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Environment

The immeasurable greatness of the tiny seed

Seeds are sometimes so small they are hard to see with the naked eye, yet as biologist and author Thor Hanson told Global Ideas, they have played a pivotal role in shaping the face of our modern lives.

Where would we, the human race, be without seeds?

There would be no us in terms of our lifestyles, because seeds are utterly essential for the way we feed ourselves. We get more of our calories from seeds than anywhere else, and our whole agricultural system is dependent on seeds. But it runs deeper than just food. We get the cotton in our clothes from seeds, and a lot of pharmaceuticals and spices come from seed chemicals. If we could exist at all, it would be a very different world without seeds.

What might that world look like?

Just try to imagine a day without seeds, you can't get through it. You can't even get through breakfast. You would wake up naked on a bare mattress because there would be no cotton for the sheets or your pajamas. You could take a shower, but you would have a hard time drying off because there would be no towel. You would stumble out to the kitchen, where there would be no coffee because that comes from the seeds of an African tree, and there would be no bagel or oatmeal to go with it. You might think 'I'll console myself with a chocolate bar', but you can forget that because chocolate comes from the seeds of a South American rainforest shrub.

And it goes on and on from there, to - increasingly - the energy in our gas tanks. Some of it is bio-fuel that comes from seeds, and other sources include hyrdraulic fracturing, or fracking. The process partially relies on a seed to thicken the fluid that is pumped down into those wells.

Which seed is that?

Guar gum is an essential component of fracking fluids. It is the ground up seed of the cluster bean that grows in northern India.

You say that seeds influenced the Industrial Revolution. Does that relate to the cotton industry?

Yes. Cotton fluff can also be woven into yarn and thread and it absolutely influenced the industrial revolution. The industry had been centered in India for hundreds of years, but in the 18th century, when it became mechanized, the production of cotton moved to the UK where it spurred the Industrial Revolution. It was absolutely transformative.

If you look at the history of the US and the production of cotton, it involved the slave trade and influenced the American Civil War, so the fibers on that little seed coat have transformed the world. A remarkable seed.

Guar beans

Plants have long been put to different uses. This one is now helping in the controverisal fracking industry

Did you come across a seed during your research that had particularly abstract qualities, or which was especially appealing to you in one way or another?

There is a plant called the Javan cucumber. It is a remarkable seed with a great history in the aviation industry. It grows on a vine that twines way up into the rainforest canopy in Indonesia. The seed consist of a little disc, surrounded by a translucent, aerodynamic wing about the size of your hand. If it catches the right breeze, the wing allows the seed to drift for miles.

In the early aviation industry an Austrian innovator based his designs on the Javan cucumber. The single wing design faded out, but there were always dreamers who kept the design alive. One was called Jack Northrop. He founded the Northrop Corporation but was always thinking about a single wing prototype. It didn't come into fruition until after he retired, but it has now been produced and is the B2 Stealth Bomber. If you compare a picture of the aircraft to a picture of the Javan cucumber, there is no question about the history of that design.

Do you think people have an awareness of the vital role that seeds play in our modern lives?

I think we have an unconscious cultural connection to seeds. I think people care about them more than we might think, and the proof of that lies in the daily news where we see seeds at the center of the debate on genetic engineering. Why, when genetic labs are turning out everything from federalist chickens to glow-in-the-dark cats, is it seeds we feel we should rally around and defend?

Thor Hanson

Thor Hanson


I think that speaks to the cultural connection we have. Those old connections of field and farm continue to resonate and when you think about how we remain dependent on them for so many things, it just strengthens that tie.

Was there anything in particular that surprised you about seeds during the course of your research?

I think the overall surprise is just how pervasive seeds are in life and culture, and how dependent we are on these little wonders.

Thor Hanson is a Guggenheim Fellow, a Switzer Environmental Fellow, and an independent conservation biologist based in the San Juan Islands. His latest book is entitled "The Triumph of Seeds".

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