Survival Seeds and Liberal Fantasies: the Strange Things That Grow in Our Gardens

by Alyssa Goldstein

“. . . You don’t have to be an Old Testament prophet to see what’s going on all around us. A desperate lower class demanding handouts. A rapidly diminishing middle class crippled by police state bureaucracy. An aloof, ruling elite that has introduced us to an emerging totalitarianism which seeks control over every aspect of our lives.”

After reading that quote, you may not be surprised to learn that its author is trying to sell you something. What is he hawking? Guns? Gold? Basement bunker kits? Try organic heirloom vegetable seeds. For the super low price (not really) of $150, you can buy your own survival seed bank: a can stuffed with a variety of veggie seed packets. (If $150 seems like a lot to you, the website reminds you that “For the general public, the price will be a fat $297.00 — no discounts . . . even to FEMA or military personnel.”)

According to one TV news report, there are dozens of companies that sell these survival seed kits. Some of them appear to be more hucksterish than others. For example, Solutions from Science claims there is a massive shortage of non-hybrid seeds. Surivalseeds4patriots.com likewise asserts that the seeds most seed companies sell are “genetically modified ‘franken-seeds'”–in fact, if you go to your local garden store, none of the vegetable seeds will be genetically modified, and many of them are heirlooms, even if they aren’t marketed as such.

One survival seed pamphlet claims that “open-pollinated plants are free from pesticides [and] chemicals.” Of course, any plant is free of pesticides and chemicals if you don’t put pesticides and chemicals on it. The same pamphlet also claims that beans will cross-pollinate and must be planted far apart (not true), but neglects to mention that this is the case for squashes. Of course, who cares about things like “scientific facts” when you can just say stuff like this:

Remember, non-hybrid seeds can be grown practically anywhere and have the ability to assimilate mineral and trace elements from the soil that man made plants just don’t seem to have. That’s because they were created by God as we read in Genesis.

After spending perhaps an unhealthily long time looking through these websites, I spent three hours writing a screed explaining the difference between heirloom, hybrid, genetically-modified, and open-pollinated plants. I haven’t included it here, since I wasn’t sure if this was interesting to anyone else in the world except me — but if you have any questions about how these survival seed companies mix up these terms to confuse and terrify their customers, please leave a comment. I would be happy to go on and on about it. In any case, it’s not surprising that advertisements for these survival seed banks run alongside the Goldline ads on the Glenn Beck show — they both seek to exploit the same frightened, paranoid audience.

At the same time that I’m indignant that many of these companies are giving people wrong information about something that’s very important to me, I’m also fascinated by this whole phenomenon. The buyers are paying for a fantasy as much as they are paying for the seeds — fantasy of independence, of living off the land, and of defending the fruits of their labor from the government and the “desperate lower class” in an apocalyptic future a garden defended by guns and barbed wire.

What’s cultivated in this garden is not plants so much as a certain image of oneself. Some, like blogger Mark Maynard, view this fantasy as perverse. He writes:

So, it’s not so much about providing good, fresh food for your family, and keeping heirloom varieties of plants in use, as it is about positioning yourself to do better than your neighbors when the “emerging totalitarianism” comes into full bloom. . . . Basically they’ve taken something that could have been incredibly positive – a movement to relocalize food production and take it out of the hands of mono-cropping factory farms – and they’ve twisted it. They’ve taken Victory Gardens, and made them Crisis Gardens. And, yes, that’s the terminology that they use.

Personally, I’m not terribly bothered by the fact that these folks are starting their gardens for the “wrong” reasons. In fact, there’s something a little bit brilliant about how people who might otherwise spend their time raging against immigrants and socialists and buying assault rifles are instead occupied with growing organic heirloom vegetables.

What Maynard finds surprising is not the fact that organic heirloom gardening would be accompanied by fantasies about oneself, but that in this case it’s accompanied by right-wing fantasies instead of liberal ones. Though I no longer see personal lifestyle choices as a means to true and lasting societal change, I’ll admit that in the past I harbored grand notions about my garden and the kind of person it made me. I was bravely standing up to the corporate food complex and saving the earth. I was a rebel with tomatoes and a cause. There’s a reason for this — American capitalist society, we are encouraged to cultivate fantasies of the self not only in our gardens, but through everything we do or buy (emphasis on the buy). We don’t buy products, we buy lifestyles. This trap is especially dangerous for the Left, which is too often lured into the trap of activism through shopping. What’s the point of protesting injustice in the street if you can do your part by “voting with your dollars” in the supermarket?

In this respect, perhaps the survivalists with seed banks stashed in the back of their underwear drawers who see themselves as bold individualists defending their hypothetical gardens from the starving sheeple hordes are less suckered than I was. Their fantasies, after all, are unapologetically about saving themselves, everyone else be damned. My fantasies that I could save the world through the organic products I bought or the vegetables I planted on my porch were ultimately no less self-centered.

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Comments (2)

  1. Hopefully, this thoughtful piece by Alyssa Goldstein is the beginning of a very important conversation for readers of this blog. It should give everyone pause and take a good look at their circumstances and that of everything that means something to them.

  2. I love this, both because I’m a vegetable gardener interested in varieties and the comparative advantages of heirloom and hybrid, but also because the writer very intelligently brings it back to the question of how effective is voting with our dollars. In a capitalist society, voting with our dollars often seems to work. Besides offering preferred products (remember when whole wheat was for the lunatic fringe?) Companies begin to market themselves as doing good with part of the profits, and then we have to somehow judge if the good is really of value. Boycotts seem to have an effect. And the reason so many heirloom seeds and organic vegetables are available is exactly that: we are buying them, and usually paying more for them. I find it kind of confusing. But it is clear ugly impulses motivate the survivalist seed packets’ marketing. It sounds like racist propaganda applied to vegetables. They are afraid of hybridized, i.e. “mongrel” tomatoes. Watch out for those Big Boys and Early Girls, not pure blooded like old-fashioned Brandywines.
    Thanks for drawing attention to this survivalist trend. But paranoia inhabits the left as well as the right. Even more confusing, sometimes paranoia is justified. On the one hand, the anti-vaccination trend, popular among “progressives,” is Probably not justified. Fear of chemicals leaching into food from plastics, sounded weirdly unlikely, more and more seems to be true. Eating meat, once so fortifying and important, now not too healthy. Global warming, once surprising and hard to believe, irrefutable nowadays. So how to evaluate paranoia vs appropriate caution? Reading a lot, and a healthy dose of skepticism. I agree with the writer, if survivalists put their energies into growing heirloom veggies, rather than stocking up on guns, that would be great.

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