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A Conversation with Claire Hope Cummings

Permaculture: the use of ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food production, housing, appropriate technology, and community development. Permaculture is built upon an ethic of caring for the earth and interacting with the environment in mutually beneficial ways. —National Sustainable Information Service (ATTRA)

Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds In this 4-part series, journalist, environmentalist, and author of Uncertain Peril: Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds, Claire Hope Cummings speaks out on behalf of the natural world, and for a new approach to solving the environmental, social, and philosophical problems inherent in our present food system. According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment report, a comprehensive, 4 year study commissioned by the United Nations, over the past 50 years, human activity has altered the planets ecosystems more than any comparable time in human history. Industrial agriculture plays a big part in this report. The Millennium Ecosystem Assessment concludes that we have degraded 60% of the (Earth’s) infrastructure services, and that this “has resulted in a substantial and largely irreversible loss in the diversity of life on Earth”.

Claire Hope Cummings explains that the Capitalist system often relies upon “the mentality of scarcity” model to increase profits. In agriculture, this mentality of scarcity takes many forms, including that of major seed companies restricting the uses (through utility patents) of their GMO seeds (non-GMO seeds can not be granted an utility patent); thus, by restricting supply, drive up their monetary value. Formerly, what may have been freely available to reuse for future harvests, or for breeding research by farmers, or public institutions, may no longer be available for such purposes. For some, this is how capitalism—at its finest—operates. But, we are not talking here about industrial widgets, we are talking about the control of seeds. Cummings, warns in her book, “whoever controls the future of seeds controls the future of life on earth”. Should any private entity be granted the right to control the future food supply?

For those who believe that Man can (or should even try to) control nature, Cummings makes a powerful argument for the wisdom she decries as so lacking: to know the limits of our present knowledge, and more carefully consider the introduction of new technologies before releasing them upon the world. Nature has evolved successfully over ions of time; the modern industrial agriculture system has proven itself to be less successful, and not sustainable over a short span of time. The pursuit of cheap and abundant food, has in truth created enormous costs to society in the form of climate change, environmental degradation, resource depletion (oil and water, in particular), loss of biodiversity and soil fertility, and foods low in nutritional value. Clearly, the illusion of cheap food, and the mounting realities of the industrial food system cry out for real change.

Sustainable agriculture, and it’s underlying approach to working with nature, Cummings believes offers many of the answers that communities need to consider in order to develop their own local food economies, and build lasting economic vitality. In sharp contrast to the “scarcity” mentality, for Cummings, what we need to learn the most, is the value of “generosity,” as embodied in the “lesson of the seed”. “Food isn’t just nutrition”, says Cummings, “the culture of food has values in it that teach how to live” .

For additional information: Food Ecosystem Services (PDF), the food chapter from the Millennium Assessment Report

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