Sunday, May 22, 2016

A metaphor of life and renewal

The B-2 Stealth Bomber built at a whopping cost of $2 billion apiece have taken inspiration from the flying-wing design of the Javan cucumber seeds.

Accomplished artists may have painted hundreds of verses on a kernel but the unwritten genetic instructions a seed carries makes it an indomitable botanical marvel. The ‘fierce energy’ a seed carries, as George Bernard Shaw would describe it, can help it explode into becoming any one of the estimated 352,000 kinds of plants that use seeds to reproduce, from humble mustard to mighty oak. Given our dependence on seeds, from morning till night, it can hardly be denied that humans might not have evolved in a world without seeds. 

Spread across five absorbing chapters, The Triumph of Seeds captures the traits and habits of seeds that have not only nourished mankind but have endured to sustain future human populations too. Despite rapid strides in seed science, seeds still remain the most prized possession of the national agencies and the inter-governmental organisations. No wonder, the first things to be moved out from war torn Aleppo in Syria were the seed vaults, shipped to a secure location in Norway. So secure are such locations that the National Seed Bank, on the edge of the Colorado State University, is designed to withstand earthquakes, blizzards and catastrophic fires, and will stay afloat should floods submerge the area.   

Conservation biologist Thor Hanson has put together an immensely readable and engrossing treatise on the history, biology, and evolution of one of the vegetal kingdom’s smartest inventions. That it preserves the future plant and within it is preserved the future of living beings is testimony to the seed’s fascinating evolution and incredible versatility. A seed is a package of versatile features: it embodies nourishment for the future plant but can use its flesh to lure potential distributors; and, it slumps into dormancy but can swing back to life at an opportune time. Seed is the past, present and future rolled into one tiniest pop – a metaphor for life and renewal.

What makes The Triumph of Seeds unique is the manner in which the subject has been given a multi-dimensional treatment, without making the narrative run into the cobweb of botanical jargons. From his own research on Central American tree almendro to his keen observations on South American coffee, Hanson has pieced together compelling stories on evolution of seeds such that the extraordinariness of seeds is not taken for granted. Most of what we consume, from cereals to vegetables, are seeds of some sort. From starch to proteins and from oil to saturated fats, seeds are incredible storehouse of a wide variety of energies. What makes seeds even more fascinating is the fact that despite such stored energies seeds can lie dormant for several centuries. A dormant date seed recovered from the ruins of Masada Fortress in Israel germinated after lying dormant for nearly 2,000 years. It sprang to life after planting and is now a 10-foot-tall palm tree.

Seeds might stay dormant but these are not dormant for ideas. While seeds and warfare may sound like odd bedfellows, the dropping of four small hand grenades from the cockpit of a reconnaissance plane during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911 owed it to a type of seed. The airplane used on that historic incident was essentially a flying seed, scaled-up from the streamlined pips of a Javan cucumber. More recently, the B-2 Stealth Bomber built at a whopping cost of $2 billion apiece took inspiration from the flying-wing design of the same cucumber seeds. What is shocking, however, is that while the cucumber seeds evolved to spread life, the stealth bomber has the capacity to extinguish life instead. 

Given the progress in science albeit genetic manipulation of living organisms, the future of naturally occurring seeds could be anything but uncertain, a subject that Hanson seems unsettled about. That plant geneticists have the tools to add, delete, and alter the genetic traits of seeds, and that big corporations have the resources to monopolize production and distribution of seeds have tossed up serious moral and ethical questions of dealing with the global common pool of seeds. The development of infamous ‘terminator seeds’, the name given to genetically modified plants which produce sterile seeds, is against the very nature and rhythms of seeds, and stands to break the tangible connection from past to future. 

At this time when plant engineering is outpacing natural evolution, and when corporate interests are manipulating seeds to make profit, the world is passing through deep moral and cultural crises. Through this lively and intelligent book, Thor Hanson cautions that unless we remain watchful there will be more such canny transformations. If you love your popcorns and the cup of coffee, we each have an obligation to protect the seeds.

The Trumph of Seeds
by Thor Hansen
Basic Books, New York
Extent: 226, Price: US$26.99 

This review was first published in HinduBusinessLine weekend supplement BLink on June 4, 2016 and Current Science dated Aug 10, 2016             

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