Seeds of empire
Seeds of empire
It can be difficult to believe, but the only crops of economic importance that are native to North America are sunflower, blueberry, cranberry and the Jerusalem artichoke (It is true that the native peoples of the continent also planted potatoes, beans and corn since before the whites came from Europe, but these were brought in from Central and South America). All other crops were imported from elsewhere, even the ones that the US currently produces in astonishing quantities, such as wheat, corn, rice and soy. “This simple fact of natural history has had important ramifications for the economic, political and social development of the United States”, according to University of Wisconsin professor Jack R. Kloppenburg's book First the Seed: The Political Economy of Plant Biotechnology (2004 edition), the source of much of the information in this article.
The planting of rice in South Carolina was owed in great part to the introduction of a variety from Madagascar in the late XVIII century. Sorghum cultivation in Kansas and Texas became a viable proposition thanks to seed samples from China and Africa. The much celebrated California citrus industry owes much to Brazilian seeds brought in by a consul in 1871. And American cattle ranching, legendary among beef producers all over the world, owes its success partly to the introduction of lespedeza grass from Japan, Russian alfalfa, and African Johnson grass.
It is not only the introduction of species, but also of numerous varieties of the same species, which enhance biodiversity and bring in favorable traits to crops. A Turkish wheat variety provided the US crop with resistance to yellow rust (Puccinia striiformis), which has resulted in an estimated $50 million a year in savings in pest control. An aphid-resistant sorghum variety was brought in from India, which brings benefits estimated at $12 million a year. New Scientist magazine reported in 1983 that American barley farmers save $150 million a year thanks to a single gene from an Ethopian variety. According to the distinguished plant collector Hugh Iltis, the US tomato industry benefits from the introduction of Peruvian varieties with a high solid content to the tune of $5 million a year. It was reported in 1986 that the University of Illinois developed soy varieties that could be saving farmers and the food industry between $100 and $500 million annually in processing costs, using Korean varieties as genetic raw material. The US wheat harvest, the world's third largest, has benefited from the introduction of varieties from Japan, China, Russia, Palestine, Australia, Kenya, Egypt, Bulgaria, Greece, Brazil and Uruguay. Iran, that much maligned country, has provided the United States with valuable varieties of cauliflower, onion, pea and spinach.
The United States helped itself to all this exuberant and bewildering variety of agricultural plants at practically no cost at all, with no compensation or even acknowledgement to the peoples who spent centuries, even millenia developing and nurturing these crops. This appropriation was legitimized with the argument that seeds are the common heritage of humanity. But when that nation is asked to share its treasure, it changes its tune. In a 1977 letter to the International Board for Plant Genetic Resources, the administrator of the US Agricultural Research Service (ARS) said that the collected seeds “would become the property of the US government”. Put in different words: what's yours is mine, and what's mine is mine. In the letter, the ARS administrator openly admits that his country does not always share freely its collected seeds: “Political considerations have at times dictated exclusion of a few countries.” In 1983 Canadian researcher Pat Mooney, founder of the ETC Group, reported that the US government had denied access to its seed collections to researchers from Albania, Cuba, Iran, Libya, the Soviet Union, Afghanistan and Nicaragua.