Friday, January 28, 2011

Franken-foods Resurgent

Terrible news today:  Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack delivered a body blow to organic farmers and consumers, and announced  the approval of genetically modified alfalfa for 'unrestricted commercial cultivation.'   If you habitually buy organic milk, this should concern you, since alfalfa is commonly fed to dairy cattle. The modified alfalfa is implanted with a gene conferring resistance to the powerful herbicide Roundup, and is marketed as 'Roundup ready.'   According to the New York Times,

Mr. Vilsack said Thursday that his department would take other measures, like conducting research and promoting dialogue, to make sure that pure, nonengineered alfalfa seed would remain available.
“We want to expand and preserve choice for farmers,” he told reporters. “We think the decision reached today is a reflection of our commitment to choice and trust.”

This may sound like a pleasant sentiment, but it is disingenuous at best, and bogus at worst.  Once released into the environment in large scale plantings, genetically modified seed cannot be controlled, and in particular cannot be prevented from migrating, or cross-pollinating related plants.  This is most glaringly evident in the recent advent of superweeds, which have arisen over the past few years, likely  through cross-pollination with Roundup-ready grains, (although the process of resistance transfer may be complex,  with other mechanisms also in play; grains are  grasses, in any case, as are many weeds).

What all this  means of course is that farmers (of the non-organic persuasion) are faced with the necessity of slathering their already saturated fields with the next generation of more powerful herbicides, and presumably planting the correspondingly engineered next-generation grains.  It would appear to be a never ending cycle, of applications of ever increasing toxicity, and damn the consequences for worker or consumer safety or purity of ground water, or destruction of soil micro-organisms.  A good review of these consequences (along with a depressing account of how Vilsack was pressured) has been posted over at The Lake, and is highly recommended.

The major player behind all this is Monsanto Corp., which gets my vote for World's Most Evil Corporation -- and believe me, competition they've got.  The story can be found at Democracy Now,  of how they pursue small farmers in court cases, claiming patent violations, when modified genes, due to accidental cross-pollination from neighboring farms, are fortuitously detected in said farmers' crops.  It takes a strong stomach, but go read it.

Finally for me, there's a deeper issue at play here.  I am not a great fan of speculations in the field of pre-history, concerning the rise of civilizations; yet it seems self evident to me that all advanced civilizations owe their existence to the culture of grains.  Specifically, in a tribe of hunter-gatherers, it takes the entire tribe, hunting and gathering, to feed the entire tribe.  Once grain culture is developed, only a fraction of the tribe -- the farmers--  is required to feed themselves and the rest, so that other specialized classes can develop, and devote themselves to the pursuit of such useful arts as wood-work and pottery, or even such nominally frivolous arts as music and sculpture.  That is to say, specialized artisan classes can develop -- including also merchants and politicians.

But my point here is that if grains (and by extension, grasses) are the cornerstone of civilization, it is a form of collective insanity to undertake a huge and essentially uncontrolled experiment in the modification their genetic composition.  Which is what is being done here.

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