William Woys Weaver is a renowned food historian, best known perhaps for his 1997 book, Heirloom Vegetable Gardening, which won a Julia Child Award. He is also a practitioner of one of the oldest rituals of the human species. He is a seed saver.
It was his Pennsylvania Quaker ancestors who got him started. They had "a great seed-saving sensibility," Weaver says. Come springtime, his gardens, three miles from Valley Forge, explode with exotica: the heirloom dahlias that he will sell at the farmers' market in Phoenixville; a tiny Nubian pepper of Grandpa's, with a black stem and purple fruit; the eccentric pink-stemmed plant he calls "my Elton John celery."
More than a seed saver, Will Weaver is what you might call a seed democrat. Lose control of the seed to agribusiness, he understands, and you lose not only genetic diversity but the quality of what you eat.
The diversity of our food supply rested for millennia on heirloom seeds -- those that are "open-pollinated" by the wind or by birds, insects, and animals. The decline of the heirloom seed began after World War II, when hybrids erupted on the scene. Old-timers derided them as "vegetable mules," but the seed companies loved them for the same reason: Their failure to reproduce drove the farmers and gardeners back for fresh supplies of seed each year.
Modern agribusiness has taken that logic a huge step further. The biggest threat today, as Weaver sees it, is the corporate stranglehold on seeds, notably genetically modified organisms, or GMOs. He's not opposed to gene science per se, citing recent discoveries by Indian plant breeders whose genetic tinkering with the snake gourd may lead to new treatments for AIDS. Rather, he says, "My main problem with GMOs is the new feudalism they encourage. It's like the Middle Ages."
The corporate "genetic revolutionaries," as Weaver calls them, are obsessed with patenting their seeds; he prefers to give his away. He has developed a golden plum tomato, for instance, which turns out to be highly drought-resistant. "I've sent the seed to Botswana, where it's very dry. So in about 20 years that tomato will probably be all over southern Africa, with a lot of different African names. It would have been worth a lot of money for somebody. But I don't care. My thing is to get the seeds out to the people who want them."
He takes much the same democratic approach to the intractable challenge of reforming Americans' food habits. "We've become addicted to produce that is uniform in appearance," he laments, "with fewer and fewer varieties of edible plants. Americans look at food for its beauty, and not for the way it tastes."
Ask Weaver about the "slow food" movement, however, and he gives you a look that could politely be described as sardonic. "I've stayed out of that. It's a gourmet society for the top 2 percent. It's poor people who are eating all the packaged foods." That's why he's passionate about his work with the Urban Nutrition Initiative in the impoverished neighborhoods of West Philadelphia. Through gardening, greenmarkets, cooking, and seed-saving, Weaver hopes to show kids that there's an alternative to the nutritional wasteland of supersized fries and 32-ounce sodas.
Will Weaver is now thinking about bringing out a new, mass-market edition of Heirloom Vegetable Gardening. "If I can get my book on the checkout shelf at the local Acme supermarket, next to People magazine and Oprah, I'm fine. I'll know I've reached exactly the person who needs it."