However, if we conceive of a culture as one body, which it is, we see that all of its disciplines are everybody’s business…[it is] clear that there are agricultural disciplines that have nothing to do with crop production, just as there are agricultural obligations that belong to people who are not farmers. --Wendell Berry
Everyone who cares about these things now knows that GMO alfalfa (and sugar beets and biofuel corn) has been deregulated. This caring, of course, should go far beyond the companies that have spent much time and money persuading the government that it ought to be grown, and beyond the farmers who may or may not wish to grow the stuff. Those who eat meat, eggs, and cheese, and drink milk, those who buy food for their pets, those who prefer to eat organic food, those who question the wisdom of inserting into a plant’s genetic make-up the genes of a bacterium that confers resistance to a broad-spectrum herbicide—basically all of us, one way or another—should be paying close attention.
I’ve been paying attention since 2007 when, while researching something else, I encountered an article in High Country News that said, wonder of wonders, a federal district judge had ruled in favor of controlling genetically modified, Roundup Ready (RR) alfalfa pending an environmental impact statement. Three cheers for the judge, I thought, and added alfalfa to my ever-growing list of environmental concerns. When, in due course, there were rumblings that it might be deregulated after all, I signed the petitions, wrote emails, and discussed the issue with my friends. We all know how the case turned out.
My personal objections to GE traits are based on my environmental understanding coupled with my moral sense of how we ought to behave ourselves as members of the biotic community. I am not a scientist or a farmer. I am an urban knowledge worker. My life, in certain cultural respects, has more to do with the concrete, grimy public transit, computers, and multicultural milieu (minus the plot complications and extra-legal shenanigans) of some recent William Gibson novel than the farmer’s wide skies, seasonal anxieties, and betting on the markets.
Like many of the 98 percent of Americans who aren’t farmers, I didn’t know much about alfalfa other than that it is a bee-pollinated, nitrogen-fixing legume that can be used as a cover crop, that cows eat it, and it grows in far away fields. Who, when they pick up their milk, on sale, at the local convenience store, thinks about the trail back to the supplier, further back to the farm, and thence to the cows and their diet? It’s tempting to think, “oh well, this is farmers’ business, and they and the experts know more about these things, don’t worry about it.”
However, I’m a gardener and, like most gardeners, through study and observation have developed an imaginative understanding of gene flow, and a practical understanding of ecology and the interactions of plants, animals, insects, soil, and so on. When alfalfa was deregulated, a number of blogs and news articles put it forth that gene flow would not be a problem, so readers needn’t worry. After all, this reasoning goes, most farmers who grow alfalfa for their own cows or for sale as forage cut it before it is in bloom or sets seed; this makes a higher-quality product, more nutritious and palatable to the cows that will consume it.
|Leafcutter bee on alfalfa|
So I wandered, lonely as a cloud, across the fields of the Internet until I landed via Samuel Fromartz' blog ChewsWise at the USDA’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service Newsroom . There I downloaded the Glyphosate-Tolerant Alfalfa Events J101 and J163: Request for Nonregulated Status Final Environmental Impact Statement—December 2010, which the USDA posted in the interest of transparency and on which, theoretically, Tom Vilsack based his decision to deregulate. One wonders. How could such a busy, powerful man take the time to actually read the whole thing, including the technical reports? Who influenced him? How did he come to make his decision?
The Impact Statement is an intimidating document. Hundreds of pages long, it’s very thorough, and the forty-seven named contributors comprise a very impressive collection of advanced scientific degrees and experience. The document includes 957 pages of public comments, and the authors have commented on many. Among other topics, in Appendices A-W, the Impact Statement analyzes roundup’s impact on colony collapse disorder, explains farming practices, and discusses the likely impact of sale and planting of GMO seed on conventional growers and on the organic market.
What the document does not appear to address are the deeper and larger questions of culture, ethics, and philosophy, which ought to be part of an environmental impact statement. Perhaps this is because there isn’t a single humanist among the authors. Especially notable by their absence are the important questions of whether allowing a chemical company to control much of farming in the U.S. in terms of both products and practice is wise, whether we really ought to be releasing GE traits into the larger ecosystem, and whether industrial farming represents best practice in our heating up, resource-depleting world. The people who could have helped answer those questions—organic farmers, ecologists, concerned citizens—were pointedly ignored.
A question of health
After several days of perusal, I came away with the impression that even without considering the possible dangers of contamination of the alfalfa gene pool through genetic engineering, the whole project of modern alfalfa seed production farming, like so much else in our culture, seems to be operating on borrowed time. One thinks of Wiley Coyote at that moment in mid-air just before he realizes he’s run off the cliff. The RR trait is just one more complicating technological addition to a basically fragile and unsustainable farming enterprise.
Alfalfa for seed production is grown on between 100,000 and 120,000 acres largely in the west and southwest. It is a crop requiring irrigation that is grown in a region where aquifers are being depleted, and issues of water accessibility are beginning to loom. It’s also a crop that easily succumbs to the lygus bug, a pest from Europe whose depredations are so severe that unless the crop is heavily sprayed with insecticides (before the pollinating bees are released), crop failure is nearly certain. As the Impact Statement points out, this last makes organic seed production unfeasible in those regions. Apparently, organic seed comes from Canada, though I’m not sure how they manage. Finally, pollination is becoming an issue. Beekeepers supply honeybees and leafcutter bees to be released when the fields are in bloom. Everyone knows about the problems of colony collapse disorder, but leafcutter bees also are in mysterious decline. Populations have dropped 50 percent since the 1970s. Alkali bees are being experimented with. As with almonds in California, bees must be imported from Canada to complete the essential work.
While reading the Environmental Statement, by coincidence I read for the first time Wendell Berry’s classic The Unsettling of America: Culture and America (rev. ed. Sierra Club Press, 1996). This was unplanned, but his powerful critique of the effects of agricultural capitalism on American farming, culture and the environment form an enlightening counterpoint, a powerful tool for interpreting the deregulation debacle. He wrote it in 1977, well before genetically engineered crops had been introduced; his analysis of the effects of the collaboration between large government and large corporations remains tragically prescient. As he acknowledges in his afterward to the 1996 edition, and as anyone can observe today, the problem with agribusiness has only gotten worse as government and corporations have nearly merged, as high-ranking legal experts and bureaucrats shuttle between the two.
One of Berry’s governing ideas is that of health: of the land, the farm, the community and the culture. He says we don’t need statistics to tell whether a system is healthy or not. He also says he “[does] not see how a stable, abundant, long-term agriculture can be built up and maintained by any standard less comprehensive than the perfect health of individual human bodies, of the community, of the community’s sources and supports in the natural world...”
By that standard, which takes into account humans and the environment, and posits long-term health of the land as the fundamental strength of a culture, alfalfa seed production farming as presently constituted—even without GE traits—looks manifestly unhealthy. One wonders what will happen. Purely economically, when will costs—of water, of petrol-based insecticides, of pollination—outweigh the benefits of growing alfalfa in those regions? What happens during an oil price shock? What would strong, long-lasting, climate change-induced drought do to these farmers’ livelihood?
The myth of control
And then there’s the question of the RR trait. Alfalfa has historically been and is at present a crop on which few herbicides are used. It is a perennial, and, according to various sources, if mown early in the season, and then again twice more, weeds are not important factors. Gene Logsdon, in a pertinent post at The Contrary Farmer, explains how that works, and further, suggests red or white clover as an alternative crop more suited to many parts of the U.S.
In some conventional farming operations, after several years an alfalfa stand is “taken out,” herbicided, often with Roundup, the ground is tilled and something else is planted. Thus, at face value, the outsider might question the utility of conferring on a crop resistance to what is generally considered the least environmentally damaging herbicide. Maybe this question is too obvious and naïve. But clearly, when time comes to destroy the stand, more lethal weapons must come into play, also helpfully provided by our friends from Monsanto and others of their ilk. And indeed, Croplan Genetics’ RRA Alfalfa Management Tech Bulletin 2011 recommends several applications of glyphosate while growing a stand to kill weeds and nurse crops such as oats, and then for stand eradication recommends the use of 2,4-D, clopyralid and dicamba, either alone or in various combinations. Agent orange, anyone?
These instructions don’t really answer why alfalfa should be genetically engineered. Here again, Berry offers a way to consider the question. Besides the issue of health, another of his governing ideas is that of control. He discusses how the goal of industrial farming is to create order by establishing rigid boundaries, both physical and procedural. The overriding attempt is to completely control the growing process and to limit through mechanical means and simplification any potential disorder.
As Berry points out, “The ambition underlying these...farms is that of total control—a totally controlled agricultural environment. Nowhere is the essential totalitarianism and the essential weakness of the specialist mind more clearly displayed than in this ambition. Confronted with the living substance of farming—the complexly, even mysteriously interrelated lives on which it depends, from the microorganisms in the soil to the human consumers—the agriculture specialist can only think of subjecting it to total control, of turning it into a machine.”
We know that in addition, agribusiness companies control the farmer by controlling products, methods and life itself in the form of patented seed. Since the rest of us are dependent on the farmers, we are subject to these corporations’ control as well. As Berry points out, wherever you have rigid boundaries, wherever you have attempted to exclude the vast forces of disorder, rather than working with them, there you cannot possibly have health of any sort.
Who’s in charge?
Here is why the RR trait is so important: Without it, Monsanto could not patent the seed. Alfalfa has no genetic marker by which a particular company’s variety can be reliably identified. Roses, corn, hostas—all kinds of plants can be patented, because they have these markers. Not so the happily promiscuous alfalfa. In its natural state, alfalfa cross pollinates so readily, and mixes genes so freely that just growing conventional varieties for sale requires fairly rigid measures of control. However, once you stick in the bacterium’s genetic material, you have your persistent genetic marker. You can patent the seed and by so doing, you have established control. As the Environmental Impact Statement, Appendix V states, “The unique, event specific genetic sequence of transgenes will allow genetic fingerprinting of germplasm lines in alfalfa and thereby allow a means to certify cultivar origin, patent rights and trait stewardship.”
Who cares about gene flow in that case? All that means is you own the plants and seed wherever they show up and you can threaten and sue whoever has the plant growing on their property without their having planted it—and so far there’s no legal recourse for those to whom this happens. From this point of view, the more gene flow the better!
In order to have the privilege of paying twice as much for RR alfalfa seed as for conventional seed, farmers also must sign what Monsanto calls “stewardship” agreements to theoretically prevent gene flow. Here is where the idea of complete control of the farming process descends into absurdity and reveals itself for the illusion it is. For example, farmers are directed not to use manure, but must use “conventional” fertilizers. They must establish wide barrier fields to prevent unwanted wild bees from entering and leaving with what one might think of as contaminated pollen, and to prevent the chosen pollinator bees from leaving. They must attempt to control any feral alfalfa in the vicinity—and for this last, Monsanto also offers guidelines for highway departments as well. Farmers are also encouraged to remove any acreage they have in the conservation reserve program in favor of tilling and farming: presumably more alfalfa. In addition, farmers must clean their big, big machines thoroughly before using them on other parts of the farm or for other crops. What a lot of extra work! And, oh well, certain to fail. And no matter that these farming practices Monsanto either recommends or insists on run counter to the principles of organic farming and conservation, some of which are promoted by the USDA itself.
The complicated precautions required to grow these GMO versions of plants that have been cultivated successfully for thousands of years should be enough to warn anyone off. These procedures are reminiscent of working with hazardous material in a lab. But outdoors. With tiny seed that in the aggregate “flows like water,” that animals like to eat, that can persist in the ground to grow later if somehow (!) missed during harvest?
I know how I am about cleaning the hand tools I use for gardening—responsible, but not to a surgical or laboratory ideal. I know how I don’t always keep up with every weed. I know how difficult it is to keep unwanted plants out of the local forest preserve where I volunteer. And when Appendix V says, while “Monsanto requires that farmers sign a Monsanto Technology/Stewardship Agreement…No information on farmer compliance with the MTA was found,” I’m somehow not surprised.
As a gardener, I wouldn’t touch seed that I’d be renting from the company (while assuming all liabilities) whose pollen might harm my neighbors’ plants and the larger ecosystem, and whose seeds I couldn’t save. By doing these things, and by signing contracts with the companies, farmers lose their independence and become indentured to the corporations. Organic farmers have always recognized these dangers, but other farmers are realizing this today, even if they use more conventional methods. A young man from a farming family recently told me that his relatives at first welcomed GMO seeds, but now feel they might not be worth it because of the contracts, the costs, and the obligations to the seed companies.
Gene flow is inevitable
Even assuming that all of the controls are followed in seed production, gene flow will still occur. The 100-120,000 acres devoted to seed production is only a small fraction of the 20 million acres devoted to alfalfa. Most farmers grow it for hay, and as Appendix V states, “Alfalfa can be planted for further alternative usages of the crop products (e.g., composting, organic alfalfa meal fertilizer, green manure cover crop, intentional sowing that is not managed after planting, as part of a long term soil building program, cover crop left to flower to attract beneficial insects). These populations may serve as avenues for unintended escape of the Roundup Ready alfalfa. (italics mine)” Really? When all is said and done, the conclusion seems to be that gene flow will occur and that any mitigation will not be completely successful—but so what.
I should add that much of Appendix V was based on studies provided by the powerful National Alfalfa and Forage Alliance (NAFA), an organization whose advertised members form a rogue’s gallery of companies such as Monsanto, Forage International, Croplan Genetics and Syngenta. No organic companies among them that I can tell. A primary document on which Appendix V is based is Gene Flow in Alfalfa: Biology, Mitigation and potential Impact on Production, produced by the Council for Agricultural Science and Technology. The executive summary says, “…seed-mediated gene flow in alfalfa likely will be very low (italics mine),” and the authors are mainly concerned that gene flow not interfere with sales to GE-sensitive markets (oh those pesky Europeans), not on whether it might be a bad idea to introduce RR traits into the ecosystem.
Organic farmers and ecologists might read these studies and conclude that we shouldn’t go ahead with the technology. The authors conclude that we should. Such is their market-based, truncated sense of how biological systems work, of the possibility of adverse reactions, or of morality. So much for “science-based” decision making. As a friend of mine, an engineer, remarked, “you know, leaded gas and Freon also seemed like good ideas at the time.”
Our culture, our future
The real tragedy is that powerful people in government are confusing what can be done for what should be done, and making policy decisions based on the desires of the CEOs of large corporations, who operate with an infantile amorality bereft of restraint and who deny that there might be other, healthier, more human and nature-centered interests in the world. By so doing, our officials are gambling with the health and well being of our country’s ecosystem, agriculture, and people—in short, our entire culture.
Unfortunately, the more we attempt to separate ourselves from and manipulate the natural systems on which we depend, the more we will, ultimately, harm ourselves. As Berry says, “this attempt at total control is an invitation to disorder. And the rule seems to be that the more rigid and exclusive is the specialist’s boundary, and the stricter the control within it, the more disorder rages around it.” One doesn’t have to look far to see this principle illustrated in multiple systems, both natural and human. For example, along the Mississippi, floods are most destructive where the dikes are highest, and newly adapted glyphosate-resistant superweeds are now requiring extreme measures among some farmers.
And what right do corporations have to impose products that wreck the environment (disguised as something good for society) on the people of the United States and the world in order that they may profit, and the people that run the companies may enjoy power and riches? Some people could consider this a form of biological warfare against the environment, and thus against the people that live within that environment. They might say that such corporations use the tools of applied science and propaganda to set genetic bombs loose in the biosphere.
Is this language extreme? Novelists of speculative fiction have already followed possible trajectories into the future. One wonders how close we already are to the hot, oil-scarce, genetically screwed-up world of Paulo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl. That world, in which representatives of the “Midwest Combine” of American genetic engineering companies seek out new seed stock they can then alter, amid a welter of rapidly adapting pathogens, is uncomfortably familiar—but one that doesn’t have to come to pass.
“You can’t stop progress,” has always been the mantra of large companies wielding expensive technologies, where “progress” means suppressing diversity and overrunning the desires of the less powerful. But it does not have to be so. Berry inveighs against the inevitability of technological “control,” especially with regard to agriculture. He holds up an ideal in which, contrary to the model that repudiates natural systems, our culture and our agriculture would accept and live within “the complex, partly mysterious patterns of interdependence and cooperation, controllable only within limits, by which human culture joins itself to the natural world.”
Millions of people from all walks of life agree with this ideal. We care about how we live, how our land is treated, and how our food is grown. Our numbers are steadily growing. We do not accept the vision put forth by the Monsantos of the world. We know, with Berry, that in all sorts of contexts, even beyond the agricultural, “the patterns of cooperation [with natural systems] are safer than the mechanisms of exclusion, even though they lack the illusory safety of ‘control.’” We need to insist that our powerful voice gets heard. Our future depends on what we do.
Update March 23, 2011: The Center for Food Safety and other groups filed a new lawsuit against the USDA on March 18, "arguing that the agency’s recent unrestricted approval of genetically engineered (GE), 'Roundup Ready' Alfalfa was unlawful. " See the story at the CFS website.
Update May 4, 2011: See this interview with respected scientist Dr. Don Huber in which he explains the nutritional deficiencies of GMO Roundup-ready crops, the toxic effect of Roundup on soil microorganisms, and the spread of a disease-causing organism that results in animal infertility. Posted at Food Democracy Now.