A quiet revolution
How to Conspire with Plants to End Capitalism (sort of) by Greg Frey
Today’s newsletter, on this Autumn equinox, comes from Greg Frey who has his own Substack over at notes from the belly of the whale. He has donated this article to be re-shared here on Radicle.
I really love this idea of con-spiring with plants, that speaks to the deep, essential and interwoven relationship we have with them.
Also love the reminder in here too for us to save and share seed. I went on an Autumn Equinox Wild Medicine Walk with Alice of Sacred Seeds on Monday and she kindly shared some seeds from her marshmallow plant (Althaea officinalis). I am looking forward to nurturing plants from these seeds and adding this medicinal herb to my garden. It always feels all the more special and meaningful for knowing where and who the seeds have come from and also that we are nurturing more than just seeds - we’re nurturing relationships which are generative and reciprocal too.
How to Conspire with Plants to End Capitalism (sort of) by Greg Frey
I have this friendship going with a rogue tomato plant growing in an alley near my house. The first time I saw it I just stopped and smiled. Bold, I thought, just growing up a metal fence unfazed by our unwelcoming metropolis. The second time I smiled wider. A single little yellow tomato was fruiting. The third time, I laughed, totally seduced. The single droplet-shaped tomato had turned a deep red, and I felt so impressed with the little thing (and somehow proud?) that I couldn’t just leave it there. So I knelt down -a bit self-conscious- and carefully prized it from its parent. I couldn’t eat it, it was too precious (and dog pee). But how then to honour its courage? I decided to take it home, cut it in half and scrape out the seeds to sow again next year.
I’m dreaming of sowing a city full of wild tomatoes, and wondering if I’ve completely lost my mind. The dogwalkers look at me funny.
Look, we’ve lost 94% of vegetable varieties in the 20th century, as much as 40% of our food’s nutrient content in some species, and rendered the genetic diversity of our food system dangerously weak, I want to say. Don’t you know about the coordinated commodification of the living world and the severance of our connections with it?
I’m worried the story would shock them. I want to stress early on that this is not another Big Sad Attenborough Tale-of-Too-Many-Humans or the evergreen Pristine Nature Gets Ruined By Men And Their Dirty Civilisation. There is a bit of that, but there’s also humans and plants getting along in one of the longest-running creative partnerships you can imagine. Think Gilbert and George but over fucking centuries and between species and transforming the nature of Life On Earth…
What I want to say is, before about 70 years ago, for thousands of years, the process of humans noticing and supporting plants to succeed was central to both of our lives. The vast world we are losing is the product of this long, intimate dance.
These beans and carrots feel God-given and primordial. But they’re only here because millions of our ancestors carefully and judiciously communed with the plants around them. It was a feat of collective intelligence over time that we couldn’t replicate today even with the vast knowledge of modern genetics. Most of the fundamental leaps in the evolution of staple crops, like corn transforming from an inedible wild plant into a foundational food for millions, only happen with numerous, careful cultivations over long periods of time.
It took hundreds of years of Pre-Incan settlements, carefully selecting the plants that did slightly better than the last one to get us to the extremely nutritious and abundant food. And unlike in the modern monocrop system, indigenous cultivators maintained large varieties of plants with many different traits. So when freak weather events hit, they had backups. They also cherished the wild, inedible varieties too, keeping them at the edges. Maintaining the size of the gene pool like this allows the plant more creative capacity to mutate in significant ways and adapt to the world around them if it changes dramatically. From what we can tell from archaeological evidence, this cultivation wasn’t a side hustle or afterthought. Saving seeds was at the heart of all of the celebrations and rituals embedded in the fabric of these cultures.
So no ‘pristine nature’, but yes generative relationships. And now the brief, not unstoppable, but terrible, ruin.
70 years ago the white-skinned invaders of North America developed new relationships and exported them around the world that are causing the genetic diversity of plants to collapse. It was a move deceptively billed the ‘Green Revolution’. After the World Wars in the first half of the 20th century, a booming wartime chemical industry maintained itself by persuading farmers that they needed fertilisers and pesticides to grow good food. At the same time, geneticists discovered a way -by inbreeding their parents- to produce high-yielding seeds that produced plants which couldn’t then reproduce properly.
These new seeds, called ‘First Filials’ or F1s, could withstand the torrent of chemicals being poured on fields. And in an extremely quick shift, nearly all the farmers around the world were suddenly dependent on a handful of companies for their seed and chemicals. In a few years seeds, the source of life, were almost totally commodified. The Green Revolution ended in a Seed Dictatorship. Today 4 goliath seed and chemical conglomerates control 60% of the world’s seed sales; farming has become a new kind of indebted labour to new lords. Where small farmers still exist, suicide rates are well above average.
There has been resistance to this regime ever since it began. Many indigenous and peasant farmers refused the new arrangement and continue to breed open-pollinated (not F1s) and organic varieties. The global union of peasant farmers, La Via Campesina, is organising to fight back. Vandana Shiva and other prominent activists have created an international movement for seed sovereignty. And even in the places where the connection between people and plants feels radically severed -in a metropolis like London for example- there are pockets of people refusing the terms of the Seed Dictatorship, and the culture of disconnection that accompanies it, and reviving the partnership in a much more significant way than my cutesy alley-way tomato flirting.
Take Mandy Barber, a vegetable grower on the outskirts of Dartmoor in the South West. Mandy loves this specific variety of Broccoli called Nine Star Broccoli (Brassica Oleracea Botrytis Asparagoides), which was bred in Cambridgeshire in the early 20th century. It produces nine creamy heads and numerous florets, and unlike most Broccoli, it is a perennial, it returns every year. This makes it easier to tend and means the soil doesn’t need to be disrupted to resow it.
A few years ago Mandy realised the plant was entering a “genetic depression”. It wasn’t being grown in sufficient quantities to produce a stable seed. So she put a call out to other cultivators of this rare crop for seed donations. She received hundreds of seeds from 11 different sources, including the Warwick University seed bank, and managed to grow hundreds of the plant. Growing the size of the gene pool she has bolstered the genetic predictability of the plant. She harvested 2.5kg of Nine Star Broccoli seeds in 2019, sending some back to the university and many to other growers. And just like that, this variety is kept alive.
Mandy is cultivating many other plants that have gone out of commercial circulation, including the Skirret, a perennial root vegetable that used to be extremely popular in Europe before the potato replaced it; as well as Groundnuts, a perennial nitrogen-fixing root vegetable high in protein; and a huge variety of perennial kales some of which have ancient lineages on the island.
Mandy could easily not be doing this. (This isn’t one of those jobs that if you don’t do it, someone else will.) She reminds us that neither the story of decline nor the thousands of years of cultivation that preceded it were inevitable. There is nothing preordained about the potato; broccoli is contingent; and carrots could easily have remained shrivelled, bitter roots. The thriving of plants and humans came out of choices made. Each generation, indigenous farmers chose to repeat their rituals of seed saving. And we are presented with the same choice now.
Of course, the choice gets harder for those of us who have had any communal relationship to the land crushed (see The Enclosures 1500-1800 CE). But, even in a metropolis like this one, there are a handful of defiant groups rediscovering and creating a new culture of plant/human reciprocity.
In 2012 a group of London growers heard the call from Vandana Shiva to reclaim our seed sovereignty and together, founded the London Freedom Seed Bank. In the last ten years, they’ve been organising a quiet revolution, hosting workshops, festivals and seed swaps to facilitate a city-wide movement of seed stewards. In the process, they’ve built a library of over 100 different varieties. A leaf through their database is a thrilling snapshot of the enormous range of plants being cultivated in the city.
Further afield, the Heritage Seed Library, a small set up in Coventry, has created a similar network of ‘Seed Guardians’ across the UK. These stewards maintain a library of over 800 plants which are available to other members of the library.
What these groups are doing isn’t going to stop the harm agribusiness, cowardly political elites and the structure of late capitalism is wreaking on our world. It’s not the fabled “one small, radical thing you must do to change everything”. But it is a vital piece of the puzzle.
By selecting seeds from thriving plants you increase the chances of their new gene combinations thriving too. You re-place the plant in the world. It means, more plants and more humans with more of a fighting chance to withstand the coming heat and unpredictability. It is a dance that we get to join, supporting the vast creativity of earth’s life into becoming something more suitable to the conditions of the present. It’s a form of cocreation that can create something truly new. In a time when the old world seems to be dying, what a profound gift.
The anthropologist Natasha Myers urges us to conspire with plants, remembering the original sense of the word as breathing (-spire) with (con-), something we have always done with plants. To sidestep the logic of the Anthropocene we need to tap into the radical solidarity of plants and humans. Think instead, she suggests, of the Planthroposcene. In this imaginary, our fates are bound, and our desires -what we most want and need- aren’t mapped out clearly: each year we feel them out together.
Holding a seed in your hand, a tiny poppy, a giant bean, or an alleyway variety of tomato, you inhabit the present. Past and future become tied in a bow with you and the seed cinching the middle. Behind you -stretching out into the mist- a millennia-long dance between humans and plants. In front: darkness. A big blurry TBC. We don’t know what’s to come. But we do know that the quality of the new world - the one that comes after capitalism, they’ll call it - will be defined by the quality of the relationships of resistance that breathed it into being. Okay?
Greg is mostly thinking/writing/talking with pals about resistance in the anthropocene, living near the Lea River a few miles up from where it meets the Thames, and navigating various chronic illnesses (including capitalism). Find more of his writing on his newsletter notes from the belly of the whale and on socials here.
Greg has donated this article to Radicle.
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