Nature’s smartest invention

Nature’s smartest invention

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SEEDTRAY_Much of what we consume, from cereals to vegetables, is a seed of some sortSudhirendar Sharma
Thor Hanson’s book is a thoroughly engaging treatise on the many ways in which seeds sustain life on this planet
Accomplished artists may have painted hundreds of verses on a kernel but the unwritten genetic instructions a seed carries make it an indomitable botanical marvel. The ‘fierce energy’ a seed carries, as George Bernard Shaw would describe it, can help it become any one of the estimated 3,52,000 kinds of plants that use seeds to reproduce, from the humble mustard to the 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 also endured to sustain successive human populations. Despite the rapid strides in seed science, seeds remain the most prized possession of national agencies and inter-governmental organisations. No wonder, then, that 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 vegetable 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. It slumps into dormancy but can swing back to life at an opportune time. Seed is the past, present and future rolled into one tiny pop — a metaphor for life and renewal.
What makes The Triumph of Seeds unique is its multi-dimensional treatment of the subject, without getting entangled in a cobweb of botanical jargons. From his own research on the Central American almendro tree to his keen observations on South American coffee, Hanson has pieced together compelling stories on the evolution of seeds.
In this book, the extraordinariness of seeds is never taken for granted. Much of what we consume, from cereals to vegetables, is a seed of some sort. From starch to proteins and from oil to saturated fats, seeds are incredible storehouses of energy.
What makes seeds even more fascinating is the fact that despite such stored energies, some seeds can lie dormant for hundreds of years.
A date seed recovered from the ruins of Masada Fortress in Israel germinated after nearly 2,000 years. It is now a 10-foot palm tree.
Seeds might stay dormant but they continue to inspire ideas. While seeds and warfare may sound like odd bedfellows, the dropping of four hand grenades from the cockpit of a reconnaissance plane during the Italo-Turkish War of 1911, came to be thanks to a type of seed. The airplane used on that historic occasion 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, took inspiration from the flying-wing design of these same cucumber seeds. What is shocking, however, is that while seeds evolved to spread life, the stealth bomber has the capacity to wipe out large swathes of lives.
Given the rate of scientific progress, including genetic manipulation, the future of naturally occurring seeds could be anything but certain, a subject that Hanson seems unsettled about. The fact that plant geneticists have the tools to add, delete or alter the genetic traits of seeds, that big corporations have the resources to monopolise production and distribution of seeds has tossed up serious moral and ethical questions. The development of infamous ‘terminator seeds’, genetically modified plants which produce sterile seeds, is against the very nature of seeds, and stands to break our tangible connection from the past to the future.
At this time, when plant engineering is outpacing natural evolution, and when corporations are manipulating seeds, the world is passing through deep moral and cultural crises. Through this lively and intelligent book, Hanson cautions that unless we remain watchful there will be more such canny transformations. If you love your popcorn and the cup of coffee, we each have an obligation to protect the seeds.
(Sudhirendar Sharma is director, The Eco-logical Foundation, New Delhi)
(This article was first published on June 3, 2016)

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