Thursday, 30 October 2014

Seeds of Change

It seems that a natural progression from the last post on Black Country Allotment Society should be Jos Jansen's Seeds.

The basic drift is given in this blurb.

In this book Jos Jansen examines how innovative food crops are developed and how this process bears upon the world food problem. SEEDS is about Darwin’s natural selection and how it has long been overtaken by high-tech plant breeding. The project focuses on the aspect of how new food crops that are resistant to pests and diseases are bred, and therefore contribute significantly to our future food supply.
Behind the images in this project, quintessential questions arise. Who is actually in charge on this planet? Nature? Human beings? A god? Should humans stop interfering with evolution and go back to the authenticity of small-scale farms and city farming? Or rather, is it humanity’s duty to steer evolution so that we can create enough food to feed the booming world population? What is natural and unnatural? And what does ‘natural’ mean anyway?

Where the allotment book came with a packet of seeds, this one is all about seeds, seeds as the holder of life, as the beginning of life, as a transition in life.

It's also a book about evolution, how things evolve both with and without a helping hand. The visual question is how is the genetic manipulation of the earth's flora by the human race merely an extension of 'nature', a helping hand if you like or a disaster in the making. Or a bit of both

If it's not a disaster in the making, how do you know. What are the measuring points, where is the base line and where do you end? How long does the testing last and does it consider what  will happen not 2 or 3 years down the road but 100, 500 or 1,000 years down the road. Considering the devastation wreaked upon the earth in the last 100 yearsand how we continually shift our base lines so we don't need to consider this, taking a long view might be a good idea.

But we don't take the long view. We forget the past, we forget the starting points that betray the devastation of the earth even in countries that were developed relatively early. The loss of wildflowers, bees, birdlife and open spaces have been huge over the last 50 years but there is no sense of crisis for most people. It's business as usual. We're blind to change.

Jansen's work (and Yann Mingard's excellent Deposit which I wrote about here) acts as a visual reminder of both change and the technology that lies behind it. Of course how you see that change depends on where you are coming from. In the introduction, Bas Haring asks why we think natural is good for us. He writes that the future will be semi-natural, that evolution will be changed to something that better suits our need. 'And we will do this in a highly systematic, well considered and thoughtful way. Because we are human beings.'

I don't think he's being ironic there. But to be honest I can't tell anymore.

The book features images of vegetables being grown and at the back there's a fascinating introduction to the business of seeds - a business that basically keeps most of the world alive it must be said.  A picture of atomic looking curly kale (it looks great but tastes a bit second rate - it only became popular because of a marketing campaign) shows a seed company's demonstration day. We see plants being tested for disease resistance and the sequencing of DNA. There are bees and x-rays and tissue cultures.

It's a fascinating trawl through a world that is hidden to most of us but is also quite beautiful. It challenges both our prejudices against the unnatural, but questions what natural actually means. Which is a good job because every time I see anybody growing the monster vegetables  or perfect fruit I see in Seeds I wonder at what unnatural chemicals or pesticides they used to grow them. Perhaps that's a sympton of my own vegetable-growing ineptness or perhaps it's a symbol of the kind of conservatism Haring warns against in his essay (he's not joking. Is he? I still don't know. I guess not. ). Or perhaps it's a bit of both. Or a bit of neither.

You can buy the book here. 

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