by others, you propagate their values along with their varieties. Today’s professional plant breeders - university and corporate - are breeding plants to facilitate and serve the modern megafarm agribusiness pattern. These varieties produce well in huge moncultures grown with massive doses of herbicides and chemical fertilizers. Bred into the varieties are the values of their creators - that more is always better, that monocultures are best, and that pollution, biodiversity, and sustainability don’t matter."

- Carol Deppe, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2000


Why am I growing 30 different varieties of winter cabbage? Well, I like cabbages. I also believe that the world stands on the cusp of a plant breeding revolution - in the values which inform it; its purposes; its strategies and tactics.

Take a look at evolutionary ontology and its trends and "rules analogs" become apparent everywhere. Look at the World Wide Web and the Open-Source software movement for example - the same evolutionary pressures driving the irresistible tendency toward designing greater openness into information technology systems are set to take the plant breeding community by storm.

Wendell Berry observes that we can have agriculture only within nature, and culture only within agriculture. Food crops sit at the apex point of our most immediate interface with the green-world, hence our attitude and approach to co-evolving with our foods determines the essential nature of the meme-foundation of our lives – the behavior, no less, of our civilization.

Economic strategies have had profound implications for the fundamental genetic structure of our world, as the vast majority of companies sell food crops that are not open-pollinated (OP). The overriding focus of recent decades has been on fashioning breeding techniques to create plants that are hybrids - life forms that are literally, structurally, proprietary. When we save seed from a hybrid, the "holding pattern" of a cross between two typically highly-inbred parents, and replant it, the resulting progeny is highly unstable. It does not breed true. What we get, instead, is a highly variable mess that also disguises the genetic inheritance of the parental lines. Hence, farmers and competitors see little benefit in growing out hybrids. Hybrid vendors lock a recurring annual profit into the structure of life and their balance sheet.

Evidence suggests that the hybrid model flies in the face of evolutionary trends. Not only do we see this in the fact that plants naturally tend toward greater OP-ness where they are able, we see it in the essential nature of hybrid behavior. Hybrids are inherently degenerative. Designed to lack evolutionary resilience, hybrids have no sense of place.

Raising food genotypes with a deepening capacity for co-evolving with local ecologies – distinct from self-destructing after one season – will require a fundamental re-engineering of our culture and the assumptions which sustain it. As we move toward the evolutionary inevitability of sustainable foodsheds, the plant breeding story moves center stage. It provides us with a cultural roadmap into the roots of authentic health.

Besides liking cabbage a great deal, the reasons I’m growing 30 varieties of hybrid and organic is to let this array of characters cross. I hope this rich genetic "squish-fest" will provide the foundation for local efforts to segregate out stable, resilient, OP winter cabbage varieties over the long-term.

Such an approach not only deconstructs the fundamental structural lock-down imposed by the economic diktats of hybridization, it also weans out the synthetic patterns by hybrid breeders. Conventional hybrids aren’t simply veggies bred and grown using chemical fertilization and pest management regimes. Most of the hybrids in our midst are Cytoplasmic Male Sterility (CMS) hybrids. Inducing male sterility is a key plant breeding technique and involves using chemical sprays, and violent intervention techniques such as protoplast fusion–including the use of electric currents, for example–to control fertilization and unwanted pollination. CMS is not labeled.

Attuning our breeding approaches to better reflect "the irresistible march of evolution," as Teilhard de Chardin describes it, not only moves our food crops toward greater ecological resilience, it moves our culture as a whole, too. The essence of effective cultural regeneration will be underpinned by an evolution in the values informing food plant breeding.

In deconstructing my hybrid cabbage, I am deconstructing the values which inform these varieties along ecologically coherent lines. By applying strategies and tactics that honor ecological truths–rather than synthetic economic falsehoods–we do nothing less than refashion civilization in the image of freedom, openness, sharing and the regenerative power of Nature.

Our approach to seed, of course, is the foundational archetype upon which our culture is sustained. Succeeding seceding seeding, you might call it.

Nick Routledge caretakes the Food For Lane County youth farm in Springfield, OR, where he volunteer-manages the nursery for the School Garden Project of Lane County, and the Seed Ambassadors Project, a locally-grounded, international initiative promoting ecologically resilient cultures through the free sharing of open-pollinated seed. Details at www.seedambassadors.org.

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